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).


Brian M said...

Is the Braulik volume only available in German, or was an English translation ever published? Thanks as always--

Kate Edwards said...

Seems to be only available in German. And as I haven't actually read it yet (which may be a slow process as my German is a bit rusty!), it may not be as relevant as I'm hoping. But if anyone has read it, do let us know!

Chaps said...

Re: the liturgical genius of Benedict, “Is this a stretch?” I have been around artists my whole life. The liturgy is a sacred art form, sacred but still art. Great works of art are inspired in a complex dynamic and usually envisioned as a whole. Conscious, analytical decisions are then made to give a coherent expression to the vision. One does not have to demonstrate that a particular element of the artist’s work was part of the conscious, analytical decision making process before one can say that it belongs to the vision of the artist. Benedict was clearly a religious genius. The office is a masterwork that has inspired untold numbers of souls for 1500 years. Your insights are supported by the texts and the writings of the patristic fathers of the age. Not a stretch. Illuminating.

Kate Edwards said...

Thank you Chaps, glad you found this of interest and can see where I'm coming from.

I agree that whether or not it was a conscious choice the effect can still be there, and I'm hoping that drawing out some of those features is helpful for those praying it.

All the same, the question of whether it was a conscious decision-making process is I guess where I'm focusing, because I actually do think it was. When you look closely awful lot of his decisions look very deliberate indeed.

RB 1980 notes, for example, that the inclusion of a Third Nocturn in the Sunday Office seems to have its origins in the weekly 'Resurrection Vigil' observed by the fourth century nun Egeria during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem [399-400; 388]. RB 1980, however, fails to link this insight to the other changes St Benedict made to Sunday Matins compared to the Roman Office, namely in the selection of the specific psalms to be said on Sunday. This is something of a major oversight it seems to me, for whereas the Roman Office started at Psalm 1 and ends on Psalm 26, St Benedict starts at Psalm 20. Why Psalm 20? Perhaps it is because it is preeminently a song of the Resurrection taking its cue from its final line 'Rise up, O Lord, in your strength...' In fact the whole set of psalms that follow are filled with the promise of the Resurrection, culminating in Psalm 31, whose conclusion St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus puts in the mouth of Christ, a promise of mercy to the sinners to whom the way to heaven has been reopened by his Resurrection.

Similarly RB 1980 notes that the Roman Cathedral tradition tried to select psalms for their appropriateness to the time of day, and to underscore the Christological meaning of the psalms [386]. St Benedict, I think, worked very much in this tradition, taking the programmatic elements implicit in the Roman Office (particularly the Office canticles) several steps further.

Most modern commentators have struggled to find much evidence of this beyond a few references to light in many of the psalms of Lauds. There is a reason for this, I would suggest, and it goes to the approach to Scripture that has prevailed from the seventeenth century onwards, together with the effects of that peculiarly twentieth century agenda of seeking to justify 'aggorniamento' over the preservation of the patrimony.