Saturday, March 29, 2014

Laetare Sunday and the fourth week of Lent

Codex Egberti, c980
We have reached the halfway point of Lent  - eighteen more penitential days to go - celebrated with rose vestments and more at the Mass.  This Sunday's Gospel is the feeding of the multitude, St John 6:1-15.

The 1962 Benedictine Office this week in summary

March 30 – Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday), Class I
Monday March 31 - Monday in the fourth week of Lent, Class III
 Tuesday April 1 - Tuesday in the fourth week of Lent, Class III
Wednesday April 2 – Wednesday in the fourth week of Lent, Class III [EF: St Frances of Paula, Memorial]
Thursday April 3 – Thursday in the fourth week of Lent Class III
Friday April 4 – Friday in the fourth week of Lent, Class III; St Isidore, Memorial
Saturday April 5 – Saturday in the fourth week of Lent, Class III [EF: St Vincent Ferrer, Memorial]

Friday, March 28, 2014

The liturgical genius of St Benedict: why Psalm 18 on Saturday?**

Those who have been listening to Fr Cassian Folsom's series on Praying without Ceasing will know that one of his key themes has been the need to recover the reading of the psalms as the Fathers and St Benedict would have read them, above all, Christologically.   Fr Cassian has also drawn attention to the idea that St Benedict literally interprets the Office as being about Christ: put nothing before the work of God/Put nothing before Christ.

I came across a possible solution to something that has been puzzling me yesterday, and it is a nice example, I think, that takes what Fr Cassian has been talking about just a step further.  Accordingly, I thought I would share it partly by way of encouragement to catch up with his talks if you haven't already done so; partly as a taster for some broader research on the structure of the Office I hope to share here in due course; and also to stimulate your own meditations on the Office.

Any  comments on the plausibility or otherwise of my hypotheses below will be gratefully received on or offline.

The puzzle of Prime

One of the key features of the Benedictine Office, compared to the Roman Office that St Benedict took as his starting point, is the design of Prime.  In the old Roman Office, Prime to None were the same every day, featuring Psalm 118.  St Benedict instead varies the psalms for this hour every day, using Psalms 1-2, 6-19 and four stanzas of Psalm 118.

In many ways the use of these particular psalms is an odd one on the face of it, for instead of Sunday Matins starting the week with Psalm 1, it starts seemingly in the middle of things, with Psalm 20 (though as it turns out, that psalm is particularly apt to Sunday given that the Fathers saw it as pertaining to the Resurrection; and the likewise the psalms that follow).

Once one starts looking more closely though, there are in fact several reasons why St Benedict might have chosen to highlight these particular psalms.  Dom John Fortin pointed out some years back, for example, that they seem to echo some of the key themes in the Rule [1].

Christ the fulfillment of the law?

The particular feature of the Prime psalms that I've been interested in though, is their emphasis on the law. There are, in the psalter, three psalms that deal above all with the law, known as the three 'Torah psalms', namely Psalms 1, 18 (19) and 118 (119).  All three feature at Prime one day after another: Psalm 18, which features the line 'The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul' on Saturday (the old Sabbath); four stanzas of Psalm 118, the long hymn in praise of the law, on Sunday; and Psalm 1, 'Happy the man...who meditates on the law day and night', on Monday.

The threefold repetition is surely no accident, but rather symbolises the Trinity and perfection.

But what seemed particularly puzzling to me is why St Benedict arranges things so that this little trilogy starts on Saturday.  One possible answer is suggested, I think, by yesterday's Matins readings (for Thursday in the third week of Lent).

One of the most important themes of the Fathers was the idea of Christ as the fulfilment of the law.  A nice example of how this theme plays out in Patristic Scriptural exegesis is provided by St Ambrose's comments on why the first miracles recorded in St Luke's Gospel are of Christ healing on the Sabbath.  St Ambrose comments that:

"That the Lord began to heal on the Sabbath-day showeth in a figure how that the new creation beginneth where the old creation ended. 

It showeth, moreover, that the Son of God, Who is come not to destroy the law but to fulfil the law, is not under the law, but above the law.

Neither was it by the law, but by the Word, that the world was created, as it is written "By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made."

The law, then, is not destroyed, but fulfilled, in the Redemption of fallen man. Whence also the Apostle saith: "Put off, concerning the former conversation, the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts and be renewed in the spirit of your mind and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness."

Our hymn of praise to the law at Prime then, starts, as St Ambrose suggests on the Sabbath, to symbolise that the new creation starts where the old ends.

It continues on the 'eighth day', that celebrates the Resurrection and our redemption.

And is repeated a third time on Monday, a day I suggest that St Benedict makes a celebration of the Incarnation (most of the psalms of Matins are clearly linked to this theme by the patristic commentaries, indeed virtually the whole of the Benedictus and Magnificat can be reconstructed from lines in these psalms; moreover, Psalm 2 at Prime gives us the Introit verse for the Midnight Mass of Christmas).

