Friday, May 16, 2014

Masterpost: Matins in the Benedictine Office

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

In this 'masterpost', I want to provide something of an overview of the hour of Matins in the Benedictine Office, as well as links to notes on its psalms (which I'll update as I add more to the blog over time).

Matins, it has to be said, is a particularly monastic hour, and not one that the Oblates and other laypeople will generally have time to say: traditionally, going back to the most ancient times of the Church, it is the hour that religious say on our behalf.  My own view is that if you want to say something to mark this hour, saying one or both of the Matins invitatory psalms would be appropriate.  Alternatively, you could say the much shorter Matins of the Little Office of Our Lady.

All the same, it is worth knowing something about it for those occasions when we can say part or all of it.  And of course, it is important that we become familiar with all of the psalms, regardless of where they are placed in the liturgy.

A light in the darkness

St Benedict made it clear, in his Rule, that the symbolism of light and darkness was extremely important to him.  In particular, he devotes an entire chapter to the timing of the Divine Office at night, 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.

The structure of the hour

St Benedict opens Matins with a verse from Psalm 50 (RB 9), to be said three times, thus invoking the symbolism of the Trinity, that asks God to cleanse us from our sins, and make us worthy to praise 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.

He then provides for two psalms to be said every day at Matins, namely Psalms 3 and 94. 

A hymn then follows. 

The hymn is followed by twelve psalms or parts of psalms selected from Psalms 20-108, divided into two 'Nocturns'. 

There is, it should be noted, a mystical significance to the number of psalms to be said in the two Nocturns, for twelve is a number that the Fathers took as symbolising universality: hence the twelve tribes of Israel; the twelve apostles, and so forth.  Cassian's Institutes (Book II chapter 5) go a step further, suggesting that the number of psalms to be said was settled as twelve by means of an angelic intervention in a dispute amongst the desert monks.  

On Sundays, to mark the weekly celebration of the Resurrection, St Benedict adds an additional Nocturn consisting of three canticles; he also adds four readings for each Nocturn, the Te Deum and Te Decet hymns, and the Gospel.  

An Office of Psalms

In the modern Liturgy of the Hours Vigils or Matins has been replaced by an Office of Readings that can be said at any time of the day.

St Benedict makes it clear though, that in his version of the Office, the psalms should have priority. 

Indeed, unlike the Roman Office, the Rule specifies that daily readings of Scripture occur at weekdays Matins during winter and on Sundays; and even then St Benedict instructs that they be cut short if needs must so as to enable Lauds to start at daybreak.

The crafting of the psalmody

Given the number of psalms to be said at this hour over the course of the week, one might expect that there would be little thematic unity in the psalms of Matins.  Despite its apparent length though, the Benedictine version of Matins is actually much shorter than the Roman Office designed for the secular clergy: St Benedict's version is some 23 psalms shorter.  Moreover, the saint also divided several of the longer psalms.

In fact, by virtue of his decision to start the Matins sequence at Psalm 20 rather than Psalm 1, to place additional psalms at Lauds, and to divide some of the longer psalms, the saint was able to craft the hour in several key ways.

St Benedict often, for example, seems to have selected the psalms of the other hours of each day of the week with a view to their links of those of Matins.  On Monday, for example, consider, the phrase 'convertantur et revereantur' (let him be converted and turned back, which can be interpreted as a call for the defeat of the devil) and variants on it (avertantur et retrorsum, convertentur, confundantur) recurs not only throughout Matins (most explicitly in Psalms 34&39) but also in the last psalms of the key hours Prime (Psalm 6) and Vespers (Ps 128).   Similarly, on Wednesday the first verses of Psalms 67 and 68 are closely echoed in the opening verses of Psalm 9 and 11 at Prime (at least in the pre-1962 version of the Benedictine Office).

More importantly though, he also seems to have carefully organised his psalter so as to take advantage of thematic groupings of the psalms as they appear in Scripture, and so as to ensure that the first psalm of the day relates to the theme of the day in a cycle based around the life of Christ.

By starting at Psalm 20 on Sunday, for example, he is able to set for that day a group of psalms that contain many prophecies of the Resurrection.  On Monday the psalmody opens with a psalm that the Fathers saw as announcing the Incarnation, Psalm 32, and continues with a group of psalms firmly centred on what monastic commentator, Rabanus Maurus, described as 'the beginnings of our salvation'.  On Tuesday the psalmody moves to the theme of the Temple and the heavenly Jerusalem, and opens with Psalm 45 that announces that 'God is amongst us', an appropriate text for a day that can be seen as about the public ministry of Christ in the Office.  Thursday's psalms focus on the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, and their wanderings in the desert; while Friday's opening psalm, Psalm 85, has long been interpreted as the prayer poured out to the Father by Christ on the cross.

The repeated psalms

St Benedict also though, ensured a horizontal unity for this hour though the structural foundations provided in the psalms repeated each day of the week, Psalm 3 and Psalm 94, which serve to set us in the right frame of mind for the 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 heavily in the Prologue to St Benedict's Rule, so it's appearance here too, is unlikely to be a coincidence.



Psalm 3
Psalm 94

Key to the tables 

T=in the context of Tenebrae
P=as a penitential psalm
M= in context of Mass propers
D=in context of Office of the Dead
L=in context of festal Lauds
*=with links to verse by verse posts


Nocturn I
20: T
23: T
24: MM
Nocturn II
26: T
29: T


Nocturn I
37: TP*
Nocturn II
39: TM
40: D
41: D


Nocturn I
47: M, M
49: M
Nocturn II
58: T


Nocturn I
Nocturn II
68/1: T
69: M,T
70: T
71: T
72: T


Nocturn I
73: T
74: T
76: T
77/1: M
Nocturn II
84: MT


Nocturn I
92: L
93: T
Nocturn II
96: M


Nocturn I
101: P*
104/1: M
Nocturn II


  1. Thank you for this, really helpful!

  2. Thank you Jodie, glad you liked it.

    I am hoping to progressively add posts on the other hours, but do feel free to ask any questions or post reactions to the above, or make suggestions on what I should cover in relation to the other hours.