Showing posts with label Rule. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rule. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

SS Julian and Basilissa (January 9)

Basilissa Julian.jpg
Christ with Saints Julian and Basilissa, Celsus and Marcionilla,
Pompeo Batoni, 1736-8.

Today the martyrology recalls the martyrdom of St Julian and his wife Basilissa:
At Antioch, in the reign of Diocletian and Maximian, the birthday of the Saints Julian, martyr, and Basilissa, his virgin wife. Having lived in a state of virginity with her husband, she reached the end of her days in peace. But after the death by fire of a multitude of priests and ministers of the Church of Christ, who had taken refuge in his house from the severity of the persecution, Julian was ordered by the president Marcian to be tormented in many ways and executed. With him suffered Anthony, a priest, and Anastasius, whom Julian raised from the dead, and made partaker of the grace of Christ; also, Celsus, a boy, with his mother Marcionilla, seven brothers, and many others. 
The feast will be of particular interest to Benedictines, because St Benedict drew heavily on their Passio in constructing chapter 4 of his Rule, on the Tools of Good Works. 

The Passio Juliani et Basilissae is one of those martyrdom accounts that scholars have, in the past, tended to dismiss as more pious fiction than fact, but there almost certainly is at least some historical basis to it.  Regardless, their cult was widespread quite early on, and well established by the sixth century.

The basic storyline of the Passio is that Julian was forced by his family to marry, however reached an agreement with his wife, Basilissa, that they should both preserve their virginity.  They proceeded to convert their home into a hospital, and she founded a convent for women (of which she became the superior), while he undertook the direction of a large group of monks. 

One of the reasons generally for dismissing the account is the early date claimed for the establishment of cenobitic monasticism.  But we know that monasticism did in fact predate St Antony (St Athanaius' propaganda notwithstanding, pre-existing monasteries are actually mentioned in the Life), though it was probably not quite as formalised as the fourth or fifth century Passio suggests.

In any case, according to the Passio, Basilissa and her maidens died a holy death in advance of the Great Persecution of Diocletian, but Julian was martyred - though not before performing several miracles and converting his prosecutor's son and wife.  The Passio relates that Julian predicted he would survive the initial attempt to put him to death, and when questioned on how he achieved this, proceeds to give the catechesis that the Rule draws on.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical Code: On Benedictine prayer (Feb 25 or 26/June 27/Oct 27)

Sodoma, Life of St Benedict, 1505
St Benedict frees a monk
And today, the last in this series of posts on St Benedict's liturgical code, on reverence in prayer.

Caput XX: De Reverentia Orationis

Si cum hominibus potentibus volumus aliqua suggerere, non praesumimus nisi cum humilitate et reverentia; quanto magis Domino Deo universorum cum onini humilitate et puritatis devotione supplicandum est. Et non in multiloquio, sed in puritate cordis et com-punctione lacrimarum nos exaudiri sciamus. Et ideo brevis debet esse et pura oratio, nisi forte ex affectu inspirationis divinae gratiae protendatur. In conventu tamen omnino brevietur oratio, et facto signo a priore omnes pariter surgant.

Chapter 20: Of Reverence in Prayer

If we wish to prefer a petition to men of high station, we do not presume to do it without humility and respect; how much more ought we to supplicate the Lord God of all things with all humility and pure devotion. And let us be sure that we shall not be heard for our much speaking, but for purity of heart and tears of compunction. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless it chance to be prolonged by the impulse and inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, let prayer be very short, and when the superior has given the signal let all rise together.


This final chapter of the liturgical code is interesting not least in that it stands in sharp contrast to some later schools of spirituality.

There is some modern debate on this chapter: the traditional view, embraced by Dom Delatte and others is that whereas the previous chapter refers to the Divine Office, this chapter is essentially about private prayers, with the last sentence most likely referring to the traditional period of communal prayer immediately after each hour.

Some modern commentators, however, such as Dom De Vogue, argue that St Benedict is really talking here about the pauses between psalms in the Office.  Personally I’m not terribly convinced by this, for reasons too complex to go into here.

In the end, though, whether we are talking about our approach to the Office here, or our private prayers, the same considerations surely apply.

First we are told to approach God with humility and respect, as we would a person in a position of authority in the world when we ask for things, rather than immediately treating him as if he were a close friend. We should be aware of the immense gap between man and God, St Benedict suggests, and start from an attitude of worship and devotion.

The recovery of this sense of the sacred, of the otherness and greatness of God, is of course one of the greatest priorities of the Church at the moment, something the Pope has been trying to lead by example through the use of more elaborate and beautiful vestments, Latin, chant, kneeling to receive communion and so much more.

Of course we can and should aspire to the status of close friend of God: but here as elsewhere in the Rule, St Benedict writes not for the saint, but for the person who still has some way to go in making progress in the spiritual life. So the message is that we shouldn’t presume, but rather start at least by regarding ourselves as labourers in the vineyard, even as we wait for God to invite us in further as we progress in his ways.

The second point to note is the emphasis on compunction, or remorse, and purity of heart, reiterating the tool of good work ‘Daily in one’s prayer, with tears and sighs, to confess one’s past sins to God’.

Again, these days there is a lot of emphasis on ‘moving on’ or putting things behind us. The more traditional view though is that even though we should have confessed our sins and been forgiven them, we must still do penance for them now, in order to avoid purgatory!

Confession, absolution and whatever penance we are set removes eternal punishment, but it doesn’t necessarily wipe out all the remaining temporal punishment that we have accumulated. Saying our Office however, or studying the psalms (even if we enjoy doing so), is a good work that can help make amends for what we have done wrong in the past.

Thirdly, St Benedict emphasizes non-vocal prayer. Whereas the earlier Eastern monastic tradition urges the use of short phrases throughout the day, and later traditions added in practices such as the rosary (all laudable in themselves), St Benedict, without excluding these, urges a more meditative, mystical approach, perhaps as a counter-balance to the hours of vocal prayer in the Office that he prescribes.

Finally, St Benedict urges brevity, particularly in communal prayer. It is notable that whereas St Teresa of Avila urged her disciples to spend as much time praying after Mass as possible for example, in order to capture the graces that followed from it, and set specific periods of meditation as part of the rule for her nuns, St Benedict does none of this.

Over time of course, what St Benedict left to the individual (see for example RB 52 which allows individual monks to stay after the Office and pray in the oratory) has tended to be formalized (largely to compensate, I would suggest, for the reduction in time typically allocated to lectio divina compared to that specified in the Rule). Still, I think this injunction fits in with St Benedict’s approach of viewing all of the monk’s activities as dedicated to God and times for awareness of his presence, not just the set times of prayer.

And on that note, we end this little series of notes on the liturgical chapters of St Benedict’s Rule. I hope you have found it interesting and useful.  Please do let me know if you have reactions, questions or points you would like to debate or explore further.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: Sing wisely (Feb 24 or 25/ June 26/Oct 26)

Dunois Hours, c15th
Today's chapter of the Rule deals with our dispositions when we say the Office.

Caput 19: De Disciplina Psallendi

UBIQUE credimus divinam esse praesentiam, et oculos Domini in omni loco speculari bonos et malos; maxime tamen hoc sine aliqua dubitatione creda-mus cum ad opus divinum assistimus. Ideo semper memores simus quod ait propheta: Servite Domino in timore; et iterum: Psallite sapienter; et: In conspectu angelorum psallam tibi. Ergo consideremus qualiter oporteat in conspectu Divinitatis et angelorum ejus esse; et sic stemus ad psallendum ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae.

Chapter 19: The Manner of Saying the Divine Office

WE believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord in every place behold the good and the evil but let us especially believe this without any doubting when we are performing the Divine Office. Therefore, let us ever remember the words of the prophet: Serve ye the Lord in fear; and again, Sing ye wisely; and, In the sight of the angels will I sing to thee. Let us then consider how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and his angels, and so sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony.


The last two chapters of the liturgical provisions of the Rule consider our proper dispositions as we say the Office and pray, and so serve as a useful point to touch on a very important subject, namely our external deportment or behaviour when we say the Office.

Once of the more unfortunate developments of recent years, in my view, has been an aversion to proper use of ritual and bodily gestures such as kneeling. Indeed, the 1977 Directory on the Office for the Benedictine Order even has a section in it warning of the dangers of ‘periculum ritualismi vacui’, or ‘empty ritualism’.

Yet such warnings forget two vital points.

First, they forget that we are in fact embodied beings, not just souls. We need gestures and rituals to remind us of what is important: it is inherent in human condition that the body calls the mind to order, and vice versa.