It is a nice tie in that seems to me to illustrate the deeply Christological approach that St Benedict took to the design of his Office.

Christ the King

Just to reinforce that point, I should note that St Benedict actually takes the repetition of ideas further than the idea of Christ as the fulfillment of the law, for it is not just the 'Torah' psalms themselves we should look at, but also the other psalms placed with them.

In particular, on both Saturday and Monday we are also presented, in the following psalm, with the image of Christ the victorious king.  Michael Barber, in his book Singing in the Reign [2], drew attention to the similarities in content between Psalms 1 and 2 (Monday), and Psalms 18 (19) and 19 (20) (Saturday):

"Psalm 19 [18] is unique because of  its strong emphasis on wisdom.  Its role may be better understood when examined in light of Psalm 20 [19].  Together these two psalms - situated at the centre of book I - mirror Psalms 1 and 2.  Psalm 19 exalts the law of the Lord, the source of wisdom: "The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple" (v. 7).  Them Psalm 20 evokes Psalm 2, speaking of the Lord's deliverance of the Davidic king from his enemies, sending support from Zion.  Thus, as in Psalms 1 and 2, wisdom is connected with the victorious Davidic king."

A similar point can be made on the similarities in content between these two sets of psalms, and the first four stanzas of Psalm 118 St Benedict uses at Sunday Prime.  Both Sunday Prime and Monday, for example, begin with a beatitude, praise the importance of the law, call for or prophesy the destruction of enemies and point to the victory 'over princes' (Ps 2; Ps 118, esp 21-23).

There is also arguably a reason why St Benedict uses Psalm 118 at Sunday Prime rather than Saturday or Monday, for on Monday, the beatitude contained in Psalm 1 'Happy the Man' is singular, referring as St Augustine insists in his commentary, to Christ himself.  Psalm 118, on the other hand, opens with a plural beatitude (Happy those who...): for Christ has opened the way to many through his Resurrection.

This particular example of a key motif in the Benedictine Office is also strongly suggestive of the linkages between the organisation of the Benedictine Office and St Benedict's spirituality more generally.

The dominant image of Christ as King certainly seems to echo through the Rule of St Benedict, for the very opening lines of the Prologue invite the monk to enlist in the army of the true King, Christ, and its an image that is repeated several times through the Rule directly (eg 42.4; 61.10), as well as underpinning the directions on how to pray (Chapter 20) and how to welcome visitors (RB 53).  A similar point can be made about the association between the Rule and the law.

The spirituality of St Benedict's Office?

Is this all too much of a stretch?  Personally I think that this example serves to illustrate the importance of looking at the psalms the way St Benedict would have, in order to unpack the true depths of meaning of his Office, and has hopefully served as a taster for a more thorough reconsideration of the design of the Benedictine Office.

Most contemporary commentators on St Benedict's Office, it has to be said, have struggled to find any systematic thematic or programmatic intent in St Benedict's psalm selections [3].  The consensus view has long been that established by Dom Adalbert de Vogue back in the 1960s, to the effect that St Benedict's changes to the old Roman Psalter were essentially minor ones, aimed primarily at giving the hours from Prime to None a little more variety. [4]  Indeed, James McKinnon summarised the received view on St Benedict's reforms of the Office as follows:

"The process was clearly not one motivated by selecting thematically appropriate psalms.  There was a measure of that only at Lauds and Compline.  Rather, the process was, in Vogues words, a "mechanistic" one, "a matter of a very modest task of arithmetic."[5]

My view is though, that a careful look at the psalms read in the light of the Fathers, as well as close examination of what actually lies behind the liturgical provisions of the Rule, will lead to a rather different conclusion.

Far from being purely mechanistic, I think St Benedict's construction of his Office was a very deliberate work indeed, with his ordering of the psalter aimed at providing both horizontal and vertical unity to it, and reflects a deeply Christological theology.

I'm certainly not the first to suggest this: there have been a few lonely voices that have hints of a deeper spirituality behind St Benedict's design of his psalter, and my comments build on this work. [6]  One key recent contribution, I think, is that of ex-Trappist turned Orthodox scholar Patrick Reardon, who has pointed to the existence of a weekly cycle in both the Orthodox and Benedictine Offices, that runs from Wednesday to Sunday each week and echoes the events of Holy Week. [7]  This cycle, he suggests, starts on Wednesday, with the betrayal of Christ by Judas (reflected in the fact that this was traditionally a fast day in the Benedictine Rule), takes in the events of the Triduum, and ends on Sunday, with a weekly mini-Easter Day celebration of the Resurrection.  All the same, he argues that the Benedictine psalter's programmatic focus is relatively limited, particularly compared to the Orthodox version.

