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.

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