Wednesday, February 29, 2012

From the martyrology: St Romanus of Lyons, and the martyrs for the sick (Feb 29)

From the martyrology:

"In the same city [Rome], in the reign of Emperor Valerian, the commemoration of the holy priests, deacons, and many others.  When a most deadly epidemic was raging, they willingly met their death by ministering to the sick.  The religious sentiment of the pious faithful has generally venerated them as martyrs."

St Romanus

In the territory of Lyons, in the Jura Mountains, the death of St. Romanus, abbot, who first had led the life of a hermit there.  His reputation for virtues and miracles brought under his guidance many monks."

According to Butler's Lives, Saint Romanus, born in the late fourth century, left his relatives and spent some time in the monastery of Ainay at Lyons, near a large church at the conflux of the Saône and Rhone.
He then became a hermit in the forests of Mount Jura, between France and Switzerland, and fixed his abode at a place called Condate, at the conflux of the rivers Bienne and Aliere.

"Here he spent his time in praying, reading, and laboring for his subsistence. Lupicinus, his brother, came to him there, accompanied by several other disciples, who then were followed by still others, drawn by the fame of the virtue and miracles of these two Saints. Other monasteries became necessary. Saint Romanus, when he was 54 years old, was ordained a priest by Saint Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers; he remained simple in his conduct and never sought any privileges among his brethren.

As their numbers increased, the brothers built several monasteries as well as a convent for their sister and other women, called La Baume; before Saint Romanus died, there were already five hundred nuns cloistered there in prayer and sacrifice. They kept strict silence, and like their brothers, sons or relatives in the nearby monastery of Lauconne, considered themselves as persons dead to the present life.

The two brothers governed the monks jointly and in great harmony, though they were of different dispositions; the gentleness of the first was balanced by the severity of the other, according to need. When a group of rebellious monks departed, Saint Romanus, by his patience and prayer, won them back, and if they departed a second or even a third time, received them with the same kindness. When Lupicinus, whose habits were very mortified, reproached him for his leniency, he replied that God alone knew the depths of hearts, and that among those who never departed, there were some whose fervor had declined, whereas some of those who returned after leaving even three times, were serving God in exemplary piety; and finally, that among the brethren who remained outside the monastery, certain ones had religiously practiced the maxims they had learned in the monastery, even becoming priests and authorities for other religious functions or offices.

Saint Romanus died about the year 460, and Saint Lupicinus survived him for twenty years."

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

From the martyrology: St Florentina, Virgin (Feb 28)

The Martyrology for today records:

"At Seville in Spain, the birthday of St. Leander, bishop of that city, and of St. Florentina, virgin.  By his preaching and zeal the Visigoths, with the help of King Recared, were converted from the Arian heresy to the Catholic faith."

St Florentina was St Leander's sister.  Teh Catholic Encyclopedia records:

"...born towards the middle of the sixth century; died about 612. The family of St. Florentina furnishes us with a rare example of lives genuinely religious, and actively engaged in furthering the best interests of Christianity.  Sister of three Spanish bishops in the time of the Visigothic dominion (Leander, Isidore, and Fulgentius), she consecrated her virginity to God, and all four have been canonized by the Church.

Florentina was born about the middle of the sixth century, being younger than her brother Leander, later Archbishop of Seville, but older than Isidore, who succeeded Leander as archbishop of the same see.

Before his elevation to the episcopal dignity, Leander had been a monk, and it was through his influence that Florentina embraced the ascetic life.

She associated with herself a number of virgins, who also desired to forsake the world, and formed them into a religious community. Later sources declare their residence to have been the convent of S. Maria de Valle near Ecija (Astigis), of which city her brother Fulgentius was bishop.

In any case, it is certain that she had consecrated herself to God before the year 600, as her brother Leander, who died either in the year 600 or 601, wrote for her guidance an extant work dealing with a nun's rule of life and with contempt for the world ("Regula sive Libellus de institutione virginum et de contemptu mundi ad Florentinam sororem", P.L. LXXII, 873 sqq.). In it the author lays down the rules according to which cloistered virgins consecrated to God should regulate their lives.

...Her younger brother Isidore also dedicated to her his work "De fide catholica contra Judæos", which he wrote at her request. Florentina died early in the seventh century and is venerated as the patroness of the diocese of Plasencia. Her feast falls on 20 June."

Monday, February 27, 2012

From the martyrology: St Porphyrius, a saint for Gaza (Feb 27)

From the martyrology:

"At Gaza in Palestine, St. Porphyry, bishop, in the time of Emperor Arcadius.  He overthrew the idol Marna and its temple, and after many sufferings, went to his rest in the Lord."

The Catholic Encyclopedia says of him:

"Bishop of Gaza in Palestine, b. at Thessalonica about 347; d. at Gaza, 26 February, 420.

After five years in the Egyptian desert of Scete he lived five years in a cave near the Jordan. In spite of his impaired health, he frequently visited the scene of the Resurrection.

Here he met the Asiatic Mark, at a later date a deacon of his church and his biographer. To effect the sale of the property still owned by Porphyrius in his native city, Mark set out for Thessalonica and, upon his return, the proceeds were distributed among the monasteries of Egypt and among the necessitous in and around Jerusalem.

In 392 Porphyrius was ordained to the priesthood, and the relic of the Holy Cross was intrusted to his care. In 395 he became Bishop of Gaza, a stronghold of paganism, with an insignificant Christian community.

The attitude of the pagan population was hostile so that the bishop appealed to the emperor for protection and pleaded repeatedly for the destruction of pagan temples. He finally obtained an imperial rescript ordering the destruction of pagan sanctuaries at Gaza. A Christian church was erected on the site of the temple of Marnas.

In 415 Porphyrius attended the Council of Diospolis."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical Code: On Benedictine prayer (Feb 25 or 26/June 27/Oct 27)

Sodoma, Life of St Benedict, 1505
St Benedict frees a monk
And today, the last in this series of posts on St Benedict's liturgical code, on reverence in prayer.

Caput XX: De Reverentia Orationis

Si cum hominibus potentibus volumus aliqua suggerere, non praesumimus nisi cum humilitate et reverentia; quanto magis Domino Deo universorum cum onini humilitate et puritatis devotione supplicandum est. Et non in multiloquio, sed in puritate cordis et com-punctione lacrimarum nos exaudiri sciamus. Et ideo brevis debet esse et pura oratio, nisi forte ex affectu inspirationis divinae gratiae protendatur. In conventu tamen omnino brevietur oratio, et facto signo a priore omnes pariter surgant.

Chapter 20: Of Reverence in Prayer

If we wish to prefer a petition to men of high station, we do not presume to do it without humility and respect; how much more ought we to supplicate the Lord God of all things with all humility and pure devotion. And let us be sure that we shall not be heard for our much speaking, but for purity of heart and tears of compunction. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless it chance to be prolonged by the impulse and inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, let prayer be very short, and when the superior has given the signal let all rise together.


This final chapter of the liturgical code is interesting not least in that it stands in sharp contrast to some later schools of spirituality.

There is some modern debate on this chapter: the traditional view, embraced by Dom Delatte and others is that whereas the previous chapter refers to the Divine Office, this chapter is essentially about private prayers, with the last sentence most likely referring to the traditional period of communal prayer immediately after each hour.

Some modern commentators, however, such as Dom De Vogue, argue that St Benedict is really talking here about the pauses between psalms in the Office.  Personally I’m not terribly convinced by this, for reasons too complex to go into here.

In the end, though, whether we are talking about our approach to the Office here, or our private prayers, the same considerations surely apply.

First we are told to approach God with humility and respect, as we would a person in a position of authority in the world when we ask for things, rather than immediately treating him as if he were a close friend. We should be aware of the immense gap between man and God, St Benedict suggests, and start from an attitude of worship and devotion.

The recovery of this sense of the sacred, of the otherness and greatness of God, is of course one of the greatest priorities of the Church at the moment, something the Pope has been trying to lead by example through the use of more elaborate and beautiful vestments, Latin, chant, kneeling to receive communion and so much more.

Of course we can and should aspire to the status of close friend of God: but here as elsewhere in the Rule, St Benedict writes not for the saint, but for the person who still has some way to go in making progress in the spiritual life. So the message is that we shouldn’t presume, but rather start at least by regarding ourselves as labourers in the vineyard, even as we wait for God to invite us in further as we progress in his ways.

The second point to note is the emphasis on compunction, or remorse, and purity of heart, reiterating the tool of good work ‘Daily in one’s prayer, with tears and sighs, to confess one’s past sins to God’.

