Chapter Twelve

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The celebration of solemn Lauds.

‘For Lauds on Sunday the sixty sixth psalm should be said first of all straight through without an antiphon. After comes the fiftieth psalm wit its alleluia. Then comes the hundred and seventeenth psalm and the sixty second followed by the Benedictie and the Laudate psalms, a reading from the book of the Apocalypse recited by heart, the responsory, an Ambrosian hymn, a versicle, the Benedictus, litany and conclusion.

The Holy Father is very precise in what must take place in the office of Lauds on the Sunday or solemn occasions. Lauds is celebrated in the morning, early, at daybreak and there is something beautifully poignant about rising as the son rises on a Sunday, the dawning of a new light from the darkness, both metaphorical and actual.

The name Lauds derives from the last three psalms of the Divine Office called Laudate Psalms, meaning to praise, and the content of those psalms lifts the voice to the Lord in praise. Praise for the risen Christ as He comes into the world, mirrored by the breaking dawn and the new light of day.

There is a lot of repetition in the Divine Offices for the monastic community. According to one commentary the number of psalms recited each week is actually 279 because of those that area repeated on a daily basis. Sometimes when I speak to other Christians about the liturgy the usual comments for those that do not appreciate it, or do not find it useful, come down to the repetitive nature of some of the prayers. I always like to think of it like a spiritual diet. If you were to constantly feed the inner craving of the soul with sweet, positive, uplifting spiritual food you would no doubt be quite content, maybe even euphoric for a time. However, when mood changes due to circumstance, some great trauma, a lack of sleep or whatever it may be, how is the soul sustained? These repetitive prayers and psalms provide the bulk of the spiritual meal, they are what keeps the soul going when it needs extra energy – when words fail because of situation or stress, the repeated prayers and psalms come easily to mind providing a safe framework of support.

We live in a culture that prizes entertainment – sometimes the repetition of the prayers and psalms may feel ‘boring’ but that is no bad thing, it helps us to remember what our motivation is. Am I praying these prayers for me? Or am I doing it because God is worthy of my praise and that is how I honour Him. It is useful to remind ourselves that the liturgy is never about us.

Chapter Eleven

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Vigils or night office on Sunday.

‘All should rise earlier for the night-time vigils on Sunday. In these Vigils the arrangement should be that six psalms and a verse should be chanted, as described above, and then, when everyone has sat down in an orderly way on the benches, four lessons should be read from the book on the lectern with their responsories. The Gloria is aded only to the fourth lesson and when the cantor begins to sing it, all rise out of reverence. The six psalms follow these lessons in due order which their responsories and a versicle, as described above. 

After that, four more lessons should be read in the same way with their responsories. Then three canticles from the prophets, chosen by the superior, are chanted with the alleluia. Then after a versicle and a blessing from the abbot or abbess, four further lessons should be read from the New Testament, as described above. After the fourth, the superior intones the Te Deum laudamus and at the end of that reads the gospel while the choir stand as a sign of profound reverence. At the end of the gospel all respond with Amen and the superior intones the Te decet laus and after the blessing Lauds begins.’

Benedict is precise in his arrangements in The Rule for the Vigil office on Sunday. It is clear that this time, with earlier rising, standing in reverence explicitly noted, a greater number of psalms, responsories and versicles, is to show the solemnity of the day. There is a danger, in our church life, to think of Sunday as ‘normal’ and to not make as much of an effort of a ‘regular Sunday’ was perhaps we do on High Days, Holy Days and Feasts. But Sunday is the solemnity of the death and resurrection of Our Lord, when we meet together, again, to relive those words from scripture, to confess, to acknowledge our failure, receive forgives and approach Him on the altar to receive Him in Body and Blood, in bread and wine.

Sunday is a special day, it is a feast day (which, incidentally, is why Sundays are not included in the forty days of Lent) and it is a day that our attention should be fixed upon God most completely. I was struck by the opening line of this chapter, the ‘All should rise earlier’ – as a Priest, Sunday is actually my latest start of the week. My main service is at 11am and I don’t need to be in church (it is attached to my house!) until 10:30am. However, and this is a new pattern for me as I am 4 months into my incumbency, I have begun to feel as though the leisurely start to Sunday is not doing honour to God. I should give all of this day to His service. For Lent, as a starting point and a good time to address spiritual weakness or make improvements to our life of devotion, I am going to rise earlier on a Sunday and spend more time in private prayer with Him before I dare to approach the altar and lead His people in praise.

When your life is ‘working’ (for want of a better phrase) for the Church, it is very easy to slip into a routine. We must draw our attention back to Him, the purpose of our service and the reason for our calling, and Sunday, that sacred day each week, is a good time to do that.

‘This arrangement for Vigils is followed in the same way on every Sunday both in summer and winter, unless – which God forbid – the community gets up late, in which case the lessons or responsories should to some extent be shortened. Care, however. should be taken to avoid this. If it should happen, whoever is responsible must express fitting repentance to God in the oratory.’

The monks, when Benedict was writing, were not in possession of personal alarm clocks. They were governed by bells and it was someones task to ring them, to wake the community and to call them to prayer. Benedict is practical and compassionate. He realises that mistakes will happen, people will oversleep, bells will not be rung on time and therefore the whole community may arrive late. Obviously suitable penance must be made, we cannot forget our spiritual duty and just carry on as though nothing has happened. But interestingly Benedict only allows a suitable shortening of the readings and the responsories, not the Psalms. Once again, this expresses how pivotal the Psalms are for Benedict and his monks, they are central to the life and without understanding this significance The Rule of Benedict will not grow in your heart or mind.