My own view is that closer examination reveals that St Benedict's program is actually much more far reaching.  The bottom line is that in my view, far from representing a purely mechanistic process of adaptation, St Benedict's Office arguably represents a very deliberate spiritual agenda indeed.

Such an agenda does not, of course, have to be understood explicitly in order to shape a particular spirituality: as the experience of the old and new rites of the Mass suggests, an implicit theology can be a surprisingly powerful force in shaping attitudes and understandings.

Prime is of course, one of those hours that no longer exists in the horariums of most modern monasteries.  Indeed, even many monasteries that still say the entire psalter each week have abolished the hour.

Accordingly, making explicit what is implicit in St Benedict's Office may help make the case for the recovery of St Benedict's Office as part of the patrimony of his Order, as well as stimulate our own meditations on the psalms, and enhance our understanding of the Office more generally.  Accordingly, I hope you have found this 'taster' of interest.


[1] John D Fortin, “The Presence of God: a linguistic and thematic link between the doctrinal and liturgical sections of the Rule of Saint Benedict”, Downside Review 117 (1999) 293-308.

[2] Michael Barber, Singing in the Reign The Psalms and the Liturgy of God's Kingdom (with an introduction by Scott Hahn), Emmaus Road Publishing, 2001; pp90.

[3]  The two standard histories of the Office in general, which draw together and provide references to most of the key research on the Benedictine Office are Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West The Origins of the Divine Office and its Meaning for Today, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, rev ed, 1993, and Paul F Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church A Study of the Origin and Early Development of the Divine Office, Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008 reprint.

[4] For the mainstream views of the Office within the Order, see Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, The Rule of Saint Benedict A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary, trans John Baptist Hasbrouck, Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1983, pp 127-163; Timothy Fry OSB, Imogene Baker OSB, Timothy Horner OSB, Augusta Raabe OSB and Mark Sheridan OSB editors.  RB 1980. The Rule of St Benedict in Latin and English with Notes. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1981; and Terrence G. Kardong, OSB, Benedict’s Rule. A Translation and Commentary. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996, pp209-217.

[5] James McKinnon, "The Origins of the Western Office", pp 63-73 in The Divine Office in the Middle Ages, Methodology and Source Studies, Regional Developments, Hagiography, Written in Honor of Professor Ruth Steiner, edited by Ruth Steiner, Margot Elsbeth Fassler, Rebecca Anne Baltzer, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000: 72.

[6] See for example Laszlo Dobszay,“Critical Reflections on the Bugnini Liturgy: The Divine Office”, 1983 PDF available from

[7] Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Conciliar Press, revised 2011.  See especially pp 125-126; 181-182.  It should be noted that helpful as this book is, it needs to be treated with some care from a Catholic perspective.  I should also note that I've recently come across a reference to a book on the psalms of the Benedictine psalter by the German monk Georg Braulik, which from its blurb at least sounds promising in this context; my copy has yet to arrive however.

**Update: I've now got the Braulik book, and at first glance at least, though of academic interest at least (providing you can read German) it is less relevant than I had hoped, being concerned primarily with modern arrangements of the psalter rather than St Benedict's (though there is a chapter on the Sunday Office that may have some relevant material in it).

Monday, March 24, 2014

Feast of the Annunciation

From the readings at Matins:

Reading 4 (From Sermon 22 of Pope St Leo the Great): The Almighty and merciful God, Whose nature is goodness, Whose will is power, and Whose work is mercy, did, at the very beginning of the world, as soon as the devil's hatred had mortally poisoned us with the venom of his envy, foretell those remedies which His mercy had foreordained for our healing. He bade the serpent know that there was to be a Seed of the woman Who should yet bruise the swelling of his pestilential head; this Seed was none other than the Christ to come in the flesh, that God and Man in one Person, Who, being born of a Virgin, should, by His undefiled birth, damn the seducer of man.

Reading 6: The devil rejoiced that by his fraud he had so deceived man as to make him lose the gifts of God, forfeit his privilege of eternal life, bring himself under the hard sentence of death, and find in his misery a certain comfort in the accomplice of his guilt; he rejoiced also that God, in His just anger, was changed towards man, whom He had made in such honour. But, dearly beloved brethren, that Unchangeable God, Whose Will cannot be divorced from His goodness, by His own secret counsel carried out in a mysterious way His original purpose of goodness, and man, who had been led into sin by the wicked craft of the devil, perished not to disappoint that gracious purpose of God.

Reading 7: Then therefore, dearly beloved brethren, the fullness of that time came, which God had appointed for our Redemption, our Lord Jesus Christ entered this lower world, came down from His heavenly throne, and, while He left not that glory which He hath with the Father before the world was, was incarnate by a new order and a new birth new, in that He Who is Invisible among His own, was made visible among us; He Who is Incomprehensible, willed to be comprehended; He Who is before the ages, began to be in time; the Lord of all shadowed the glory of His Majesty, and took upon Him the form of a servant; the Impassible God vouchsafed to become a man subject to suffering; and the Immortal laid Himself under the laws of death.