Again, these days there is a lot of emphasis on ‘moving on’ or putting things behind us. The more traditional view though is that even though we should have confessed our sins and been forgiven them, we must still do penance for them now, in order to avoid purgatory!

Confession, absolution and whatever penance we are set removes eternal punishment, but it doesn’t necessarily wipe out all the remaining temporal punishment that we have accumulated. Saying our Office however, or studying the psalms (even if we enjoy doing so), is a good work that can help make amends for what we have done wrong in the past.

Thirdly, St Benedict emphasizes non-vocal prayer. Whereas the earlier Eastern monastic tradition urges the use of short phrases throughout the day, and later traditions added in practices such as the rosary (all laudable in themselves), St Benedict, without excluding these, urges a more meditative, mystical approach, perhaps as a counter-balance to the hours of vocal prayer in the Office that he prescribes.

Finally, St Benedict urges brevity, particularly in communal prayer. It is notable that whereas St Teresa of Avila urged her disciples to spend as much time praying after Mass as possible for example, in order to capture the graces that followed from it, and set specific periods of meditation as part of the rule for her nuns, St Benedict does none of this.

Over time of course, what St Benedict left to the individual (see for example RB 52 which allows individual monks to stay after the Office and pray in the oratory) has tended to be formalized (largely to compensate, I would suggest, for the reduction in time typically allocated to lectio divina compared to that specified in the Rule). Still, I think this injunction fits in with St Benedict’s approach of viewing all of the monk’s activities as dedicated to God and times for awareness of his presence, not just the set times of prayer.

And on that note, we end this little series of notes on the liturgical chapters of St Benedict’s Rule. I hope you have found it interesting and useful.  Please do let me know if you have reactions, questions or points you would like to debate or explore further.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

First Sunday of Lent (Feb 26)

Monreale Cathedral
The Office for the first Sunday of Lent

The Magnificat antiphon for I Vespers is from Isaiah 58:9. 

Here are the verses leading up to it:

"Cry, cease not, lift up your voice like a trumpet, and show my people their wicked doings, and the house of Jacob their sins.  For they seek me from day to day, and desire to know my ways, as a nation that has done justice, and has not forsaken the judgment of their God: they ask of me the judgments of justice: they are willing to approach to God. Why have we fasted, and you have not regarded: have we humbled our souls, and you have not taken notice? Behold in the day of your fast your own will is found, and you exact of all your debtors. Behold you fast for debates and strife, and strike with the fist wickedly. Do not fast as you have done until this day, to make your cry to be heard on high. Is this such a fast as I have chosen: for a man to afflict his soul for a day? Is this it, to wind his head about like a circle, and to spread sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let them that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden.  Deal your bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harbourless into your house: when you shall see one naked, cover him, and despise not your own flesh. Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your health shall speedily arise, and your justice shall go before your face, and the glory of the Lord shall gather you up. Then shall you call, and the Lord shall hear: you shall cry, and he shall say, Here I am....

Our Lord's Temptation in the desert

The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent is Matthew 4:1-11, which tells the story of Our Lord's temptation in the desert.

The highlight of the Mass of the day, though, is the singing of Psalm 90, Qui Habitat, which prophesies that temptation, particularly in the section used in the very long!) Tract.

The Office in Lent

The Office in Lent is quite complex, so it is worth taking some time to work it out in advance. In particular, there are specific readings set for each day of the week at (EF) Mass. So at Matins the readings are general patristic commentaries on the Gospel for the day, and the canticle antiphons also generally pick up the key messages from the Gospel.

The Ordinary of the ferial Office in Lent is set out in the Farnborough edition of the Monastic Diurnal at MD 190*ff.

For those saying Matins (not in the Diurnal): 
  • the invitatory antiphon on weekdays is the same as throughout the year;
  • the hymn is for the season of Lent and is the same each day (Ex more);
  • the readings during the week are usually patristic, relating to the Gospel of the Mass set for that day;
  • the chapter verse for Nocturn II is for the season (Is 1:16-18).
At Lauds and Vespers:

  •  chapters, hymns, etc of the season replace those in the psalter section;
  •  the canticle antiphons are proper for each day.
 Each day there are two sets of collects: the first for use from Matins to None; the second for Vespers.

It is also important to be aware that when a feast displaces the Lent texts, a commemoration of the day is made at both Lauds and Vespers using the respective collects, canticle antiphon and versicle that occurs before the relevant canticle at that hour.

There are no saints feasts celebrated in the Office this week, but note that Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are Ember Days.

St Benedict's liturgical code: Sing wisely (Feb 24 or 25/ June 26/Oct 26)

Dunois Hours, c15th
Today's chapter of the Rule deals with our dispositions when we say the Office.

Caput 19: De Disciplina Psallendi

UBIQUE credimus divinam esse praesentiam, et oculos Domini in omni loco speculari bonos et malos; maxime tamen hoc sine aliqua dubitatione creda-mus cum ad opus divinum assistimus. Ideo semper memores simus quod ait propheta: Servite Domino in timore; et iterum: Psallite sapienter; et: In conspectu angelorum psallam tibi. Ergo consideremus qualiter oporteat in conspectu Divinitatis et angelorum ejus esse; et sic stemus ad psallendum ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae.

Chapter 19: The Manner of Saying the Divine Office

WE believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord in every place behold the good and the evil but let us especially believe this without any doubting when we are performing the Divine Office. Therefore, let us ever remember the words of the prophet: Serve ye the Lord in fear; and again, Sing ye wisely; and, In the sight of the angels will I sing to thee. Let us then consider how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and his angels, and so sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony.


The last two chapters of the liturgical provisions of the Rule consider our proper dispositions as we say the Office and pray, and so serve as a useful point to touch on a very important subject, namely our external deportment or behaviour when we say the Office.

Once of the more unfortunate developments of recent years, in my view, has been an aversion to proper use of ritual and bodily gestures such as kneeling. Indeed, the 1977 Directory on the Office for the Benedictine Order even has a section in it warning of the dangers of ‘periculum ritualismi vacui’, or ‘empty ritualism’.

Yet such warnings forget two vital points.

First, they forget that we are in fact embodied beings, not just souls. We need gestures and rituals to remind us of what is important: it is inherent in human condition that the body calls the mind to order, and vice versa.

For this reason, St Benedict includes in these chapters (and throughout the Rule), numerous references to ritual and external gestures and actions – to slowing down the chant (and by implication speeding it up); to standing, sitting, bowing and prostrating; to what should be said aloud, what silently, and much more.  These instructions are there to help us, not to encourage external form for forms’ sake as some would suggest! So even when we say the Office privately, we should endeavour to be reverent in the way we approach it, and follow the rubrics on gestures as far as possible.

Secondly, St Benedict suggests in both this chapter, and in Chapter 7 on humility, that external manifestations of our devotion should actually flow from our internal dispositions. I suggested earlier in this series of notes that the chapter on humility (RB 7) actually serves as something of an introduction to the rationale for the detailed instructions on the Office St Benedict sets out: the Office serves to help train us in obedience to an external authority rather than the indulgence of our own personal likes and dislikes.

Here St Benedict makes the connection more explicit by recapitulating the opening and closing ideas of Chapter 7 in just a few brief lines, and applying the first and last degrees of humility specifically to the Office. When it comes to the Office he says, we should start by cultivating an appropriate fear of the Lord (the first degree of humility), a sense of reverence and awe that comes from knowing that he is watching everything we do, and that when we sing or say the Office, we do so in the company of the angels.

That awareness, he argues, should shape our behaviour, so that we manifest our internal dispositions externally (the twelfth degree of humility) in things like custody of the eyes, and obedience to the other body postures St Benedict and the rubrics prescribe such as standing for the Gloria Patri.

And of course implicitly we should be applying all the intervening steps on the ladder of humility to the way we approach the Office.

So how can we put all this into practice when saying the Office privately?

First, say the Office in an approved form, following the rubrics and rules as best possible.

Secondly, try and set up some special corner of a room to say the Office in, with an icon or cross to focus the attention.

Thirdly, try and avoid distractions, give the particular hour all our attention – it is not something to be said while sipping a cup of coffee and watching television!

There are always exceptions of course – better to say the Office and pray in some way than not at all. Indeed, Chapter 50 makes it clear that the Office can be performed anywhere if necessary.  But still with reverence.

And for the final part in this series, click here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: Should we 'update' St Benedict's psalm scheme? (Feb 24/June 25/Oct 25)

Chludow Psalter, c850

Today's section of the Rule returns to the beginning of the Office, and the psalms of Matins.  But it also includes what I consider to be that most abused of provisions, the invitation to make some other arrangement of the psalms, provided that all 150 psalms are said in the course of the week. 


