Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Masterpost: The daily psalms of the Benedictine Office

St Benedict, in his Rule, makes it clear that he wanted all of the psalms to be said every week by his monks.  The vast majority of the psalms are, of course, said but once each week.  

A select few, however, are given a more privileged place in his Office, and it is at some of those that I propose to take a look at over the next few weeks.

This post will provide something of an overview; I will then look go back and take a more detailed look at each of them (skipping fairly quickly past those I've previously discussed in detail).  

I plan to get through those for Matins and Lauds over May and June.  At that point I'll decide whether to take a break from the repeated psalms (and perhaps look at Thursday Vespers), or continue on (feel free to provide me with feedback on your preferences at any point).  


It is worthwhile, firstly, just to list out what the repeated psalms of the Benedictine Office are.

First, some individual verses (Psalm 50:16 and Psalm 69:1) are used as opening prayers for the hours, and are thus repeated every day, or even, in the case of the Deus in adjutorium verse, at almost every hour for most of the year.  

Secondly, a number of psalms repeated every day at particular hours, namely:
  •  Matins (Ps 3 & 94)
  •  Lauds (Ps 66, 50, 148-150); and 
  • Compline (Ps 4, 90 & 133). 
And thirdly, nine of the Gradual Psalms (Psalms 119-127) are said on five days of the week from Terce to None.

History, speculation and spirituality

In ordering the psalter, St Benedict evidently took his cue from traditions that saw certain psalms as particularly fitted to particular hours, and thought some so important as to warrant daily repetition. 

In some cases, his choices reflected ancient traditions - the use of Psalm 50 and the Laudate psalms at Lauds for example seems to have early universal very early on.

In other cases though, the choices seem to have been more deliberate.

One popular theory is that St Benedict actually started from the ordering of the psalter used by Roman Churches of his time, adjusting it to give it more variety.  It is certainly a plausible theory, but essentially unprovable since there are no surviving Office books or psalter schemas that survive from that era.   Nonetheless, the Roman Office as it has come down to us shares at least some of the repeated psalms of the Benedictine Office in common, namely Psalm 94 at Matins; Psalms 66, 50 and 148-150 at Lauds; and Psalms 4, 90 and 133 at Compline.  The Roman Office, however, at least until it was thoroughly 'updated' under Pope St Pius X in 1911, contained far more repetitions than the Benedictine, for Psalms 118, 53 and 30 were all said daily in the older form of the Roman Office.

These differences, I would suggest, are important, for what things are or aren't regularly repeated surely help develop a particular spiritual mindset.  Some modern Benedictines, though retaining the weekly psalter, have sought to eliminate many of the repetitions, taking their permission from Chapter 18.  It seems to me, however, more consistent with the Vatican II direction to retain the patrimony of religious orders (Perfectae Caritatis 2b), to devote some consideration to just why St Benedict decided that certain psalms (and certain verses) were so important and/or so appropriate to a particular hour that they should be repeated frequently.

The comments below consider the reasons for the repetitions in the context of the particular hours in which they occur.  


"At midnight I rose to give praise to thee." (Psalm 118:62, quoted in RB 16)

St Benedict made it clear, in his Rule, that the symbolism of light and darkness were extremely important to him.  In particular, he devotes an entire chapter to the timing of the Divine Office at night (Matins, or Vigils), in order to ensure that the monks rose early enough to enable Lauds to be said at first light.   

The long night Vigil, however, in which the monk keeps watch through the darkness of the literal and metaphorical night, reflects the particular Office of the monk in dispelling the darkness on behalf of us all.  Unsurprisingly then, Matins is the workhorse of the Benedictine Office, easily the longest 'hour' of the day, almost as long,  most days of the week, as all the other hours combined due to its twelve variable psalms to be said each day.

St Benedict manages to pack a lot of symbolism though, into the repeated psalmody of the hour.  Firstly, the start of Matins marks the end of the overnight 'great silence' that starts after Compline.  How appropriate then, that the first words the monk or nun says each day is a plea for God to allow him to speak in praise of him:

16  Dómine, lábia mea apéries: * et os meum annuntiábit laudem tuam.
O Lord, you will open my lips: and my mouth shall declare your praise.

The first full psalm of the hour, Psalm 3, also includes a verse that can be taken very literally - though it also has an important spiritual meaning as we shall see  - in a reference to waking from sleep:

6  Ego dormívi, et soporátus sum: * et exsurréxi, quia Dóminus suscépit me.
I have slept and taken my rest: and I have risen up, because the Lord hath protected me

Psalm 3, though, is primarily a call to take up the spiritual warfare at the start of the new day, a reminder that the battle will not end until we are in heaven.  It is not accidental, in my view, that St Benedict's Rule also opens with a call to become spiritual warriors for Christ.