Reading 8: For though the true mercy of God had infinitely many schemes to hand for the restoration of mankind, it chose that particular design which put in force for destroying the devil's work, not the efficacy of might but the dictates of justice. For the pride of the ancient foe not undeservedly made good its despotic rights over all men, and with no unwarrantable supremacy tyrannized over those who had been of their own accord lured away from God's commands to be the slaves of his will.And so there would be no justice in his losing the immemorial slavery of the human race, were he not conquered by that which he had subjugated.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Third week of Lent

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry

This Sunday's Gospel is from St Luke 11:14-28.  You can find the texts and the Matins readings on it here.

This week in the 1962 Benedictine Office in summary

The key feast this week is the solemnity of the Annunciation on Tuesday.

Sunday March 23  – Third Sunday of Lent, Class I
Monday March 24 – Monday in the third week of Lent, Class III [EF: St Gabriel]
Tuesday March 25 - Annunciation of the BVM, Class I
Wednesday March 26 - Wednesday in the third week of Lent, Class III
Thursday March 27 – Thursday in the third week of Lent, Class III; St John Damascene, Memorial
Friday March 28 – Friday in the third week of Lent, Class III [EF: St John of Capistran; Seven Sorrows of BVM]
Saturday March 29 – Saturday in the third week of Lent, Class III

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Feast of St Benedict (March 21)

From the Matins readings of the feast:

Reading 5: Benedict was born of a noble family at Norcia, about the year of our Lord 480, and studied letters at Rome. Desiring to give himself altogether to Christ Jesus, he betook himself to a very deep cave at the place now called Subiaco. In this place he lay hid for three years, unknown to all except the monk Romanus, by means of whom he received the necessaries of life. While he was in the cave at Subiaco, the devil one day assailed him with an extraordinary storm of impure temptation, and to get it under, he rolled himself in brambles till his whole body was lacerated, and the sting of pain drove out the sallies of lust.

Reading 6: At last the fame of his holiness spread itself abroad from the desert, and some monks came to him for guidance, but the looseness of their lives was such that they could not bear his exhortations, and they plotted together to poison him in his drink. When they gave him the cup, he made the sign of the Cross over it, whereupon it immediately broke, and Benedict left that monastery, and retired to a desert place alone.  Nevertheless his disciples followed him daily, and for them he built twelve monasteries, and set holy laws to govern them.

Reading 7: Afterwards he went to Cassino, and brake the image of Apollo which was still worshipped there, overturned the altar, and burnt the groves. There, in the year 529, he built the Church of St Martin and the little chapel of St John; and instilled Christianity into the townspeople and inhabitants. He grew in the grace of God day by day, so that being endowed with the spirit of prophecy he foretold things to come. When Totila, King of the Goths, heard of it, and would see whether it really were so, he sent his Spatharius before him, with the kingly ensigns and attendance, and feigning himself to be Totila. But as soon as Benedict saw him he said: My son, put off that which thou wearest, for it is not thine. To Totila himself he foretold that he would go to Rome, would cross the sea, and would die after nine years.

Reading 8: Some months before he departed this life, Benedict forewarned his disciples on what day he was to die; and he ordered his grave to be opened six days before he was carried to it. On the sixth day, being the 21st of March, in the year 543, he would be carried into the Church, where he received the Eucharist, and then, in the arms of his disciples, with his eyes lifted up to heaven, and wrapt in prayer, he gave up the ghost. Two monks saw his soul rising to heaven, clothed in a most precious garment, and surrounded with lights, and One of a most glorious and awful aspect standing above, Whom they heard saying This is the way whereby Benedict, the beloved of the Lord, goeth up to heaven.

I should note that traditionally, St Gregory's Life of St Benedict is used for the table reading in monasteries from this feast.  If you would like to make it your own reading to, you can a copy online here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

More on lectio divina!

This is just a note to draw your attention to the latest part in Peter Kwasniewski's Lectio Divina series over at New Liturgical Movement.

The post contains a discussion of my post on the need for proper guidance in reading Scripture, and some helpful suggestions on resources to help those doing lectio, and guide your theological formation more generally.

I've posted a comment over there, but let me repeat the gist of it here with a few additional notes.

Study vs prayer?

In the main the NLM post agrees with my concerns about the potential dangers of reading Scripture unaided, but still argues that study and prayer are not the same thing, study being directed to intellectual ends.  Dr Kwasniewski argues that:
"Study originates in a desire to know something intellectually; its medium is our thoughts about things; its goal is conceptual understanding. Prayer originates in a desire to be united to the beloved; its medium is the things themselves; its goal is to get closer to the reality and to conform oneself to it. When we study, we are taking things into our mind; when we pray, we are being drawn to the thing itself, which, at least at times, forces our mind to be quiet."