 

Chapter Ten

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The night office in summertime 

From Easter until the first day of November the same number of psalms should be said as we have established for winter, but because the nights are shorter, instead of reading three lessons from the book on the lectern only one should be recited by heart from the Old Testament with a brief responsory to follow. Apart form that the arrangements for winter are followed exactly so that never less than twelve psalms should be recited at Vigils, not counting the third and ninety fourth psalms. 

This may seem a rather innocuous little chapter within The Rule, not really making all that much difference. Does it really need a chapter all of its own? Does Benedict need to be quite so prescriptive about something that may seem quite trivial, such as the number of psalms. In this small chapter Benedict is showing that he is, in all senses of the word, their holy father. Caring and tending to their needs both physically and spiritually.

Shortening the readings as the nights become shorter allows the monks to ensure that they are getting enough sleep, so that they can physically remain fit and well for their manual labour and the ‘Work of God’ in the rhythm of their prayers. But interestingly he did not allow or suggest a change in the pattern of psalms. The psalter is still recited to the fullest and therefore they still will go through all of the psalms in the cycle. The psalms, therefore, encompassing all of human response God, become the foundational material for the monks spiritual life.

It is interesting to note that there is a somewhat different emphasis on the liturgy to the Church today. We, now, perhaps have taken a more intellectual route – that the listening to the readings is the most important aspect of our set prayer. For Benedict it was clearly the recitation of the psalms, arguably less intellectual stimulus (although the monks are working from memory largely) but one that touches the heart and expresses something of the deep relationship with God.

The number of psalms is also significant – 12 – to be prayed at the Vigils. This is because of the monastic tradition that an angel appeared to Saint Pachomius (widely considered to be the founder of Christian cenobitic monastic life) and informed him of the importance of praying twelve psalms. A subtle nod to the Grandfather of the monastic life (if Benedict is to be considered the Father)

 

 

Chapter Nine

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The number of psalms at the night office.

‘During this winter season the office of vigils begins with the verse recited three times; Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise. To this should be added the third psalm and the Gloria. Then will come the ninety fourth psalm chanted with its antiphon and after that an Ambrosian hymn, followed by six psalms with their antiphons. 

Amidst the strict practice of the number of psalms, the type of hymn and the use of the antiphons and Gloria, there is a beautiful reminder to use the phrase ‘Lord open my lips’. For the monks living in community as they rise from slumber and leave their cells to take part in the Office of Vigils they won’t have spoken to another human being. That interaction that we take for granted has been limited as the monastery is plunged into The Greater Silence from the previous evening. The first words that leave their mouth in the early hours of the morning ‘Lord open my lips, that my mouth shall declare your praise’ – a lovely invocation of God’s help – give me breath Lord, bring me through this nighttime and darkness that I may be given more time on this earth to praise you.

Psalm three is then always recited. These eight verses speak of the enemies that surround us and God our saviour. There are some lines within it that, in the darkness of the monastery church or cell, must have a very atmospheric quality. Such as verses five and six.

‘I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.’

This poignant reminder that as the monk arises from their bed to undertake the Work of God in prayer – they are joining with a great cosmic battle, raging, angel against demon, God against satan. Empowered by the Spirit and in answer to the call upon their life, these monks take their place on the front line.

‘On completion of these psalms there is a versicle and a blessing from the abbott or abbess. Then all sit on benches while three lessons are red our from the lectern by members of the choir, taking it in turns. Responsories are sung after each but the Gloria Patri comes only after the third and as soon as the cantor intones it all rise from their seats out of reverence for the Holy Trinity. The readings at Vigils are to be taken from the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments with commentaries on them by recognised and orthodox catholic Fathers.

Another small instruction that could easily get lost in the nitty gritty of the details of the Office is the command to rise from sitting when the Gloria Patri is intoned, out of reverence for the Holy Trinity. This is a practice that we still often use in church for Morning Prayer and there is something rather powerful about using our whole body as worship. We are not just speaking words or listening to scripture but taking that in and responding to it in a physical way. Often these physical gestures, be is kneeling, rising from your seat, crossing yourself, beating your breast or whatever the liturgy commands, it is a way to draw the mind back to the present moment and the intentional prayers that are being offered.

Because of the repeated pattern of liturgy (Some people love it for that familiarity, while others find it too repetitive and lacking in spontaneity – I sit firmly in the first camp and believe that those in the second are only there because they have experienced poorly executed liturgy) the mind can wander to other things. Especially when the Office takes place in the morning – the plan for the day often begins to unfold with lists being made and tasks scheduled. All of a sudden I find myself on my feet as the Gloria is said, autopilot has been turned off and the muscle memory has shocked me back into the place where I should be, physically and mentally. The use of our whole body for worships is important.

‘After these three lessons with their responsories there follow six psalms which are to be sung with the alleluia. A reading from the Apostle recited by heart should follow with a verse and a petition from the litany, that is: Lord, have mercy. That brings the night Vigils to a conclusion. 

Arguably this is the defining Office of the monk. They have taken the very special and particular call from God to be regularly at prayer and often at prayer. They are the members of the church that keep Vigil every day, keeping watch on our behalf. This Office of Vigils at the beginning of the day, early in the morning, is the longest of the monastic offices and the one that is most bolstered with psalms and readings. It is from this that the monk anchors their life in which to undertake their vital task in the church.

This is a hard discipline and following this, and the other offices, means that the monk recites the entire psalter each week. All 150 psalms committed to memory and recited. The beauty of the psalms is in their capturing of all human life – they are not white washed accounts that suggest belief in God magically makes life good and free of suffering, they wrestle with perceived injustice, they argue, they cry, they express joy. Committed to memory and taken to heart they fully express the beauty of the human soul in relationship to God.