St Benedict's liturgical code: Matins/1 (Feb 10/June 11/Oct 11)

circa 1405-10 Parisian Book of Hours
I want to start my series on the Benedictine Office today, with a look at the section of the Rule of St Benedict set for February 10 (as well as June 11/October 11), which deals with the hour of Matins (aka Vigils or Office of Readings in the modern Liturgy of the Hours). 

I've included the Latin, as well as the English, of the Rule both for reference purposes and because in many traditional monasteries, the Latin version is read as part of  'chapter' (traditionally said immediately after Prime), and then the vernacular translation is read at lunch or dinner. 

Caput VIII: De Officiis Divinis in Noctibus

Hiemis tempore, id est, a Kalendis Novembribus usque in Pascha, juxta considerationem rationis, octava hora noctis surgendum est, ut modice amplius de media nocte pausetur, et jam digesti surgant. Quod vero restat post Vigilias, a fratribus qui psalterii vel lectionum aliquid indigent, meditationi inserviatur. A Pascha autem usque ad supradictas Novembres, sic temperetur hora ut Vigiliarum Agenda parvissimo intervallo, quo fratres ad necessaria naturae exeant, mox Matutini, qui incipiente luce agendi sunt, subsequantur.

Chapter 8: The Divine Office at Night

In winter, that is from the first of November until Easter, prudence dictates that the brethren shall rise at the eighth hour of the night, so that their sleep may extend for a moderate space beyond midnight, and they may rise with digestion completed. Those brethren, who need a better knowledge of them, should devote the time that remains after Matins to the study of the psalms and lessons. From Easter to the aforesaid first of November, let the hour of rising be so arranged that there be a very short interval after Matins, in which the brethren may go out for the necessities of nature, to be followed at once by Lauds, which should be said at dawn. (trans J McCann)


One of the difficulties in reading St Benedict’s liturgical code is that he just launches right in, without providing any rationale for how and why to say the Office (though some of that is set out later), and without providing much explanation for the choices he makes.  Accordingly, we need to read between the lines.

The first point to note is that this chapter on some of the practicalities around saying Matins (aka Vigils aka Office of Readings) reinforces that St Benedict's is a training scheme involving body, mind and soul.  There is therefore a strong continuity between this chapter and the last, which instructed his monks on how to develop and maintain an attitude of humility in mind and body at all times.

The needs of the body

In terms of the body, there is something of a pattern in the Rule of St Benedict first asserting that is regime is moderate and easy, a Rule for mere beginners - and then setting out a regime that in fact looks pretty tough to modern eyes at least. This section on the Office, with its quite long and detailed requirements is just such a case!

The reference to the “eighth hour” is to the Roman system of time keeping that divided the hours of light and darkness into equal sized hours, whose length changed with the season. Since the length of the night ‘hours’ is much shorter in summer, there is less time for study if the monks are still to get the bare six to seven hours of sleep this regime allows (supplemented by a siesta).

Further on in the Rule (particularly in Chapters 41, 42 and 48) St Benedict provides a fair amount of flexibility in arranging the times of the 'hours' of the Office to fit the needs of the monks: to enable them to eat in light, fit in the demands of work, and so forth. Although as St Benedict later states, the liturgy has absolute priority, it is not supposed to squeeze out all other considerations and duties. There is an important message in that, particularly for those not bound to the observance of the full breviary such as oblates and other laypeople!

Unlike other contemporary rules, there are no all night Vigils legislated for here, no asceticism based on sleep deprivation. St Benedict is not an extremist when it comes to asceticism, at least by the standards of his time. He specifies that the days and nights are to be arranged so that the monks get adequate sleep. Nonetheless, even seven hours sleep is only just enough for most people, particularly coupled with rising around midnight.

The needs of the soul

One of the ongoing debates about the Office is its primary purpose: is it primarily an act of worship, an act of the Church to give glory to God, or is it meant more to provide meat for the monk’s contemplation?

St Benedict’s regulations here certainly seem to reject the Eastern desert idea of the Office as an extended meditation session, with the psalms seen primarily as readings rather than prayers. Instead, St Benedict seems to put more emphasis on the pure praise of God when it comes to the Office.

He does not neglect to feed the soul in the course of this act of worship, however, using devices such as the symbolism of light and darkness in the Office.  He specifies that there should be a Vigil prayer said in the dark hours of the night, but with Lauds timed to start at first light, for example.

Nor does St Benedict neglect to mention the mind, specifying that study and meditation on the psalms and other texts of the Office to take place outside the hours of the liturgy, in times set aside for study.

The monastic character of Matins

Finally, it is useful to keep in mind that although the Office in general seems to have been something equally said by the laity, ascetics and priests in the early and medieval church, there was no expectation that the clergy and lait would say all of the hours of the Office each day.  Rather, Matins or night prayer was generally regarded as something more appropriate to religious than the laity. Even today, this view still holds in many places. Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert for example argues that this hour is absolutely crucial to the monastic vocation:

“We can probably say, without much dispute, that Vigils is a defining office of the monk. The monk is a Christian who keeps vigil every day.”

For this reason then, the Monastic Diurnal aimed at Oblates and other laypeople, does not contain Matins (though for those who wish to say it there are a number of books around around to enable you to do so).

As we read these instructions on the saying of Matins then, laypeople should perhaps reflect on the sacrifices offered on our behalf by those monks and nuns who still rise in the dark and pray for the whole world on our behalf. We should consider how we can support them both financially and through our own prayers. And we can consider how we can join our prayers to theirs even if we don't have the time or knowledge to say Matins each day, for example by saying the much shorter Matins of the Little Office of Our Lady or the Office of the Dead (contained in the Diurnal), or even just a short prayer if we wake up on the dark.

For the next part in ths series, click here.

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