Disposito ordine psalmodiae diurnae, reliqui omnes psalmi qui supersunt aequaliter dividantur in septem noctium Vigilias, partiendo scilicet qui inter eos prolixiores sunt psalmi, et duodecim per unamquamque constituantur noctem: hoc praecipue commonentes, ut si cui forte haec distributio psalmorum displicuerit, ordinet si melius aliter judicaverit; dum omnimodis id attendat, ut omni hebdomada psalterium ex integro numero centum quinquaginta psalmorum psallatur, et dominico die semper a capite reprehendatur ad Vigilias; quia nimis inertem devotionis suae servitium ostendunt monachi, qui minus a psalterio cum canticis consuetudinariis per septimanae circulum psallunt, dum quando legamus sanctos patres nostros uno die hoc strenue implesse, quod nos tepidi utinam septimana integra persolvamus.

Chapter 18/4

The order of psalms for the Day Hours being thus arranged, let all the remaining psalms be equally distributed among the seven Night Offices, by dividing the longer psalms and assigning twelve psalms to each night.

But we strongly recommend, if this arrangement of the psalms be displeasing to anyone, that he arrange them otherwise, as shall seem better to him; provided always that he take care that the psalter with its full hundred and fifty psalms be chanted every week and begun afresh every Sunday at Matins.

For those monks show themselves very slothful in their sacred service, who in the course of the week sing less than the psalter and the customary canticles, whereas we read that our holy fathers strenuously fulfilled in a single day what I pray that we lukewarm monks may perform in a whole week.


Today's section of the Rule is actually end of the detailed prescriptions on the structure of the Benedictine Office: the next two chapters, though generally considered part of the liturgical code, really deal with how to pray rather then the structure of the Office itself. The liturgical code proper, then ends here where it began, on the great night Office of Matins, arguably reflecting its centrality to St Benedict's vision of what a monk is.

It has to be said that most modern commentaries on this chapter pretty much ignore the comments on the psalms of Matins, and focus instead on the seeming permission to reorganise the psalter.  I think that is a mistake, for reasons I'll set out below.  Nonetheless, let us first look at that sentence that has been used to justify the wholesale abandonment of the traditional Benedictine Office by most modern monasteries.

Can we rearrange the psalter?

St Benedict devotes several chapters to setting out his preferred framework for the Office. 

His 'opt-out' provision constitutes one sentence, and is hedged around with warnings about the danger of sloth!

So it is surely one of the greatest ironies that the instruction to 'return to the sources' contained in Vatican II's Perfectae Caritatis, instead of leading to a renewal of interest in the traditional Office actually led to its wholesale abandonment!

Worse, St Benedict makes it clear that any rearrangement of the psalter should at least retain a weekly psalm cursus.  Yet this provision, too, is widely ignored.

The rationale for all this, at least according to the 1977 Thesaurus Liturgiae Hororum Monasticae, put out under now disgraced Archbishop, then Abbot Primate, Rembert Weakland, was an emphasis on the idea of ‘quality over quantity’. The results, in terms of the continuing decline in vocations and the scandals that continue to rock a number of 'Benedictine' monasteries, speak for themselves in my view.

The real message St Benedict wants to emphasize, I would suggest, in returning here to the longest hour of the Office and putting the option of an alternative psalm schema in this context, is that though it might all seem rather long and demanding to us, his Office is in fact a considerably less demanding one, appropriate to "we lukewarm monks", compared to the Office of the monastic tradition as he received it.

I agree strongly with Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert who comments:

"Saint Benedict really prefers his own arrangement, but allows that it could be changed but he does insist on a certain length to the Divine Office...if we are going to be true to our own Benedictine tradition, the best way is to follow the Divine Office as it is described in the Holy Rule...”

Coming back to Matins

Finally I wanted to note that by leaving the allocation of the psalms for Matins until last, and simply saying split the longest psalms, St Benedict perhaps gives the impression that the allocation of the psalms to each day of the week for this hour is relatively random. But this impression is entirely deceptive.

In the case of Matins it isn't necessary to specify which psalms to split, because splitting the psalms with the most verses, in combination with necessary reordering accomplished by starting Matins at psalm 20 and pulling out selected psalms to be said at other hours (mostly Lauds) ensures that the hour stays loosely aligned with Lauds each day during the week, both thematically and numerically.

For the next part in this series, go here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: Vespers and Compline (Feb 23/June 24/Oct 24)

Stuttgart Psalter

Today, a look at the allocation of psalms to Vespers and Compline.


Vespera autem cotidie quattuor psalmorum modulatione canatur. Qui psalmi incipiantur a centesimo nono usque centesimo quadragesimo septimo : exceptis his qui in diversis horis ex eis sequestrantur, id est, a centesimo septimo decimo usque centesimo vigesimo septimo, et centesimo trigesimo tertio et centesimo quadragesimo secundo; reliqui omnes in Vespera dicendi sunt. Et quia minus veniunt tres psalmi, ideo dividendi sunt qui ex numero suprascripto fortiores inveniuntur: id est, centesimus trigesimus octavus, et centesimus quadragesimus tertius, et centesimus quadragesimus quartus. Centesimus vero sextus decimus, quia parvus est, cum centesimo quinto decimo conjungatur. Digesto ergo ordine psalmorum vespertinorum, reliqua, id est lectio, responsum, hymnus, versus, vel canticum, sicut supra taxavimus impleatur. Ad Completorios vero cotidie iidem psalmi repetantur: id est, quartus, nonagesimus, et centesimus trigesimus tertius.

Ch 18/3

Vespers shall be sung every day with four psalms. Let these begin with the hundred and ninth and go on to the hundred and forty-seventh, those being omitted which are set aside for special Hours, namely, the hundred and seventeenth to the hundred and twenty-seventh, the hundred and thirty-third and the hundred and forty-second. All the rest are to be said at Vespers. And since there are three psalms too few, let the longer psalms in the above number be divided, namely, the hundred and thirty-eighth, the hundred and forty-third, and the hundred and forty-fourth. But the hundred and sixteenth psalm, being short, shall be joined to the hundred and fifteenth. The order of the vesper psalms being thus settled, let the rest of the Hour, that is to say, lesson, responsory, hymn, versicle, and canticle, be carried out as we prescribed before. At Compline let the same psalms be repeated every day: that is, the fourth, the ninetieth, and the hundred and thirty-third.


The psalms allocated to Compline are the same every day, and the rationale for their selection is fairly obvious, so I won't go into it here.  St Benedict's arrangement of Vespers, though, takes a little more work to understand I think.

Vespers, as I’ve previously noted, has an association with Our Lord’s death, and traditionally monasteries use both lamps and incense in their Vespers rituals to symbolize this.

In terms of the psalms for the hour, it is often suggested that Vespers reverts to a running cursus of psalms. That’s true in the Roman Rite, but even a cursory look at St Benedict's prescriptions will show that isn’t really the case in the Benedictine rite.

As I've suggested previously, my view is that St Benedict is crafting the psalm allocations for programmatic effect: St Benedict is very explicit about where the psalms are to be split, and where the running cursus structure is to be ignored. Nor is the motivation to even out the length of the Office, because in fact the result of his efforts is to make some of them rather longer in length than others.

Psalm 113 on Monday (Sunday in the Roman Rite), for example, is extremely long (it is actually two psalms in the Hebrew psalter), and yet Monday actually gets an extra psalm added (albeit the shortest psalm in the psalter), adding up to a total of 53 verses to be said.  Personally I think that is because both Psalm 113 and Psalm 128 link very neatly to the themes of Our Lord's Incarnation and hidden life on earth up to and including his baptism.

This arrangement also allows Tuesday Vespers to continue the sequence of Gradual psalms started at the little hours on that day, leaving Wednesday to pick up the theme of Our Lord's betrayal by his own people (over and over in history, as well as by Judas and the priests and pharisees), resulting in the election of the gentiles (a theme also reflected in the Canticle of Hannah at Lauds).

In contrast to the length of Monday (53 verses) and Wednesday (69 verses) Vespers, Thursday, Friday and Saturday Vespers are much shorter (48, 47 and 43 verses respectively), the result of splitting psalms in two.  Sunday and Tuesday are even shorter still, at 34 and 36 verses respectively, making the decision to move Psalm 113 to Monday, and separate Psalm 128 from the other Gradual psalms even odder on the face of it.

