Monday, August 22, 2011

Comparing the Offices/2: why the psalms in a week?

I want to continue my series comparing the various orderings of the psalms used in the Divine Office with a look at how frequently they are said in the various psalm schemas.

And I want to suggest with a fairly controversial proposition: that the idea that all of the psalms should be said once a week (and as far as possible, only once a week), is essentially a twentieth century invention, at least so far as the Western Church is concerned. 

The more traditional idea, I would argue is for a much more repetitive and, contemplative monks aside, selective psalter scheme.

Origins: psalms in scriptural order

The question of how frequently the psalms should be said, and how a one week distributions of the psalms came to be standard in the Church, has not, as far as I can find, unduly preoccupied modern liturgists, who have been more intent on attempting to generate rationalisations for spreading the psalms over as long a period as possible, such as the current four week schema for the liturgy of the hours.

Nonetheless, they are right I think in suggesting that in the earliest forms of the Office, the idea of a one week distribution of the psalms was not the norm.  Instead the assumption was that monks would say the psalms much more frequently than once a week - even up to once a day in extreme cases, as St Benedict suggests in his Rule - while clerics and the laity would say a much smaller selection of nearly the same psalms everyday. 

The typical monastic pattern, even after St Benedict, was to start at Psalm 1, say the psalms in order, and keep going until you reached the end then start again, regardless of what day of the week it was.  The times of prayer and number of responsories and other prayers might be fixed, but the number of psalms and/or which day they were said was not.

Allocating psalms to particular hours

By contrast to the Scriptural 'running cursus' system, in the fourth century and later 'cathedral' Offices, for example, the psalms used at the day hours started to become relatively fixed.  In the old Roman Office, for example, which St Benedict in turn adapted in his Office, Psalms 1-108 were allocated to the night Vigil and morning hours, and psalms 109-147 to the day and evening hours.  In addition, particular groupings of psalms, such as the last three 'Laudate' psalms became associated with particular hours, in the case of Psalms 148-150, Lauds.

The two competing traditions - the monastic and the Cathedral - reflect differing principles of selection.  Monks, who said all of the psalms frequently, could be expected to pause and ponder the more important psalms as they needed to.  Those who had less time to allocate to the task had to focus on the more important psalms: for while all Scripture is preserved for our benefit, not all Scripture is equally important for our spiritual life.  Moreover, many of the psalms deal with similar themes, and duplicate verses or even whole sections of the text.

For these reasons, there doesn't seem to have been a presumption, at least until the middle ages, that anyone other than monks could or would say all of the psalms over some particular period.  In the early Roman cathedral office for example:
  • Lauds had only one variable psalm and canticle each day (the Benedictine Office added an extra variable psalm in);
  • Prime consisted of Psalm 53 and sections of Psalm 118 each day except Sunday (when Psalm 117 was substituted in), whereas in the Benedictine Office Prime works through psalms 1-19;
  • Terce to None were the same each day, with sections of Psalm 118 (St Benedict spreads Psalm 118 over Sunday and Monday, then substitutes in the first nine of the gradual psalms for the remaining days); and
  • Compline was always Psalms 4,90 and 133, as for the Benedictine Office. 
Clerics and the laity did join in with the variable Office of Vespers, but according to contemporary reports, the remaining psalms were said only by the monks and/or nuns who maintained the night vigil on behalf of all. 

And in fact, even once psalm schemas became standardized, this pattern persisted in diluted form through much of the Middle Ages.  Although the Benedictine Office, for example, is arranged on a one week cycle, it has many repetitions so that in fact the monk or nun traditionally says some 247 psalms each week.  But the laity typically used much shorter Offices, participating in the day hours of the Roman Office (Lauds and Vespers had variable psalms, but Prime to None and Compline were the mostly the same each day), or short Offices such as the Little Office of Our Lady and the Office of the Dead, both of which use the same psalms for the day hours everyday, with a three day rotation of psalms for Matins.