For this reason, St Benedict includes in these chapters (and throughout the Rule), numerous references to ritual and external gestures and actions – to slowing down the chant (and by implication speeding it up); to standing, sitting, bowing and prostrating; to what should be said aloud, what silently, and much more.  These instructions are there to help us, not to encourage external form for forms’ sake as some would suggest! So even when we say the Office privately, we should endeavour to be reverent in the way we approach it, and follow the rubrics on gestures as far as possible.

Secondly, St Benedict suggests in both this chapter, and in Chapter 7 on humility, that external manifestations of our devotion should actually flow from our internal dispositions. I suggested earlier in this series of notes that the chapter on humility (RB 7) actually serves as something of an introduction to the rationale for the detailed instructions on the Office St Benedict sets out: the Office serves to help train us in obedience to an external authority rather than the indulgence of our own personal likes and dislikes.

Here St Benedict makes the connection more explicit by recapitulating the opening and closing ideas of Chapter 7 in just a few brief lines, and applying the first and last degrees of humility specifically to the Office. When it comes to the Office he says, we should start by cultivating an appropriate fear of the Lord (the first degree of humility), a sense of reverence and awe that comes from knowing that he is watching everything we do, and that when we sing or say the Office, we do so in the company of the angels.

That awareness, he argues, should shape our behaviour, so that we manifest our internal dispositions externally (the twelfth degree of humility) in things like custody of the eyes, and obedience to the other body postures St Benedict and the rubrics prescribe such as standing for the Gloria Patri.

And of course implicitly we should be applying all the intervening steps on the ladder of humility to the way we approach the Office.

So how can we put all this into practice when saying the Office privately?

First, say the Office in an approved form, following the rubrics and rules as best possible.

Secondly, try and set up some special corner of a room to say the Office in, with an icon or cross to focus the attention.

Thirdly, try and avoid distractions, give the particular hour all our attention – it is not something to be said while sipping a cup of coffee and watching television!

There are always exceptions of course – better to say the Office and pray in some way than not at all. Indeed, Chapter 50 makes it clear that the Office can be performed anywhere if necessary.  But still with reverence.

And for the final part in this series, click here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: Should we 'update' St Benedict's psalm scheme? (Feb 24/June 25/Oct 25)

Chludow Psalter, c850

Today's section of the Rule returns to the beginning of the Office, and the psalms of Matins.  But it also includes what I consider to be that most abused of provisions, the invitation to make some other arrangement of the psalms, provided that all 150 psalms are said in the course of the week. 


Disposito ordine psalmodiae diurnae, reliqui omnes psalmi qui supersunt aequaliter dividantur in septem noctium Vigilias, partiendo scilicet qui inter eos prolixiores sunt psalmi, et duodecim per unamquamque constituantur noctem: hoc praecipue commonentes, ut si cui forte haec distributio psalmorum displicuerit, ordinet si melius aliter judicaverit; dum omnimodis id attendat, ut omni hebdomada psalterium ex integro numero centum quinquaginta psalmorum psallatur, et dominico die semper a capite reprehendatur ad Vigilias; quia nimis inertem devotionis suae servitium ostendunt monachi, qui minus a psalterio cum canticis consuetudinariis per septimanae circulum psallunt, dum quando legamus sanctos patres nostros uno die hoc strenue implesse, quod nos tepidi utinam septimana integra persolvamus.

Chapter 18/4

The order of psalms for the Day Hours being thus arranged, let all the remaining psalms be equally distributed among the seven Night Offices, by dividing the longer psalms and assigning twelve psalms to each night.

But we strongly recommend, if this arrangement of the psalms be displeasing to anyone, that he arrange them otherwise, as shall seem better to him; provided always that he take care that the psalter with its full hundred and fifty psalms be chanted every week and begun afresh every Sunday at Matins.

For those monks show themselves very slothful in their sacred service, who in the course of the week sing less than the psalter and the customary canticles, whereas we read that our holy fathers strenuously fulfilled in a single day what I pray that we lukewarm monks may perform in a whole week.


Today's section of the Rule is actually end of the detailed prescriptions on the structure of the Benedictine Office: the next two chapters, though generally considered part of the liturgical code, really deal with how to pray rather then the structure of the Office itself. The liturgical code proper, then ends here where it began, on the great night Office of Matins, arguably reflecting its centrality to St Benedict's vision of what a monk is.

It has to be said that most modern commentaries on this chapter pretty much ignore the comments on the psalms of Matins, and focus instead on the seeming permission to reorganise the psalter.  I think that is a mistake, for reasons I'll set out below.  Nonetheless, let us first look at that sentence that has been used to justify the wholesale abandonment of the traditional Benedictine Office by most modern monasteries.

Can we rearrange the psalter?

St Benedict devotes several chapters to setting out his preferred framework for the Office. 

His 'opt-out' provision constitutes one sentence, and is hedged around with warnings about the danger of sloth!

So it is surely one of the greatest ironies that the instruction to 'return to the sources' contained in Vatican II's Perfectae Caritatis, instead of leading to a renewal of interest in the traditional Office actually led to its wholesale abandonment!

Worse, St Benedict makes it clear that any rearrangement of the psalter should at least retain a weekly psalm cursus.  Yet this provision, too, is widely ignored.

The rationale for all this, at least according to the 1977 Thesaurus Liturgiae Hororum Monasticae, put out under now disgraced Archbishop, then Abbot Primate, Rembert Weakland, was an emphasis on the idea of ‘quality over quantity’. The results, in terms of the continuing decline in vocations and the scandals that continue to rock a number of 'Benedictine' monasteries, speak for themselves in my view.

The real message St Benedict wants to emphasize, I would suggest, in returning here to the longest hour of the Office and putting the option of an alternative psalm schema in this context, is that though it might all seem rather long and demanding to us, his Office is in fact a considerably less demanding one, appropriate to "we lukewarm monks", compared to the Office of the monastic tradition as he received it.

I agree strongly with Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert who comments:

"Saint Benedict really prefers his own arrangement, but allows that it could be changed but he does insist on a certain length to the Divine Office...if we are going to be true to our own Benedictine tradition, the best way is to follow the Divine Office as it is described in the Holy Rule...”

Coming back to Matins

Finally I wanted to note that by leaving the allocation of the psalms for Matins until last, and simply saying split the longest psalms, St Benedict perhaps gives the impression that the allocation of the psalms to each day of the week for this hour is relatively random. But this impression is entirely deceptive.

In the case of Matins it isn't necessary to specify which psalms to split, because splitting the psalms with the most verses, in combination with necessary reordering accomplished by starting Matins at psalm 20 and pulling out selected psalms to be said at other hours (mostly Lauds) ensures that the hour stays loosely aligned with Lauds each day during the week, both thematically and numerically.

For the next part in this series, go here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: Vespers and Compline (Feb 23/June 24/Oct 24)

Stuttgart Psalter

Today, a look at the allocation of psalms to Vespers and Compline.


Vespera autem cotidie quattuor psalmorum modulatione canatur. Qui psalmi incipiantur a centesimo nono usque centesimo quadragesimo septimo : exceptis his qui in diversis horis ex eis sequestrantur, id est, a centesimo septimo decimo usque centesimo vigesimo septimo, et centesimo trigesimo tertio et centesimo quadragesimo secundo; reliqui omnes in Vespera dicendi sunt. Et quia minus veniunt tres psalmi, ideo dividendi sunt qui ex numero suprascripto fortiores inveniuntur: id est, centesimus trigesimus octavus, et centesimus quadragesimus tertius, et centesimus quadragesimus quartus. Centesimus vero sextus decimus, quia parvus est, cum centesimo quinto decimo conjungatur. Digesto ergo ordine psalmorum vespertinorum, reliqua, id est lectio, responsum, hymnus, versus, vel canticum, sicut supra taxavimus impleatur. Ad Completorios vero cotidie iidem psalmi repetantur: id est, quartus, nonagesimus, et centesimus trigesimus tertius.

Ch 18/3

Vespers shall be sung every day with four psalms. Let these begin with the hundred and ninth and go on to the hundred and forty-seventh, those being omitted which are set aside for special Hours, namely, the hundred and seventeenth to the hundred and twenty-seventh, the hundred and thirty-third and the hundred and forty-second. All the rest are to be said at Vespers. And since there are three psalms too few, let the longer psalms in the above number be divided, namely, the hundred and thirty-eighth, the hundred and forty-third, and the hundred and forty-fourth. But the hundred and sixteenth psalm, being short, shall be joined to the hundred and fifteenth. The order of the vesper psalms being thus settled, let the rest of the Hour, that is to say, lesson, responsory, hymn, versicle, and canticle, be carried out as we prescribed before. At Compline let the same psalms be repeated every day: that is, the fourth, the ninetieth, and the hundred and thirty-third.