But if you take a look at the actual content of the psalms and sections of psalms set for those days and look for the connections - for example viewing Thursday to Saturday as a weekly mini-Triduum - I think you will see why St Benedict has arranged the psalmody as he has.

Regardless of whether you agree with my view of St Benedict's programmatic intent, however, the evidence does point to the saints’ care for the construction of the hour, and reminds us, I think, of the central importance of the psalms to Benedictine spirituality.

As Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert Monastery comments:

“For our spirituality, we need to have an easy familiarity with the Psalms. We need to continue to study them year after year and let them deepen in us. For Benedictine spirituality, the Psalms are the heart of the Divine Office and we need to spend our lives knowing them more and more.”

For the next part of the series, go here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: Terce, Sext and None (Feb 22/June 23/Oct 23)

c13th Songs of the Ascent
Today's section of the Rule deals with the Little Hours.


Ad Tertiam vero, Sextam, Nonamque secundae feriae novem capitula quae residua sunt de centesimo octavo decimo, ipsa terna per easdem horas dicantur. Expenso ergo psalmo centesimo octavo decimo duobus diebus, id est dominico et secunda feria, tertia feria jam ad Tertiam, Sextam, vel Nonam psallantur terni psalmi, a centesimo nono decimo usque centesimo vigesimo septimo, id est psalmi novem. Quique psalmi semper usque Dominicam per easdem horas itidem repetantur, hymnorum nihilominus lectionum vel versuum dispositione uniform! cunctis diebus servata; et ita scilicet semper Dominica a centesimo octavo decimo incipietur.

Chapter 18/2

At Terce, Sext, and None on Monday, let the remaining nine sections of the hundred and eighteenth psalm be said, three at each of these Hours. The hundred and eighteenth psalm having been said thus on two days, that is Sunday and Monday, let Terce, Sext, and None of Tuesday each have three psalms, taken in order from the hundred and nineteenth to the hundred and twenty-seventh, i.e. nine psalms. And let these psalms be repeated at these Hours every day until Sunday; but let the arrangement of hymns, lessons, and versicles be kept the same on all days. Thus Prime on Sunday will always begin with the hundred and eighteenth psalm.


I’ve mentioned previously that the hours of Terce, Sext and None, at least in some form, date back to the earliest days of the Church, and almost certainly back to Jewish prayer patterns. Still, the early Church Fathers gave them a makeover with Christian associations, so that Tertullian and other early third century commentators, for example, associate Terce with the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost; Sext with Peter going to pray on the housetop at the sixth hour, and having the vision that leads to the abandonment of the Jewish dietary and other restrictions (Acts 10:9); and None with Our Lord’s crucifixion. The hymns for these hours allude at least in passing to these themes.

St Benedict, however, seems to me to give these hours a firm focus on our pilgrimage through life in his selection of the psalms for them. He takes the long and beautiful meditation on the law of the Lord in Psalm 118, with its frequent allusions to the way of life, at a very leisurely pace, spread out over two days.

Then for the rest of the week, he sets six of the ‘Gradual Psalms’, the pilgrim songs that were sung on the way to Jerusalem for major feasts, thus helping us mark the progress of our daily pilgrimage towards the heavenly Jerusalem. These psalms are short, and the hymn the same each day, allowing it to be readily memorized and said if necessary in the workplace or fields (RB 50): not a bad idea for us to emulate.

There is also, in my view, a reason for them starting on Tuesday in the psalter.  Many of Tuesday's psalms, including at Matins, have a strong focus on the Temple, and the desire to enter into it fully.  Indeed, all but one of the fifteen Gradual Psalms, or  'Songs of the Ascent', are sung on this day.

If Monday in the Office is about the Incarnation, then, the theme for Tuesday, in my view, is Christ's public ministry, during which he teaches us how to live properly as Christians.

First we must prepare ourselves, by meditating on the law, using Psalm 118.   Then we must learn how to be pilgrims towards heaven, and constantly remind ourselves that we are on a journey, that has a purpose and an endpoint.

For the next part of the series, see here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ash Wednesday (Feb 22)

Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence.

As the ashes are imposed, the priest says "Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19)

For Ash Wednesday, the Gospel is Matthew 6:15-21:

"And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

St Benedict's liturgical code: Prime (Feb 21/June 22/Oct 22)

Today's section of the Rule deals with the hour of Prime, which is no longer said in many monasteries.  That's a shame in my view!

Caput XVIII/1: Quo ordine ipsi psalmi dicendi sunt

IN PRIMIS dicatur versu: Deus in adjutorium meum intende, Domine ad adjuvandum mefestina, Gloria; inde hymnus uniuscujusque horae. Deinde prima hora, Dominica, dicenda quattuor capitula psalmi centesimi octavi decimi; reliquis vero horis, id est, Tertia, Sexta vel Nona, terna capitula suprascripti psalmi centesimi octavi decimi dicantur. Ad Primam autem secundae feriae dicantur tres psalmi, id est, primus, secundus et sextus. Et ita per singulos dies ad Primam, usque Dominicam, dicantur per ordinem terni psalmi usque nonum decimum psalmurn; ita sane, ut nonus psalmus et septimus decimus partiantur in binos. Et sic fit, ut ad Vigilias Dominica semper a vigesimo incipiatur.

Chapter 18/1 In what order the psalms are to be said

FIRST let there be said the verse: Deus in adjutorium meum intende, Domine ad adjuvandum me festina,and Gloria; then the hymn proper to each Hour.

Then at Prime on Sunday, four sections of the hundred and eighteenth psalm; and at each of the remaining hours, that is Terce, Sext, and None, three sections of the same hundred and eighteenth psalm.

At Prime on Monday let three psalms be said, namely the first, second, and sixth. And so at Prime every day until Sunday let there be said three psalms taken in their order up to the nineteenth; but let the ninth and seventeenth be each divided into two. Thus it comes about that the Night Office on Sundays will always begin with the twentieth psalm.


Prime has of course been expunged from the modern Roman Office, but it is a beautiful and important hour in St Benedict's conception, and a good choice for laypeople pressed for time to say in the morning.

It is particularly suitable first because it is relatively straightforward in structure, varying only in its antiphons and psalms each day.  Secondly, its focus, particularly evident in the hymn and collect, is on preparation for the day. Thirdly, because the psalms selected for it have a strong instructional focus, touching on several key themes of the Rule, such as the idea that God is always watching us, to see if we are seeking him.  Finally, it is a good choice for Oblates because this is a particularly Benedictine hour: whereas St Benedict more or less takes over Roman Lauds untouched, monastic Prime seems to me to reflect a fair amount of careful crafting by the saint.

Consider for example the decision to place Psalm 1 at Monday Prime rather than Sunday Matins as in the Roman Office.  Psalm 1 is generally regarded as serving as an introduction to the whole psalter, so on the face of it, starting the liturgical week there makes sense. Moreover, the strong monastic tradition was to start at Psalm 1 and go forward in order. Nor is it really necessary to spread Psalm 118 over two days – the Roman Rite after all, gets through it all on Sunday.

But there are I think a number of reasons for the particular psalm allocations that St Benedict has made.  Let me sketch out some of them.

First, in many respects, I think St Benedict regards Monday as the start of the week, rather than Sunday so far as the Office goes.  Sunday, as the day of Resurrection, is more the culmination, led up to by a mini-Triduum celebrated in the Office each week. 

Monday's variable psalms, on the other hand, I would argue, have a strong focus on the Incarnation and Christ's hidden life on earth up to and including his baptism.  At Prime, for example, Psalm 1 presents us with the picture of the perfect man; Psalm 2 includes the verse used at the Introit at Christmas, 'Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten Thee'; and the final verse of Psalm 6 ('Let my enemies be put to shame...') echoes the prophesies of the Benedictus and Magnificat, of the downfall of enemies, and exaltation of the humble.

Secondly, this arrangement perhaps allows some of the most important themes of the psalms allocated to Prime to be reiterated more strongly. Psalm 1 seems to me to have almost identical themes as the first section of Psalm 118 said at Sunday Prime; one can perhaps see echoes of Psalm 2 in the next two sections, and the final section set for Sunday Prime has a penitential feel (as well as containing a key verse used by St Benedict in explaining his spiritual doctrine), echoing Psalm 6, one of the penitential psalms.  The repetition of ideas over two days in a row reinforces their importance.

