So far in this introductory set of notes, we've looked at the position of the Gradual Psalms in Scripture, and from a devotional point of view. But before we move on to looking at the individual psalms, I think there is something to be gained by considering their placement in the Office.
The Roman versus the Benedictine psalter
St Benedict’s use of these psalms at the Little Hours is a unique feature of the Benedictine Office, so it is worthwhile I think, to consider just why he allocates them to this time.
In the old Roman Office (which more or less aligns with the pre-1911 version of the Roman Office) which may have been St Benedict’s starting point for his adaption of the psalter, the little hours worked though Psalm 118 each day. There is an inherent logic to this: the implicit message, according to Professor Dobszay, is that all human activity is placed permanently under the dominance of
St Benedict’s psalm schema, though, changed this by spreading Psalm 118 over Sunday and Monday, and taking the first nine of the gradual psalms out of their numerical sequence at Vespers, and placing them instead at the Little Hours.
The Little Hours thus mirror the order of the psalms in Scripture: on Sunday and Monday we prepare ourselves for the journey by meditating on the law, then we put our meditations into practice as we embark on our lifelong journey towards heaven.
It also, I suspect, serves to remind us that our daily work directed at obtaining the material things needed for our survival and comfort is a means to an end only, and not our final objective.
Why only the first nine?
St Benedict doesn’t, however use the full set at these hours. Why not? There are several reasons I think.
The first is that he clearly wants to keep the Little Horus very short, so that they can readily be memorized and said in the workplace if necessary, as the Rule suggests (RB 50). Terce, Sext and None are around half the length of the old Roman Office and much much shorter again than the revamped version of Pope St Pius X that forms the basis of the 1962 Roman Office.
But the other far more fundamental and interesting reason goes, I think to St Benedict’s spiritual program underpinning the Office.
The last of the gradual psalms, Psalm 133 traditionally fits into Compline, and as representing the heights of the Temple, our heavenly goal, is appropriately the last psalm of the day, so he was probably disinclined to move it.
The Gradual psalms or ‘songs of ascent’ as a whole are clearly meant to suggest to us images such as Jacob’s Ladder, tracing our spiritual climb towards heaven, or our earthly pilgrimage towards our heavenly home, the new Jerusalem.
But the group St Benedict allocates to Terce to None are also a distinct sub-group: according to St Benedict’s contemporary Cassiodorus, this first set of the gradual psalms represent the journey as far as the Temple, or on earth.
Reaching to heaven
The remaining psalms are set within or about the Temple, or the heavenly Jerusalem, so there is a distinct break between those set for the Little Hours and those for Vespers.
How appropriate then that Psalms 119 to 127 should intersperse the workday, and remind us each day of the pilgrimage we are on in this life, starting out as strangers living alienated from God, and far away from our heavenly objective (Ps 119), and gradually, through grace and their own efforts, building up treasures awaiting us in heaven (Psalm 127).
It is not enough to meditate on the law, St Benedict seems to me to be saying, we must also progress in the way of salvation by undertaking good works, as he emphasizes in Chapter 4 of the Rule.
Tuesday Vespers in the Office then completes the set, on a day which is filled with the imagery of the Temple: is the message that Christ the true Temple shows us how to make that final ascent to heaven?