The psalms allocated to Compline are the same every day, and the rationale for their selection is fairly obvious, so I won't go into it here.  St Benedict's arrangement of Vespers, though, takes a little more work to understand I think.

Vespers, as I’ve previously noted, has an association with Our Lord’s death, and traditionally monasteries use both lamps and incense in their Vespers rituals to symbolize this.

In terms of the psalms for the hour, it is often suggested that Vespers reverts to a running cursus of psalms. That’s true in the Roman Rite, but even a cursory look at St Benedict's prescriptions will show that isn’t really the case in the Benedictine rite.

As I've suggested previously, my view is that St Benedict is crafting the psalm allocations for programmatic effect: St Benedict is very explicit about where the psalms are to be split, and where the running cursus structure is to be ignored. Nor is the motivation to even out the length of the Office, because in fact the result of his efforts is to make some of them rather longer in length than others.

Psalm 113 on Monday (Sunday in the Roman Rite), for example, is extremely long (it is actually two psalms in the Hebrew psalter), and yet Monday actually gets an extra psalm added (albeit the shortest psalm in the psalter), adding up to a total of 53 verses to be said.  Personally I think that is because both Psalm 113 and Psalm 128 link very neatly to the themes of Our Lord's Incarnation and hidden life on earth up to and including his baptism.

This arrangement also allows Tuesday Vespers to continue the sequence of Gradual psalms started at the little hours on that day, leaving Wednesday to pick up the theme of Our Lord's betrayal by his own people (over and over in history, as well as by Judas and the priests and pharisees), resulting in the election of the gentiles (a theme also reflected in the Canticle of Hannah at Lauds).

In contrast to the length of Monday (53 verses) and Wednesday (69 verses) Vespers, Thursday, Friday and Saturday Vespers are much shorter (48, 47 and 43 verses respectively), the result of splitting psalms in two.  Sunday and Tuesday are even shorter still, at 34 and 36 verses respectively, making the decision to move Psalm 113 to Monday, and separate Psalm 128 from the other Gradual psalms even odder on the face of it.

But if you take a look at the actual content of the psalms and sections of psalms set for those days and look for the connections - for example viewing Thursday to Saturday as a weekly mini-Triduum - I think you will see why St Benedict has arranged the psalmody as he has.

Regardless of whether you agree with my view of St Benedict's programmatic intent, however, the evidence does point to the saints’ care for the construction of the hour, and reminds us, I think, of the central importance of the psalms to Benedictine spirituality.

As Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert Monastery comments:

“For our spirituality, we need to have an easy familiarity with the Psalms. We need to continue to study them year after year and let them deepen in us. For Benedictine spirituality, the Psalms are the heart of the Divine Office and we need to spend our lives knowing them more and more.”

For the next part of the series, go here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: Terce, Sext and None (Feb 22/June 23/Oct 23)

c13th Songs of the Ascent
Today's section of the Rule deals with the Little Hours.


Ad Tertiam vero, Sextam, Nonamque secundae feriae novem capitula quae residua sunt de centesimo octavo decimo, ipsa terna per easdem horas dicantur. Expenso ergo psalmo centesimo octavo decimo duobus diebus, id est dominico et secunda feria, tertia feria jam ad Tertiam, Sextam, vel Nonam psallantur terni psalmi, a centesimo nono decimo usque centesimo vigesimo septimo, id est psalmi novem. Quique psalmi semper usque Dominicam per easdem horas itidem repetantur, hymnorum nihilominus lectionum vel versuum dispositione uniform! cunctis diebus servata; et ita scilicet semper Dominica a centesimo octavo decimo incipietur.

Chapter 18/2

At Terce, Sext, and None on Monday, let the remaining nine sections of the hundred and eighteenth psalm be said, three at each of these Hours. The hundred and eighteenth psalm having been said thus on two days, that is Sunday and Monday, let Terce, Sext, and None of Tuesday each have three psalms, taken in order from the hundred and nineteenth to the hundred and twenty-seventh, i.e. nine psalms. And let these psalms be repeated at these Hours every day until Sunday; but let the arrangement of hymns, lessons, and versicles be kept the same on all days. Thus Prime on Sunday will always begin with the hundred and eighteenth psalm.


I’ve mentioned previously that the hours of Terce, Sext and None, at least in some form, date back to the earliest days of the Church, and almost certainly back to Jewish prayer patterns. Still, the early Church Fathers gave them a makeover with Christian associations, so that Tertullian and other early third century commentators, for example, associate Terce with the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost; Sext with Peter going to pray on the housetop at the sixth hour, and having the vision that leads to the abandonment of the Jewish dietary and other restrictions (Acts 10:9); and None with Our Lord’s crucifixion. The hymns for these hours allude at least in passing to these themes.

St Benedict, however, seems to me to give these hours a firm focus on our pilgrimage through life in his selection of the psalms for them. He takes the long and beautiful meditation on the law of the Lord in Psalm 118, with its frequent allusions to the way of life, at a very leisurely pace, spread out over two days.

Then for the rest of the week, he sets six of the ‘Gradual Psalms’, the pilgrim songs that were sung on the way to Jerusalem for major feasts, thus helping us mark the progress of our daily pilgrimage towards the heavenly Jerusalem. These psalms are short, and the hymn the same each day, allowing it to be readily memorized and said if necessary in the workplace or fields (RB 50): not a bad idea for us to emulate.

There is also, in my view, a reason for them starting on Tuesday in the psalter.  Many of Tuesday's psalms, including at Matins, have a strong focus on the Temple, and the desire to enter into it fully.  Indeed, all but one of the fifteen Gradual Psalms, or  'Songs of the Ascent', are sung on this day.

If Monday in the Office is about the Incarnation, then, the theme for Tuesday, in my view, is Christ's public ministry, during which he teaches us how to live properly as Christians.

First we must prepare ourselves, by meditating on the law, using Psalm 118.   Then we must learn how to be pilgrims towards heaven, and constantly remind ourselves that we are on a journey, that has a purpose and an endpoint.

For the next part of the series, see here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: Prime (Feb 21/June 22/Oct 22)

Today's section of the Rule deals with the hour of Prime, which is no longer said in many monasteries.  That's a shame in my view!

Caput XVIII/1: Quo ordine ipsi psalmi dicendi sunt

IN PRIMIS dicatur versu: Deus in adjutorium meum intende, Domine ad adjuvandum mefestina, Gloria; inde hymnus uniuscujusque horae. Deinde prima hora, Dominica, dicenda quattuor capitula psalmi centesimi octavi decimi; reliquis vero horis, id est, Tertia, Sexta vel Nona, terna capitula suprascripti psalmi centesimi octavi decimi dicantur. Ad Primam autem secundae feriae dicantur tres psalmi, id est, primus, secundus et sextus. Et ita per singulos dies ad Primam, usque Dominicam, dicantur per ordinem terni psalmi usque nonum decimum psalmurn; ita sane, ut nonus psalmus et septimus decimus partiantur in binos. Et sic fit, ut ad Vigilias Dominica semper a vigesimo incipiatur.

Chapter 18/1 In what order the psalms are to be said

FIRST let there be said the verse: Deus in adjutorium meum intende, Domine ad adjuvandum me festina,and Gloria; then the hymn proper to each Hour.

Then at Prime on Sunday, four sections of the hundred and eighteenth psalm; and at each of the remaining hours, that is Terce, Sext, and None, three sections of the same hundred and eighteenth psalm.

At Prime on Monday let three psalms be said, namely the first, second, and sixth. And so at Prime every day until Sunday let there be said three psalms taken in their order up to the nineteenth; but let the ninth and seventeenth be each divided into two. Thus it comes about that the Night Office on Sundays will always begin with the twentieth psalm.


Prime has of course been expunged from the modern Roman Office, but it is a beautiful and important hour in St Benedict's conception, and a good choice for laypeople pressed for time to say in the morning.

It is particularly suitable first because it is relatively straightforward in structure, varying only in its antiphons and psalms each day.  Secondly, its focus, particularly evident in the hymn and collect, is on preparation for the day. Thirdly, because the psalms selected for it have a strong instructional focus, touching on several key themes of the Rule, such as the idea that God is always watching us, to see if we are seeking him.  Finally, it is a good choice for Oblates because this is a particularly Benedictine hour: whereas St Benedict more or less takes over Roman Lauds untouched, monastic Prime seems to me to reflect a fair amount of careful crafting by the saint.