The Benedictine Revolution

St Benedict's (480-547) one week schema for the Office, set out in his Rule, is thought to have borrowed heavily from the Office used by both clerics and religious in Rome in his time (indeed, rather than listing out the canticles to be used at Lauds, he simply specifies the one's customary in the Roman Church).

St Benedict's schema, though it clearly did have early fans, seems to have taken a long time to become widely accepted in monastic practice: most of the surviving evidence for the continuation of his Rule in the period immediately after his death is for 'mixed-rule' monasteries, where his general prescriptions were combined with a much more intensive liturgical regime.  Indeed, St Columbanus (540-615) was positively scathing about monks who said a mere twelve psalms, as St Benedict prescribed, at the night vigil: his own rule prescribed 36 at night on weekdays, increasing to 75 on Saturdays and Sundays in winter! 

Even after the Benedictine Rule's provisions became the monastic norm in the West as a result of the Carolingian reforms, monks were expected to say many extra psalms in the additional devotional offices that became the norm.

No wonder then that St Benedict's throwaway line in his Rule allowing for alternative distributions of the psalter, providing that all of the psalms are said at least once a week, gained no traction at all until the nineteenth century. 

Offices of the saints

The other complicating factor to keep in mind is the development of special Offices for feasts and the saints.  St Benedict's Rule actually prescribes that on saints days the structure of the Office should be as for Sunday (ie an extended Vigil), but the actual psalms to be said those of the day of the week.  But in fact in both the Roman and Benedictine Offices the psalms of the day came increasingly to be displaced by specific sets of psalms appropriate to the feast, or from the 'Commons' for particular types of saints or classes of feast, which in practice drastically reducing the variety of psalms said, even for those nominally saying the full Office, rather than one of the abbreviated versions such as the Office of Our Lady. 

Indeed, one of the primary aims of  Pope Pius X's 1911 reforms of the Breviary was to drastically prune back the displacement of the regular psalter by feasts.

So where did the idea of a one-week distribution come from?

Throughout the Middle Ages a number of different psalm schemas competed, including the short one, two and three day devotional Offices, as well as the two week schema of Milan. Still, the two dominant ones were the one week distributions of St Benedict and the Roman Office.

Professor Dobszay, in his reflections on the Bugnini reforms of the psalter, has suggested that the reason for settling on a week rotation is the tie in with the seven days of creation.  It is certainly true that several of the modern Vespers hymns do contain allusions to the respective days of creation, but the allocation of these hymns to the particular days are actually a (relatively) recent development.  None of the recent histories of the Office point to any patristic or medieval discussions of this link as far as I could find (though do point me to them if they exist!) though. Nor is there any obvious allocation of psalms pertinent to each day of creation to particular days of week in the older Roman Office at least. 

Nonetheless, the idea is certainly plausible, and in fact, I do think at least some allusions to the days of creation can be found in the ordering of the Benedictine Office, albeit 'Christianized' so that Sunday rather than Saturday becomes the day of rest, when we reflect on the goodness of creation; Monday focuses on the first day of creation, including of light, opening with Psalm 32 on the role of the Word in creation, and in Psalm 35 which St Benedict added to Lauds, in the section of Psalm 118 that starts at Terce (Lucerna...); on Tuesday there is a strong focus on the city of Jerusalem (the day starts with the first of the 'songs of Sion', Psalm 45, and features the Gradual Psalms during the day and at Vespers), a focus on heaven, created on the second day; and so forth. 

Still, even if there is such a tie in, it doesn't really explain why all the psalms should be said in the course of a week.  Though perhaps there was thought to be a link to the mystical function of liturgy in the maintenance of the cosmos, and the book of Psalms. 

Practical reasons?

In reality one can't help suspecting that the real origin of weekly psalter schemas is both practically and spiritually based: psalms said every day are easy to memorize and keep in mind.  At a week's remove it is still possible to say them from memory without too many errors creeping in, though having a large proportion of the psalms repeated within the week makes this easier.  A weekly psalter serves to both emphasize the importance of the messages contained in the repeated psalms by keeping them top of mind, and reduces the memory workload on the brain! And in age where books were scarce and extremely expensive, these were important considerations. 