There is therefore a danger, he suggests, in study driving out the space for prayer.

I agree that is a danger, but the view that study and prayer are potentially at odds with each other, I would suggest, is entirely an artifact of modern approaches to 'study' of the text, rather than those traditionally adopted by the Church until relatively recent times. 

In particular, the historico-critical approach has encouraged the study of the text in order to find what was 'really' originally said, done or written; what was really meant by the text given its 'original' cultural and historical setting, and perhaps what it means for doctrine. 

The more traditional approach to study of the text, on the other hand, is to study it in order to find Christ in the text (where he is not the explicit subject of it), to enable it to be interpreted in the light of other verses of Scripture that deal with the same ideas (the Rule of Faith), and to understand its moral teachings and applicability to us in the here and now.

Study applied to our transformation

The more traditional approach certainly requires study - in reading the Old Testament one needs to be familiar with typology, events and people who foreshadow events in the Gospels for example; in reading the New, one has to be familiar with the Old Testament events and prophesies are that are being responded to. It also requires looking at things like word concordances so one can find the web of associations around a particular text. 

But its object is not the accumulation of intellectual knowledge, but rather the transformation of the reader. 

Study then, is, Dom Paul Delatte's classic Commentary on the Rule of St Benedict suggests, a necessary step in the lectio divina process, but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  Lectio divina he suggests:

" not merely intellectual activity and culture of the is the work of the intelligence if you will, but of the intelligence applying itself to divine mysteries and divine is the organized totality of those progressive intellectual methods by which we make the things of God familiar to us and accustom ourselves to the contemplation of the invisible.  Not abstract, cold speculations, nor mere human curiosity, nor shallow study; but the solid, profound and persevering investigation of Truth itself....It is a study pursued in prayer and in love.  The name lectio is only the first of an ascending series: lectio, cogitatio, studium, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio (reading, thinking, study, meditation, prayer, contemplation); but St Benedict knew that the remaining degrees would soon come if the soul were loyal and courageous..." p306)

There is, unfortunately, no one book on lectio and how study relates to it that I would recommend, but I did personally find Australian Trappist Michael Casey's book Sacred Reading The Ancient Art of Lectio Divinaquite helpful in attempting to map out some of the intellectual effort involved in the process.  I've also recently come across O'Keefe and Reno's Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible which looks to be quite helpful in articulating the different approaches involved.

On the study tools for lectio 

The NLM post contains some links to very useful resources to assist the reading of Scripture, and to it I would add the Ancient Christian Commentary series, which provides an anthology of patristic texts on each book of Scripture arranged by chapter.

That said, I do agree that there is a challenge for us in how to integrate the 'study' of Scripture with prayer.  In the end though, I think that the dangers of over-intellectualising the process can easily be overcome if we keep the proper end of lectio in mind.  My own favourite description of lectio divina is from the fourteenth century Cloud of Unknowing:

"God's word...can be likened to a mirror. Spiritually, the 'eye' of your soul is your reason: your conscience is your spiritual 'face'. Just as you cannot see or know that there is a dirty mark on your actual face without the aid of a mirror, or somebody telling you, so spiritually, it is impossible for a soul blinded by his frequent sins to see the dirty mark in his conscience, without reading or hearing God's word." (ch 35, Penguin edition, p102)

Feast of St Joseph (March 19)

From the readings for Matins:

Reading 5 (From the Sermons of St Bernard, Abbat of Clairvaux. 2nd on Luke i. 26): What and what manner of man the blessed Joseph was, we may gather from that title wherewith, albeit only as a deputy, God deemed him fit to be honoured he was both called, and supposed to be the Father of God. We may gather it from his very name, which, being interpreted, signifieth Increase. Remember likewise that great Patriarch who was sold into Egypt, and know that the Husband of Mary not only received his name, but inherited his purity, and was likened to him in innocence and in grace.

Reading 6: If then, that Joseph that was sold by his brethren through envy, and was brought down to Egypt, was a type of Christ sold by a disciple, and handed over to the Gentiles, the other Joseph flying from the envy of Herod carried Christ into Egypt. That first Joseph kept loyal to his master, and would not carnally know his master's wife; that second Joseph knew that the Lady, the Mother of his Lord, was a virgin, and he himself remained faithfully virgin toward her.

Reading 7: To that first Joseph it was given to know dark things in interpreting of dreams; to the second Joseph it was given in sleep to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.The first Joseph laid by bread, not for himself, but for all people; the second Joseph received into his keeping that Living Bread Which came down from heaven, not for him only, but for the whole world.