Consider for example the decision to place Psalm 1 at Monday Prime rather than Sunday Matins as in the Roman Office.  Psalm 1 is generally regarded as serving as an introduction to the whole psalter, so on the face of it, starting the liturgical week there makes sense. Moreover, the strong monastic tradition was to start at Psalm 1 and go forward in order. Nor is it really necessary to spread Psalm 118 over two days – the Roman Rite after all, gets through it all on Sunday.

But there are I think a number of reasons for the particular psalm allocations that St Benedict has made.  Let me sketch out some of them.

First, in many respects, I think St Benedict regards Monday as the start of the week, rather than Sunday so far as the Office goes.  Sunday, as the day of Resurrection, is more the culmination, led up to by a mini-Triduum celebrated in the Office each week. 

Monday's variable psalms, on the other hand, I would argue, have a strong focus on the Incarnation and Christ's hidden life on earth up to and including his baptism.  At Prime, for example, Psalm 1 presents us with the picture of the perfect man; Psalm 2 includes the verse used at the Introit at Christmas, 'Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten Thee'; and the final verse of Psalm 6 ('Let my enemies be put to shame...') echoes the prophesies of the Benedictus and Magnificat, of the downfall of enemies, and exaltation of the humble.

Secondly, this arrangement perhaps allows some of the most important themes of the psalms allocated to Prime to be reiterated more strongly. Psalm 1 seems to me to have almost identical themes as the first section of Psalm 118 said at Sunday Prime; one can perhaps see echoes of Psalm 2 in the next two sections, and the final section set for Sunday Prime has a penitential feel (as well as containing a key verse used by St Benedict in explaining his spiritual doctrine), echoing Psalm 6, one of the penitential psalms.  The repetition of ideas over two days in a row reinforces their importance.

Thirdly, from the perspective of the overall design of the Office, starting Sunday Matins at Psalm 20 rather than Psalm 1 provides a sequence of psalms for that day that give a stronger focus on the joy of the Resurrection, for Psalm 20 is one of the ‘Royal Psalms’ that speak of the triumph of Our Lord, and many of the psalms that immediately follow it (especially Psalm 23 for example) are similarly upbeat testimonies to God’s grace and mercy.

So I take the view that St Benedict’s allocations of psalms to each day here and elsewhere reflect very deliberate decisions that give a more thematic and structured flavour to the Office, and I'll say more about this in a forthcoming series.

But in the meantime let me just note that this could just be a case of eisegesis (reading things into the text that aren't really there), rather than exegesis.  In which case, simply take this as a pious way to hear the Office!

For the next of the series, go here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

St Benedict's liturgical code: the structure of the day hours (Feb 20/June 21/Oct 21)

Codex Amiatinus

Caput XVII: Quot psalmi per easdem horas dicendi sunt

JAM de Nocturnis vel Matutinis digessimus ordinem psalmodiae; nunc de sequentibus horis videamus. Prima hora dicantur psalmi tres singillatim et non sub una Gloria, hymnus ejusdem horae post versum Deus in adjutorium, antequam psalmi incipiantur. Post expletionem vero trium psalmorum, recitetur lectio una, versu et Kyrie eleison, et missae. Tertia vero, Sexta et Nona, item eo ordine celebretur oratio: id est versu, hymni earundem horarum, terni psalmi, lectio et versu, Kyrie eleison et missae sunt. Si major congregatio fuerit, cum antiphonis; si vero minor, in directum psallantur.

Vespertina autem synaxis quattuor psalmis cum antiphonis terminetur; post quos psalmos lectio recitanda est; inde responsorium, ambrosianum, versu, canticum de 'Evangelia', litania, et oratione dominica fiant missae. Completorium autem trium psalmorum dictione terminetur; qui psalmi directanei sine antiphona dicendi sunt: post quos hymnus ejusdem Horae, lectio una, versu, Kyrie eleison, et benedictione missae fiant.

Chapter 17 – How many psalms are to be said at these hours

WE have already settled the psalmody of Matins and Lauds; let us now look to the remaining Hours. At Prime let three psalms be said, one by one and not under the same Gloria; and before the psalms begin, but after the verse Deus in adjutorium, the hymn proper to that Hour. Then, at the end of the three psalms, let there be the lesson, versicle, Kyrie eleison, and concluding prayers. The Offices of Terce, Sext, and None are to be performed in the same way: that is, Deus in adjutorium, proper hymn, three psalms, lesson, versicle, Kyrie eleison, and concluding prayers. If the community be a large one, let the psalms be sung with antiphons; but if small, let them be sung straightforward.

Let the service of Vespers consist of four psalms with antiphons. After these psalms let a lesson be recited; and then the responsory, hymn, versicle, canticle from the Gospels, Kyrie eleison, and the Lord's Prayer to conclude.

Let Compline be limited to the saying of three psalms, and these said straightforward without an antiphon. After the psalms let there be the hymn for that Hour, the lesson, versicle, Kyrie eleison, and the blessing to conclude.


The structure of Prime to None and Compline

One of the striking things about this little section of the Rule is the number of times the number three is mentioned - something that would immediately have been taken by the medieval reader, I think, as a reference to the Trinity embedded in each of the hours of Prime, Compline and Terce to None.

As St Benedict set it up, the only difference in the structure of Prime to None and Compline lies in the use of an antiphon during the day, but not at night, and in the positioning of the hymn.

All the same, the actual length of the various hours do differ quite substantially: the psalms set for Prime in particular are quite long on average, while Compline includes the very long (and very important) Psalm 90; by contrast Terce, Sext and None are kept very short, certainly compared to those in both the pre and post-1911 Roman Offices.

The most important elaboration of these hours since St Benedict’s time clearly relates to Compline, which has acquired a short verse and penitential rite upfront, and in a monastery at least, an aspersion ritual afterwards. Personally, I think these developments really make sense. The end of the day is a logical time to take the time to do an examination of conscience, say the Confiteor and promise amendment.  And that final sprinkling of water - a mini-exorcism of sorts - before bed is particularly beautiful.  Now if only a little more organic development could occur in order to add the Nunc Dimittis (used in the Roman Rite) to this hour….


Both literally and symbolically, I think St Benedict was more of a morning person in terms of emphasis, with more of a Resurrection focus than on the Cross, thus he does not give equal weight to the two claimed 'hinges' of the Office, Lauds and Vespers! 

Lauds has in effect eight psalms (if you count the variable canticle as a psalm), a number usually taken as symbolising regeneration or the resurrection (many baptismal fonts are eight sided).  By contrast Vespers in St Benedict's schema has exactly half that, four, one less than in the Roman Rite and a number that usually refers to the four evangelists, the ends of the earth and thus to the earth itself: while Lauds celebrates the resurrection, Vespers symbolically refers to the death of Our Lord, which in turn calls forth the mission to spread the Gospel to all the world.

The structure of Vespers as set out here follows the same pattern as Lauds, but in a considerably shaved down form: unlike Lauds, Vespers has no invitatory or fixed psalms.

Excellence in performance

The last section of today's Rule, dealing with singing psalms with antiphons or 'directly' indicates a certain degree of flexibility in the performance of the Office depending on the resources available. 

The reference to antiphons here may be a reference to the practice of interspersing verse of the psalm with antiphons – or perhaps to greater or less use of more elaborate chant.  Certainly there are at least half a dozen different methods of performing the psalmody that we are aware of employed in the period up to St Benedict’s time, and it is not entirely clear when the current method of alternating sides of the choir for each verse (assuming there are enough singers) became the norm. 

The takeout message, though, I think, is to adapt to circumstances in order to perform the liturgy as well as we possibly can in order to properly honour God and for the aid of others: St Benedict’s later instruction to allow only those whose voices edify sing or read (RB 38) is worth keeping in mind for those performing the Office in common!

For the next part in this series, go here.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Is there a 'magical' number of hours in the Office? (Feb 19/June 20/Oct 20))

Hours of Marguerite D'Orleans

Caput XVI: Qualiter divina opera per diem agantur

UT ait propheta: Septies in die laudem dixi tibi. Qui septenarius sacratus numerus a nobis sic implebitur, si Matutino, Primae, Tertiae, Sextae, Nonae, Vesperae, Completoriique tempore nostrae servitutis officia persolvamus; quia de his diurnis horis dixit: Septies in die laudem dixi tibi. Nam de nocturnis Vigiliis idem ipse propheta ait: Media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi. Ergo his temporibus referamus laudes Creatori nostro super judicia justitiae suae, id est, Matutinis, Prima, Tertia, Sexta, Nona, Vespera, Completorio;et nocte surgamus ad confitendum ei.