The second invitatory, Psalm 94, is a joyful invitation to worship our creator, redeemer and protector, but also contains an important warning not to put off repentance, but to respond to God’s call here and now should we here it.  It is worth noting that this psalm features in the Prologue to St Benedict's Rule, so it's appearance here too, is unlikely to be a coincidence.  

The psalm may also be significant for another reason: its verse recalling the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert before being allowed to enter the Promised Land is mirrored in the forty psalms said each in the Benedictine Office (assuming you count the Laudate psalms individually).

You can find detailed notes on the daily psalms of Matins through the links below.

Psalm 3: 

Five reasons why St Benedict makes Psalm 3 a daily invitatory
Introduction to Psalm 3
Psalm 3:v1
Psalm 3:v2
Psalm 3:v3
Psalm 3:v4
Psalm 3:v5
Psalm 3:v6
Psalm 3:v7 
Psalm 3:v8

Notes on the Latin:
Notes on Psalm 3 grammar and vocab Pt 1
Notes on Latin of Psalm 3 Pt 2
Notes on the Latin of Psalm 3, Pt 3


"May God cause the light of his countenance to shine upon us" (Psalm 66)

 In the Roman Office, Lauds is very closely linked to Matins, and often said effectively as one hour.  In the Monastic Office, however, St Benedict envisages there being a break between the two hours.  In winter he envisages this break being quite long, providing time for study of the psalms and lessons for those who needed it (RB8); in summer it is just a break for 'the necessities of nature'. The reason for the break is simple: Lauds was to be carefully timed so that it begins at first light, and thus take in dawn.  The rising of the sun, then, symbolises the Resurrection of the Son.  So important is the connection with the time of day for this hour that St Benedict even instructs his monks to cut short the readings of Matins if necessary in order to ensure that Lauds is said at its proper time.

In keeping with this symbolism, both the psalms and the proper canticle for the hour, the Benedictus (from St Luke), link the hour symbolically to the 'almost/but not yet' time we live in - after the Coming of Our Lord, but before the Kingdom is fully realised on earth with his return in glory to judge the earth. 

The hymns and psalms of Lauds focus on preparing for and rejoicing at the coming of the sun/Son, and its hymns and psalms contain many references to the dawn and the morning, and the coming light.  Overall, the flavour of the hour is one of anticipation and joy at the coming dawn. 

Lauds is the longest of the day hours in the Benedictine Office, with seven psalms and two canticles assigned to it.  The hour itself is somewhat unusual compared to the rest of the Office in that five of those psalms - Psalms 66, 50, 148, 149 and 150 - are repeated every day.  The fixed psalms are, therefore, obviously very important in setting the flavour of this hour.

The repeated psalms of Matins, I would suggest, are essentially ones of preparation, seeking to inculcate the right attitude to the coming day in us.  The repeated psalms of Lauds, though, have more of a focus on action.

The hour always starts (after the Deus in Adjutorium) with Psalm 66, a beautiful psalm asking for God's blessing to come upon us.   Psalm 66 is though, above all a prayer for the mission of the Church, the blessing requested is for our work so that 'all peoples may confess God's name'.

The second psalm, the Miserere acknowledges our sinful state, and begs God's forgiveness of our sins.  The Miserere is the most famous of the penitential psalms, and also the most beautiful, not least for its glimmers of light as it begs God to 'give us back the joy of salvation'.  But again, as well as being a call to repentance it also has a focus on mission, for example asking for the grace to 'teach thy ways to evil-doers'.

The psalmody of Lauds always ends on a joyful note, with the Laudate or ‘rejoicing’ psalms, from the very end of the psalter, which have always been interpreted by Christians as our response to the Resurrection.  The really key verse, I would suggest, comes right in the middle, in Psalm 149:6, which teaches that the mission of the faithful is twofold: firstly to worship God, and secondly to advance the Gospel in the world (the sword is the word of God, its two edges the Old and New Testaments):

6  Exaltatiónes Dei in gútture eórum: * et gládii ancípites in mánibus eórum.
6 The high praises of God shall be in their mouth: and two-edged swords in their hands:

You can find detailed notes on the daily psalms of Lauds through the links below.

