Chapter Nineteen

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Our approach to prayer

‘God is present everywhere – present to the good and to the evil as well, so that nothing anyone does escapes His notice; that is the firm conviction of our faith. Let us be very sure, however, without a moment’s doubt that his presence to us is never so strong as while we are celebrating the work of God in the oratory. And so we should always recall at such times the words of the psalm: Serve the Lord with awe and reverence, and sing the Lord’s praises with skill and relish, and: I shall sing your praise in the presence of the angels. All of us, then, should reflect seriously how to appear before the majesty of God in the presence of his angels. That will lead us to make sure that, when we sing in choir, there is complete harmony between the thoughts in our mind and the meaning of the words that we sing.’

The Rule of Saint Benedict focuses very little upon the theory of prayer. If you pick up a copy hoping to find a quick fix to your spiritual life to turn you into a saint overnight then you are going to be bitterly disappointed. Chapters nineteen and twenty are the sum total of the teaching that is not about the mechanical workings of the liturgy. This is not because Benedict does not care, quite the contrary, but it is something that must be experienced and lived – something that becomes as natural to the monk as breathing.

The opening remark of this chapter, taken out of context, could give carte blanch to the seeker of a spiritual life to not take part in the rigorous liturgy with all the complicated seasonal changes – if God is everywhere, why both going to a special building and saying specific words? Surely my own private prayers, wherever I choose to offer them, are just as good?

But the second part of this chapter casts that idea aside. Yes, God is everywhere and yes He is available to those who are good and evil alike, that is His will, but that does not mean each of us are capable of offering true worship to God in the recesses of our own thoughts. The soul seeks – it seeks the ultimate meaning in life, which is God, but we are not always able to discern exactly the path that it should take. This is why, very often, people become entranced by different ways of attempting to satisfy that restless soul. As Saint Augustine said ‘Our heart is restless until it rests in You’ – Going to a particular place and making oneself attentive through particular words is not a magic incantation to summon God before us that we may commune with Him more effectively – it is a way to train the restless heart, soul and mind to pay attention to the work of the Divine that goes on in all places at all time and to catch a hold of it – to not tentatively dip our toe into the water but to plunge, head first, into the torrent and allow ourselves to be swept along with Him.

Benedict is very clear that we cannot simply go through the motions – the singing in choir  must produce harmony – not only in the musical notation but in the connection between those beautiful words of scripture, the rawness and power of the psalms and the heart, mind, soul, and indeed, the very being of the Christian at prayer.

Why does Benedict not write much about the theory behind the practice of prayer? It is much the same as those who hunt for the memorial of Sir Christopher Wren and find the inscription in the centre of St. Paul’s Cathedral telling them to look around them. Pick up Benedict’s Rule and each chapter teaches that prayer is a lifelong and lived vocation.

Chapter Eighteen

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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.

 

Chapter Seventeen

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The number of psalms to be sung at the hours

‘We have already set out the order of the psalms for Vigils and for Lauds. Now let us look at the order of the psalms for the rest of the Hours. At Prime three psalms should be recited separately and not under one Gloria and a hymn appropriate to each hour should be said after the Deus in auditorium before the psalms are begun. After the three psalms there should be one lesson and the Hour is concluded with a versicle and Lord have mercy and the concluding prayers.

One of the temptations with liturgy, especially when it can be long or complex, is to find ways in which to shorten it. Having three psalms and reciting them one after the other and placing the Gloria at the end of the third only may seem like an appropriate way to find a shortcut. It seems quite logical and even has a good justification, that we are still praying each of the psalms so why put the conclusion to the pray at the end of each one. It could even be argued that we are breaking up the rhythm of the Hour if we do that. But what Benedict shows here is that each psalm should be savoured, that each psalm stands alone as an individual prayer to God, that we are not to lump them together like some great list of words that are rattled off to fulfil an obligation. The appropriate pauses, hymns and versicles slow us down and draw our attention, once again, to the words we are praying.

‘At Terce, Sext and None the same order of prayer obtains, that is, after the opening verse and the hymn for each Hour there are three psalms, a reading, versicle, Lord have mercy and the conclusion. If the community is a large one they have antiphons as well but, if it is small, they sing the psalms alone. 

The use (or omission) of the antiphons here is what jumps out from this portion of the chapter. Large communities, by law of averages, are going to have more members who are able to sing and the singing of the antiphons does require someone that has a good voice and can carry a tune without accompaniment. Of course, that is not to say that a small community with a gifted singer cannot ever make use of that talent. The principle that Benedict is alluding to in this portion of the Rule is that the liturgy of the Hours can be adapted to fit the community. There is little to glorify God in a small community if there is anxiety about the singing of antiphons, if someone has to be strong-armed into doing it or if it is always going to sound terrible and be off putting. The liturgy leaves and breaths within the community,, it allows them to grow and shapes them, it is a trellis that supports that growth, rather than a small pot that will eventually need to be discarded for repotting.

For the office of Vespers the number of psalms should be limited to four which their antiphons. After the psalms as lesson is repeated, then a responsory, an Ambrosian hymn, a versicle, the Magnificat, litany and the Hour is concluded with the Lord’s prayer.’

Another Hour brings a slight change to the pattern. Vespers is often (rightly or wrongly) considered to be one of the two ‘main’ hours of the day. Morning prayer and evening prayer being what they have become in the church outside of the monastery for the non-Religious clergy and the laity. They bookend the day and therefore have a slightly different feel about them. With the litany, additional psalms and ending with the Lord’s Prayer it feels quite final, as though when the book is closed the work is done. However, that is not what Benedict envisages in this, but it is a drawing to a close the work of the day – the manual work and labour that is just as much a part of the monastic prayer as the words and the psalms said and sung in chapel. The work of God always continues. (And the monks will gather again, not long after this, for Compline)

‘Compline will consist in the recitation of three psalms on their own without antiphons. Then comes the hymn for Compline, one lesson, a versicle, Lord have mercy, and the office is concluded with a blessing’

The only office that concludes with a blessing. After this the monks return to their cell and to their sleep, a sleep that they may never rise from. They are blessed as they go, that they may be protected in their sleep from all dangers to the spirit and to the body. This always strikes me as I read this portion of The Rule and I am reminded of the words from the Book of Common Prayer for Mattins, in the Collect for Grace;

‘O Lord, our heavenly Father, Almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day; Defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings, being ordered by thy governance, may be righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

It is a beautiful prayer and one that fits well with the blessing of Compline. We have been  blessed and sent on our way, when we rise and find ourselves alive and ready for continued service to God, we thank Him for His grace and mercy, that he has protected us from all assaults of the enemy as we sleep.

The pattern of the monastic offices builds within the community the core belief that worship of God is central, it is not merely punctuation but the complete sentence.