De Disciplina Psallendi | The Discipline of Singing the Psalms

Although it is generally agreed that the chapter titles in the Rule of St Benedict are a later addition, they often throw fresh light on the subject Benedict is writing about. Take today’s section of the Rule, for example. McCann paraphrased the title of chapter 19 as ‘The Manner of Saying the Divine Office’, which is fine, but doesn’t convey the crispness and point of the Latin. De Disciplina Psallendi reminds us that singing the psalmody of the Divine Office is instructive, not something we take up accidentally or without registering its significance. It requires all that is implied by the English word ‘discipline’: focus, attention, listening to others, holding back our own dulcet tones, possibly, to achieve harmony, hard work. It is a discipline that changes us. Singing the psalms, entering into the prayer of Christ himself, hour by hour, day by day, enlarges our understanding and compassion. We learn how to celebrate the beauty of creation, the mirabilia Dei, give thanks, acknowledge our sin and plead for forgiveness, experience the desolation of God’s apparent absence, know the depths of our tawdry desire for vengeance. We cannot hide from God or ourselves when we sing the psalms. They are the song of a free people, people God has claimed as his own, a little taste of Eden and of the heaven to come

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Something for Liturgists to Remember

We are almost at the end of the liturgical code in the Rule of St Benedict. We have read through the chapters that tell us how many and which psalms and canticles are to be said at the various Hours of the day and noted Benedict’s instructions about the way in which they are to be performed. We stand in honour of the gospel; we sing the Invitatory psalm of Vigils rather slowly, so that latecomers have time to arrive; we know when to sing alleluia and when not. But it is only after all these regulations that we come to chapter 19 and Benedict’s treatment of the dispositions we need to sing the Divine Office worthily. How many liturgists today would think of leaving to the end of their treatise what most of us would think of as the starting-point?

Benedict reminds us that God and his angels are always present and urges us to ‘sing the psalms in such a way that mind and voice may be in harmony.’ (RB 19.7) There are times when the routine of the Office may overtake us, when we sing the words and perform the ritual gestures with less than full attention, but that is clearly not the ideal. I think the placing of this chapter is an oblique comment on the temptation to think that the correct performance of the liturgy is enough; it isn’t. Our hearts and minds must be fully engaged, too, and as anyone committed to reciting the Divine Office every day will admit, that is not always easy. Moreover, although Benedict makes plain elsewhere that he isn’t keen on those with very modest singing or reading abilities acting as cantors or giving out antiphons, he assumes that the choral office will be the prayer of the whole community. It is not the preserve of the chosen few. The corollary is, of course, that everyone has the duty to prepare properly. Those who need better knowledge of the psalms and lessons, for example, are told to devote the time between Vigils and Lauds to studying them (RB 8.3). As we shall see elsewhere in the Rule, mistakes caused by negligence are subject to correction. Benedict will not excuse any slovenliness or inattention.

So, what can we take from this for today, especially if we are not monks or nuns? I think in the first instance we can take heart. Prayer is important, and the common prayer of the community, be it the local congregation or that of the universal Church, has special value. It requires of us more than mechanical participation. It is a means of entering into the prayer of Christ himself, ‘the chief prayer of the psalms’ as St Augustine calls him, which means we must make an effort to be attentive. Little by little prayer changes us. One day, we may change the world — but only insofar as we have allowed Christ to become all in all to us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail