The Importance of the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

Yesterday we began re-reading the chapters of the Rule that deal with the liturgical prayer of the community. Over the next two weeks we shall go through the various Offices (Hours) of the day, the psalms to be said, the number and kind of lessons to be read, the postures we should adopt and so on. I’m told that some communities have abandoned reading these chapters on the grounds that their daily Office no longer conforms to the pattern of the Rule. Our own Office does not conform in every respect — for example, we have an English Office of Lauds which follows a different arrangement of psalmody (as provided for in the Rule) — but we certainly pay close attention to Benedict’s liturgical code because it is normative. By that I mean that it gives us the principles on which our community prayer should be based, and enough detail to ensure that we do not devise some whacky scheme of our own that takes us away from the objective nature of the liturgy. Do these matter? I think they do.

One of the dangers of liturgical ‘creativity’ is that often it isn’t actually creative but really quite deadly. It can substitute a highly subjective and time-limited view of reality for an older, more challenging one. What we often forget is that we have to work at the liturgy. For instance, we have to pray the psalter as Christ prays it, and usually that means letting go of our own ideas. Here we pray all 150 psalms every week, as stipulated by St Benedict, without any worries about whether the cursing psalms should cross a Christian’s lips or not. If they crossed Our Lord’s, they can certainly cross ours. Nor are we bothered by notions of quantity being the enemy of quality. The psalter is complete in itself, carefully arranged, ideally suited to the rhythms of liturgical time, the day and the week. When we lose touch with that, we lose touch with much else that is relevant.

One of the joys of being a Benedictine is that we are remarkably free of the devotionalism that has marked the growth of the Church in later ages.* That means we have no let-out. We cannot substitute the personal for the communal. We have to make the liturgy the focus of our personal prayer as well as of our prayer as a community; and because at one level that is all very simple, psalms and scripture for the most part, we have to become thoroughly saturated with what would today be called a biblical spirituality, familiar not just with the texts but with the way in which they have been interpreted and understood by the Fathers. Even the chants we use to sing the words of the liturgy are biblical in origin, having their roots in the synagogue music of the time of Christ.

So, if you are reading through the Rule day by day, as we do in the monastery, be encouraged. These supposedly dry chapters on liturgy have much to teach us. They end in chapter 20, with one of the most perfect statements of what prayer is and how we should prepare for it. It presupposes all that has gone before, because one of the things we all have to learn, sooner or later, is that there are no short-cuts in prayer unless God chooses. And that is the rub. The liturgy is a gift, and it is given by God.

*Please don’t misunderstand me: I would be the last person to undervalue the significance of Eucharistic Adoration or the Rosary, for example, although they play no part in our community prayer because they did not exist in Benedict’s time or for centuries after. They are left to the individual’s personal attraction on the Bakerite principle, ‘Follow your call, that’s all in all.’

Addendum
A couple of people have asked about our arrangement of the psalms in the Divine Office. The diagram below gives the psalm scheme for Ordinary Sundays of the Year and Ferias, with the exception that the Sunday Lauds canticle is recited after psalm 116. The sections are Vigils, Lauds, Midday Office (which incorporates the lesser Hours), Vespers and Compline. We follow the Septuagint numbering of the psalms.

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12 thoughts on “The Importance of the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict”

  1. “Whacky scheme”—been there, seen that. Luckily, our clergy here at St. Philip’s in the Hills have a very high regard for the liturgy, and they and the lay-people who assist during Mass “work at liturgy” with dedication and discipline. It is so important for our communal prayer an worship.

  2. Dear Sisters: I’d be very interested to know how you pray all 150 psalms in five offices per day. Is there a table available showing the psalter distribution? (I’m unreasonably fascinated by such things.) Beyond this question, I found much to ponder in this article. Thank you.

  3. May I chime in that I’d love to see your distribution, too? The communities of our Episcopal communion have various ways of distributing the psalms over 2 or 4 weeks but I don’t know that any of them do all 150 psalms in a week any more. (Scott, you would know better than I, I’m guessing!) The Community of St. Mary’s (Eastern Province) retains much of the distribution of St. Benedict but spreads the Matins or Vigils psalms over a month.

      • Sister, thank you very much for this! I see that the midday office has two groups of psalms, which certainly helps get the 150 prayed each week. The only thing I wonder about is the first psalm listed on its own at Vigils…is that like the traditional Benedictine use of Psalm 3 at the very beginning before the Invitatory?

        St Gregory’s Abbey in Michigan prays all 150 psalms weekly, quite closely to the distribution described in the Rule, chs. 8-20. (Schema A in the Thesaurus Liturgiae Horarum Monasticae.) But they also have the full set of offices, with Vigils-Lauds-Terce-Sext-None-Vespers-Compline. I was glad to have a chance as a retreat guest to experience the full day’s round, and it’s a lot of Opus Dei! Exhausting for me, of course, as I’m not used to being awake and coherent by 4 a.m. Other communities tend to have a two-week pattern, or four.

  4. Thank you so much, Sister. I confess to being absolutely dotty about the liturgical code in the Rule. Every choice of psalm in the Rule holds a wealth of meaning; I’m grateful to see how you arrange yours.

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