Saturday, February 11, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Matins/2 (Feb 11/June 12/Oct 12)

Gray-Fitzpayn Book of Hours, c14th
Continuing my series on St Benedict's liturgical code, today's section of the Benedictine Rule continues to set out details of the night Office, Matins.

Caput 9: Quanti psalmi dicendi sunt Nocturnis horis

Hiemis tempore suprascripto, in primis versu tertio dicendum, Domine labia men aperies, et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam; cui subjungendus est tertius psalmus et Gloria: posthunc, psalmus nonagesimus quartus cum antiphona, aut certe decantandus. Inde sequatur ambrosianum: deinde sex psalmi cum antiphonis. Quibus dictis, dicto versu, benedicat abbas; et sedentibus omnibus in scamnis legantur vicissim a fratribus in codice super analogium tres lectiones, inter quas et tria responsoria cantentur. Duo responsoria sine Gloria dicantur; post tertiam vero lectionem, qui cantat dicat Gloriam; quam dum incipit cantor dicere, mox omnes de sedilibus suis surgant ob honorem et reverentiam Sanctae Trinitatis.

Codices autem legantur in Vigiliis divinae auctoritatis tarn Veteris Testamenti quam Novi; sed et expositiones earum, quae a nominatis et orthodoxis catholicis Patribus factae sunt. Post has vero tres lectiones cum responsoriis suis, sequantur reliqui sex psalmi cum Alleluia canendi. Post hos lectio apostoli sequatur ex corde recitanda, et versus, et supplicatio litaniae, id est Kyrie eleison; et sic finiantur Vigiliae nocturnae.

Chapter 9: How Many Psalms are to be said at the Night Office

In the aforesaid winter season, there is first the versicle Domine labia mea aperies, et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam [O Lord open my lips, that my mouth may declare thy praise], to be said three times; then must follow the third psalm and the Gloria; then the ninety-fourth psalm to be chanted with an antiphon, or at any rate to be chanted.

Let the hymn follow next, and then six psalms with antiphons. When these are finished and the versicle said, let the abbot give a blessing; and then, all being seated in their places, let three lessons be read from the book on the lectern by the brethren in their turns, and let three responsories be chanted between them. Two of the responsories shall be said without the Gloria; but after the third lesson let the reader chant the Gloria. And as soon as he has begun it, let all rise from their seats in honour and reverence to the Holy Trinity.

The books to be read at Matins shall be the inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and also the commentaries on them which have been made by well-known and orthodox Catholic Fathers.

After these three lessons with their responsories, let there follow the remaining six psalms, which shall be chanted with Alleluia. After these shall follow the lesson from the apostle, to be recited by heart, the versicle, and the petition of the litany, that is Kyrie eleison. And so shall the Night Office end. (trans J McCann)


This chapter sets out the structure of daily Matins, and its prescriptions continue to be followed with only minor variants in the 1962 version of the Office.

In designing a liturgy for his monks, St Benedict took as his starting point the contemporary (fifth century) Roman Office.  But he seems to have done a fair amount of recrafting of its design to reflect his own particular school of spirituality, and this is particularly apparent in Matins.

First, the opening versicle that he has selected, Domine labia mea aperies, seems to serve as a reminder of what I would argue is the primary purpose of the Benedictine Office, namely to praise God. Pope Benedict XVI has said:

"Monks pray first and foremost not for any specific intention, but simply because God is worthy of being praised. ‘Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus! – Praise the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy is eternal!’: so we are urged by a number of Psalms (e.g. Ps 106:1). Such prayer for its own sake, intended as pure divine service, is rightly called officium. It is “service” par excellence, the “sacred service” of monks.”

Secondly, consider first the Trinitarian focus St Benedict gives Matins.  The Fathers loved the symbolism of numbers (have a read of Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus' commentary on the psalms for example), and St Benedict is no exception to this, opening Matins with a threefold repetition of a verse from Psalm 50; having three readings and three responsories on winter weekdays.

Similarly, the doxologies he instructs be added to the psalms, as well as reinforcing that trinitarian message, are perhaps also intended to reinforce the idea that the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New, and the New interprets the Old.  They also serve as a constant reminder of why we offer the Office:  as Pope Benedict XVI has said, the Office “is offered to the triune God who, above all else, is worthy “to receive glory, honour and power” (Rev 4:11), because he wondrously created the world and even more wondrously renewed it."

There is also I suspect some symbolism in the number of psalms to be said: twelve variable psalms to represent the twelve apostles?  And perhaps fourteen to reflect the Incarnation (St Matthew's genealogy of Our Lord comes in three groups of fourteen generations)?

Finally, St Benedict inserts not one but two 'invitatory' psalms to be said daily, namely Psalms 3 and 94.  These psalms, I think, strongly reflect the spirituality set out in the Benedictine Rule. 

In particular, Psalm 3 asks for help in the daily spiritual warfare, and uses the kind of robust martial imagery that St Benedict frequently uses in the Rule. 

Psalm 94, by contrast, is a joyful invitation to worship our creator, redeemer and protector.  But it also has a darker message, namely a warning not to put off repentance, but to respond to God’s call here and now, a theme St Benedict dwells on at length, referencing this psalm, in the Prologue to the Rule.

And you can find the next part of this series here.

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