St Benedict's Liturgical Code:Matins/3 (Feb 12/June 13/Oct 13)


Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux
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Today's section of the Benedictine Rule looks at the structure of Matins in Summer.

Caput X: Qualiter aestatis tempore agatur nocturna laus

A pascha autem usque ad Kalendas Novembres, omnis ut supra dictum est psalmodiae quantitas teneatur, excepto quod lectiones in codice, propter brevitatem noctium, minime legantur; sed pro ipsis tribus lectionibus una de Veteri Testamento memoriter dicatur, quam brevis responsorius subsequatur, et reliqua omnia ut dictum est impleantur; id est, ut numquam minus a duodecim psalmorum quantitate ad Vigilias nocturnas dicantur, exceptis tertio et nonagesimo quarto psalmo.

Chapter 10: How the Night Office is to be said in summer

From Easter to the first of November, let the number of the psalms be exactly as given above; but let there be this difference, that the lessons from the book be not read, on account of the shortness of the nights. Instead of the three lessons, let there be but one from the Old Testament, said by heart, and let it be followed by a short responsory. But all else should be done as has been said; that is to say that there should never be less than twelve psalms at the Night Office, not counting the third and ninety-fourth.

Commentary

That demanding Benedictine moderation

The abbreviation of Matins in summer reinforces St Benedict's first message of this section of the Rule, namely that the life of the monk is not based on sleep deprivation or other artificial austerities. The Office comes first, yes, but in the context of a balanced life.

St Benedict, I think, does emphasize moderation rather than the 'more is better' approach of his contemporaries, whose monks spent many more hours of the day reciting the psalms than St Benedict prescribes. Still, the saint does insist on a minimum number of psalms to be said at Matins - twelve plus the two invitatory psalms - that is not small.  Accordingly, it seems to me a considerable stretch to get from St Benedict's prescriptions to the 'less is more' approach of most monasteries today, who instead of retaining the weekly psalter, put a greater emphasis on the readings.

The primacy of the psalms

Indeed, this chapter also makes clear the primacy of the psalms as the basis of the Benedictine Office: readings and other elements are less important than this core, and can be dropped out as the seasons and other needs dictate.

It is true that the inclusion of readings at Matins does seem to have been a Benedictine innovation.  Still, it does seem to me a considerable irony that most modern versions of the Office actually reverse the relative emphasis between psalms and readings that St Benedict proposes.  Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert Monastery, for example, argues that:

"In this short Chapter 10, we have an important teaching about the Divine Office as understood by Saint Benedict. In the modern age, our focus is very much on intellectual content and thus on listening to the readings. For Saint Benedict, it is clear, the psalms are the most important part of the Divine Office and so if the Divine Office has to be shorted, the readings are the first things to be omitted. So in the summer, when the night is shorter, the three longer readings are dropped and one shorter reading from the Old Testament is substituted."

This emphasis reflects the long tradition that saying the psalms is especially pleasing to God.  St Romuald's (950-1027) brief Rule for his Comaldolese Congregation of Benedictines, for example, instructed his monks as follows:

"Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.

If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind.

And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.

Realize above all that you are in God's presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor.

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him."

The next part of this series can be found here.

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