Reading 8: We cannot doubt but that that Joseph was good and faithful to whom was espoused the Mother of the Saviour. Yea, I say, he was a faithful and wise servant, whom the Lord appointed to be the comfort of His own Mother, the keeper of His own Body, and the only and trusty helper in the Eternal Counsels.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Feast of St Gregory the Great

Antiphonary of Hartker of the monastery of Saint Gall
St Gregory the Great is particularly noted for his contributions to the liturgy, the commissioning of the mission to England, and writings.  And foremost amongst these is his 'Dialogues', Book II of which is the Life of St Benedict (don't forget to start your Novena to St Benedict today!).

Here are the readings from the Benedictine Office on St Gregory:

(Reading 5): Gregory the Great was a Roman, the son of Gordian the Senator, (and was born about the year of our Lord 540.) As a young man he studied philosophy, and afterwards discharged the office of Praetor. After his father's death he built six monasteries in Sicily, and a seventh in honour of St Andrew, in his own house at Rome, hard by the Church of Saints John and Paul at the ascent of the hill Scaurus. In this monastery of St Andrew, he and his masters, Hilarion and Maximian, professed themselves monks, and Gregory was afterwards Abbot. Later on, he was created a Cardinal Deacon, and sent to Constantinople as legate from Pope Pelagius to the Emperor Tiberius Constantine. Before the Emperor he so successfully disputed against the Patriarch Eutychius, who had denied that our bodies shall verily and indeed rise again, that the Prince threw the book of the said Patriarch into the fire. Eutychius himself also, soon after fell sick, and when he felt death coming on him, he took hold of the skin of his own hand and said in the hearing of many that stood by: I acknowledge that we shall all rise again in this flesh.

(Reading 6):Gregory returned to Rome, and, Pelagius being dead of a plague, he was unanimously chosen Pope. This honour he refused as long as he could. He disguised himself and took refuge in a cave, but was betrayed by a fiery pillar. Being discovered and overruled, he was consecrated at the grave of St Peter, upon the 3rd day of September, in the year 590. He left behind him many ensamples of doctrine and holiness to them that have followed him in the Popedom. Every day he brought pilgrims to his table, and among them he entertained not an Angel only, but the very Lord of Angels in the guise of a pilgrim. He tenderly cared for the poor, of whom he kept a list, as well without as within the city. He restored the Catholic faith in many places where it had been overthrown. He fought successfully against the Donatists in Africa and the Arians in Spain. He cleansed Alexandria of the Agnoites. He refused to give the Pall to Syagrius, Bishop of Autun, unless he would expel the Neophyte heretics from Gaul. He caused the Goths to abandon the Arian heresy.

(Reading 7): He sent into Britain Augustine and divers other learned and holy monks, who brought the inhabitants of that island to believe in Jesus Christ. Hence Gregory is justly called by Bede, the Priest of Jarrow, the Apostle of England. He rebuked the presumption of John, Patriarch of Constantinople, who had taken to himself the title of Bishop of the Universal Church, and he dissuaded the Emperor Maurice from forbidding: soldiers to become monks.  Gregory adorned the Church with holy customs and laws. He called together a Synod in the Church of St Peter, and therein ordained many things; among others, the ninefold repetition of the words Kyrie eleison in the Mass, the saying of the word in the Church service except between Septuagesima inclusive and Easter exclusive, and the addition to the Canon of the Mass of the words M Do Thou order all our days in thy peace. He increased the Litanies, the number of the Churches where is held the observance called a Station; and the length of the Church Service.

(Reading 8): He would that the four Councils of Nice, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon should be honoured like four Gospels. He released the Sicilian Bishops from visiting Rome every three years, willing them to come instead once every five years. He was the author of many books, and Peter the Deacon declareth that he often saw the Holy Ghost on his head in the form of a dove when he was dictating them. It is a marvel how much he spoke, did, wrote, and legislated, suffering all the while from a weak and sickly body. He worked many miracles. At last God called him away to be blessed for ever in heaven, in the thirteenth year, sixth month, and tenth day of his Pontificate, being the 12th day of March, in the year of salvation 604. This day is observed by the Greeks, as well as by us, as a festival, on account of the eminent wisdom and holiness of this Pope. His body was buried in the Church of St Peter, hard by the Private Chapel.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lectio divina: On memory, study and the Rule of Faith**

I wanted to draw readers attention to a few useful posts and talks of late on how to approach lectio divina (holy or prayerful reading):

  • Fr Cassian Folsom OSB podcast in the Praying without Ceasing series on the Norcia Monastery website;
  • Fr Mark Kirby OSB over at Vultus Christi  (several posts and weekly lectio notes and instructions); and 
  • Peter Kwasniewski has a series (two parts so far) over at New Liturgical Movement.

These are all well worth reading or listening to, especially since holy reading is a key practice in Benedictine spirituality.