Chapter 16 – How the Work of God is to be performed in the day-time

The prophet saith: Seven times a day have I given praise to thee. We shall observe this sacred number of seven, if we fulfil the duties of our service in the Hours of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; for it was of these Day Hours that he said: Seven times a day have I given praise to thee. But of the Night Office the same prophet saith: At midnight I rose to give praise to thee. At these times, therefore, let us render praise to our Creator for the judgements of his justice: that is, at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; and let us rise in the night to praise him.


The Scriptural rationale for the number of hours
Chapter 16 turns, seemingly somewhat belatedly, to the rationale for the Office in terms of the number of hours to be said and why they are to be said.

The modern view is that there is no 'magical' number of hours or psalms. St Benedict, however, seems to suggest otherwise, claiming Scriptural authority for the number of hours to be said each day.  Should we take him seriously?

It is true of course that his seven hours a day schema did not in fact have a long tradition behind it. The oldest of the hours, dating back in rudimentary form a least to the first century, are almost certainly Lauds, Terce, Sext, None and Vespers (thus dawn, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon and dusk), together with the night Office at least on Sundays. Prime, however, probably dates only from the fifth century, imported from the East by John Cassian; Compline can be traced back only so far as the fourth century.

Still, one could argue that this process of evolution reflects providential guidance to bring the Office into line with the Scriptural injunction cited here; certainly this schema took hold and stood the test of time until the liturgical revolution of Vatican II.

What is the purpose of the Office?
In the end, one’s view on the importance of the number of hours in the Office depends on one’s view of its purpose. There are two competing positions: one stresses the role of the Office in personal sanctification, as an aid to fulfilling the New Testament injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’; the other stresses the Office’s ecclesial dimension as sacrifice of praise on behalf of all creation, a work of intercession for the salvation of the world.

St Benedict, I would suggest, actually attempts to balance both objectives.

The Prologue to the Rule makes it clear that the first goal of the monk, as for us all, must be to reach heaven. It is clear that St Benedict does envisage the Office as an aid to this, perhaps why the section on the Night and Dawn Offices flow on directly from the chapter on humility without any fresh introduction. Implicitly, I think the message is that the monk learns humility and obedience by praying at the set times (including that early rise into the darkness) and following the rubrical prescriptions laid down.

In this chapter though, we are provided with some further rationales for the Office.

First, the very alignment of the day hours with the times of the civil day points to the idea of the sanctification of the monks’ day by interspersing his work with ‘frequent prayer’ (RB 4).

Secondly, the symbolism of the number seven in the verse St Benedict cites suggests fullness or perfection (the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven sacraments, etc), and can be interpreted as a reference to the New Testament injunction to ceaseless prayer.  Nonetheless, throughout the Rule, though, St Benedict sets out a fairly clear delineation between times of communal prayer, times of work and times for study.  He does not seem to advocate, as some do, that work become our liturgy!  Rather, St Benedict urges us to pray before working (Prologue), and demands that the monk treat his tools as if they were altar vessels: all of our lives, in other words, should be our offering, but that does not make times of work times of prayer.

More fundamentally, St Benedict connects the Office here not just to the process of growing in humility and charity of the earlier, spiritual instruction chapters, but also to the duty of praising our Creator and his righteous laws. It is unsurprising then, that the monastic Office has traditionally been held to be a participation in the priestly prayer of the whole Church particularly appropriate to those he calls as his special workmen, acting on behalf of the rest of us.

In recent centuries, clerics and religious only were deputed to say the Office in order to protect its integrity. Today the laity too, have the opportunity of participating in the Office as part of the official liturgical prayer of the Church; the distinction is that monks are bound to say all of the Office (in the form set out in the constitutions of their monastery), while the laity say what they can without any formal obligation to do so. What an awesome privilege!

And for the next part in this series, click here.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Sing alleluia! (Feb 18/June 19/Oct 19)

Today's section of the Rule deals with the use of the 'Alleluia', effectively a wordly sound of praise that often promoted long melismatic sections of chant in the seasons to which it is proper, making it all the more missed at those times of the year when it is not used.
Caput XV: Alleluia Quibus Temporibus Dicatur

A Sancto Pascha usque Pentecosten sine intermissione dicatur Alleluia, tarn in psalmis quam in responsoriis. A Pentecoste autem usque caput Quadragesimae omnibus noctibus cum sex posterioribus psalmis tantum ad Nocturnes dicatur. Omni vero Dominica extra Quadragesimam Cantica, Matutini, Prima, Tertia, Sexta, Nonaque cum Alleluia dicantur; Vespera vero jam antiphona. Responsoria vero numquam dicantur cum Alleluia, nisi a Pascha usque Pentecosten.

Chapter 15: At what season the alleluia is to be said

FROM the sacred feast of Easter until Pentecost, let Alleluia be said always both with the psalms and with the responsories. From Pentecost until the beginning of Lent, let it be said every night at Matins with the second six psalms only. On every Sunday out of Lent, let Alleluia be said with the canticles of Matins, and with the psalms of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, and None; but let Vespers then have an antiphon. The responsories are never to be said with Alleluia, except from Easter to Pentecost.


St Benedict’s liturgical seasons described in this chapter varies, of course from current practice.

In part, that’s because he wrote the Rule before St Gregory and others legislated for the ‘burial’ of the Alleluia from Septuagesima until the Easter Vigil.

In part though, it is because instead of the three week pre-Lent of the Roman Rite, monastic Lent actually started, traditionally at least, back in November if one follows the Rule’s fasting regime. For this reason presumably, Benedictines did not actually adopt Septuagesima into the calendar until quite late, in the twelfth century according to Dom Gueranger, and then only by Papal order.

Nonetheless, the spirituality behind St Benedict's injunction is worth exploring.  The word Alleluia is a rare example of a Hebrew word (technically two separate words) used as an expression of praise to God being preserved, untranslated, into the liturgy as an expression of joy. It literally means ‘praise Yah[weh]’.

In the Old Testament it appears in the psalter (Psalm 104 and 150, and in the titles for several psalms) and in the Book of Tobit. It appears only in one place in the New Testament, namely Revelation 19. Yet it is undoubtedly that chapter that earns the word its privileged place in the liturgy, since Revelation describes the heavenly liturgy of the wedding feast of the lamb that we both anticipate and echo:

“After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants." Once more they cried, "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever." And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying, "Amen. Hallelujah!" And from the throne came a voice crying, "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great." Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready….”

Dom Delatte, in his classic commentary on the Rule, draws particular attention to that the use of the Alleluia ‘sine intermissione’ (without interruption), in contrast to its regulated use the rest of the year. The Alleluia, in other words, reminds us each day, especially on Sundays, and above all during Eastertide as St Benedict specifies, of the joy of the Resurrection.

But its absence during Lent, and indeed, its careful regulation also remind us of what Pope Benedict XVI has called the ‘already and not yet’ state of the world before the Second Coming. Many liturgists and theologians at the more liberal end of the spectrum argue, as Fr Robert Taft does in his book on the history of the Liturgy of the Hours, for example, that everything in salvation has already been fulfilled, thus Christian worship is not about us seeking to contact God or to implore his help, but is the response of the ‘already saved’.

Traditionalists will generally be more inclined towards Pope Benedict XVI’s position, expounded in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (written before his election), that while Christian worship differs from that of the Old Testament in being open to heaven, we are still in a state of transition, the time of dawn when darkness and light intermingle, an intermediate time and space between the Old Temple sacrifices and the perfect worship of heaven. Without the Resurrection, we cannot enter heaven; but we have not ourselves entered it yet!

The presence and absence of the Alleluias in the liturgy serve, then, to remind us of the idea that our salvation is still yet to be fully realized, but must be constantly worked for with the aid of grace, using the 'tools of good works' set out in the Rule.

For the next part in this series, click here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Feast Days (Feb 17/June 18/Oct 18)

The title of today's chapter of the Rule seems to take us back for a moment, to the Night Office of Matins.  But Dom Gueranger and others argue that its provisions apply equally to Lauds, and this interpretation is certainly reflected in the structure of the Office as it has come down to us.  Indeed, some modern translators argue that the chapter in fact refers to Lauds rather than Matins...

