St Benedict's liturgical code: the structure of the day hours (Feb 20/June 21/Oct 21)

Codex Amiatinus

Caput XVII: Quot psalmi per easdem horas dicendi sunt

JAM de Nocturnis vel Matutinis digessimus ordinem psalmodiae; nunc de sequentibus horis videamus. Prima hora dicantur psalmi tres singillatim et non sub una Gloria, hymnus ejusdem horae post versum Deus in adjutorium, antequam psalmi incipiantur. Post expletionem vero trium psalmorum, recitetur lectio una, versu et Kyrie eleison, et missae. Tertia vero, Sexta et Nona, item eo ordine celebretur oratio: id est versu, hymni earundem horarum, terni psalmi, lectio et versu, Kyrie eleison et missae sunt. Si major congregatio fuerit, cum antiphonis; si vero minor, in directum psallantur.

Vespertina autem synaxis quattuor psalmis cum antiphonis terminetur; post quos psalmos lectio recitanda est; inde responsorium, ambrosianum, versu, canticum de 'Evangelia', litania, et oratione dominica fiant missae. Completorium autem trium psalmorum dictione terminetur; qui psalmi directanei sine antiphona dicendi sunt: post quos hymnus ejusdem Horae, lectio una, versu, Kyrie eleison, et benedictione missae fiant.

Chapter 17 – How many psalms are to be said at these hours

WE have already settled the psalmody of Matins and Lauds; let us now look to the remaining Hours. At Prime let three psalms be said, one by one and not under the same Gloria; and before the psalms begin, but after the verse Deus in adjutorium, the hymn proper to that Hour. Then, at the end of the three psalms, let there be the lesson, versicle, Kyrie eleison, and concluding prayers. The Offices of Terce, Sext, and None are to be performed in the same way: that is, Deus in adjutorium, proper hymn, three psalms, lesson, versicle, Kyrie eleison, and concluding prayers. If the community be a large one, let the psalms be sung with antiphons; but if small, let them be sung straightforward.

Let the service of Vespers consist of four psalms with antiphons. After these psalms let a lesson be recited; and then the responsory, hymn, versicle, canticle from the Gospels, Kyrie eleison, and the Lord's Prayer to conclude.

Let Compline be limited to the saying of three psalms, and these said straightforward without an antiphon. After the psalms let there be the hymn for that Hour, the lesson, versicle, Kyrie eleison, and the blessing to conclude.


The structure of Prime to None and Compline

One of the striking things about this little section of the Rule is the number of times the number three is mentioned - something that would immediately have been taken by the medieval reader, I think, as a reference to the Trinity embedded in each of the hours of Prime, Compline and Terce to None.

As St Benedict set it up, the only difference in the structure of Prime to None and Compline lies in the use of an antiphon during the day, but not at night, and in the positioning of the hymn.

All the same, the actual length of the various hours do differ quite substantially: the psalms set for Prime in particular are quite long on average, while Compline includes the very long (and very important) Psalm 90; by contrast Terce, Sext and None are kept very short, certainly compared to those in both the pre and post-1911 Roman Offices.

The most important elaboration of these hours since St Benedict’s time clearly relates to Compline, which has acquired a short verse and penitential rite upfront, and in a monastery at least, an aspersion ritual afterwards. Personally, I think these developments really make sense. The end of the day is a logical time to take the time to do an examination of conscience, say the Confiteor and promise amendment.  And that final sprinkling of water - a mini-exorcism of sorts - before bed is particularly beautiful.  Now if only a little more organic development could occur in order to add the Nunc Dimittis (used in the Roman Rite) to this hour….


Both literally and symbolically, I think St Benedict was more of a morning person in terms of emphasis, with more of a Resurrection focus than on the Cross, thus he does not give equal weight to the two claimed 'hinges' of the Office, Lauds and Vespers! 

Lauds has in effect eight psalms (if you count the variable canticle as a psalm), a number usually taken as symbolising regeneration or the resurrection (many baptismal fonts are eight sided).  By contrast Vespers in St Benedict's schema has exactly half that, four, one less than in the Roman Rite and a number that usually refers to the four evangelists, the ends of the earth and thus to the earth itself: while Lauds celebrates the resurrection, Vespers symbolically refers to the death of Our Lord, which in turn calls forth the mission to spread the Gospel to all the world.

The structure of Vespers as set out here follows the same pattern as Lauds, but in a considerably shaved down form: unlike Lauds, Vespers has no invitatory or fixed psalms.

Excellence in performance

The last section of today's Rule, dealing with singing psalms with antiphons or 'directly' indicates a certain degree of flexibility in the performance of the Office depending on the resources available. 

The reference to antiphons here may be a reference to the practice of interspersing verse of the psalm with antiphons – or perhaps to greater or less use of more elaborate chant.  Certainly there are at least half a dozen different methods of performing the psalmody that we are aware of employed in the period up to St Benedict’s time, and it is not entirely clear when the current method of alternating sides of the choir for each verse (assuming there are enough singers) became the norm. 

The takeout message, though, I think, is to adapt to circumstances in order to perform the liturgy as well as we possibly can in order to properly honour God and for the aid of others: St Benedict’s later instruction to allow only those whose voices edify sing or read (RB 38) is worth keeping in mind for those performing the Office in common!

For the next part in this series, go here.

1 comment:

Joshua said...

Compline is my very favourite hour; and, apart from the long readings (Scriptural, Patristic, etc.) of Matins, and some of the nice bits and pieces of Pretiosa (the Martyrology &c.), it really has everything the other Hours have.

Unfortunately, Dominican Compline, just like the usual Roman, has had variable psalms since the reform effected by St Pius X. At least at certain times of the year, and always for Sundays and greater feasts, the time-hallowed Pss 4, 90 and 133 are used - these I have committed to memory, and on occasion, if with no book to hand, I will recite these even if the ferial psalms would be different. If only Pius X hadn't altered Compline! Better he had retained twelve psalms at ferial Matins, and left Compline unchanged.

(Of course, in that case Ps 30:1-6 should have been retained; likewise, I miss the preces at Compline, which the Dominican Breviary dropped by 1962, while retaining them elsewhere!)

Compline still remains my favourite Hour.