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.

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