Wednesday, September 25, 2013

CHAPTER 9: Concerning the Psalms at Vigils

      Having first said the verse: “God, come to my assistance; Lord make haste to help me,” the monks should then say, “Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise” (Ps 50[51]:17). Next the third psalm and the Gloria are added. After this the ninety fourth psalm with its antiphon should be chanted. Then follow it with a hymn, and six more psalms…

      Saint Benedict really loves the psalms.  He says that monks should pray all one hundred fifty of them as often as possible.  In fact, in the old days (and by ‘old’ I mean fifteen hundred years ago) some monks used to say the entire lot of them every single day.  At my monastery, it takes us two weeks, but we repeat several of the psalms daily.
      These short prayers from the Old Testament are especially important because they are the prayer of the Church.  Along with the Eucharist, they are the most comprehensive, most perfect, most beautiful prayers we can offer to God.  They span the entire breadth of human spirituality, from gratitude and joy to loneliness and rage.  Moreover, they are the prayers that Jesus himself said throughout his ministry, the prayers he said on the cross, and they are the prayers that he continues to say to His Father.  So any time you want to be most intimately united to Jesus and His Body, the Church, all you have to do is pick up the psalms and start reading. As Saint Athanasius wrote in a letter to his friend, Marcellinus, “All Scripture teaches virtue and true faith, but the psalms give us a complete picture of the spiritual life… Therefore it is possible for us to find in the psalms not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with rules and examples for all life’s twists and turns, but also the perfect words to please the Lord for each of life’s occasions, words both of repentance and of thankfulness.”

      Then let the Abbot give the blessing. Once everyone is seated, let three lessons be read alternately by the brethren from the book on the reading stand.  In between each reading, let three responses be said. Let the inspired books of both the Old and the New Testaments be read at the night offices, as the commentaries of our most eminent Catholic Fathers.  After these three lessons with their responses, let six other psalms follow, to be sung with Alleluia. After these let the lessons from the Apostle follow…
      Notice the scrupulous attention Saint Benedict pays to the arrangement of the psalms, responses, lessons, commentaries, meditations and readings.  There’s some debate among smart people as to where exactly he got all this.  Clearly part of the arrangement comes from the pre-Christian synagogue, where psalms and readings alternated with blessings, petitions and so forth.  Other parts appear to have originated in Rome and Milan.  He seems to have adapted other parts from the Rule of Saint Basil, and still others from the writings of Saint Athanasius and the desert monks of earlier centuries.  One way or another, Benedict found a balance between the rigor of the Desert Fathers and the elegance of Rome.
      You can, of course, find this pattern reflected in the layout of the Liturgy of the Word during Mass, with its two readings, responsorial psalm, and gospel.  It is an ancient and very powerful rhythm of worship, which progresses from Old to New Testament, linking them in such a way that each enriches the other.  And since the world is so big and so full of monasteries, you can be assured that at any given moment there is a monastic community somewhere praying in this way.
       Go ahead, then.
       Join them.

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