The order for reciting the psalms.
‘Each hour begins with the following verse: O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me. The Gloria and the hymn for each Hour then follow.
At Prime on Sunday four sections of psalms one hundred and eighteen are said and at the other Hours, that is at Terce, Sext and None, three sections of the same psalm are said. At Prime on Monday there are three psalms, namely the first, second and sixth and so on for each day at Prime until Sunday when three psalms are said in order up to the nineteenth psalm, but the ninth and seventeenth are divided into two. This will mean that Vigils on Sunday always begin with the twentieth psalm.’
It took me a few attempts to read that passage and make sense of it. The writing in this section of The Rule, as we delve deeper into the intricacies of the Monastic Office, begin to highlight, perhaps more than anywhere else in The Rule, the audience that Benedict has in mind. This complicated liturgy can be baffling to the outsider and there is a period of adjustment and a sharp learning curve as you allow them to bed down into your conscious. If you have ever attempted to pray the Offices of the Monastic Diurnal or the Anglican Breviary you will get more than a glimpse of how difficult it can be to learn your way around these texts.
However, do not be put off, the effort of learning them is short in comparison with the wealth of treasure that is hidden within them. Benedict clearly felt that about the psalms. The monks would be expected to remember the psalter so that any psalm could easily be brought to mind. We might look at those 150 individual pieces of poetry and wonder how on earth it is possible to remember more than one or two of the shorter ones. But it is because of the repetition that we see described in this chapter of The Rule that shows how the monks dwelt with the word of God, allowing it to seep into their very being.
‘Then at Terce, Sext and None on Monday the nine sections left over from the one hundred and eighteenth psalm are recited – three at each of these hours. That psalm is completed, then, in two days, namely Sunday and Monday, and on Tuesday at Terce, Sext and None three psalms are sung at each Hour starting from the one hundred and nineteenth and going on to the one hundred and twenty seventh, that is nine psalms. These same psalms are repeated daily until Sunday and the identical arrangement of hymns, lessons and verses is retained every day. That means, of course, that the series always starts again on Sunday with the one hundred and eighteenth psalm’
The phrase that stood our to me from this section of chapter was ‘left over’ – I like the image of the psalms being a hearty meal, too much to eat in one sitting but too good to let go to waste, the left-overs can be reused the following day and continue to provide that sustenance for the soul, such is the richness of this spiritual meal.
Secondly, the routine that is building, beginning again on a Sunday. This mirrors our Christian life, we begin again each Sunday as we gather on the Lord’s Day to receive Him in word and in sacrament before we are sent out into the rest of our working week, to live according to what we have had revealed to us and what we have received in the sacraments. The liturgical rhythm creates that routine and, like a trellis, supports us as we grow in our faith, love and devotion.
‘Vespers each day has four psalms to be sung. These psalms should start with the one hundred and ninth going through to the one hundred and forty seventh, omitting those which are taken from that series for other Hours, that is the one hundred and seventieth to the one hundred and twenty seventh and the one hundred and thirty third and the one hundred and forty second; with these exceptions all the other are sung at Vespers. But since that leaves us short of three psalms the longer psalms in this series should be divided in two, that is the one hundred and thirty eighth, the one hundred and forty third, and the one hundred and forty fourth. The one hundred and sixteenth psalm, however, because it is very short should be joined to the one hundred and fifteenth. With the order of psalmody thus arranged for Vespers the rest of the office, that is the lesson, response, hymn, versicle and Magnificat should follow the principles which are set out above. At Compline the same psalms are recited daily, that is the fourth, ninetieth and one hundred and thirty third.’
Although the rhythm of the monastic office that Benedict is outlining here is based on repetition and the continuation of that repetition he is also practical when it comes to what should be repeated. Again, not wishing to stretch the analogy, if we were to think of it as a healthy meal – no matter how good the meal, how delicious and nutritious it may be, if you were to have it more than once a day, every, day of every week you would tire of it, and even resent eating it, if you didn’t give up eating it completely. So, to alleviate some the fatigue that could be felt if the psalms were repeated in a simple order this more complicated systems appears which allows some psalms from the logical order to be omitted in recognition that they have been prayed elsewhere as part of another Hour. Benedict clearly feels the psalms are too important to discard completely but he also does not want the monks to get sick of reciting and singing them – so adjustments are made that allow a full repetition of the psalms but without unnecessary repeats that could immunise the monk against their beauty.
‘After w have arranged the psalms for the day Hours in this way all the other psalms which are left over should be divided equally between the Vigils on the seven nights of the week, which can be done by dividing the longer psalms and allotting twelve psalms or divisions to each night
We have no hesitation in urging that, if any are dissatisfied with this distribution of psalms they should re-arrange them in whatever way seems better, provided that one principle is preserved, namely that the whole psalter of one hundred and fifty psalms should be recited each week and that the series should start again on Sunday at Vigils. Any monastic community which chants less than the full psalter with the usual canticles each week shows clearly that it is too indolent in devotion of its service to God. After all, we read that our holy Fathers had the energy to fulfil in one single day what we in our lukewarm devotion only aspire to complete in a whole week’
There is no shying away from the fact that Benedict can be strict and this final passage of chapter eighteen demonstrates that. He begins with an accustomed practical nicety – he is not precious about his design for the ordering of psalms if someone can come up with a scheme that suits their community – he is not dictatorial that the letter of this particular part of the Rule should be observed but what matters is the principle, that all the psalms are repeated each week, whatever schema is used.
His words on this are firm. Anything less than the full one hundred and fifty psalms a week shows a laziness in devotion toward God. That may be startling to those of us who are not monastics and do not live in that world, which is why he is very sure to say ‘monastic communities’ as a rider to his ire. These communities that have decided to follow God in the single minded (monos) way that the Religious have are duty bound to live that life in an exemplary way, the purpose of their separation from the daily trudge of the rest of the world is precisely to be able to achieve these remarkable feats of devotion that those of us with jobs and families in the secular world couldn’t dream of achieving. Their purpose is not just as an example for us but to be a large part of that command of Christ to be praying at all times. Their devotion to the Office and the Hours of prayer keeps that cycle going when the rest of us are at work or asleep. Benedict has no time for those, who have signed up for that duty, to be slacking.