Thirdly, from the perspective of the overall design of the Office, starting Sunday Matins at Psalm 20 rather than Psalm 1 provides a sequence of psalms for that day that give a stronger focus on the joy of the Resurrection, for Psalm 20 is one of the ‘Royal Psalms’ that speak of the triumph of Our Lord, and many of the psalms that immediately follow it (especially Psalm 23 for example) are similarly upbeat testimonies to God’s grace and mercy.

So I take the view that St Benedict’s allocations of psalms to each day here and elsewhere reflect very deliberate decisions that give a more thematic and structured flavour to the Office, and I'll say more about this in a forthcoming series.

But in the meantime let me just note that this could just be a case of eisegesis (reading things into the text that aren't really there), rather than exegesis.  In which case, simply take this as a pious way to hear the Office!

For the next of the series, go here.

From the martyrology: St Peter Mavimenus (Feb 21)

From the 1962 martyrology:

At Damascus, St. Peter Mavimenus, who was killed by some Arabs who visited him in his sickness, because he said to them: "Whoever does not embrace the Christian and Catholic faith is lost, like your false prophet Mohammed."

St Peter was martyred in 743 AD.

Monday, February 20, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: the structure of the day hours (Feb 20/June 21/Oct 21)

Codex Amiatinus

Caput XVII: Quot psalmi per easdem horas dicendi sunt

JAM de Nocturnis vel Matutinis digessimus ordinem psalmodiae; nunc de sequentibus horis videamus. Prima hora dicantur psalmi tres singillatim et non sub una Gloria, hymnus ejusdem horae post versum Deus in adjutorium, antequam psalmi incipiantur. Post expletionem vero trium psalmorum, recitetur lectio una, versu et Kyrie eleison, et missae. Tertia vero, Sexta et Nona, item eo ordine celebretur oratio: id est versu, hymni earundem horarum, terni psalmi, lectio et versu, Kyrie eleison et missae sunt. Si major congregatio fuerit, cum antiphonis; si vero minor, in directum psallantur.

Vespertina autem synaxis quattuor psalmis cum antiphonis terminetur; post quos psalmos lectio recitanda est; inde responsorium, ambrosianum, versu, canticum de 'Evangelia', litania, et oratione dominica fiant missae. Completorium autem trium psalmorum dictione terminetur; qui psalmi directanei sine antiphona dicendi sunt: post quos hymnus ejusdem Horae, lectio una, versu, Kyrie eleison, et benedictione missae fiant.

Chapter 17 – How many psalms are to be said at these hours

WE have already settled the psalmody of Matins and Lauds; let us now look to the remaining Hours. At Prime let three psalms be said, one by one and not under the same Gloria; and before the psalms begin, but after the verse Deus in adjutorium, the hymn proper to that Hour. Then, at the end of the three psalms, let there be the lesson, versicle, Kyrie eleison, and concluding prayers. The Offices of Terce, Sext, and None are to be performed in the same way: that is, Deus in adjutorium, proper hymn, three psalms, lesson, versicle, Kyrie eleison, and concluding prayers. If the community be a large one, let the psalms be sung with antiphons; but if small, let them be sung straightforward.

Let the service of Vespers consist of four psalms with antiphons. After these psalms let a lesson be recited; and then the responsory, hymn, versicle, canticle from the Gospels, Kyrie eleison, and the Lord's Prayer to conclude.

Let Compline be limited to the saying of three psalms, and these said straightforward without an antiphon. After the psalms let there be the hymn for that Hour, the lesson, versicle, Kyrie eleison, and the blessing to conclude.


The structure of Prime to None and Compline

One of the striking things about this little section of the Rule is the number of times the number three is mentioned - something that would immediately have been taken by the medieval reader, I think, as a reference to the Trinity embedded in each of the hours of Prime, Compline and Terce to None.

As St Benedict set it up, the only difference in the structure of Prime to None and Compline lies in the use of an antiphon during the day, but not at night, and in the positioning of the hymn.

All the same, the actual length of the various hours do differ quite substantially: the psalms set for Prime in particular are quite long on average, while Compline includes the very long (and very important) Psalm 90; by contrast Terce, Sext and None are kept very short, certainly compared to those in both the pre and post-1911 Roman Offices.

The most important elaboration of these hours since St Benedict’s time clearly relates to Compline, which has acquired a short verse and penitential rite upfront, and in a monastery at least, an aspersion ritual afterwards. Personally, I think these developments really make sense. The end of the day is a logical time to take the time to do an examination of conscience, say the Confiteor and promise amendment.  And that final sprinkling of water - a mini-exorcism of sorts - before bed is particularly beautiful.  Now if only a little more organic development could occur in order to add the Nunc Dimittis (used in the Roman Rite) to this hour….


Both literally and symbolically, I think St Benedict was more of a morning person in terms of emphasis, with more of a Resurrection focus than on the Cross, thus he does not give equal weight to the two claimed 'hinges' of the Office, Lauds and Vespers! 

Lauds has in effect eight psalms (if you count the variable canticle as a psalm), a number usually taken as symbolising regeneration or the resurrection (many baptismal fonts are eight sided).  By contrast Vespers in St Benedict's schema has exactly half that, four, one less than in the Roman Rite and a number that usually refers to the four evangelists, the ends of the earth and thus to the earth itself: while Lauds celebrates the resurrection, Vespers symbolically refers to the death of Our Lord, which in turn calls forth the mission to spread the Gospel to all the world.

The structure of Vespers as set out here follows the same pattern as Lauds, but in a considerably shaved down form: unlike Lauds, Vespers has no invitatory or fixed psalms.

Excellence in performance

The last section of today's Rule, dealing with singing psalms with antiphons or 'directly' indicates a certain degree of flexibility in the performance of the Office depending on the resources available. 

The reference to antiphons here may be a reference to the practice of interspersing verse of the psalm with antiphons – or perhaps to greater or less use of more elaborate chant.  Certainly there are at least half a dozen different methods of performing the psalmody that we are aware of employed in the period up to St Benedict’s time, and it is not entirely clear when the current method of alternating sides of the choir for each verse (assuming there are enough singers) became the norm. 

The takeout message, though, I think, is to adapt to circumstances in order to perform the liturgy as well as we possibly can in order to properly honour God and for the aid of others: St Benedict’s later instruction to allow only those whose voices edify sing or read (RB 38) is worth keeping in mind for those performing the Office in common!

For the next part in this series, go here.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Is there a 'magical' number of hours in the Office? (Feb 19/June 20/Oct 20))

Hours of Marguerite D'Orleans

Caput XVI: Qualiter divina opera per diem agantur

UT ait propheta: Septies in die laudem dixi tibi. Qui septenarius sacratus numerus a nobis sic implebitur, si Matutino, Primae, Tertiae, Sextae, Nonae, Vesperae, Completoriique tempore nostrae servitutis officia persolvamus; quia de his diurnis horis dixit: Septies in die laudem dixi tibi. Nam de nocturnis Vigiliis idem ipse propheta ait: Media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi. Ergo his temporibus referamus laudes Creatori nostro super judicia justitiae suae, id est, Matutinis, Prima, Tertia, Sexta, Nona, Vespera, Completorio;et nocte surgamus ad confitendum ei.

Chapter 16 – How the Work of God is to be performed in the day-time

The prophet saith: Seven times a day have I given praise to thee. We shall observe this sacred number of seven, if we fulfil the duties of our service in the Hours of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; for it was of these Day Hours that he said: Seven times a day have I given praise to thee. But of the Night Office the same prophet saith: At midnight I rose to give praise to thee. At these times, therefore, let us render praise to our Creator for the judgements of his justice: that is, at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; and let us rise in the night to praise him.


The Scriptural rationale for the number of hours
Chapter 16 turns, seemingly somewhat belatedly, to the rationale for the Office in terms of the number of hours to be said and why they are to be said.

The modern view is that there is no 'magical' number of hours or psalms. St Benedict, however, seems to suggest otherwise, claiming Scriptural authority for the number of hours to be said each day.  Should we take him seriously?

It is true of course that his seven hours a day schema did not in fact have a long tradition behind it. The oldest of the hours, dating back in rudimentary form a least to the first century, are almost certainly Lauds, Terce, Sext, None and Vespers (thus dawn, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon and dusk), together with the night Office at least on Sundays. Prime, however, probably dates only from the fifth century, imported from the East by John Cassian; Compline can be traced back only so far as the fourth century.

Still, one could argue that this process of evolution reflects providential guidance to bring the Office into line with the Scriptural injunction cited here; certainly this schema took hold and stood the test of time until the liturgical revolution of Vatican II.