Caput 14: In nataliciis sanctorum qualiter agantur vigiliae

In Sanctorum vero festivitatibus vel omnibus sollemnitatibus, sicut diximus Dominico die agendum, ita agatur, excepto quod psalmi aut antiphonae vel lectiones ad ipsum diem pertinentes dicantur; modus autem suprascriptus teneatur.

Chapter 14: On how the night office is to be performed on saints’ days

On the feasts of Saints and on all festivals, let the Office be performed as we have prescribed for Sundays, except that the psalms, antiphons, and lessons belonging to the particular day are to be said; but the general arrangement of the Office shall be as laid down above.


St Benedict and devotion to the saints

There are several pieces of evidence that attest to St Benedict's devotion to the saints.  We know, from both St Gregory the Great and the archaeological record, that he established chapels at Monte Cassino dedicated to St Martin of Tours and St John the Baptist (both saints who combined the active and contemplative lives in their life and work).  Elsewhere in the Rule St Benedict talks about making vows on relics. And in this chapter he makes provision for their celebration in the liturgy.

The chapter points, then, to the great importance of the saints in the life of the Church: the saints provide us with models, and inspire us to do better.  They aid us when we need help.  And they provide a link between heaven and earth, reminding us that we are part not just of the Church Militant, but also must pray for the Church Suffering, those in purgatory, and can benefit from the intercession of the Church Triumphant, those in heaven.

The Office on saints days

It is in the area of the celebration of the saints that the Office has most become elaborated over time. As St Benedict specifies, the basic structure of three nocturns on major feast days has been retained. But as well, the use of specific sets of psalms for various types of feasts has arisen, overriding the use of the ferial psalms in many cases. And of course, a whole gradation of feast days has grown up over time (with ever changing labels and rubrics!).

Similarly, the Sunday psalms are used at Lauds for major feasts  - but the modern Office also includes festal psalms for Vespers, as well as special texts for the other hours of the day.

More importantly from a practical point of view, the number of saints celebrated in the calendar has increased dramatically.

Organic development of the liturgy?

This is perhaps a useful point at which to note the debate about how much the liturgy can be changed. At the extremes sit those who see the liturgy as entirely fixed by certain decrees (such as Pius V’s in the case of the Mass; St Benedict’s Rule for the Office), and at the other end of the scale, those who regard every aspect of the liturgy as a historically conditioned and therefore changeable.

The correct path, I think, lies somewhere in the middle.  In the case of the Office, some would point out that St Benedict was doing in these legislative provisions what many other monastic legislators were doing at the time in constructing an Office. And just as twentieth century Popes have reordered the psalm cursus and more for the Roman Rite, so too, it is perfectly legitimate, even authorized by the Rule, for modern monks to do likewise.

The alternative, and in my view better, position is that the Rule’s provisions are a providential recipe for a particular spirituality, a gift that has come down to us because God willed it. For centuries the Benedictine Office has provided an important element of continuity for new foundations and refoundations that has automatically served to provide a specifically Benedictine character to the houses of the Order.

But the framework St Benedict provides in his Rule is clearly sufficiently flexible to allow for the kind of ‘organic’ elaboration of the Office that has occurred over time, particularly in relation to feasts. The liturgy clearly can and does change over time, and there is no rationale that is obvous to me at any rate, beyond antiquarianism, something long condemned by the Church, and a rejection of the concept of obedience, for deciding to go back to St Benedict’s one class of feast schema, or to adopt without good reason and permission, some other arbitrarily chosen date for rubrics other than those currently approved by the Church (ie 1962 or later).

St Benedict and St Gregory the Great pray for us!

The next part of this series can be found here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Lauds/3 (Feb 16/June 17/Oct 17)

Today's section of the Rule deals with the conclusion of the hours of both Lauds and Vespers, and deal with the importance of the Lord's prayer.

Caput XIII/III...

Plane Agenda matutina vel vespertina non transeat aliquando nisi in ultimo per ordinem oratio dominica omnibus audientibus dicatur a priore, propter scandalorum spinas quae oriri solent, ut conventi per ipsius orationis sponsionem qua dicunt: Dimitte nobis sicut et nos dimittimus, purgent se ab hujusmodi vitio. Ceteris vero Agendis ultima pars ejus orationis dicatur, ut ab omnibus respondeatur: Sed libera nos a malo.

Chapter 13/3, continued

Of course, the Offices of Lauds and Vespers shall never be allowed to end without the superior finally reciting, in the hearing of all, the whole of the Lord's Prayer. The purpose of this is the removal of those thorns of scandal, or mutual offence, which are wont to arise in communities. For, being warned by the covenant which they make in that prayer, when they say Forgive us as we forgive, the brethren will cleanse their souls of such faults. At the other Offices, however, only the last part of that prayer shall be said aloud, so that all may answer Sed libera nos a malo.


This instruction reminds us I think, of two important messages: firstly, the fallible nature of man, even those committed to a life of holiness; and secondly, the central importance of the Lord's Prayer.

The challenges of community life, inside and outside of monasteries!

We tend to think of monks and nuns as very holy people, and no doubt they generally are, at least relatively speaking!

Yet sanctification is a gradual process that takes a whole lifetime or more for most, as St Benedict makes clear in his Prologue and the chapter on the tools of good works, even for those who have the privilege of dwelling in a monastery!

One of the (several) reasons that I think we should take St Gregory's Life of St Benedict seriously as a source of our spirituality (for following the Rule alone is not, in my view, enough to make one a follower of St Benedict, any more than following the Rule of St Augustine – as for example the Dominicans do – makes one an Augustinian) is that it is very far from simple hagiography.  Rather, the Life is filled with tales of the weaknesses and sins of St Benedict's monks as well as much as of the zeal inspired by the saint. Nor does St Benedict himself escape entirely unscathed in this depiction, despite the justifications for some of his actions supplied by St Gregory. 

So I always wonder if St Benedict introduced the idea of the superior praying the Lord's Prayer morning and night as part of his own process of achieving forgiveness of others, particularly in relation to his first failed attempt as an abbot, where his regime was so tough and resented that the monks tried to assassinate him!

In any case, the reality is that even in the happiest of communities, the happiest of families, the happiest of workplaces, there will invariably be tensions at times. And the expression 'the fish rots from the head' is relevant here: in whatever setting, leadership from the top on this front is vital.

Probably the earliest surviving commentary on the Rule is that by Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel (born circa 760), which notes that:

"Now in this place thorns of scandal means 'angry outbursts, quarrels, dissensions, slanders, rivalries', or any of the disturbing disputes and commotions that are wont to spring up among the brothers. Morning and evening, even though the monks have peace and preserve continual charity among themselves, they should purge themselves from these things. In the morning, so that none of these faults may remain until sunset, for it is written: Let not the sun go down upon your anger; in the evening, so that a fault may not remain overnight with him until sunrise, and in the morning render the monk answerable for sins and foul in the Lord's sight." (trans David Barry OSB, Cistercian Publications, 2007)

The importance of the Lord's prayer

The role of the Lord's prayer said fervently as a means of expressing our contrition, cleansing our venial sins, and recommitting us to advancing the kingdom is one of those ideas whose centrality to Christian life I suspect we have mostly lost sight of today: how easy it is to merely say the words.

Yet in the tradition, the Our Father is an absolutely crucial prayer.

It formed the core of the regular prayer times practiced in the early Church. The first century document Didache, for example, says, "Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this: Our Father who art in heaven...Pray this three times each day."

The prayer generated a number of substantial commentaries from many of the Church Fathers: St Augustine's excellent exposition, for example, included in his work on the Sermon on the Mount, can be found on the New Advent Church Fathers website.

And throughout the Middle Ages it was one of the main focuses of works of catechesis for the laity.

No wonder then it is said at every hour of the Office.

In terms of its content, the Rule particularly emphasizes the covenant dimension of the prayer, as Smaragdus goes on to explain:

"So that warned, that is, won over and drawn by the covenant contained in the prayer itself, that is, by the promise contained in the Lord's prayer which says: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors each one may forgive his brother from his heart. And thus purged, that is, cleansed from vices, let him in the morning proceed to perform the work of obedience, and in the evening celebrate the night watches. But at the other Offices, that is, in celebrating the other hours only the last part of that prayer, that is: And lead us not into temptation is to be said aloud, so that hearing it all may answer: But deliver us from evil."

