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

Oct 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 psalms are that collection of sacred poetry used by Israel in her public worship and private devotions. They consist of 150 prayer-poems collected in a single book called the Psalter. Most were probably intended to be sung or accompanied by music; many are brimming with joy and praise of God's goodness; others are full of sorrow and lament or a spirit of contrition. Some arise from sickness, persecution or misfortune; some are used on weddings or other special occasions. So there is a great variety in the psalms, but they are unified by the fact these poems are prayers, words arising from a believing heart and carrying the events of life before God. In these prayers we are able to see a depth and breadth in Israel's attitude towards her God not present anywhere else in the Bible. In the Bible as a whole, God utters his word to man. With the psalms, it is the other way round; the psalms are man's response to God. The Psalter is an anticipated response to the Apostle's question, "Lord teach us to pray." This response reflects the Bible itself. Just as the Bible contains historical books, so too there are historical psalms; wisdom books and wisdom psalms, prophetic books and prophetic psalms. Indeed the psalms are the Bible in miniature, the heart of the Bible, the resume of all it contains. You will find the entire Bible in the psalms, but elevated to poetry and prayer. They present the inner spiritual life of God's people and reveal to us a soul that in spite of its many imperfections is absolutely God-centred, burning with zeal for God's glory. The psalms teach us "how it is fitting to praise God and in what words fitly to confess Him" (St Athanasius). For example, elsewhere in Scripture we are exhorted to repent, but it is in the psalms that we find suitable words which give voice to our feelings of sorrow. The psalms in other words do not simply command us to repent of our sins, to bear suffering patiently, or to praise God's gifts; they actually give us the words by which we can say and do these things for ourselves.

CHAPTER 18: IN WHAT ORDER THE PSALMS ARE TO BE SAID Oct 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. 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 monk is called to a life of prayer. The traditional prayer of the monks is the book of psalms, and it has become traditional to think of the monk as one who loves to pray these psalms. This is still true. The Psalter is the monk's prayer book, and the singing or chanting of the psalms is till basic to the monk's life. The monk's education in prayer will go hand in hand with his assimilation of the psalms. Indeed, the singing of the psalms can lead to the kind of experience of God that John Cassian in the 4th century called the prayer of fire, fiery prayer: "Once while I was praying the psalms a verse of it put me in the way of the prayer of fire. Or sometimes the musical expression of a brother's voice has moved sluggish minds to the most intense prayer. I have known it to happen that the superiority and the seriousness of someone giving his voice to the psalms has stirred a great onset of zeal in those who were merely bystanders" (Conf 9,26), Such an experience is of course the fruit of grace and the result of our own efforts, not something automatic. Nevertheless Cassian insists that liturgical prayer fosters rather than prevents the contemplative experience of God. The summits of his mysticism are described as a prayer of fire, and this prayer is born of psalmody. Later on there was a tendency to oppose mental prayer and vocal prayer, or at least to find a problem in the question of their relationship. Here on the contrary, in monastic tradition we find the most mystical prayer taking its flight from psalmody. The psalmody then is important not only in the sanctification of our whole day, but also in the preparation of our hearts to receive the gift of contemplative prayer. The singing and recitation of the psalms, the communal singing and recitation of the psalms, far from being a hindrance to contemplative prayer is its natural seedbed in which we rise to the heights of contemplation. The psalms then are the heart of the Office; the Psalter is both our book of prayer and our school of prayer. The more we grasp the meaning of these inspired prayers, and make them our own personal prayer, the more our mind is lifted up to God and our heart opened to his working.

CHAPTER 17: HOW MANY PSALMS ARE TO BE SAID AT THESE HOURS Oct 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.

The substance of each office consists of different elements: the 150 psalms are prayed through in the course of one week. Interwoven with these are reading from the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, hymns, and concluding prayer. Each office has its own special character. What characterises the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office and distinguishes it from other liturgical actions is that it is distributed throughout the hours of the day, giving a shape and rhythm to the day. The liturgy of the hours sanctifies, redeems time, in the sense of claiming it back for God; we make time holy by consecrating it to God, "so that the whole day may be made holy by the praise of God" (General Instruction). All the passing hours of the day, week, years are continuously drawn back to God, in a kind of overflow of the mass: "The liturgy of the hours was seen as a necessary complement of the fullness of divine worship that is contained in the Eucharistic sacrifice, by means of which that worship might overflow to reach all the hours of daily life' (Paul VI, Laudis Canticum). The times were based on Jewish usage and above all the example of Jesus and the apostolic community, as well as monastic tradition. The Liturgy of the hours is something that belongs essentially to the whole Church; they pertain to the whole people of God. They are not the special preserve of monks and nuns, and never have been. But they remain the heart of a monastic community's life, the perfect expression of a life given over wholly to the service of God.


©SBVM 2013