Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Psalm 92: The organic development of the Office?

Since today is the feast of the Assumption, I thought I’d interrupt my consideration of St Benedict’s weekly psalm cycle and focus instead on one of the festal psalms of the day, Psalm 92.

It also provides an opportunity to reflect a little on what constitutes legitimate liturgical development and what doesn’t!

The Benedictine Office and feasts

St Benedict’s Rule prescribes that on the feasts of saints and festivals, the Office should be performed as on Sundays (so three Nocturns at matins for example) except that the psalms of the particular day are to be said.

Somewhere along the way, the Benedictine Office instead adopted the practice of using the actual Sunday psalms, at Lauds and Vespers, and special sets of psalms at Matins instead. Moreover, the ‘Sunday’ psalms used at Lauds on major feasts are not the standard Sunday psalms of the Benedictine Office (Psalms 117&62), but rather those of the Roman Office, Psalms 92 &99!

This elaboration of the liturgy was not, of course, restricted to the Benedictines: as time went on the Church sought to give greater honour to God and his saints in many ways, including through the liturgy.

And just as the traditional version of the Mass has what Catherine Pickstock in After Writing calls liturgical stuttering - stops and restarts, circling and around and returns to things, repetitions that do not flow in a neatly linear way - so too our weekly cycle of worship is interrupted by the injection of feasts. Perhaps they serve in part as a reminder that God stands outside time and space, and can jolt us, just a little, out of our time bound, linear logical conceptions of Him?

The Kingship of God

Certainly Psalm 92 draws our attention to the eternality of God and his Christ: “My throne is prepared from of old: you are from everlasting” (v3).

In the context of Our Lady’s Assumption into heaven though, it is perhaps the stress on the kingship of God that is most relevant for us to focus on today: Psalm 92 is actually the first of a group of psalms (to Psalm 99) that proclaims the kingship of God, and looks forward to the establishment of his dominion over the earth.

Opinions differ on its age, and whether the Septuagint/Vulgate ascription to David should be accepted or not, but the current consensus seems to be that because of the style of its language, it is in fact fairly ancient, from the early period of the monarchy.

St Benedict himself gave this psalm no special prominence, taking it out of Sunday Lauds and consigning it instead to Friday Matins. Its return to the Benedictine Office in the form of festal Lauds and Sunday Lauds during Christmas and Eastertide perhaps suggests that this one change he made to the Office that did not entirely stand the test of time, but rather proved to be inorganic!

Still this in itself tells us something about what is and isn’t legitimate change to the liturgy. St Benedict certainly reshaped his Office quite substantially, importing elements from other rites (such as hymns from the Ambrosian) and adjusting which psalms were said when.

All the same, it survived in its essentials for over a millennium in part surely because he respected things such as the existing tradition about which psalms were said in the morning, which in the evening.  And in giving his Office a more thematic approach than that the Old Roman Office he took as his template, he did not attempt to impose a simple linear, logical progression of ideas and events, but rather allowed his Office to move back and forwards between ideas, providing a meditation for us rather than a logically sequenced piece of closely argued theology.

St Benedict’s approach to creating a distinctively Benedictine Office - one that for centuries shaped a distinctively Benedictine spirituality -  provides no justification whatsoever, I would suggest, despite the claims to the contrary, for the decidedly inorganic revisions of the Divine Office adopted by most modern Benedictine monasteries.

Our Lady pray for us.

Psalm 92

Dóminus regnávit, decórem indútus est: * indútus est Dóminus fortitúdinem, et præcínxit se.
2 Etenim firmávit orbem terræ, * qui non commovébitur.
3 Paráta sedes tua ex tunc: * a sæculo tu es.
4 Elevavérunt flúmina, Dómine: * elevavérunt flúmina vocem suam.
5 Elevavérunt flúmina fluctus suos, * a vócibus aquárum multárum.
6 Mirábiles elatiónes maris: * mirábilis in altis Dóminus.
7 Testimónia tua credibília facta sunt nimis: * domum tuam decet sanctitúdo, Dómine, in longitúdinem diérum.

The Lord has reigned, he is clothed with beauty: the Lord is clothed with strength, and has girded himself.
For he has established the world which shall not be moved.
2 My throne is prepared from of old: you are from everlasting.
3 The floods have lifted up, O Lord: the floods have lifted up their voice.
The floods have lifted up their waves, 4 with the noise of many waters.
Wonderful are the surges of the sea: wonderful is the Lord on high.
5 Your testimonies have become exceedingly credible: holiness becomes your house, O Lord, unto length of days.

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