Thursday, February 20, 2014

Praying without ceasing: St Benedict's numerical theology

If you've been listening to the excellent talks on prayer given by Fr Cassian, Prior of the monastery of Norcia, you will know that a lot of this week's talk (the second in the series) deals with the question of how we can be said to pray without ceasing in the context of the Divien Office.

Sacred numbers

Fr Cassian notes that the Fathers, including St Benedict, placed a lot of meaning on numbers.

In particular, he points out that St Benedict uses two numbers to signal completeness or totality -  praying seven times a day in the day hours, and the twelve psalms of Matins (leaving aside the two said daily) - to indicate that the Divine Office enables us to meet this Scriptural injunction.

Seven, he notes, is frequently used in Scripture to denote completeness, or continuous prayer.  And twelve is also used to indicate universality or completeness, for example in the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles, the saints in the canon of the Mass and so forth.

Number of psalms in the day

By way of a possible footnote to Fr Cassian's talk for those who enjoy number symbolism, I want to suggest another way in which St Benedict uses numbers to indicate the Office's fulfillment of the requirement to pray continuously.

In particular, I want to suggest that it is not just in the number of psalms he sets for Matins that plays on sacred numerology, but also the other hours of his Office.

Fr Cassian noted St Benedict's reference to the twelve psalms of Matins (RB 10).

But note that the number of psalms said each day at Lauds (except Saturday) is seven - Psalms 66, 50, two psalms of the day, 148, 149, and 150 (RB 12-13).

The number of the psalms (provided you count as a psalm anything said under a Gloria Patri) said at Prime to None is twelve (RB 17).

And the number of psalms said at Vespers (four) and Compline (three) again adds up to seven (RB 17).

And note that in RB 17, the number of psalms is carefully discussed in groupings: Matins and Lauds (already settled); Prime to None; and Vespers and Compline.

So we have a pattern: 12 (+2), 7, 12, 7.

Of course there is a bit of fudging in this but I don't think we should be too fussed at this, but rather consider the point he is trying to make in his modelling of the basic structure of the Office.

Am I onto something or reading too much into it?!

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