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
CHAPTER 19: THE MANNER OF SAYING THE DIVINE OFFICE June 26,
We believe that the Divine Presence is everywhere, and that the eyes of the Lord behold the good and the evil in every place. Especially, however, do we without any doubt believe this to be true when we are assisting at the Work of God. Therefore let us always be mindful of what the Prophet says. “Serve the Lord with fear”; and again: “Sing wisely”; and: “In the sight of the angels I will sing praise to Thee.” Therefore let us consider how we ought to conduct ourselves in the presence of God and His angels, and so assist at the Divine Office that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.
In the presence of the angels…The Office is an extension of the liturgy of eternity; St Benedict saw the Church on earth as joining in the praise offered to God in heaven. The Divine Office initiates us, as it were, into the life of heaven and prepares us for it. The oblate, like the monk, has to remember that he is standing before God to whom the angels pray; he is standing in the midst of the choir of angels who see God. By means of the Office, the monk and the oblate plunge into the eternal prayer of the angels, he is united to the community.
There is a story of how a Prince, while still a pagan, desiring to know more about different religions, sent his followers to, among other places, the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople where they attended the liturgy. “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. This we know, that God dwells there among men. . . We cannot forget that beauty.” We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. Worship is nothing else than heaven on earth. The liturgy is something that embraces two worlds at once, for both in heaven and on earth the liturgy is one and the same–one altar, one sacrifice, one presence. As one of our abbesses has written, there is only one liturgy. In every place of worship, and not only in monasteries, however humble its outward appearance, as the faithful gather to perform the Eucharist, they are taken up into the heavenly places; in every place of worship when the holy Sacrifice is offered or when the Divine Office is sung, not merely is the local community present, but the Church universal–the saints, the angels, the Mother of God, and Christ himself. This we know, that God dwells there among men.
The order of the psalms for the day Hours being now arranged, let all the remaining psalms be equally distributed in the seven Night Offices, the longer psalms being divided into two sections, so that twelve psalms may be assigned to each night.
We particularly admonish that if this distribution of the psalms is displeasing to anyone, he should make any other disposition he may think better. Let him take care, however, above all that each week the entire Psalter of one hundred and fifty psalms be recited and be always begun anew at the Night Office on Sunday. For those monks show an exceedingly slothful service in their devotion who, within the course of a week, sing less than the entire Psalter with the usual canticles, since we read that our holy Fathers resolutely performed in a single day what we tepid monks but hope to achieve in an entire week.
It is important to see the psalms on several “planes”: the Old Testament setting, the new covenant in Christ and His Church, and the glory that is to come. And to see it all as a great whole. Despite the different stages of development, the history of redemption forms one great whole. That’s why it is important to become thoroughly familiar with the Bible in order to understand the psalms and to develop a proper liturgical spirit. Our frequent contact with the Psalter is a very efficacious way of uniting ourselves to our Lord, to insert ourselves into his mystical Body, the Church, to be aware of all that affects his body, to be happy to be part of it. The more we know the Psalter the more we will be united to the Church and through her to Christ.
In the psalms, St Augustine tells us, Our Lord sometimes speaks in his own person, as our Head, and sometimes in the person of his mystical Body which we form. We may be feeling joyful when praying a psalm of sorrow or lament, but there is someone in the world who is suffering, and we can pray that psalm for them. The psalms teach us to pray as a community, teach us how to insert ourselves into the Church, lifting us above our personal concerns, to pray selflessly and to see our prayer as only a minute fragment of the whole prayer of the Church.
Vespers each day consists of four psalms. These psalms are from the 109th to the 147th, omitting those which are set apart for other Hours: that is, from the 117th to the 127th, the 133rd, and the 142nd. All the rest are to be said at Vespers. And as there are three psalms wanting, let those of the aforesaid number that are somewhat longer be divided: namely, 138th, the 143rd, and the 144th. But the 116th, as it is short, is to be joined with the 115th. The order of the psalms at Vespers being thus arranged, let the rest, that is, the lessons, the responsories, the hymns, the verses, and the canticles, be said as we have above prescribed. At Compline the same psalms are to be repeated every day: that is, the 4th, the 90th, and the 133rd.
The psalms then point to Christ; they are full of Christ. He is both their object and their subject. All the Fathers of the Church affirm that Christ is to be found everywhere in the psalms. Some are direct prophecies of His Coming, His sufferings, his future glorious reign. Nor were the Fathers content to see only a handful of passages that have been given new meaning in the light of Christ: rather the entire Psalter was for them a book of prophecies which were filled by Christ. At times they heard in the psalms the voice of Jesus; thus Tertullian writes “almost all the psalms show us the person of Christ. They make the Son present as He speaks to the Father, that is Christ as He speaks to God” (Ad Praxaen 11,7). At other times they hear the voice of the Father speaking to Christ, as in Ps. 2 or Ps. 88. At still other times they saw the psalms as prayers to Christ or referring to Christ. In his homily on Psalm 85 (86) “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is himself the single Saviour of his body, who prays for us, prays in us, and is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest; he prays in us as our head; he is prayed to by us as our God. Let us then recognise our voices in him and his voices in us.”
The psalms then express Christ, are full of Christ. Now when we say this, we must understand not only Christ as Head, our Lord, Redeemer, King, Judge, but also His Mystical Body, Jesus and his Church, the whole Christ, as Augustine expresses it.