Chapter 45 of the Rule of St Benedict which we read today, On Those Who Make Mistakes in the Oratory, is one of those little chapters of the Rule the non-monastic reader is likely to skip. What does it really matter if we stumble over a word in our recitation of the Divine Office or mangle a psalm-tone? Fluffing a word or two is hardly a sin, and although singing slightly flat or slightly sharp may vex our neighbour (who would probably say there is no such thing as ‘slightly flat’ or ‘slightly sharp’), it surely doesn’t merit performing a ritual of satisfaction, does it? Benedict clearly thought otherwise; so perhaps we should, too.
The careful performance of our public prayer is a sign of the reverence we have for God and for the oratory itself (cf RB 20 and RB 52). When we take the psalms or other scriptures on our lips, we are giving voice to the Word of God. To do so carelessly would obviously be wrong; but we can forget that our reverence should extend to the community in which we proclaim God’s word. Benedict must have had a sensitive ear because one of the qualities he demands of those who sing or read is that they should edify their hearers (cf RB 38.12). There is no concept of ‘Buggins’ turn’, no nonsense about all having an equal right to read or intone.
Put simply, Benedict sees the Divine Office as something that should engage our full attention, both before, during and after its celebration. It is to be performed, a word that means fulfilled through doing rather than implying anything theatrical. If we make a mistake, we are to acknowledge the fact openly. To an outsider, the ritual gestures of making satisfaction in choir may seem odd, but they have a double effect. The one who has blundered is able to apologize silently; and those who may have been thrown off-key or winced at our lack of preparation are, in theory at least, mollified. More importantly, they reaffirm our shared belief in the seriousness of what we are doing and the presence of God in our midst as we pray. They may even prompt us to think about our conduct in other areas of life, where an honest admission of failure and an apology may be called for; and that is something for all of us to consider, monastic or not.