St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Lauds/1 (Feb 14/June15/Oct 15)

Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, folio 182v

Today's section of the Rule describes the structure and content of Lauds on Sunday.

If you look at the Latin you will see that St Benedict uses the word 'Matutinis' to describe this hour (and vigils for what we now call Matins) - don't be confused by the terminology, this is the first of the day hours we are talking about here, taking its modern name from the three 'Laudate' psalms that conclude the psalmody for the hour.

Caput XII: Quomodo matutinorum sollemnitas agatur

In Matutinis dominico die, inprimis dicatur sexagesimus sextus psalmus sine antiphona in directum. Post quem dicatur quinquagesimus cum Alleluia; post quern dicatur centesimus septimus decimus et sexagesimus secundus; inde Benedictiones et Laudes, lectio de Apocalypsi una ex corde et responsorium, ambrosianum, versu, canticum de 'Evangelia', litania, et completum est.

Chapter 12: How the Office of Lauds is to be Said

LAUDS on Sundays should begin with the sixty-sixth psalm chanted straight through without an antiphon. After that let the fiftieth psalm be said, with Alleluia; then the hundred and seventeenth and the sixty-second; then the Benedicite and the Laudate psalms; then a lesson from the Apocalypse to be recited by heart, the responsory, the hymn, the versicle, the canticle from the Gospel book, the Kyrie eleison, and so the end.


Sunday in the Office and Mass is a weekly celebration of the Resurrection, and the imagery, texts and rubrics St Benedict specifies for this hour all reinforce this.

The symbolism of light and darkness

In the previous chapters (especially chapter 8) it was made clear that the timing and length of Matins was to be adjusted in order that Lauds started strictly at daybreak (McCann translates it as dawn, but the general consensus is that daybreak or first light is the actual meaning).  Unlike the Roman Office, where Matins and Lauds are typically joined together, St Benedict, you will recall from Chapter 8, actually provides for a separation between them, of shorter or longer duration depending on the season.

Some modern commentators see this daybreak start as a relic of a bygone age that was driven by the rhythms of agriculture, and there is a certain truth in this in that St Benedict clearly expected his monks to follow the flow of the seasons.  Still, St Benedict seems actually to have taken the structure of his office of Lauds, as he implies in the next chapter, pretty much entirely from the urban `Cathedral' Office of Rome, not the desert or the countryside traditions.

Moreover the symbolism of light and darkness St Benedict draws on in these provisions reflects a tradition dating back to the first Christians, and indeed, in all probability, Jewish practice as attested to not least in the very psalms we sing at the hour.  But in Christian practice the hour became strongly linked to the Resurrection. Dom Delatte, for example, in his classic commentary on the Rule, states that Lauds "represents the hour of victory of light over darkness, the hour of Our Lord's resurrection."

The psalms of Sunday Lauds

St Benedict is very specific in the psalms to be said at Lauds on Sunday, so it is worth considering the specific content of the psalms he sets for it.

The first psalm to be said, the invitatory psalm, Psalm 66, clearly sets the tone for the hour, by asking for God's blessing on the day to come.

Psalm 50 can be seen as serving as something of a continuation of the invitatory, addressing our need to purify ourselves from sin before offering God praise, and to help us recognize that, as Dom Delatte suggests,  "God alone can make it [the soul] come forth from its darkness". That he freely gives us this grace is reflected in the Alleluia St Benedict adds as its antiphon.

The resurrection focus of Sunday, however, is given pre-eminence by the use of  Psalm 117: the verse Haec Dies is used throughout the Easter Octave at Mass.  In the old Roman Office, this psalm was said at Prime.  St Benedict shifts it to the more important hour of Lauds, presumably in the interests of symmetry: Psalm 117 is the last of the 'Hallel' psalms on major Jewish feasts, and in an interesting reversal of their order (the first shall be last and the last first?), the first of this group of psalms (psalm 112) closes off Sunday Vespers.

Psalm 62 which follows perhaps provides something of a counterpoint to the Resurrection focus of Psalm 117, stressing the 'almost but not yet' character of the age we live in, speaking of the longing for Christ's return. 

Above all though, the rejoicing at the rising sun/Son is most aptly captured in the Benedicite, the three Laudate psalms, and the Benedictus (Gospel canticle), all of which serve to link God's work of creation, salvation and the re-creation of the world through Christ.

This commentary on the Rule continues here.

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