That said, I'd like to respectfully disagree with some of the advice offered by these authors (and I'll apologise in advance if I've misinterpreted what they are saying, or in the case of a series still in progress, jumped the gun!), and suggest an alternative perspective on one key point, namely drawing on books (or other aids) other than the Bible.

Why we should do lectio

The strength of the material at the links is, I think, that it provides strong encouragement for everyone to do at least some prayerful reading of Scripture every day.  St Benedict allocates at least two hours a day to it for his monks (more during Lent), and while we may only be able to manage fifteen minutes or so, that is long enough to get something useful out of it.

Every Catholic should know the Bible well, for as St Benedict says in his Rule, "what page or utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testament is not a most unerring rule of human life?"

And how can we seek to know and imitate Christ if we don't actually really know what he did or taught?

The various posts also emphasize that you don't have to have any special knowledge or training to do lectio divina, it is open to everyone.

Lectio divina and studying Scripture

All the same, I'm not convinced anyone can or should just open the Bible and read, trusting only to the aid of the Holy Spirit.  It strikes me (and I'm rather paraphrasing Mother Cecile Bruyere's book, The Spiritual Life and Prayer according to Holy Scripture and Monastic Tradition here) as a little presumptuous on our part to expect to receive by direct inspiration, what God gave us minds to use to for study.

Many seem to view lectio as an approach to Scripture that is positively opposed to intellectual study of it.  I disagree, and strongly recommend a rereading of Pope Benedict XVI's Post-Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini for an explanation of how we should employ reason and study to the process of lectio without in any way comprising the meditative and contemplative aspects of it.  I've previously written a summary of his key points on this here.

Most modern advocates of lectio divina point to a twelfth century Carthusian source on the practice, which seems to advocate doing just that.  But can I suggest that a twelfth century Carthusian monk was not exactly operating in the same poorly catechized, theological vacuum that most twenty-first century lay Catholics are?

Medieval memory

St Benedict's monks, when they did their lectio, surely had the model of the Fathers to work from, with their careful probing of issues such as the reasons for differences between the various Gospel accounts of events, and ability to draw in a web of related verses to explain the one under consideration.

When a medieval monk pondered a few verses of Scripture, he could draw on a vast volume of memorised knowledge to help him interpret what he was reading in the light of Scripture as a whole.

Most monks knew the psalms by heart, and at least large chunks of the Gospels, so could use the common technique of interpreting a verse through others that used the same key words and ideas.

They might also have been familiar with the patristic commentaries on the verses, not least from the readings at Matins each day.

Above all, the monk would also have been well aware of how to look for the spiritual meaning of verses, looking at Old Testament people and events as 'types' of the New for example.

Cultural and theological context

Modern monks, I suspect, can get away with doing their lectio without aids because most either are already well-educated theologically (or are in the process of acquiring a theological education, many on the path to priesthood) and are immersed in Scripture through daily Mass and Office.

Few laypeople people, though, even those relatively well catechized, have much familiarity with the Bible as a whole.

Fewer still know it well enough to be able to call to mind related verses.

Moreover, for monks and laity alike, more than a century of historico-critical interpretation of Scripture has, as Fr Cassian points out in his talk, rather stripped us of the ability to read Scripture other than in the strictly literal sense, effectively stripping the Old Testament of its Christological content, and the New of its eschatological content.

When we read a psalm verse with the phrase sing 'a new song' (canticum novum) in it for example, we are liable to take it pretty literally, as 'compose a new hymn'.  Indeed, the Navarre commentary's take on the phrase in Psalm 39 (40) is "God inspires the psalmist to sing a "new" song as distinct from one of lamentation over his suffering..." (Psalms, p151).

Yet when a monk of a previous era read the phrase he would know that the phrase also occurs in a passage in Isaiah 42 that makes clear its Messianic significance.  And he would also read the psalm in the light of its use in Revelation 5, that makes it clear that what follows is a song of the people formed by the New Covenant, the Church:

"...and they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals,for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth."

When the monk read the phrase 'canticum novum' (new song), then, (as occurs in Psalms 32, 39, 95, 97, 143, and 149) he was likely to interpret what followed as a song about Messianic times, as the most popular medieval commentary on the psalms, that by St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus, makes clear.

The modern 'memory': it is called the internet!

We today, alas, rarely have such knowledge in our mind to draw on.

Fortunately, we do have tools available to us at our fingertips that can in effect supply that 'memory' function - concordances on key words and phrases, compilations of relevant patristic commentaries, Scripture cross-indexed against the Catechism, for example.

Unfortunately there are very few Catholic sites on the Internet (or in book form) that attempt to put together these sources in an easy to use form as an aid to lectio.  The protestant ones can be useful though, and there are some useful Catholic resources out there (I've listed a lot of them in the sidebars to my Psallam Domino blog.

