Sunday, October 13, 2013

Monday at Vespers

I want to move next, to the psalms of Vespers of  Monday in the Benedictine Office.

First though, in this post I want to make a few general points about Monday Vespers.

In the next post, I'll start taking a look at Psalm 113.

The structure of Monday at Vespers

Normally, the Benedictine Office has four psalms at Vespers.

Monday, however, is the exception, with five (or even six depending on which version of the bible you use), namely Psalms 113 (114-115 in the Neo-Vulgate), 114 (116), 115 (117), 116 (118) and 128 (129).

While Psalm 116 is the shortest in the psalter, at two verses, and is said under the same Gloria as Psalm 115, that still adds up to some 63 verses to be said, making it the second longest day (after Wednesday) at Vespers.

There are, on the face of it, two curious features in the selection of psalms for this day that need to be explained, namely the move of Psalm 113 from its place on Sunday Vespers in the Roman Office to Monday in the Benedictine; and the jump in the numerical sequence to Psalm 128.

The puzzles of Psalm 113 and Psalm 128

In the older form of the Roman Office which St Benedict almost certainly used as his starting point, Psalm 113 closes Sunday Vespers.  St Benedict, however, shifted it to Monday.

There are, I think, two main reasons why he chose to do so.

First, it makes Sunday Vespers a lot shorter.   Given that the monks had to rise earlier on Sundays in order to say the much longer than usual Matins, perhaps St Benedict felt his monks deserved a break by this point!

He could though, have achieved this objective in other ways.  He could for example, have treated Psalm 116 (the shortest psalm in the psalter) as a separate psalm: instead he attaches it under the one Gloria, to Psalm 115.  Alternatively, he could have split Psalm 113 in two, and shifted the second half of it only to Monday - after all, he certainly didn't hesitate to split other psalms set for Vespers later in the week in order to spread the load more evenly.  That he didn't do so, helps support the view, I think, that there is actually a program underlying the structure of the Benedictine Office.

A similar point can be made about the inclusion of Psalm 128 in Monday Vespers.  In the Roman Office, the 'Gradual psalms', Psalms 119-133, are all said at Vespers save for the last, which is reserved for (Sunday) Compline.  Psalm 128 is said on Wednesday in the Roman arrangement.

But St Benedict shifts Psalms 119-127 to Terce, Sext and None on Tuesday (and repeated each day thereafter until Sunday), and sets Psalms 129-132 at Tuesday Vespers, so that the whole set bar Psalm 128 are said on that day.  Why place Psalm 128 on Monday then, why not keep it in the numerical sequence on Tuesday?

Monday: From the incarnation to the temptation in the desert

St Benedict's main reason for these shifts, I would argue, lie in their particular relevance to what I think is the key theme of the day, namely the life of Christ from the Incarnation to his baptism, and our response to it in our own baptism and monastic vows/oblation.

My view is that St Benedict has arranged the psalms in his psalter to follow the life of Christ, picking up from the themes of the ferial canticle set for the day.  And Monday, in this arrangement, takes as its text the largely hidden life of Christ, from the Incarnation to his baptism and temptation in the desert, or the period of his life on earth up until the commencement of his public mission.

Consider the summary of the theme of the canticle set for the day by the tenth century monastic commentator Hrabanus Maurus:

 “On Monday [feria secunda], truly the second day, the canticle of Isaiah, in which the coming of the Saviour and the sacrament of baptism is preached, is decreed to be said, because these are the beginning of our salvation.” Hrabanus Maurus, Commentary on the Canticles (PL  )

The psalms set for the day, I think, contain many allusions to the events of the Incarnation and baptism, and those things that prefigure these events in the Old Testament.  Psalm 113 is particularly important in this regard, with its opening words, "When Israel came out of Egypt" taking us directly to Christ's saving action: just as the Israelites were baptised through that crossing of the Red Sea, and of the Jordan, so too are we.

And the psalms of the day keep coming back to the key message of the day, namely the promise that through the Incarnation, the enemy will be confounded.  Psalm 6’s (set at Prime) conclusion, Erubéscant, et conturbéntur veheménter omnes inimíci mei : convertántur et erubéscant valde summarises this  perfectly. Variants on this phrase echo throughout the day, starting from Matins.  And Psalm 128's ‘confundántur et convertántur retrórsum omnes, qui odérunt Sion’ gives us one last reminder of the theme.

The nature of liturgy

St Benedict could, of course, have reordered all of the psalms of each day so as to provide a straightforward linear program obvious to all.  But liturgy, it should be remembered, at least when it develops on a natural path, rarely operates a straightforward, linear narrative.  Rather, it stutters and stops, reminds, restarts and recapitulates and so gradually builds up the liturgical walls of the city within us.  

Consistent with this, St Benedict, I think, he makes more subtle approach, maintaining the traditional running cursus of psalms where possible, altering here and there to give his formulation a particular focus, going back to fill in a hole, or add an extra layer to the wall where it needs restoring.

As we say the day's psalms then, we should open ourselves to the mystery of the Incarnation, renew our commitment afresh to our baptismal vows in Psalm 113, rejecting all false gods; give thanks again for the grace that rescues us from the assaults of the enemy, in Psalm 114; recall again our oblation and other promises regarding fidelity to our state of life in Psalm 115; and remember that ultimately, Christ's victory will prevail, in Psalm 128.

Finally, just a reminder that you can listen to Monday Vespers being sung by going to the sites for the monasteries of Le Barroux or Norcia.

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