Enlarging the Heart

Daily readings from the Rule of Saint Benedict

By a Benedictine of Saint Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde

“… as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments.”

(From the Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict)

St Benedict wrote his Rule for monks some fifteen centuries ago. Driven by his love of Christ, he wanted to establish his monastery as a “school of the Lord’s service”: a place where people who truly seek God could find him; places where “authentic Gospel values prevail”(1); where nothing whatever would be preferred to Christ. The Rule of St Benedict spread all over Europe, and had an enormous influence on the life and spirituality of the Latin Church. It continues to inspire monks, nuns, and countless lay people throughout the world today. Like many monasteries we divide the Rule into sections so that the whole Rule is covered over a period of three months. The commentaries will follow the sequence of the sections.

(1) Pope John Paul II, to Benedictine Abbots, 23 September 1996

 

June 23, 

At Terce, Sext, and None on Monday three sections respectively of the nine remaining sections of the 118th Psalm are to be said.  This Psalm having been entirely completed on these two days, that is, on Sunday and Monday, let the nine psalms from the 119th to the 127th be said on Tuesday at Terce, Sext, and None three at each Hour.  And these psalms are to be repeated at the same Hours every day until Sunday, with the hymns, lessons, and verses remaining the same for all these days, so as always to begin on Sunday with the 118th.

 

The little hours, Terce, Sext and None from Tuesday to Saturday, consist of the pilgrim psalms in the Psalter, sung when the pilgrims were going up to Jerusalem for the great annual feasts.  St Augustine saw in this going up to Jerusalem, a symbol of the true ascent which is that of the heart: “We are taught nothing else by these songs than to ascend, but to ascend in the heart, in good affections, in faith, hope and charity, in  the longing for eternity and for life without end” (Commentary on Ps 119).  St Benedict may have had something like this in mind when he had his monks sing the first 9 psalms of ascent every day at Terce, Sext and None except on Sunday and Monday when the 118th psalm is said.  These pilgrim psalms are chants designed to sustain the pilgrim on his way; they accompany the different stages of the journey, physical and spiritual.  And it is possible to see each of these psalms from 119-133c as corresponding to a different stage of the pilgrimage, from the  decision to go up in Psalm 119 to the point of departing the Holy City in Psalm 133. The monk is on his way to heaven.

 

CHAPTER 18: IN WHAT ORDER THE PSALMS ARE TO BE SAID June 22, 

First of all, at the day hours let this verse always be said: “Deus in adiutórium meum inténde; Dómine ad adiuvándum me festína,” and the “Gloria Patri.” Then the hymn proper to each Hour. (O God come to my aid, O Lord make haste to help me).

At Prime on Sunday four sections of the 118th  Psalm are to be said.  At the other hours, that is, at Terce, Sext, and None, let three sections each of the same psalm be said.

At Prime on Monday let three psalms be said: namely, the 1st , 2nd, and 6th.  And thus three psalms are to be said at Prime each day until Sunday, in order up to the 19th; the 9th  and the 17th, however, are divided into two sections, each followed by the “Gloria Patri,” so that the Night Office on Sunday may always begin with the 20th Psalm.

 

This chapter gives a list of the psalms to be said throughout the day. As we have seen, the essence, the substance, the heart of the divine office is today, as everywhere in the beginning, psalmody, that is the recitation and singing of the psalms.  The importance given to this practice by monastic tradition cannot be overemphasised.  Whether a monk lived as a solitary hermit or belonged to a monastic community, the psalms were never far from his mind or lips. The Palestinian abbot, Epiphanius, expressed the monastic ideal in this way: “It is necessary for the true monk to have prayer and psalmody always in his heart” (Epiph. 3). Cassian from his stay in Egypt insisted that the training of monks in prayer and their training in the knowledge and recitation of the psalms were one and the same thing. Memorisation of the Psalter was a virtually universal monastic requirement, one imposed on the monk as soon as he committed himself to the ascetic life (Pachomius, Praecepta 49), and many other early monastic rules.  Once committed to memory the psalms were ever ready, on hand for prayer and the exercise known as meditatio, ruminatio, the constant slow chewing over of scriptural passages aloud.

 

CHAPTER 17: HOW MANY PSALMS ARE TO BE SAID AT THESE HOURS June 21, 

We have already arranged the order of the psalms for the Night Office and for Lauds; let us now arrange the remaining Hours.  At Prime let three psalms be said separately and not under one “Gloria.” The hymn of this Hour is to be said after the verse, “Deus in adiutorium meum intende,” before the psalms are begun.  At the end of the three psalms let one lesson be recited, a verse, the Kyrie eleison, and the concluding prayer, with which the Hour ends.

Terce, Sext, and None are to be celebrated in the same way: that is, the verse, the hymn proper to each Hour, the three psalms, the lesson, the verse, the Kyrie eleison, with concluding prayer.  If the community is large, let the psalms be said with antiphons; but if small, let them be said directly.

Let the Office of Vespers consist of 4 psalms with antiphons.  After the psalms a lesson is to be recited; then the responsory, the hymn, the verse, the canticle of the Gospel, the Litany, the Lord’s Prayer, and the concluding prayer, with which this Office ends.

Compline consists of three psalms, to be said directly and without an antiphon.  After these psalms follow the hymn proper to that Hour, a lesson, a verse, the Kyrie eleison, the blessing with concluding prayer.

 

After arranging the office of Lauds and Vigils, he now turns to the remaining hours of the day. Each office has its own special character.  Between Lauds and the evening service, called Vespers, there are four short services, known as the “Little Hours” which take their names from the Roman hours of the day at which they take place, counting from the rising sun at 6.  Prime at the first hour of the day, after Lauds, at 7.30; Terce at the third hour (9.15); Sext at the sixth hour, at midday, for us at 12.45; None at the ninth hour, about 3pm.  The little hours last about ten minutes each, and they serve to punctuate the day with prayer.  But the hymns, short lessons and prayers of these hours also recall the passion of the Lord, who according to tradition was crucified at the third hour and died at the ninth.

As evening comes on, the monks celebrate the office of Vespers, which gives thanks for the day and calls God’s blessing on all our works, and also recalls the Lord’s “evening sacrifice”.

When darkness falls, we pray the last office of the day, Compline; it has the quiet and intimate character of bedtime prayer. According to ancient monastic custom, the great night silence begins after Compline and lasts until Mass the next day.  The Cistercians popularised the custom of greeting the blessed Virgin Mary at the end of Compline.  In the 13th c this was widely adopted by all monastics.