What is the purpose of the Office?
In the end, one’s view on the importance of the number of hours in the Office depends on one’s view of its purpose. There are two competing positions: one stresses the role of the Office in personal sanctification, as an aid to fulfilling the New Testament injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’; the other stresses the Office’s ecclesial dimension as sacrifice of praise on behalf of all creation, a work of intercession for the salvation of the world.

St Benedict, I would suggest, actually attempts to balance both objectives.

The Prologue to the Rule makes it clear that the first goal of the monk, as for us all, must be to reach heaven. It is clear that St Benedict does envisage the Office as an aid to this, perhaps why the section on the Night and Dawn Offices flow on directly from the chapter on humility without any fresh introduction. Implicitly, I think the message is that the monk learns humility and obedience by praying at the set times (including that early rise into the darkness) and following the rubrical prescriptions laid down.

In this chapter though, we are provided with some further rationales for the Office.

First, the very alignment of the day hours with the times of the civil day points to the idea of the sanctification of the monks’ day by interspersing his work with ‘frequent prayer’ (RB 4).

Secondly, the symbolism of the number seven in the verse St Benedict cites suggests fullness or perfection (the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven sacraments, etc), and can be interpreted as a reference to the New Testament injunction to ceaseless prayer.  Nonetheless, throughout the Rule, though, St Benedict sets out a fairly clear delineation between times of communal prayer, times of work and times for study.  He does not seem to advocate, as some do, that work become our liturgy!  Rather, St Benedict urges us to pray before working (Prologue), and demands that the monk treat his tools as if they were altar vessels: all of our lives, in other words, should be our offering, but that does not make times of work times of prayer.

More fundamentally, St Benedict connects the Office here not just to the process of growing in humility and charity of the earlier, spiritual instruction chapters, but also to the duty of praising our Creator and his righteous laws. It is unsurprising then, that the monastic Office has traditionally been held to be a participation in the priestly prayer of the whole Church particularly appropriate to those he calls as his special workmen, acting on behalf of the rest of us.

In recent centuries, clerics and religious only were deputed to say the Office in order to protect its integrity. Today the laity too, have the opportunity of participating in the Office as part of the official liturgical prayer of the Church; the distinction is that monks are bound to say all of the Office (in the form set out in the constitutions of their monastery), while the laity say what they can without any formal obligation to do so. What an awesome privilege!

And for the next part in this series, click here.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Quinquagesima Sunday and ordo notes week of February 19

The countdown to Lent continues as we reach Quinquagesima Sunday, and at I Vespers of Sunday (Saturday Vespers), the Magnificat antiphon refers to Sunday Matins readings from Genesis 12.

Quinquagesima Sunday

The Gospel for this Sunday is Luke 18:31-43 – Jesus tells the apostles of his coming Passion but they don’t understand (Benedictus antiphon); and he heals a blind man on the road to Jericho (Magnificat antiphon).

Here is the text of the Gospel:

"And taking the twelve, he said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him, and on the third day he will rise." But they understood none of these things; this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging; and hearing a multitude going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by." And he cried, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" And Jesus stopped, and commanded him to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?" He said, "Lord, let me receive my sight." And Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well." And immediately he received his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God."

The Patristic commentary on the Gospel for Matins is by St Gregory:

"Our Redeemer, foreseeing that the minds of His disciples would be troubled by His suffering, told them long before both of the pains of that suffering, and of the glory of His rising again, to the end that, when they should see Him die as He had prophesied, they might not doubt that He was likewise to rise again. But, since His disciples were yet carnal, and could not receive the words telling of this mystery, He wrought a miracle before them. A blind man received his sight before their eyes, that if they could not receive heavenly things by words, they might be persuaded of heavenly things by deeds.

But, dearly beloved brethren, we must so take the miracles of our Lord and Saviour, as believing both that they were actually wrought, and that they have some mystic interpretation for our instruction. For in His works, power speaks one thing and mystery again another. Behold here, for instance. We know not historically who this blind man was, but we do know of what he was mystically the figure.

Mankind is blind, driven out from Eden in the persons of his first parents, knowing not the light of heaven, and suffering the darkness of condemnation. But, nevertheless, through the coming of his Redeemer, he is enlightened, so that now he sees by hope already the gladness of inward light, and walks by good works in the path of life. One must note that as Jesus drew to Jericho a blind man received his sight. Now, this name Jericho, being interpreted, signifies the city of the moon and in Holy Scripture the moon is used as a figure of our imperfect flesh, of whose gradual corruption her monthly waning is a type.

As, therefore, our Maker draws nigh to Jericho, a blind man receives his sight. While the Godhead takes into itself our weak manhood, man receives again the light which he had lost. By God's suffering in the Manhood, man is raised up toward God. This blind man is also well described as sitting by the wayside begging for the Truth saith I am the Way.''

This week in the Office

This week marks the start of Lent, with Ash Wednesday (Feb 22).  The rubrics for the Office, however, essentially do not change from those of Septuagesimatide until next week, reflecting the fact that the four days from Wednesday are a 'later' (sixth century!) addition to the length of Lent intended to bring it up to the forty Scriptural days.

The key thing to note, though, is that at both Lauds and Vespers the canticles have an antiphon specific to the day (MD 180*)ff, as well as specific collects to be used.  The collect set for Lauds is also used from Matins to None.

Saints in the Office this week

There are two saints celebrated in the traditional Benedictine Office (and EF calendar) this week:
In some places and monastic congregations, Saturday is the feast of St Walburga OSB.

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Sing alleluia! (Feb 18/June 19/Oct 19)

Today's section of the Rule deals with the use of the 'Alleluia', effectively a wordly sound of praise that often promoted long melismatic sections of chant in the seasons to which it is proper, making it all the more missed at those times of the year when it is not used.
Caput XV: Alleluia Quibus Temporibus Dicatur

A Sancto Pascha usque Pentecosten sine intermissione dicatur Alleluia, tarn in psalmis quam in responsoriis. A Pentecoste autem usque caput Quadragesimae omnibus noctibus cum sex posterioribus psalmis tantum ad Nocturnes dicatur. Omni vero Dominica extra Quadragesimam Cantica, Matutini, Prima, Tertia, Sexta, Nonaque cum Alleluia dicantur; Vespera vero jam antiphona. Responsoria vero numquam dicantur cum Alleluia, nisi a Pascha usque Pentecosten.

Chapter 15: At what season the alleluia is to be said

FROM the sacred feast of Easter until Pentecost, let Alleluia be said always both with the psalms and with the responsories. From Pentecost until the beginning of Lent, let it be said every night at Matins with the second six psalms only. On every Sunday out of Lent, let Alleluia be said with the canticles of Matins, and with the psalms of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, and None; but let Vespers then have an antiphon. The responsories are never to be said with Alleluia, except from Easter to Pentecost.


St Benedict’s liturgical seasons described in this chapter varies, of course from current practice.

In part, that’s because he wrote the Rule before St Gregory and others legislated for the ‘burial’ of the Alleluia from Septuagesima until the Easter Vigil.

In part though, it is because instead of the three week pre-Lent of the Roman Rite, monastic Lent actually started, traditionally at least, back in November if one follows the Rule’s fasting regime. For this reason presumably, Benedictines did not actually adopt Septuagesima into the calendar until quite late, in the twelfth century according to Dom Gueranger, and then only by Papal order.

Nonetheless, the spirituality behind St Benedict's injunction is worth exploring.  The word Alleluia is a rare example of a Hebrew word (technically two separate words) used as an expression of praise to God being preserved, untranslated, into the liturgy as an expression of joy. It literally means ‘praise Yah[weh]’.

In the Old Testament it appears in the psalter (Psalm 104 and 150, and in the titles for several psalms) and in the Book of Tobit. It appears only in one place in the New Testament, namely Revelation 19. Yet it is undoubtedly that chapter that earns the word its privileged place in the liturgy, since Revelation describes the heavenly liturgy of the wedding feast of the lamb that we both anticipate and echo:

“After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants." Once more they cried, "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever." And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying, "Amen. Hallelujah!" And from the throne came a voice crying, "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great." Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready….”

Dom Delatte, in his classic commentary on the Rule, draws particular attention to that the use of the Alleluia ‘sine intermissione’ (without interruption), in contrast to its regulated use the rest of the year. The Alleluia, in other words, reminds us each day, especially on Sundays, and above all during Eastertide as St Benedict specifies, of the joy of the Resurrection.

But its absence during Lent, and indeed, its careful regulation also remind us of what Pope Benedict XVI has called the ‘already and not yet’ state of the world before the Second Coming. Many liturgists and theologians at the more liberal end of the spectrum argue, as Fr Robert Taft does in his book on the history of the Liturgy of the Hours, for example, that everything in salvation has already been fulfilled, thus Christian worship is not about us seeking to contact God or to implore his help, but is the response of the ‘already saved’.

