Saturday, July 12, 2014

The liturgical genius of St Benedict/2 - The seven days of creation

In the introductory post to this series I suggested that to understand the deeper levels of meaning of St Benedict's Office we need to immerse ourselves in the Patristic mindset.  

One aspect of this is an appreciation of the symbolism of numbers, which provides a key, I think, to the two anchors of the Benedictine Office, namely the creation of the universe, and its recreation through the Resurrection.  Today, a look at the first of these, creation in the Office.
Reading the liturgical code in the Benedictine Rule

One of the challenges for modern readers of the liturgical provisions of the Benedictine Rule is to appreciate some of the nuances of its presentation.  St Benedict provides little explicit theology for his Office; he does, though, provide some strong hints.

It is surely no accident, for example, that the section of the Rule on the liturgy follows immediately after the discussion on the cultivation of obedience and humility as a means of coming to 'that perfect love of God that casts out all fear' whereby we can observe the precepts of God not out of fear but out of 'love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue'. (RB 7).   

Obedience to the rubrics St Benedict sets out, I would suggest, just like obedience to the other parts of the Rule and to the superior, is one of the means by which the saint proposes that we learn the habit of turning away from our own will. 

We could also note that the final degree of humility is an injunction to manifest our humility to others by keeping our eyes downcast while pondering the guilt of our sins, whether at the Work of God in the oratory, or elsewhere (RB 7).  The work of God, as many of the psalms make clear, is, amongst other things, a sacrifice of praise offered for those sins.

Another key dimension of the Office at least hinted at by the saint is its teaching function.  St Benedict insists that his monks say all of the psalms each week.  He also twice suggests devoting time to their study and meditation on them (RB 7, 48).  One of the reasons for this, I suspect, is the Patristic view that the book of Psalms encapsulates all of the Old and New Testaments, and teaches us their content as we pray them.  St Basil is one of the authors St Benedict specifically commends to his monks, his psalm commentaries may well have been a particular influence on the design of the Benedictine Office given that his half dozen or so commentaries on individual psalms include those that open the Benedictine Office at Matins on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday [1].  St Basil opens his sermons on the psalms by noting that:

"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful, composed by the Spirit for this reason, namely, that we men, each and all of us, as if in a general hospital for souls, may select the remedy for his own condition. For, it says, 'care will make the greatest sin to cease.'  Now, the prophets teach one thing, historians another, the law something else, and the form of advice found in the proverbs something different still. But, the Book of Psalms has taken over what is profitable from all. It foretells coming events; it recalls history; it frames laws for life; it suggests what must be done; and, in general, it is the common treasury of good doctrine, carefully finding what is suitable for each one." [2]

St Basil goes on to suggest that we absorb these lessons without even being aware of it:

"When, indeed, the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey..." [3]

The insight that we don't have to be conscious that we are learning something, that our understanding can grow without the meaning being explicitly laid out before us each time is important to keep in mind I think.

The importance of numerology

There is more though, to this implicit learning process, I want to suggest, than just the words of the text.  Number symbolism is one of those patristic devices that often seems particularly alien and stretched to us [4].  St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus, for example, manages to provide extended explanations for the numbering of the psalms up to 25 until he (more or less) runs out of steam, but on the whole they are not explanations that seem particularly intuitively obvious to modern minds [5].  Yet Patristic thought, following Scripture (think of those detailed measurements of the Temple for example), put a great deal of emphasis on numbers, seeing the appropriate use of them as reflecting and resonating with the divine design. David Clayton, for example, has argued that:

"The reason for incorporating a Christian cosmology in these works is deeper than a superficial desire to conform to an ancient symbolism that only a few will recognize. The assumption is that human beings are hardwired to pick up information presented in accordance with the pattern of the divine mind. Nature appears beautiful because we recognize in it the thumbprint of the Creator. When the work of man is structured in the same way, we see the mark of inspiration from the Creator and we are drawn to it." [6]

A few months back I drew attention to a suggestion from Fr Cassian Folsom OSB on the significance of the numbers, including the link the adoption of the 'seven times a day shall I praise you' verse of Psalm 118 (seven signally completeness) and the number of the day hours, which  Fr Cassian suggests signals that this form of the Office fulfils the injunction to pray without ceasing [7].  

The sacred number seven

There is though, another reference to the number seven in St Benedict's specifications on the Office, in the form of the instruction that no matter what psalm schema is used, all of the psalms should be said over the course of the week (RB 18). 

It is worth recalling, first of all, just why St Benedict calls seven the 'sacred number' (RB 16), namely the allusion to the seven days of creation. By insisting on a seven day psalm cursus then, on having his monks say all of the poems that encapsulate the entire Old and New Testaments each week, St Benedict is inviting us to recall those seven days of creation. 

He makes the link between the days of creation and the psalmody explicit too,  in his selection of the texts. 

Consider firstly the repeated psalms of the Office, which ensure that at least three times each day in the Office we acknowledge and respond to God as our creator.  At Matins, in Psalm 94, we are invited to sing, praise and worship God because he is our creator.  At Lauds in Psalm 148 we are invited to join the praise of all creation, to join the heavenly liturgy, the music of the cosmos.  And in the last line of the last psalm said each day, Psalm 133, God's blessing as our creator is called down on us.  The Trinitarian allusion implicit here is, I suspect, deliberate: St Benedict builds in a number of other such allusions, for example in the addition of the Gloria Patri as the doxology for each psalm and the threefold saying of the Domine labia mea aperies at the start of each day. 