Forgiveness flows from knowing God

Finally, it may seem strange that St Benedict emphasises the importance of the Lord's Prayer in the midst of this section on the structure of the Office, but once again I think the saint is trying to make sure we fully appreciate that he is building into the Office a theme that he reiterates many times in the Rule, on the importance of forgiveness.  Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert Monastery comments:

"Saint Benedict makes it clear to us here and in many places of the Rule that we must make knowing God the very center of our being, or our personalities. We are not just tepid Christians, we must be Christians who are putting all of our personal energies into this new life in Jesus Christ. It seems so clear in the Gospels and in the New Testament: if we want God to forgive us, then we must always forgive others. Another challenge is to forgive before the sun sets. That is asking a lot from us, for sure. Many times we want to delay, we want time to get our own emotions back into order, we want time so that the other person knows that we are deeply offended, etc. Jesus Himself wants us to forgive immediately. Our forgiveness can never depend on whether the other person, the other monk, has acknowledged that he has offended us. Forgiveness must come from us immediately and without reserve--if we are truly following the Lord Jesus."

The next part of this series can be found here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Liturgical Code of St Benedict: Lauds/2 (Feb 15/June 16/Oct 16)

Today's section of the Rule looks at the structure and content of Lauds on ferial days, or days throughout the week.

Caput XIII: Privatis diebus qualiter agantur matutini

Diebus autem privatis Matutinorum sollemnitas ita agatur: id est, ut sexagesimus sextus psalmus dicatur sine antiphona, subtrahendo modice sicut Dominica, ut omnes occurrant ad quinquagesimum, qui cum antiphona dicatur. Post quem alii duo psalmi dicantur secundum consuetudinem: id est, secunda feria quintus et trigesimus quintus, tertia feria quadragesimus secundus et quinquagesimus sextus, quarta feria sexagesimus tertius et sexagesimus quartus, quinta feria octogesimus septi-mus et octogesimus nonus, sexta feria septuagesimus quintus et nonagesimus primus, sabbato autem centesimus quadragesimus secundus et canticum Deuteronomium, quod dividatur in duas Glorias. Nam ceteris diebus canticum unumquodque die suo ex prophetis, sicut psallit Ecclesia Romana, dicantur. Post haec sequantur Laudes; deinde lectio una apostoli memoriter recitanda, respon-sorium, ambrosianum, versu, canticum de 'Evangelia', litania, et completum est.

Chapter 13: How Lauds shall be said on ordinary days

On ordinary days Lauds shall be celebrated in the following manner: let the sixty-sixth psalm be said without an antiphon and somewhat slowly, as on Sunday, in order that all may assemble in time for the fiftieth, which should be said with an antiphon.

After this let two other psalms be said according to custom: that is, on Monday the fifth and thirty-fifth; on Tuesday the forty-second and fifty-sixth; on Wednesday the sixty-third and sixty-fourth; on Thursday the eighty-seventh and eighty-ninth; on Friday the seventy-fifth and ninety-first; and on Saturday the hundred and forty-second and the canticle from Deuteronomy, which must be divided into two parts.

But on the other days let there be a canticle from the prophets, each on its own day, according to the custom of the Roman church. After that let the Laudate psalms follow; then a lesson from the apostle to be said by heart, the responsory, the hymn, the versicle, the canticle from the Gospels, the Kyrie eleison, and so the end.


The hour of Lauds is absolutely central to St Benedict's construction of the Office, reflecting two key principles, namely repetition each day of certain key psalms, and secondly (more controversially) the progression of the week according to a thematic program.

The value of repetition

These days we tend to shy away from repetition, preferring instead novelty!  Yet repetition of key messages is a central feature of St Benedict's Office.  Indeed, the fixed psalms and canticle of Lauds make up well over half of the verses said at this hour each day.

The twentieth century saw a rejection of the value of repetition in the liturgy, reflected in the reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope Pius X, and then in the reforms of the Mass of Vatican II.  But modern liturgists, following the work of people such as Dom Gerard Calvet of Le Barroux and theologian Catherine Pitstock, are starting to rediscover the importance of repetition in the process of building up and reinforcing those spiritual walls  that protect us from the enemy.  The new English translation of the Mass has even seen the reintroduction of some of those much despised repetitions.

In the case of the Benedictine Office, the fixed psalms I think, very much reflect St Benedict's core spirituality and are meant to be memorized and internalized, and repeated over and over so that they truly become automatic to our thinking. 

The hour starts each day by asking for God’s blessing and grace (Psalm 66), echoing that call in the first section of the Prologue of the Rule that before undertaking any good work, we ask God to perfect it.

In Psalm 50 we express our repentance and dependence on God, again reflecting that call to return to him from whom we have strayed from by the sloth of disobedience. 

And the hour ends in the Laudate psalms (148-150).

Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert argues for the importance of this repetition:

"It is important that we notice the repetitions that occur in the Divine Office. If we follow the Divine Office exactly as it is outline in the Rule of Benedict, we will end up with praying about 279 Psalms in a week because of the repetitions…Saint Benedict knows that the Divine Office is longer because of repetitions but he still seems to like them because certain Psalms add a distinctive flavor, at least to some of the Divine Offices. Is there any value in repetition? Certainly! It is the principal element of the Divine Office because every week we repeat the same Psalms. Over many years of monastic life, we can come to know most of the Psalms by heart. Saint Benedict would have presumed that every monk would know the entire Book of Psalms by heart and probably also all of the New Testament."

Thematic progress?

St Benedict also sets out, in this chapter, the variable content of the hour, in the canticles, imported from the Roman Office, and the two variable psalms.

It is often suggested that the Benedictine Office does not have any thematic unity or underlying program.  I don't agree.  My thesis is that St Benedict has shaped the variable psalm cursus quite carefully in order to provide thematic links that flow largely from the program set up by the canticles, a view I might add, that I'm finding some support for in the medieval literature.  Note here that I am talking about the 'ferial' canticles - the festal ones are a much later addition to the Office.

I'll say more on the programmatic dimension of the Benedictine Office later in this series in the context of the rest of St Benedict's psalm cursus.  Still, I do want to suggest that St Benedict sets out these provisions for Lauds here rather than later in order to stress their centrality, their role as a key to the whole Office.  So do take a close look at those ferial canticles, and keep an ear our for the connections to (some of ) the psalms of the day for yourself! 

The Saturday ferial canticle

There is one other point worth noting in relation to the 1962 Office in particular, relating to the Saturday canticle.

St Benedict specifies it should be divided, and in the 1962 breviary, but not for some reason, the Diurnal, it is. But even in the Monastic Breviary, the canticle as it appears in the 1962 Office has been drastically cut, the victim, it would appear, of revisionist liturgical butchery: in its full form it amounts to some 65 verses. By contrast, the 27 verses included in the 1962 version don’t even take us up to the divisio point in the older version of the Office!

Reading it one can see why modernists might bulk at it, since it falls into that Old Testament of hard – but important – sayings. After chronicling the infidelity of the people, it promises judgment.

Yet the full version of the canticle has been retained (at least for some times of the year) in the traditional Roman Office, and is worth a good read or two!

The next part of this series can be found here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Lauds/1 (Feb 14/June15/Oct 15)

Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, folio 182v

Today's section of the Rule describes the structure and content of Lauds on Sunday.

If you look at the Latin you will see that St Benedict uses the word 'Matutinis' to describe this hour (and vigils for what we now call Matins) - don't be confused by the terminology, this is the first of the day hours we are talking about here, taking its modern name from the three 'Laudate' psalms that conclude the psalmody for the hour.

Caput XII: Quomodo matutinorum sollemnitas agatur

In Matutinis dominico die, inprimis dicatur sexagesimus sextus psalmus sine antiphona in directum. Post quem dicatur quinquagesimus cum Alleluia; post quern dicatur centesimus septimus decimus et sexagesimus secundus; inde Benedictiones et Laudes, lectio de Apocalypsi una ex corde et responsorium, ambrosianum, versu, canticum de 'Evangelia', litania, et completum est.

Chapter 12: How the Office of Lauds is to be Said

LAUDS on Sundays should begin with the sixty-sixth psalm chanted straight through without an antiphon. After that let the fiftieth psalm be said, with Alleluia; then the hundred and seventeenth and the sixty-second; then the Benedicite and the Laudate psalms; then a lesson from the Apocalypse to be recited by heart, the responsory, the hymn, the versicle, the canticle from the Gospel book, the Kyrie eleison, and so the end.


Sunday in the Office and Mass is a weekly celebration of the Resurrection, and the imagery, texts and rubrics St Benedict specifies for this hour all reinforce this.