Traditionalists will generally be more inclined towards Pope Benedict XVI’s position, expounded in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (written before his election), that while Christian worship differs from that of the Old Testament in being open to heaven, we are still in a state of transition, the time of dawn when darkness and light intermingle, an intermediate time and space between the Old Temple sacrifices and the perfect worship of heaven. Without the Resurrection, we cannot enter heaven; but we have not ourselves entered it yet!

The presence and absence of the Alleluias in the liturgy serve, then, to remind us of the idea that our salvation is still yet to be fully realized, but must be constantly worked for with the aid of grace, using the 'tools of good works' set out in the Rule.

For the next part in this series, click here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Feast Days (Feb 17/June 18/Oct 18)

The title of today's chapter of the Rule seems to take us back for a moment, to the Night Office of Matins.  But Dom Gueranger and others argue that its provisions apply equally to Lauds, and this interpretation is certainly reflected in the structure of the Office as it has come down to us.  Indeed, some modern translators argue that the chapter in fact refers to Lauds rather than Matins...

Caput 14: In nataliciis sanctorum qualiter agantur vigiliae

In Sanctorum vero festivitatibus vel omnibus sollemnitatibus, sicut diximus Dominico die agendum, ita agatur, excepto quod psalmi aut antiphonae vel lectiones ad ipsum diem pertinentes dicantur; modus autem suprascriptus teneatur.

Chapter 14: On how the night office is to be performed on saints’ days

On the feasts of Saints and on all festivals, let the Office be performed as we have prescribed for Sundays, except that the psalms, antiphons, and lessons belonging to the particular day are to be said; but the general arrangement of the Office shall be as laid down above.


St Benedict and devotion to the saints

There are several pieces of evidence that attest to St Benedict's devotion to the saints.  We know, from both St Gregory the Great and the archaeological record, that he established chapels at Monte Cassino dedicated to St Martin of Tours and St John the Baptist (both saints who combined the active and contemplative lives in their life and work).  Elsewhere in the Rule St Benedict talks about making vows on relics. And in this chapter he makes provision for their celebration in the liturgy.

The chapter points, then, to the great importance of the saints in the life of the Church: the saints provide us with models, and inspire us to do better.  They aid us when we need help.  And they provide a link between heaven and earth, reminding us that we are part not just of the Church Militant, but also must pray for the Church Suffering, those in purgatory, and can benefit from the intercession of the Church Triumphant, those in heaven.

The Office on saints days

It is in the area of the celebration of the saints that the Office has most become elaborated over time. As St Benedict specifies, the basic structure of three nocturns on major feast days has been retained. But as well, the use of specific sets of psalms for various types of feasts has arisen, overriding the use of the ferial psalms in many cases. And of course, a whole gradation of feast days has grown up over time (with ever changing labels and rubrics!).

Similarly, the Sunday psalms are used at Lauds for major feasts  - but the modern Office also includes festal psalms for Vespers, as well as special texts for the other hours of the day.

More importantly from a practical point of view, the number of saints celebrated in the calendar has increased dramatically.

Organic development of the liturgy?

This is perhaps a useful point at which to note the debate about how much the liturgy can be changed. At the extremes sit those who see the liturgy as entirely fixed by certain decrees (such as Pius V’s in the case of the Mass; St Benedict’s Rule for the Office), and at the other end of the scale, those who regard every aspect of the liturgy as a historically conditioned and therefore changeable.

The correct path, I think, lies somewhere in the middle.  In the case of the Office, some would point out that St Benedict was doing in these legislative provisions what many other monastic legislators were doing at the time in constructing an Office. And just as twentieth century Popes have reordered the psalm cursus and more for the Roman Rite, so too, it is perfectly legitimate, even authorized by the Rule, for modern monks to do likewise.

The alternative, and in my view better, position is that the Rule’s provisions are a providential recipe for a particular spirituality, a gift that has come down to us because God willed it. For centuries the Benedictine Office has provided an important element of continuity for new foundations and refoundations that has automatically served to provide a specifically Benedictine character to the houses of the Order.

But the framework St Benedict provides in his Rule is clearly sufficiently flexible to allow for the kind of ‘organic’ elaboration of the Office that has occurred over time, particularly in relation to feasts. The liturgy clearly can and does change over time, and there is no rationale that is obvous to me at any rate, beyond antiquarianism, something long condemned by the Church, and a rejection of the concept of obedience, for deciding to go back to St Benedict’s one class of feast schema, or to adopt without good reason and permission, some other arbitrarily chosen date for rubrics other than those currently approved by the Church (ie 1962 or later).

St Benedict and St Gregory the Great pray for us!

The next part of this series can be found here.

Lent in the Benedictine Rule....

Lent is rapidly approaching, so I thought I'd up some links to posts I've previously written on St Benedict's prescriptions for Lent in the Rule, and how we can incorporate them in our own Lenten observance.  There are three parts to the series:

Part I: Sacred Reading;
Part II: Refrain from sin and apply ourselves to prayer;
Part III: Fasting and abstinence.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Lauds/3 (Feb 16/June 17/Oct 17)

Today's section of the Rule deals with the conclusion of the hours of both Lauds and Vespers, and deal with the importance of the Lord's prayer.

Caput XIII/III...

Plane Agenda matutina vel vespertina non transeat aliquando nisi in ultimo per ordinem oratio dominica omnibus audientibus dicatur a priore, propter scandalorum spinas quae oriri solent, ut conventi per ipsius orationis sponsionem qua dicunt: Dimitte nobis sicut et nos dimittimus, purgent se ab hujusmodi vitio. Ceteris vero Agendis ultima pars ejus orationis dicatur, ut ab omnibus respondeatur: Sed libera nos a malo.

Chapter 13/3, continued

Of course, the Offices of Lauds and Vespers shall never be allowed to end without the superior finally reciting, in the hearing of all, the whole of the Lord's Prayer. The purpose of this is the removal of those thorns of scandal, or mutual offence, which are wont to arise in communities. For, being warned by the covenant which they make in that prayer, when they say Forgive us as we forgive, the brethren will cleanse their souls of such faults. At the other Offices, however, only the last part of that prayer shall be said aloud, so that all may answer Sed libera nos a malo.


This instruction reminds us I think, of two important messages: firstly, the fallible nature of man, even those committed to a life of holiness; and secondly, the central importance of the Lord's Prayer.

The challenges of community life, inside and outside of monasteries!

We tend to think of monks and nuns as very holy people, and no doubt they generally are, at least relatively speaking!

Yet sanctification is a gradual process that takes a whole lifetime or more for most, as St Benedict makes clear in his Prologue and the chapter on the tools of good works, even for those who have the privilege of dwelling in a monastery!

One of the (several) reasons that I think we should take St Gregory's Life of St Benedict seriously as a source of our spirituality (for following the Rule alone is not, in my view, enough to make one a follower of St Benedict, any more than following the Rule of St Augustine – as for example the Dominicans do – makes one an Augustinian) is that it is very far from simple hagiography.  Rather, the Life is filled with tales of the weaknesses and sins of St Benedict's monks as well as much as of the zeal inspired by the saint. Nor does St Benedict himself escape entirely unscathed in this depiction, despite the justifications for some of his actions supplied by St Gregory. 

So I always wonder if St Benedict introduced the idea of the superior praying the Lord's Prayer morning and night as part of his own process of achieving forgiveness of others, particularly in relation to his first failed attempt as an abbot, where his regime was so tough and resented that the monks tried to assassinate him!

In any case, the reality is that even in the happiest of communities, the happiest of families, the happiest of workplaces, there will invariably be tensions at times. And the expression 'the fish rots from the head' is relevant here: in whatever setting, leadership from the top on this front is vital.

Probably the earliest surviving commentary on the Rule is that by Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel (born circa 760), which notes that:

"Now in this place thorns of scandal means 'angry outbursts, quarrels, dissensions, slanders, rivalries', or any of the disturbing disputes and commotions that are wont to spring up among the brothers. Morning and evening, even though the monks have peace and preserve continual charity among themselves, they should purge themselves from these things. In the morning, so that none of these faults may remain until sunset, for it is written: Let not the sun go down upon your anger; in the evening, so that a fault may not remain overnight with him until sunrise, and in the morning render the monk answerable for sins and foul in the Lord's sight." (trans David Barry OSB, Cistercian Publications, 2007)

The importance of the Lord's prayer

The role of the Lord's prayer said fervently as a means of expressing our contrition, cleansing our venial sins, and recommitting us to advancing the kingdom is one of those ideas whose centrality to Christian life I suspect we have mostly lost sight of today: how easy it is to merely say the words.