The variable psalms though, also make a contribution to this great theme of God as creator [8].  There are of course many references to creation in the psalms, and some of these have no obvious connection to the day of the week on which they are said [9].  Several, though, at least as they were interpreted by the Fathers, do.  Let me just highlight a small selection of them.  Psalm 32:7 at Monday (feria secunda) Matins, for example, can be read as a reference to the division of the cosmic waters on the second day of creation.  Psalm 135, said at Vespers on Wednesday (feria quarta), takes the story of creation up to the creation of the sun and moon, day 4.  Psalm 73, which opens Thursday Matins, adds the creation of sea creatures (verses 13-14), day 5.  And Psalms 88, 93 and 99 said on Friday (day 6) all contain references to the creation of man. 

I'll come back to these references later in this series, firstly because to actually see some of them requires an understanding of Patristic approaches to Scriptural interpretation, on which I'll say more in due course.  More importantly though, just to jump ahead a little, St Benedict, I think, adopts the common patristic approach of connecting the events of the days of creation with events in the life of Christ.  St Ambrose, for example, like many others, saw a connection between the creation of man on the sixth day (Friday) and the crucifixion of Christ on that day [10].  Psalm 88, said at Matins on Friday, at least as the Fathers interpreted it, neatly makes that link in these two key verses, the first of which alludes to God's creation of man, the second which they interpreted as a prophesy of the Passion:

46  Memoráre quæ mea substántia: * numquid enim vane constituísti omnes fílios hóminum?
48 Remember what my substance is: for have you made all the children of men in vain?
47  Quis est homo, qui vivet, et non vidébit mortem: * éruet ánimam suam de manu ínferi?
49 Who is the man that shall live, and not see death: that shall deliver his soul from the hand of hell?

Before we go on to explore these references and connections further though, I want to close this post by returning to our consideration of the purpose of the Office.  

I noted above its role in training us in virtue, and in teaching us doctrine and morality.  Its most important function though, is as a participation in the heavenly liturgy, and it is worth pondering for a moment, the reasons why St Benedict describes it as our 'service' (RB 59).  In particular, the link between the notion of the service owed to God by virtue of his creation of us is nicely captured, I think, by this quote from Pope Benedict XVI:

"In the life of monks, however, prayer takes on a particular importance: it is the heart of their calling. Their vocation is to be men of prayer. In the patristic period the monastic life was likened to the life of the angels. It was considered the essential mark of the angels that they are worshippers. Their very life is worship. This should hold true also for monks. Monks pray first and foremost not for any specific intention, but simply because God is worthy of being praised. “Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus! – Praise the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy is eternal!”: so we are urged by a number of Psalms (e.g. Ps 106:1). Such prayer for its own sake, intended as pure divine service, is rightly called officium. It is “service” par excellence, the “sacred service” of monks. It is offered to the triune God who, above all else, is worthy “to receive glory, honour and power” (Rev 4:11), because he wondrously created the world and even more wondrously renewed it." [11]

By praising God seven times in the day with psalms that summarise the story of God's work of creation, and saying them over the course of sacred number of seven days, then, the monk is repeatedly reminded both implicitly and explicitly of the seven days of creation.   More, he is invited to join in the divine, the cosmic, liturgy sung by all of creation, and so become co-creators with God through this 'work of God'.  

The story of God's saving work though, does not end with the creation of the world, but rather continues through history, and most especially in that 'eighth day' of creation, the Resurrection.  No wonder then, that the Benedictine Office actually consists of seven day hours - and the night office to make eight.  But more on this anon!


[1]  St Basil's sermons on creation and the psalms appear to have been well-known in the West, with St Ambrose using the former as the basis for his own commentary on the Hexaemeron.  The sermons cover Psalms 1, 7,14, 28, 29, 32, 33, 44, 45, 48, 59, 61 and 114. I'll come back to their significance for St Benedict's arrangement of the Office in due course.

[2] Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P. (trans), St Basil, The Great Exegetic Homilies, A New Translation, Catholic University of America Press: 1963, Sermon 10 on Psalm 1, pp151.

[3] ibid, pp 152.

[4] On this topic more generally, see David Clayton, "Number",

[5] P G Walsh (trans), Cassiodorus: Explanation of the Psalms, Ancient Christian Writers, 3 vols, Paulist Press: NY, 1990.  Cassiodorus' notes on the numerical significance of the psalms are mainly in his 'conclusion' notes on each psalm.  On Psalm 25 he comments that "...we could not elicit the nature of any created object mentioned in Scripture connected with the numbers 26, 27, or 28."  But goes on to invite his readers to find something, emulating his previous examples, or at least to see significance in the possible divisions of the number...

[6] David Clayton, The Cosmic Liturgy and the Mind of the Creator, September 29, 2009

[7] Praying without ceasing: St Benedict's numerical theology,; Fr Cassian Folsom, Pray without ceasing: (see esp conference 3)

[8] It should be noted that most of the vespers hymns contain allusions to the day of creation as well, though these are relatively recent additions to the Office: see Albert Kleber O.S.B., “The Hymns at Weekly Vespers and the "Week" of Creation,” American Benedictine Review, 6:2 (1955) 171-187.
[9] Psalms including specific references to the days of creation that don't neatly allude to the day of the week on which they are said include Psalm 8, 103, and 138.
[10] John J Savage (trans) St Ambrose Hexameron, Paradise A New Translation, Catholic University of America Press: NY, 1961, pp 227.

[11] Pope Benedict XVI, Visit To Heiligenkreuz Abbey, Address,Sunday, 9 September 2007,

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