The symbolism of light and darkness

In the previous chapters (especially chapter 8) it was made clear that the timing and length of Matins was to be adjusted in order that Lauds started strictly at daybreak (McCann translates it as dawn, but the general consensus is that daybreak or first light is the actual meaning).  Unlike the Roman Office, where Matins and Lauds are typically joined together, St Benedict, you will recall from Chapter 8, actually provides for a separation between them, of shorter or longer duration depending on the season.

Some modern commentators see this daybreak start as a relic of a bygone age that was driven by the rhythms of agriculture, and there is a certain truth in this in that St Benedict clearly expected his monks to follow the flow of the seasons.  Still, St Benedict seems actually to have taken the structure of his office of Lauds, as he implies in the next chapter, pretty much entirely from the urban `Cathedral' Office of Rome, not the desert or the countryside traditions.

Moreover the symbolism of light and darkness St Benedict draws on in these provisions reflects a tradition dating back to the first Christians, and indeed, in all probability, Jewish practice as attested to not least in the very psalms we sing at the hour.  But in Christian practice the hour became strongly linked to the Resurrection. Dom Delatte, for example, in his classic commentary on the Rule, states that Lauds "represents the hour of victory of light over darkness, the hour of Our Lord's resurrection."

The psalms of Sunday Lauds

St Benedict is very specific in the psalms to be said at Lauds on Sunday, so it is worth considering the specific content of the psalms he sets for it.

The first psalm to be said, the invitatory psalm, Psalm 66, clearly sets the tone for the hour, by asking for God's blessing on the day to come.

Psalm 50 can be seen as serving as something of a continuation of the invitatory, addressing our need to purify ourselves from sin before offering God praise, and to help us recognize that, as Dom Delatte suggests,  "God alone can make it [the soul] come forth from its darkness". That he freely gives us this grace is reflected in the Alleluia St Benedict adds as its antiphon.

The resurrection focus of Sunday, however, is given pre-eminence by the use of  Psalm 117: the verse Haec Dies is used throughout the Easter Octave at Mass.  In the old Roman Office, this psalm was said at Prime.  St Benedict shifts it to the more important hour of Lauds, presumably in the interests of symmetry: Psalm 117 is the last of the 'Hallel' psalms on major Jewish feasts, and in an interesting reversal of their order (the first shall be last and the last first?), the first of this group of psalms (psalm 112) closes off Sunday Vespers.

Psalm 62 which follows perhaps provides something of a counterpoint to the Resurrection focus of Psalm 117, stressing the 'almost but not yet' character of the age we live in, speaking of the longing for Christ's return. 

Above all though, the rejoicing at the rising sun/Son is most aptly captured in the Benedicite, the three Laudate psalms, and the Benedictus (Gospel canticle), all of which serve to link God's work of creation, salvation and the re-creation of the world through Christ.

This commentary on the Rule continues here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Matins/4 (Feb 13/June 14/Oct 14)

Agnès de Kiqeumberg's Matins, c1425

Today's section of the Benedictine Rule deals with the much longer than usual Sunday Night Office.

Caput 11: Qualiter diebus Dominus Vigiliae Agantur

Dominico die temperius surgatur ad Vigilias. In quibus Vigiliis teneatur mensura: id est, modulatis ut supra disposuimus sex psalmis et versu, residentibus cunctis disposite et per ordinem in subselliis, legantur in codice ut supra diximus quattuor lectiones cum responsoriis suis; ubi tantum in quarto responsorio dicatur a cantante Gloria, quam dum incipit, mox omnes cum reverentia surgant. Post quas lectiones sequantur ex ordine alii sex psalmi cum antiphonis, sicut anteriores, et versu. Post quos iterum legantur aliae quattuor lectiones cum responsoriis suis, ordine quo supra. Post quas dicantur tria cantica de 'Prophetarum',quae instituerit abbas; quae cantica cum Alleluia psallantur. Dicto etiam versu, et benedicente abbate, legantur aliae quat-tuor lectiones de Novo Testamento, ordine quo supra. Post quartum autem responsorium incipiat abbas hymnum Te Deum laudamus. Quo perdicto, legat abbas lectionem de 'Evangelia', cum honore et timore stantibus omnibus. Qua perlecta respondeant omnes Amen; et subsequatur mox abbas hymnum Te decet laus, et data benedictione incipiant Matutinos. Qui ordo Vigiliarum omni tempore tam aestatis quam hiemis aequaliter in die dominico tene-atur; ni, si forte (quod absit) tardius surgant, aliquid de lectionibus breviandum est aut responsoriis. Quod tamen omnino caveatur ne proveniat; quod si contigerit, digne inde satisfaciat Deo in oratorio, per cujus evenerit neglectum.

Chapter 11: How the Night Office is to be said on Sundays

On Sundays let the brethren rise earlier for the Night Office, in which let this order be kept. When the six psalms and the versicle have been chanted, as we ordained above, and all are seated in their stalls, duly and in order, then let there be read from the book, as we said before, four lessons with their responsories. In the fourth responsory only shall the reader chant the Gloria, and when he begins it let all rise immediately with reverence. After these lessons let there follow in order another six psalms with antiphons, like the previous ones, and a versicle. After these again let four more lessons be read with their responsories, in the same way as before. After these let there be three canticles from the book of the prophets, as appointed by the abbot, and let these canticles be chanted with Alleluia. Then, when the versicle has been said and the abbot has given the blessing, let another four lessons be read from the New Testament, in the same way as before. When the fourth responsory is finished, let the abbot begin the hymn Te Deum Laudamus. When that has been said, the abbot shall read the lesson from the book of the Gospels, all standing with fear and reverence. That having been read, let all answer Amen, and then let the abbot follow with the hymn Te decet laus, and the blessing having been given let them begin Lauds. This order of Matins shall be observed on Sundays all the year round, both in summer and winter; unless (which God forbid) they be late in rising, so that the lessons and responsories have to be shortened. However, let the greatest care be taken that this do not happen; but if it happen, let him through whose neglect it has occurred, make due satisfaction to God in the oratory.


These days we tend to think of Sundays as a day of rest; St Benedict, however, presents it as a day for worship, with his monks rising earlier order to say a much longer than usual Night Office. 

Though this approach to Sunday might seem counter-cultural to us today, in fact St Benedict’s schema represented a considerable concession at the time, compared to the common monastic practice of the time of staying up all night as Vigil for Sunday.

Blessed Pope John Paul II’s letter Dies Domini suggests that we need to recover something closer to St Benedict’s conception of the Sunday, and treat it as a ‘day of faith’ first and foremost rather than a day of rest:

“The commandment of the Decalogue by which God decrees the Sabbath observance is formulated in the Book of Exodus in a distinctive way: "Remember the Sabbath day in order to keep it holy" (20:8). …Before decreeing that something be done, the commandment urges that something be remembered. It is a call to awaken remembrance of the grand and fundamental work of God which is creation, a remembrance which must inspire the entire religious life of man and then fill the day on which man is called to rest. Rest therefore acquires a sacred value: the faithful are called to rest not only as God rested, but to rest in the Lord, bringing the entire creation to him, in praise and thanksgiving, intimate as a child and friendly as a spouse….Therefore, the main point of the precept is not just any kind of interruption of work, but the celebration of the marvels which God has wrought.”

The second point to note, also reflected in Pope John Paul II’s exposition, is the joyous character of Sunday’s Office.

The psalms are upbeat in tone, containing many obvious allusions to the Resurrection and the coming joy of heaven, starting from psalm 20 at Matins, one of the Royal psalms which speaks of the crowning of the King.

It is normally festooned with Alleluias.

And each week, a Te Deum is sung (the hymn was probably composed by Bishop Nicetas c400) in thanksgiving for all God does for us, as well as the Te Decet Laus.

Sunday, Pope John Paul II reminds us, was viewed by the early Church as a mini-Easter:

‘"We celebrate Sunday because of the venerable Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we do so not only at Easter but also at each turning of the week": so wrote Pope Innocent I at the beginning of the fifth century, testifying to an already well established practice which had evolved from the early years after the Lord's Resurrection. Saint Basil speaks of "holy Sunday, honoured by the Lord's Resurrection, the first fruits of all the other days"; and Saint Augustine calls Sunday "a sacrament of Easter".’

Finally, minor additions of prayers and blessing aside, it is worth noting that the modern Office differs from that prescribed by S Benedict in one important respect, and that is the selection of readings: Patristic commentaries on the Gospel now generally substitute for the New Testament readings that St Benedict prescribed for the third nocturn.

This concludes St Benedict's commentary on Matins.  For his notes on Lauds, see the next part of this series.