Yet in the tradition, the Our Father is an absolutely crucial prayer.

It formed the core of the regular prayer times practiced in the early Church. The first century document Didache, for example, says, "Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this: Our Father who art in heaven...Pray this three times each day."

The prayer generated a number of substantial commentaries from many of the Church Fathers: St Augustine's excellent exposition, for example, included in his work on the Sermon on the Mount, can be found on the New Advent Church Fathers website.

And throughout the Middle Ages it was one of the main focuses of works of catechesis for the laity.

No wonder then it is said at every hour of the Office.

In terms of its content, the Rule particularly emphasizes the covenant dimension of the prayer, as Smaragdus goes on to explain:

"So that warned, that is, won over and drawn by the covenant contained in the prayer itself, that is, by the promise contained in the Lord's prayer which says: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors each one may forgive his brother from his heart. And thus purged, that is, cleansed from vices, let him in the morning proceed to perform the work of obedience, and in the evening celebrate the night watches. But at the other Offices, that is, in celebrating the other hours only the last part of that prayer, that is: And lead us not into temptation is to be said aloud, so that hearing it all may answer: But deliver us from evil."

Forgiveness flows from knowing God

Finally, it may seem strange that St Benedict emphasises the importance of the Lord's Prayer in the midst of this section on the structure of the Office, but once again I think the saint is trying to make sure we fully appreciate that he is building into the Office a theme that he reiterates many times in the Rule, on the importance of forgiveness.  Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert Monastery comments:

"Saint Benedict makes it clear to us here and in many places of the Rule that we must make knowing God the very center of our being, or our personalities. We are not just tepid Christians, we must be Christians who are putting all of our personal energies into this new life in Jesus Christ. It seems so clear in the Gospels and in the New Testament: if we want God to forgive us, then we must always forgive others. Another challenge is to forgive before the sun sets. That is asking a lot from us, for sure. Many times we want to delay, we want time to get our own emotions back into order, we want time so that the other person knows that we are deeply offended, etc. Jesus Himself wants us to forgive immediately. Our forgiveness can never depend on whether the other person, the other monk, has acknowledged that he has offended us. Forgiveness must come from us immediately and without reserve--if we are truly following the Lord Jesus."

The next part of this series can be found here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Liturgical Code of St Benedict: Lauds/2 (Feb 15/June 16/Oct 16)

Today's section of the Rule looks at the structure and content of Lauds on ferial days, or days throughout the week.

Caput XIII: Privatis diebus qualiter agantur matutini

Diebus autem privatis Matutinorum sollemnitas ita agatur: id est, ut sexagesimus sextus psalmus dicatur sine antiphona, subtrahendo modice sicut Dominica, ut omnes occurrant ad quinquagesimum, qui cum antiphona dicatur. Post quem alii duo psalmi dicantur secundum consuetudinem: id est, secunda feria quintus et trigesimus quintus, tertia feria quadragesimus secundus et quinquagesimus sextus, quarta feria sexagesimus tertius et sexagesimus quartus, quinta feria octogesimus septi-mus et octogesimus nonus, sexta feria septuagesimus quintus et nonagesimus primus, sabbato autem centesimus quadragesimus secundus et canticum Deuteronomium, quod dividatur in duas Glorias. Nam ceteris diebus canticum unumquodque die suo ex prophetis, sicut psallit Ecclesia Romana, dicantur. Post haec sequantur Laudes; deinde lectio una apostoli memoriter recitanda, respon-sorium, ambrosianum, versu, canticum de 'Evangelia', litania, et completum est.

Chapter 13: How Lauds shall be said on ordinary days

On ordinary days Lauds shall be celebrated in the following manner: let the sixty-sixth psalm be said without an antiphon and somewhat slowly, as on Sunday, in order that all may assemble in time for the fiftieth, which should be said with an antiphon.

After this let two other psalms be said according to custom: that is, on Monday the fifth and thirty-fifth; on Tuesday the forty-second and fifty-sixth; on Wednesday the sixty-third and sixty-fourth; on Thursday the eighty-seventh and eighty-ninth; on Friday the seventy-fifth and ninety-first; and on Saturday the hundred and forty-second and the canticle from Deuteronomy, which must be divided into two parts.

But on the other days let there be a canticle from the prophets, each on its own day, according to the custom of the Roman church. After that let the Laudate psalms follow; then a lesson from the apostle to be said by heart, the responsory, the hymn, the versicle, the canticle from the Gospels, the Kyrie eleison, and so the end.


The hour of Lauds is absolutely central to St Benedict's construction of the Office, reflecting two key principles, namely repetition each day of certain key psalms, and secondly (more controversially) the progression of the week according to a thematic program.

The value of repetition

These days we tend to shy away from repetition, preferring instead novelty!  Yet repetition of key messages is a central feature of St Benedict's Office.  Indeed, the fixed psalms and canticle of Lauds make up well over half of the verses said at this hour each day.

The twentieth century saw a rejection of the value of repetition in the liturgy, reflected in the reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope Pius X, and then in the reforms of the Mass of Vatican II.  But modern liturgists, following the work of people such as Dom Gerard Calvet of Le Barroux and theologian Catherine Pitstock, are starting to rediscover the importance of repetition in the process of building up and reinforcing those spiritual walls  that protect us from the enemy.  The new English translation of the Mass has even seen the reintroduction of some of those much despised repetitions.

In the case of the Benedictine Office, the fixed psalms I think, very much reflect St Benedict's core spirituality and are meant to be memorized and internalized, and repeated over and over so that they truly become automatic to our thinking. 

The hour starts each day by asking for God’s blessing and grace (Psalm 66), echoing that call in the first section of the Prologue of the Rule that before undertaking any good work, we ask God to perfect it.

In Psalm 50 we express our repentance and dependence on God, again reflecting that call to return to him from whom we have strayed from by the sloth of disobedience. 

And the hour ends in the Laudate psalms (148-150).

Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert argues for the importance of this repetition:

"It is important that we notice the repetitions that occur in the Divine Office. If we follow the Divine Office exactly as it is outline in the Rule of Benedict, we will end up with praying about 279 Psalms in a week because of the repetitions…Saint Benedict knows that the Divine Office is longer because of repetitions but he still seems to like them because certain Psalms add a distinctive flavor, at least to some of the Divine Offices. Is there any value in repetition? Certainly! It is the principal element of the Divine Office because every week we repeat the same Psalms. Over many years of monastic life, we can come to know most of the Psalms by heart. Saint Benedict would have presumed that every monk would know the entire Book of Psalms by heart and probably also all of the New Testament."

Thematic progress?

St Benedict also sets out, in this chapter, the variable content of the hour, in the canticles, imported from the Roman Office, and the two variable psalms.

It is often suggested that the Benedictine Office does not have any thematic unity or underlying program.  I don't agree.  My thesis is that St Benedict has shaped the variable psalm cursus quite carefully in order to provide thematic links that flow largely from the program set up by the canticles, a view I might add, that I'm finding some support for in the medieval literature.  Note here that I am talking about the 'ferial' canticles - the festal ones are a much later addition to the Office.

I'll say more on the programmatic dimension of the Benedictine Office later in this series in the context of the rest of St Benedict's psalm cursus.  Still, I do want to suggest that St Benedict sets out these provisions for Lauds here rather than later in order to stress their centrality, their role as a key to the whole Office.  So do take a close look at those ferial canticles, and keep an ear our for the connections to (some of ) the psalms of the day for yourself! 

The Saturday ferial canticle

There is one other point worth noting in relation to the 1962 Office in particular, relating to the Saturday canticle.

St Benedict specifies it should be divided, and in the 1962 breviary, but not for some reason, the Diurnal, it is. But even in the Monastic Breviary, the canticle as it appears in the 1962 Office has been drastically cut, the victim, it would appear, of revisionist liturgical butchery: in its full form it amounts to some 65 verses. By contrast, the 27 verses included in the 1962 version don’t even take us up to the divisio point in the older version of the Office!

Reading it one can see why modernists might bulk at it, since it falls into that Old Testament of hard – but important – sayings. After chronicling the infidelity of the people, it promises judgment.

Yet the full version of the canticle has been retained (at least for some times of the year) in the traditional Roman Office, and is worth a good read or two!

The next part of this series can be found here.