The hours of the work of God during the day.
‘The words of the psalm are: I have uttered your praises seven times during the day. We shall fulfil that sacred number of seven if at the times of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline we perform the duty of our service to God, because it was of these day hours that the psalm said: I have uttered your praises seven times during the day. About the night Vigil that same psalm says: In the middle of the night I arose to praise you. And so at these times let us offer praise to our creator because of his justice revealed in his judgements – that is at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline and in the night let us arise to praise Him.’
The full round of monastic offices, as Benedict shows, is deeply rooted in the Psalms, of which we have already seen through the previous chapters how much importance the Holy Father places upon that set of texts. Benedict, for his Rule, was inheriting these times of day from earlier monastic documents, such as those laid down by S. Basil the Great as he attempted to bring some order to the early cenobitic communities.
Structured times of the day and night for prayer may, for some people, at first feel suffocating. It is often the criticism levelled at churches and communities that gather around a more liturgical structure from those that do not. Why do I need particular times and words to pray? We are creatures of habit, we form ritual because that is a natural aspect of being human – it is part of the way we order ourselves in society. If we were to rely upon our own self for a disciplined prayer life, we may well start strong, we may last for a good amount of time – but the pressures of life, the commitments we have to family, work, friends and many other things eventually take over and because prayer is not seen as quantifiable or tangible it is often, sadly, the first thing to go. Prayer on our own (although in the true understanding we are never alone in prayer) falls into second place before time spent with another person, or in a meeting or something that is concrete and solid in the diary.
Secondly, if we rely solely upon ourselves to order our prayer life without some form of structure it will vary from week to week depending upon our mood and inclination. We may well have very long dry spells where we simply don’t pray – as well as the occasional oasis where our prayer life is lush. This is not consistent and in the long term it is not sustainable or good for the soul.
The seven times of daily prayer in the monastic system punctuate the practical work of the monk – for Benedict it was the way in which prayer became something that a whole life was soaked in, not just the gathering at these times, but a life long endeavour. For Benedict and his brothers and sisters work is prayer and prayer is work – through this trellis of prayer the heart is orientated to God daily, it does not depend upon your mood or inclination, it becomes like breathing – something that you simply could not do without. Gathering at these particular times develops a habit making prayer second nature and keeping you accountable to the community that you are part of and to God Himself.
We are, as Christians, to offer ourselves fully to God, to follow Him with our whole lives and not just a part of it. These times of monastic prayer would not be enough on their own, as they would still just be a bit here and a bit there, but taken as the structure and to accompany the rest of the work of the Christian life, they are the fertile ground in which the soul may grow with the seeds that planted from the daily reading of Gods words and watered with communing with the Holy Spirit.
To pray without ceasing does not mean an endless stream of words – but a life lived in true orientation to God.