St Benedict's liturgical code: Sing wisely (Feb 24 or 25/ June 26/Oct 26)

Dunois Hours, c15th
Today's chapter of the Rule deals with our dispositions when we say the Office.

Caput 19: De Disciplina Psallendi

UBIQUE credimus divinam esse praesentiam, et oculos Domini in omni loco speculari bonos et malos; maxime tamen hoc sine aliqua dubitatione creda-mus cum ad opus divinum assistimus. Ideo semper memores simus quod ait propheta: Servite Domino in timore; et iterum: Psallite sapienter; et: In conspectu angelorum psallam tibi. Ergo consideremus qualiter oporteat in conspectu Divinitatis et angelorum ejus esse; et sic stemus ad psallendum ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae.

Chapter 19: The Manner of Saying the Divine Office

WE believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord in every place behold the good and the evil but let us especially believe this without any doubting when we are performing the Divine Office. Therefore, let us ever remember the words of the prophet: Serve ye the Lord in fear; and again, Sing ye wisely; and, In the sight of the angels will I sing to thee. Let us then consider how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and his angels, and so sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony.


The last two chapters of the liturgical provisions of the Rule consider our proper dispositions as we say the Office and pray, and so serve as a useful point to touch on a very important subject, namely our external deportment or behaviour when we say the Office.

Once of the more unfortunate developments of recent years, in my view, has been an aversion to proper use of ritual and bodily gestures such as kneeling. Indeed, the 1977 Directory on the Office for the Benedictine Order even has a section in it warning of the dangers of ‘periculum ritualismi vacui’, or ‘empty ritualism’.

Yet such warnings forget two vital points.

First, they forget that we are in fact embodied beings, not just souls. We need gestures and rituals to remind us of what is important: it is inherent in human condition that the body calls the mind to order, and vice versa.

For this reason, St Benedict includes in these chapters (and throughout the Rule), numerous references to ritual and external gestures and actions – to slowing down the chant (and by implication speeding it up); to standing, sitting, bowing and prostrating; to what should be said aloud, what silently, and much more.  These instructions are there to help us, not to encourage external form for forms’ sake as some would suggest! So even when we say the Office privately, we should endeavour to be reverent in the way we approach it, and follow the rubrics on gestures as far as possible.

Secondly, St Benedict suggests in both this chapter, and in Chapter 7 on humility, that external manifestations of our devotion should actually flow from our internal dispositions. I suggested earlier in this series of notes that the chapter on humility (RB 7) actually serves as something of an introduction to the rationale for the detailed instructions on the Office St Benedict sets out: the Office serves to help train us in obedience to an external authority rather than the indulgence of our own personal likes and dislikes.

Here St Benedict makes the connection more explicit by recapitulating the opening and closing ideas of Chapter 7 in just a few brief lines, and applying the first and last degrees of humility specifically to the Office. When it comes to the Office he says, we should start by cultivating an appropriate fear of the Lord (the first degree of humility), a sense of reverence and awe that comes from knowing that he is watching everything we do, and that when we sing or say the Office, we do so in the company of the angels.

That awareness, he argues, should shape our behaviour, so that we manifest our internal dispositions externally (the twelfth degree of humility) in things like custody of the eyes, and obedience to the other body postures St Benedict and the rubrics prescribe such as standing for the Gloria Patri.

And of course implicitly we should be applying all the intervening steps on the ladder of humility to the way we approach the Office.

So how can we put all this into practice when saying the Office privately?

First, say the Office in an approved form, following the rubrics and rules as best possible.

Secondly, try and set up some special corner of a room to say the Office in, with an icon or cross to focus the attention.

Thirdly, try and avoid distractions, give the particular hour all our attention – it is not something to be said while sipping a cup of coffee and watching television!

There are always exceptions of course – better to say the Office and pray in some way than not at all. Indeed, Chapter 50 makes it clear that the Office can be performed anywhere if necessary.  But still with reverence.

And for the final part in this series, click here.

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