Learning the Monastic Office 4: How the Office is performed

It is important to remember that the Office - above all the Monastic Office - is really intended to be sung 'in choir', that is with a group of people. Nonetheless, St Benedict does make provision for those who can't reach the Monastic oratory, instructing them to:

"perform the Work of God in the place where they are working, bending their knees in reverence before God." (RB 50)

As a result, the rubrics of the Office (135) actually recognises three ways of saying the Office:
  • in choir - as part of a properly constituted liturgical choir (ie a group of monks or nuns who are obliged to say the Office);
  • in common - two or more people saying it together; or
  • by oneself.
Most of us are in this last situation! But still, it's helpful to know how it would be done if you were at a monastery, so that you can understand how it really works, and some of the terminology you might come across.

The various roles in choir
The first point to note is that if you were hearing the Office 'in choir', you would see a number of people playing different roles. Exactly who does what and when depends a little bit on the particular monastery, but what I'm setting out here are some fairly common practices. In particular:
  • the superior (abbot, abbess, prior etc), who gives the signals to start and finish (usually a tap on wood with a stick or mallet), the blessings where these are prescribed (for example at Compline, the 'Noctem quietam...' and blessing at the end, Benedicat et custodiat..pp256&264 in the MD) and says the Our Father at Lauds and Vespers (RB 13);
  • the hebdomadary, a role rotated around, and who takes on some of the functions the abbot or abbess is nominally responsible for, essentially leading the Office overall. He or she normally opens and closes the Office, starting the Deus in adjutorium, intoning the canticle, the first Kyrie Eleison at the end of each Office, and leads the prayers and so forth;
  • the cantor(s) who lead the singing, setting the pitch and intoning the antiphons and psalms. Usually there are two (but there can be more for more solemn feasts, and you can get away with one at a pinch!), one for each side of the choir;
  • the lector(s) (usually rotated weekly) who read the short chapter (or longer readings if set);
  • the choir itself, which is divided into two sides, and sing alternate verses of the psalms (and the hymns where possible).
By yourself of course, you have to take on all those roles! A lot of the time you will see that someone says something and everyone else responds - that's not really a problem, just remember to say both parts. In practical terms there are only two parts of the Office when you have to take note of all of this:

  • whenever the text says 'Dominus vobiscum' and the reply is 'Et cum spiritu tuo' - always substitute 'Domine exaudi orationem meam' and ''Et clamor meus ad te veniat' (MD p8);
  • at Compline, for the examination of conscience - skip over the bit where it says the hebdomadary recites the Confiteor (on page 257), and use the version provided for recitation out of choir (on page 258).
'Sing wisely'

The second key point to note is that the core of the Office are the psalms. And each hour contains a hymn. Both are obviously intended to be sung. To do that of course, you need the proper books (the Antiphonale Monasticum for the day hours) and the ability to read the music. But even if you can't do that, it is always an option to sing the relevant hour on one note (called 'recto tono').

Most people by themselves however will end up just saying it. Traditionally, you have to at least move your lips to articulate the words for the Office to be considered to have been said!

Body postures

The other point to note is that the Office is traditionally accompanied by various postures and gestures. The reference to kneeling in the Rule that I quoted above for those saying the Office out of choir has been interpreted by some commentators as an instruction to perform all of the postures as if you were in choir even when you aren't, for example. These days it is accepted that out of choir, you aren't obliged to follow all the body postures and gestures. All the same, kneeling, bowing and making the sign of the cross are all important aids to our worship, so I will come back at some point to give some instructions on this.

As a starting point though, here are some of the more important ones you might consider using:
kneeling before you start, and saying a short preparatory prayer (the traditional one starts Aperi Domine...);
  • standing for the Deus in adjutorium (and making the sign of the cross as you say it);
  • bowing for the Gloria Patri wherever it occurs; and
  • standing for the hymn and Gospel canticles (Benedictus and Magnificat at Lauds and Vespers respectively).
For Part 5A of this series, click here.


Dominique said...

Do you normally stand and bow for the doxology after each Psalm, or do you bow while sitting?

Kate Edwards said...

Stand and bow.