Feast of the translation of the relics of St Benedict: the liturgical genius of St Benedict/1

Today is of course, the feast of St Benedict in the Benedictine (and novus ordo) Calendar, and so in honour of the feast, I am posting today a brief introduction to a series of posts on the liturgical genius of St Benedict's Office.

The liturgical genius of St Benedict

Most modern commentators on St Benedict's Office have struggled to find any systematic thematic or programmatic intent in St Benedict's psalm selections beyond a few allusions to the morning or light at Lauds.

Certainly the Rule itself provides only a few rather oblique clues as to the factors that shaped St Benedict's Office, and don't go to the reasons for selecting this or that psalm for a particular hour or day.  Nonetheless, in this series of posts on the liturgical genius of St Benedict, I will argue that in fact the Benedictine Office reflects a very deliberate theological and spiritual program indeed, one that links together the seven days of creation with seven 'days' that set before us the life of Christ: seven days, in short, of the new creation.  It is, in my view, a structure that builds into each day and hour key themes and ideas for us to meditate on.  And it is a program that is closely integrated with the spirituality of St Benedict's Rule more generally.

Aggiornamento or patrimony?

The standard post-Vatican II take on the Benedictine Office is that there is, in essence, nothing particularly special about it, and therefore, implicitly or explicitly, the specifications that St Benedict set out in his Rule can be freely abandoned [1].  His Office, it was argued, provides a model for aggiornamento, of adaptation to the times for us to emulate, rather than representing a monument of tradition to be preserved.  In fact the Benedictine Order's 1977 instruction on the liturgy notes that:

"The arrangement of the Work of God described in chapters eight to twenty of the Rule of Benedict is a clear testimony to the proper liturgical tradition of Benedictine monasteries... this Liturgy of the Hours is not a mere reproduction of an existing Office, but consists of elements freely chosen from ancient (especially monastic) traditions, while the door is left open for adaptations to practical needs..." [2]

The basis for this claimed freedom to innovate was the twentieth century academic consensus that St Benedict took as his starting point the psalter of the Roman Church of his time, and made relatively minor changes to it aimed primarily at giving the hours from Lauds to None a little more variety.  But, it was argued, St Benedict did not have in mind any underlying program to the ordering of the psalmody; made no attempt to give the Office any thematic unity.  In sum:

"The process was clearly not one motivated by selecting thematically appropriate psalms.  There was a measure of that only at Lauds and Compline.  Rather, the process was, in Vogues words, a "mechanistic" one, "a matter of a very modest task of arithmetic."[3]

This take on the Benedictine Office, as the author of the quote above, James McKinnon, hints in his own comments, simply does not pass the plausibility test.  Here's why.

First, St Benedict devotes a lot of space and care to his Office in the Rule, and it is hard to resist the idea that he must have had good reasons for doing this.  It is true that the saint did, after setting out his schema, with due modesty, give a seeming permission to use other orderings of the psalms (RB 18).  Yet while modern commentators have latched onto this throwaway line, the earliest monastic commentators took quite a different view of it.  Hildemar, for example, argued that the words are simply a standard humility formula, and suggests that those who abandon St Benedict's specifications "are not seen to be lovers of the holy rule but transgressors" [4].

Secondly, and more fundamentally perhaps, it is not in the least obvious that the 'mechanistic changes' thesis adequately explains some of the seeming contortions in the organisation of St Benedict's psalter.  Paul Bradshaw, for example, found several of his choices of psalms for Lauds utterly inexplicable [5]. On the face of it though, the psalm orderings for Vespers are equally difficult to explain: why, for example, did St Benedict choose to divide some of the shorter psalms assigned to Vespers rather than the longest ones?  And why does he squash Psalm 128 into Monday Vespers when leaving it until Tuesday would have allowed a far more even spread of the number of verses to be said over the week at that hour?