Pope Benedict XVI argued strongly that the academic study of Scripture needs to be injected with a lectio divina style focus on meditation and contemplation, and that on the other side of the ledger, lectio divina needed to draw on all the intellectual tools available to truly understand what the text means for us.  Accordingly, I really strongly urge readers to consider using in their lectio with something that helps set the verses of Scripture in the light of 'the rule of faith'.  St Thomas' Catena Aurea, for example, a compilation of Patristic commentaries grouped by Gospel verses, can provide an excellent starting point for study and meditation.

**You can read more on this, including a response from Peter Kwasniewski by following the links here.

Lent rubrics

Just a reminder that Lent proper (so far as the Office goes!) starts this week (though as far as the number of penitential days goes, we have already completed four of the nominally forty days, but actually more like 36 by virtue of assorted Solemnities).

The Ordinary of the ferial Office in Lent is set out in the Farnborough edition of the Monastic Diurnal at MD 190*ff.

Each day there are two sets of collects: the first for use from Matins to None; the second for Vespers.

At Lauds and Vespers, chapters, hymns, etc of the season replace those in the psalter section;
and  the canticle antiphons are proper for each day.

If you say one of those people who rise in darkness to say Matins, do enjoy the Sunday invitatory antiphon during this season: Non sit vobis vanum mane surgere ante lucem: Quia promisit Dominus coronam vigilantibus (it is not in vain that you rise before the light: for the Lord has promised a crown to those keeping vigil).

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

The readings at Matins are as follows:

Reading 1: Continuation of the Holy Gospel according to Matthew - Matt 6:16-21
In that time Jesus said to his disciples: And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. And so on.  Homily by St Austin, Bishop of Hippo (Bk. ii. on the Lord's Sermon on the Mounts ch. xii., torn. 4.)

It is evident that by these precepts we are bidden to seek for inner gladness, lest, by running after that reward which is without, we should become conformed to the fashion of this world, and should so lose the promise of that blessing which is all the truer and more stable that it is inward, that blessing wherein God hath chosen us to be conformed to the likeness of His Son. In this chapter we will principally consider the fact that vain-glory findeth a ground for its exercise in struggling poverty as much as in worldly distinction and display; and this development is the most dangerous, because it entices under pretence of being the serving of God.

Reading 2: He that is characterised by unbridled indulgence in luxury or in dress, or any other display, is by these very things easily shown to be a follower of worldly vanities, and deceiveth no one by putting on an hypocritical mask of godliness. But those professors of Christianity, who turn all eyes on themselves by an eccentric show of grovelling and dirtiness, not suffered by necessity, but by their own choice, of them we must judge by their other works whether their conduct really proceedeth from the desire of mortification by giving up unnecessary comfort, or is only the mean of some ambition the Lord biddeth us beware of wolves in sheep's clothing, but by their fruits, saith He, ye shall know them.

Reading 3: The test is when, by divers trials, such persons lose those things which under the cover of seeming unworldliness they have either gained or sought to gain. Then must it needs appear whether they be wolves in sheep's clothing, or indeed sheep in their own. But that hypocrites do the contrary maketh it no duty of a Christian to shine before the eyes of men with a display of needless luxury the sheep need not to lay aside their own clothing because wolves sometimes falsely assume it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Quinquagesima Sunday and the week ahead

Codex Egberti
This week's Gospel in the Vetus Ordo and 1962 Benedictine calendar warns of Jesus' coming Passion, and the healing of the blind man of Jericho.  You can find the third Nocturn readings for Matins on it, over at my Lectio Divina Notes blog or at Divinum Officium.

The Office from from Ash Wednesday

Lent officially starts this Wednesday.  In the Office though, the rubrics don't really change much until after the First Sunday of Lent.

The period from Ash Wednesday to the coming Saturday was something of a 'later' add-on to Lent to make up the correct number of days (given that Sundays are not counted for fasting and other purposes, although in reality we still don't quite make it to forty days, due to the several first class feasts that intervene).

The liturgy does intensify  a little however, with canticle antiphons for both Lauds and Vespers, for each day.  At Matins, the readings are Patristic, on the Gospel of the day.  The rest of the Office at Lauds to Vespers, though, remains that of  'throughout the year' up until the First Sunday of Lent.

The Benedictine (1962) Office this week in summary

Sunday March 2 – Quinquagesima Sunday, Class II
Monday March 3  – Class IV
Tuesday March 4 – Class IV (Shrove Tuesday) [EF: St Casimir]
Wednesday March 5  – Ash Wednesday, Class I
Thursday March 6  – Thursday after Ash Wednesday, Class III; SS Perpetua and Felicitas, memorial
Friday March 7 - Friday after Ash Wednesday, Class III; St Thomas Aquinas, memorial
Saturday March 8 – Saturday after Ash Wednesday, Class III [EF: St John of God]