St Benedict's liturgical code: Should we 'update' St Benedict's psalm scheme? (Feb 24/June 25/Oct 25)

Chludow Psalter, c850

Today's section of the Rule returns to the beginning of the Office, and the psalms of Matins.  But it also includes what I consider to be that most abused of provisions, the invitation to make some other arrangement of the psalms, provided that all 150 psalms are said in the course of the week. 


Disposito ordine psalmodiae diurnae, reliqui omnes psalmi qui supersunt aequaliter dividantur in septem noctium Vigilias, partiendo scilicet qui inter eos prolixiores sunt psalmi, et duodecim per unamquamque constituantur noctem: hoc praecipue commonentes, ut si cui forte haec distributio psalmorum displicuerit, ordinet si melius aliter judicaverit; dum omnimodis id attendat, ut omni hebdomada psalterium ex integro numero centum quinquaginta psalmorum psallatur, et dominico die semper a capite reprehendatur ad Vigilias; quia nimis inertem devotionis suae servitium ostendunt monachi, qui minus a psalterio cum canticis consuetudinariis per septimanae circulum psallunt, dum quando legamus sanctos patres nostros uno die hoc strenue implesse, quod nos tepidi utinam septimana integra persolvamus.

Chapter 18/4

The order of psalms for the Day Hours being thus arranged, let all the remaining psalms be equally distributed among the seven Night Offices, by dividing the longer psalms and assigning twelve psalms to each night.

But we strongly recommend, if this arrangement of the psalms be displeasing to anyone, that he arrange them otherwise, as shall seem better to him; provided always that he take care that the psalter with its full hundred and fifty psalms be chanted every week and begun afresh every Sunday at Matins.

For those monks show themselves very slothful in their sacred service, who in the course of the week sing less than the psalter and the customary canticles, whereas we read that our holy fathers strenuously fulfilled in a single day what I pray that we lukewarm monks may perform in a whole week.


Today's section of the Rule is actually end of the detailed prescriptions on the structure of the Benedictine Office: the next two chapters, though generally considered part of the liturgical code, really deal with how to pray rather then the structure of the Office itself. The liturgical code proper, then ends here where it began, on the great night Office of Matins, arguably reflecting its centrality to St Benedict's vision of what a monk is.

It has to be said that most modern commentaries on this chapter pretty much ignore the comments on the psalms of Matins, and focus instead on the seeming permission to reorganise the psalter.  I think that is a mistake, for reasons I'll set out below.  Nonetheless, let us first look at that sentence that has been used to justify the wholesale abandonment of the traditional Benedictine Office by most modern monasteries.

Can we rearrange the psalter?

St Benedict devotes several chapters to setting out his preferred framework for the Office. 

His 'opt-out' provision constitutes one sentence, and is hedged around with warnings about the danger of sloth!

So it is surely one of the greatest ironies that the instruction to 'return to the sources' contained in Vatican II's Perfectae Caritatis, instead of leading to a renewal of interest in the traditional Office actually led to its wholesale abandonment!

Worse, St Benedict makes it clear that any rearrangement of the psalter should at least retain a weekly psalm cursus.  Yet this provision, too, is widely ignored.

The rationale for all this, at least according to the 1977 Thesaurus Liturgiae Hororum Monasticae, put out under now disgraced Archbishop, then Abbot Primate, Rembert Weakland, was an emphasis on the idea of ‘quality over quantity’. The results, in terms of the continuing decline in vocations and the scandals that continue to rock a number of 'Benedictine' monasteries, speak for themselves in my view.

The real message St Benedict wants to emphasize, I would suggest, in returning here to the longest hour of the Office and putting the option of an alternative psalm schema in this context, is that though it might all seem rather long and demanding to us, his Office is in fact a considerably less demanding one, appropriate to "we lukewarm monks", compared to the Office of the monastic tradition as he received it.

I agree strongly with Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert who comments:

"Saint Benedict really prefers his own arrangement, but allows that it could be changed but he does insist on a certain length to the Divine Office...if we are going to be true to our own Benedictine tradition, the best way is to follow the Divine Office as it is described in the Holy Rule...”

Coming back to Matins

Finally I wanted to note that by leaving the allocation of the psalms for Matins until last, and simply saying split the longest psalms, St Benedict perhaps gives the impression that the allocation of the psalms to each day of the week for this hour is relatively random. But this impression is entirely deceptive.

In the case of Matins it isn't necessary to specify which psalms to split, because splitting the psalms with the most verses, in combination with necessary reordering accomplished by starting Matins at psalm 20 and pulling out selected psalms to be said at other hours (mostly Lauds) ensures that the hour stays loosely aligned with Lauds each day during the week, both thematically and numerically.

For the next part in this series, go here.

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