Thirdly, it doesn't take much work to find at least some well-attested thematic elements to the Office.  St Bede and Rabanus Maurus, for example, both point to traditional associations between the day on which events in the life of Christ occurred, and the Old Testament (ferial) canticles said at Lauds on those days, such as between the Canticle of Habacuc said on Friday and the Passion, for example [6].

Edging towards Jerusalem

It has to be acknowledged that at least some of the work of the last half century does at least hint at some deeper possibilities in St Benedict's Office.

Some few, such as Laszlo Dobszay and John Fortin, have drawn attention to particular features of the Benedictine Office that might be important in establishing a spirituality particular to the order, such as the use of the Gradual psalms at Terce to None during the week, and in the selection of the Prime psalms [7].

And even RB 1980 notes, for example, that the inclusion of a Third Nocturn in the Sunday Office seems to have its origins in the weekly 'Resurrection Vigil' observed by the fourth century nun Egeria during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem [8] Its article on St Benedict's 'liturgical code' fails to link this insight, however, to the other dimensions of St Benedict's Sunday Matins such as the selection of the psalms to be said.  On the face of it this is rather a major oversight, for where the Office started at Psalm 1, St Benedict starts at Psalm 20 which is pre-eminently a song of the Resurrection taking its cue from its final line 'Rise up, O Lord, in your strength...'  In fact the whole set of psalms that follow on Sunday are filled with prophesies of the Resurrection, culminating in Psalm 31, whose conclusion St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus puts in the mouth of Christ, a promise of mercy to the sinners to whom the way to heaven has been reopened [9].

RB 1980 also notes that the Roman Cathedral tradition tried to select psalms for their appropriateness to the time and day, and to underscore the Christological meaning of the psalms [10].  St Benedict, I hope to show over the course of this series, worked very much in this tradition.  In fact, ex-Trappist turned Orthodox scholar Patrick Reardon has recently identified at least some elements of this, pointing to the existence of a weekly cycle in both the Orthodox and Benedictine Offices, that runs from Wednesday to Sunday each week and echoes the events of Holy Week. [11]

Immersing ourselves in the Fathers

Nonetheless, none of the more recent discussions of St Benedict's psalter arrangement, at least that I've come across, suggest the existence of a comprehensive program behind it or provide a convincing rationale for St Benedict's ordering of it.

There is, in my view, a good reason for this.  Most twentieth century liturgists have adopted the tools of historical-critical method, and become preoccupied with tracing the origins of the Saint's psalm ordering (aka cursus or schema) by reference to precursor Offices.  Most treatments of the Office work from the psalm equivalent of the (now largely debunked) putative 'Q Gospel', in the shape of reconstructions of a putative Roman Office that St Benedict is thought to have started from and adapted [12].  Yet, like Q theory, the reality is that there is absolutely no actual basis for these reconstructions since no office books or listings of psalms for the Roman Office of the period have actually survived [13].

Instead of attempting to trace the borrowings in St Benedict's Office, therefore, a much more fruitful approach, I would suggest, is to attempt to immerse ourselves in the mindset that St Benedict would have brought to the Opus Dei, a mindset formed and informed by the Fathers of the Church [14].

This is not easy for a modern reader, because many of the ways St Benedict and his monks would have approached the text are directly at odds with those we've been conditioned to.

Where we see translation problems and transmission errors, for example, the Fathers saw a providentially given text; where we have been trained to prefer the Hebrew Masoretic Text tradition, in St Benedict's time primacy was accorded to translations of the psalms based on the Septuagint Greek, not the Hebrew.

Above all, where we tend to focus on recovering the literal meaning of the text in its 'original' historical and cultural context, late antiquity mostly favoured the spiritual meanings of the text. The Fathers - demonstrably including St Benedict - saw Christ everywhere in the psalms, with the text either being in his voice or about him.  They invariably read the Old Testament in the light of the New: they saw the Old Testament in terms of typology, where events and people foreshadowed the events of the Gospels; they read it as prophesy; and they assigned particularly Christological meanings to certain key words and phrases [15].