At a month's remove however, as for the Liturgy of the Hours, the chances of memorizing and keeping key psalm messages top of mind must surely greatly diminish, if not become all but impossible.

The beginning of the wreckovations?

In fact the psalter schemas that are designed around the idea of saying all of the psalms once a week, only once a week, one quickly suppressed sixteenth century experiment aside, in fact mostly date from the nineteenth century onwards. 

In 1842 the Hungarian Maurist Congregation took up the opt-out clause in St Benedict's Rule and designed a one week psalter that eliminated most repetitions.   The 1979 Benedictine 'Thesauris' similarly offers a one week arrangement that differs from St Benedict's as an option, and number of monasteries have adopted it in order to follow the Roman Rite suppression of the hour of Prime.

The most drastic and dramatic reorganization of the traditional psalter prior to Vatican II though, that set the precedent for the 1971 Liturgy of the Hours, was the thoroughly anti-traditional reform of Pope Pius X in 1910, reflected still in the Roman 1962 breviary.  

The governing principle of Pope Pius X's reform was to say each of the psalms at least once a week, and to reduce the overall load on those bound to say the Office.  The objective was perhaps noble.  In the process though, his breviary jettisoned the traditional allocations of psalms to morning and day; implied that all of the psalms were equally important (or unimportant as the case may be!); largely destroyed the particular character of many of the hours, particularly the Resurrection focus of Lauds and the short and sharp focus of the little hours; and completely revamped Compline by giving it variable psalms. 

And in the wake of Pope Pius X's reforms, further innovations occurred, most notably revamps of the Little Office of Our Lady occurred to allow (or require) religious sisters who had previously said a much more limited selection of psalms of that Office to say the whole 150 over two weeks.  And thus was the path set to Vatican II's wholesale wreckovation of the psalter.  But I'll come back to these issues in due course...

Notes:  For my discussion I'm primarily drawing on the following sources, though my ultimate conclusions do differ significantly from the authors in some cases:

Paul Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church A Study of the Origin and Early Development of the Divine Office, Wipf and Stock: Eugene, Oregon, 1981, republished 2008

Laszlo Dobszay, “Critical Reflections on the Bugnini Liturgy: The Divine Office”, 1983 PDF available from

Marilyn Dunn, Mastering Benedict: Monastic Rules and Their Authors in the Early Medieval West”, English Historical Review 105 No. 416 (1990): 567-594 and “The Master and St Benedict: A Rejoinder”, English Historical Review, 107 No. 422 (1992): 104-111.

Theo Keller, "Short" Breviaries of 2oth and 21st Century America, keller book

Ruben M Leikam, “The Liturgy of the Hours in the Roman Rite”,  in Handbook for Liturgical Studies Liturgical Times and Space, Anscar J Chupungco ed, A Pueblo Book, Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 2000.

Alcuin Reid in The Organic Development of the Liturgy The Principles of Liturgical Reform and their Relation to the Twentieth Century Liturgical Movement Prior to the Second Vatican Council, St Michael’s Abbey Press: Farnborough, 2004.

Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West The Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today, Second Revised Edition, 1993, The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, Second Revised Edition 1993

Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, The Rule of Saint Benedict A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary, trans John Baptist Hasbrouck, Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1983.


  1. What about monthly cycles like the 30-day cycle in the Book of Common Prayer which goes through the Psalms in numerical order following the numerical day of the month and the so-called "Paraclete Psalter" which arranges the Psalms into a 4-week cycle which they call a "modified Benedictine" order using the name of the days of the week and largely omitting Saturdays?

  2. David - I was restricting my comments to Western rite catholics who want to say 150 psalms in a week, no more, no less in order to satisfy the Rule. As I think I acknowledged, there were certainly alternative ways of arranging the psalter in earlier times, including in numerical order. I'm not familiar with the Paraclete Psalter, though, what is the basis for its arrangement?