Understanding the Benedict Office: Introduction

I signalled previously that I would offer a series of posts on the 'liturgical code' contained in the Rule of St Benedict, by way of an aid to understanding the Benedictine Office better.

Today I want to provide a short introduction to the series explaining just why they are important.

The importance of the liturgical code for monks

Abbot Lawrence of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert says in his commentary on the Rule that:

"These Chapters, from 8 through 20, are very important for understanding life in a Benedictine monastery. Today very few follow these chapters of the Rule, especially with regard to the structure of the Divine Office. Unless we understand them well, we will begin to lose a truly Benedictine life, which has at its heart the praying of the Divine Office. There is no way that one can follow this structure of Rule of Benedict and not be aware of the truly important place of the Divine Office in the daily life of the monk and the amount of time that Saint Benedict presumed that a monk would spend in public prayer...For our spirituality, we must reflect on whether the Divine Office is at the heart of my personal spirituality. This is a teaching of the Rule that is very important. Let us strive to keep the Divine Office central in our lives by being present, by praying and by giving ourselves generously to the demands of this type of prayer."

I certainly agree with his comments on the importance of the liturgical code for the life of a monastery.

Understand the structure of the Office  - and more

The most obvious value in studying these sections of the Rule lies in helping us understand the structure of the Benedictine Office, and to look at how the Office has evolved since St Benedict's time.

The chapters describe the eight hours that make up St Benedict's Office, their structure and content, when they are to be said, and how they should be approached.

And the number of chapters of the Rule that St Benedict devotes to the liturgy clearly signals that for the monk, the liturgy is the centrepoint of the life. 

But I think the importance of these chapters goes far beyond that.  St Benedict provides within it, I think, specific tools to aid the spiritual life.  He explicitly mentions, for example, the recitation of the Our Father by the superior each day as a means of combating scandal and division within the monastery.  The daily use of that ultimate penitential psalm, Psalm 50, at Lauds perhaps has a similar purpose.

More generally, the pattern of repetitions of the psalms and their progression through the week, is designed, in my view, to reinforce and teach the spirituality set out in the Rule more broadly.

For the laity too

The implicit lessons contained in this section of the Rule are just as important for Oblates and other followers of St Benedict as for monks in my view.

That is not to say that we should be reading them too literally.

First, in some areas the Church has amended St Benedict's prescriptions for the Office, and we are bound by this later legislation.

Secondly, I am not suggesting that laypeople should necessarily attempt the full monastic Office, far from it. Some may be able to, but the primary vocation of the Oblate is in the world, and the duties associated with that. Oblates will normally try and say some form of the Office or some hours from it on a regular basis, but they are certainly not bound to say the whole thing, particularly if to do so would be at the expense of other duties such as spending time with one's family.

There are though, I think, some important things being said in this section about the importance of the liturgy, about obedience and humility, and much more.

Following the structure of the Rule

Before I get down to the actual chapters though, I think it is worth noting that the start of the section of the Rule on the liturgy seems to start rather abruptly.  In fact, though, I think it is deeply connected to what comes immediately before it.

The first chapters of the Benedictine Rule take the reader through why we should embrace the monastic/true Christian life (the Prologue); the essentials for success, viz a genuine community, with someone in charge, but where authority is based on genuine listening (chapters 1-3); that getting to heaven requires us to undertake good works (ch 4); and that in whatever we do we must adopt the right attitudes, particularly of humility and obedience (chs 5 – 7).

The Divine Office, in my view, represents the practical application of all that has come so far in the Rule: our liturgical prayer articulates our response to God’s invitation to us all to be workers in his vineyard; it said communally, requires both speaking and listening, and is said in ways that reflect the internal hierarchy of the monastery; it is an active good work to praise God on behalf of ourselves and the whole Church; and it requires an attitude of obedience and humility to follow the prescriptions set out in the Rule.

So if you aren't familiar with the Benedictine Rule, do take the time, if you can, to have a quick read of the chapters up to Chapter 8 (they really aren't very long) by way of preparation for this series.

And once your ready, you can find the next post in the series here.

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