Psalm 69: 

Deus in adjutorium meum intende: Psalm 69

Psalm 66:

Introduction to Psalm 66
Psalm 66 v1-2
Psalm 66 v3-4
Psalm 66 v5-6

Psalm 50:

Introduction to Psalm 50
Psalm 50: verses 1-4
Psalm 50: verses 5-6
Psalm 50: verses 7-9
Psalm 50: verses 10-12
Psalm 50: verses 13-15
Psalm 50: verse 16
Psalm 50: verses 17-18
Psalm 50: verses 19-20
Psalm 50 in the daily Office 

Psalm 148:

Introduction to Psalm 148
Psalm 148 v1-4
Psalm 148 v5-6
Psalm 148 v7-10
Psalm 148 v11-12
Psalm 148 v13-14

Psalm 149:

Introduction to Psalm 149
Psalm 149 v1-3
Psalm 149 v4-6
Psalm 149 v7-9

Psalm 150:

Introduction to Psalm 150
Psalm 150 v1-2
Psalm 150 v3-5a
Psalm 150 v5b


One of the most distinctive features of the Benedictine Office is the use of nine of the Gradual Psalms (Psalm 119-127) at Terce to None from Tuesday to Saturday.  St Benedict's use of the Gradual Psalms is interesting, because they fit particularly well with the other psalmody of Tuesday, the first day of the week on which they are said, but also form part of the repeated framework of the day hours.

These psalms are thought to have been sung liturgically as the pilgrims ascended the fifteen steps of the Temple in Jerusalem on major feasts, as well as being pilgrim songs.  The Fathers saw them, though, as tracing the mystical ascent of the Christian in the spiritual life in imitation of Christ, who shows us how to climb Jacob’s ladder to heaven and grow in virtue.

You can find links to detailed notes on the Gradual Psalms, together with a commentary on the reasons for their positioning in the Benedictine Office here.


Compline is the only hour in the Benedictine Office that remains the same every day (the Marian antiphon aside).  Said last thing in the evening, it teaches us how to deal with the darkness that inevitably surrounds us in this world, as well as the darkness and dangers of the literal night itself.

The structure of Compline is described in St Benedict’s Rule in Chapters 17 and 18, however over time the hour has been elaborated somewhat with the addition at the beginning of a new ‘opening section’ that includes a short reading warning of the dangers of the night and an examination of conscience and confession of sins; at the end with a Marian antiphon and prayer.   The three psalms set for it are Psalms 4, 90 and 133.  

Like Psalm 3 that opens the day, Psalm 4 contains verses that makes it particularly appropriate to the hour, indeed one that is in effect response to the verse on rising from sleep in Psalm 3:

9 In pace in idípsum * dórmiam et requiéscam;
In peace in the self same I will sleep, and I will rest
10 Quóniam tu, dómine, singuláriter in spe * constituísti me.
For you, O Lord, singularly have settled me in hope.

The psalm calls upon us to repent of the sins of the day; asks God to grant us forgiveness and the grace to do better in future; and asks for God’s blessing on our sleep.  

Psalm 90 is most commonly associated with Our Lord's temptation in the desert in the Gospels, and provides reassurance of God’s protection of the just against all the dangers that can arise.  The first section of the psalm sets out the promise of divine protection that God grants to the faithful.  It closes with words put in the mouth of God.  One particular reason its use may have appealed to St Benedict is the allusion to God as our 'susceptor' or sustainer, upholder, a word (which also appears in Psalm 3) that was particularly important in the monastic tradition, not least for its associations with the Suscipe verse (Psalm 118:116) used in the monastic profession ceremony.

The last psalm of the each day, Psalm 133 is also the last of the Gradual psalms, and at the literal level, this psalm is a summons to worship at night, and give God thanks for the blessings of the day.  Spiritually though, it points to our ultimate destination in heaven, where the worship of God never ends.   It concludes by requesting a blessing from God on us. 

You can find links to notes on the daily psalms of Compline through the links below.

Ps 4:

Psalm 4 in the context of Tenebrae
Psalm 4 - Short summaries
Psalm 4  - verse by verse notes (to come)

Ps 90:

Ps 90 - Short summaries
Ps 90 - verse by verse notes (to come)

Ps 133:

Introduction to Psalm 133
Psalm 133 verse1
Psalm 133 verse 2
Psalm 133 verse 3
Psalm 133 verse 4

In a monastery, the hour is traditionally followed by the abbot or abbess sprinkling the monks or nuns with holy water, usually while verses of Psalm 50 (from ‘Asperges me…’) are chanted.  And then the Great Silence falls, lasting until those first words of Matins are spoken again.

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