If we too adopt this approach, I hope to demonstrate, the construction of St Benedict's Office takes on a whole other colour.

I'll say more about this in the next post in this series.


[1] See for example "The Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict" in Fry, Timothy OSB, Imogene Baker OSB, Timothy Horner OSB, Augusta Raabe OSB and Mark Sheridan OSB editors.  RB 1980. The Rule of St Benedict in Latin and English with Notes. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1981; pp 379-414; Terrence G. Kardong, OSB, Benedict’s Rule. A Translation and Commentary. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996, pp209-217.

[2] Benedictine Confederation, Thesaurus Liturgiae Horarum Monasticae, Rome,1977.  Translation by Luke Dysinger: http://ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/CH_599z_MonSpir/09_mon-reform/00a_start.htm

[3] James McKinnon, "The Origins of the Western Office", pp 63-73 in The Divine Office in the Middle Ages, Methodology and Source Studies, Regional Developments, Hagiography, Written in Honor of Professor Ruth Steiner, edited by Ruth Steiner, Margot Elsbeth Fassler, Rebecca Anne Baltzer, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000: 72.

[4] Hildemar, Commentary on the Rule of St Benedict, http://www.hildemar.org/FullText.html#Ch8.  Smaragdus (c817) similarly exhorts 'the one who has promised to live according to this Rule to hold firmly to it..", Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel, Commentary on the Rule of St Benedict, trans David Barry, Cistercian Studies No 212, 2007, pp 331.

[5] Paul F Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church A Study of the Origin and Early Development of the Divine Office, Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008 reprint, esp pp 147.

[6]  Rabanus Maurus, Commentary on the Canticles said at Matins, PL 107:1089-1166; Bede, Commentary on the Prayer of Habbacuc, in Bede: On Tobit and on the Canticle of Habakkuk, Sean Connelly, Four Corners Press, 1997.

[7] Laszlo Dobszay,“Critical Reflections on the Bugnini Liturgy: The Divine Office”, 1983 PDF available from http://musicasacra.com/literature/; John D Fortin, “The Presence of God: a linguistic and thematic link between the doctrinal and liturgical sections of the Rule of Saint Benedict”, Downside Review 117 (1999) 293

[8] RB 1980, op cit, pp399-400; 388.

[9] See my post on Psalms 20-31: Songs of the Resurrection or the Passion

[10] RB 1980, op cit, pp386.

[11] Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Conciliar Press, revised 2011.  See especially pp 125-126; 181-182.

[12]  See especially Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, The Rule of Saint Benedict A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary, trans John Baptist Hasbrouck, Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1983, pp 127-163; Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West The Origins of the Divine Office and its Meaning for Today, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, rev ed, 1993, and Paul F Bradshaw, op cit.

[13] On the problems of the historico-critical approach more generally see Fr Aidan Nichols OP, Criticising the Critics Catholic Apologias for Today, Family Publications, 2010; Bruce K Waltke and James M Houston with Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Worship A Historical Commentary, William B Erdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2010; and Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, Politicizing the Bible The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700, Herder and Herder, NY, 2013.

[14]The case for doing this has recently made by Fr Cassian Folsom OSB in his series of talks on Praying Without Ceasing.

[15] See for example John O'Keefe and RR Reno, Sanctified Vision An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2005.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am very excited to see this article and I eagerly await the rest of this series.

I have been using the Monastic Diurnal for several years, and I also have previous experience using the 1960 Roman Breviary and the modern Liturgy of the Hours. I very much prefer the more ancient structure in the Benedictine Office. I believe there is definitely an intentional order in St. Benedict's arrangement, but it is not obvious at first. I am eager to see if the themes that I think I am noticing match what you will discuss.

Thank you for presenting these informative articles.

Michael R.