Tuesday, October 11, 2016

St Benedict's liturgical genius and the design of Lauds - Part I

Frescos in St. Michael the Archangel Church in Lesnovo, Macedonia, c14th

Over the next few weeks I plan to take a look at the psalms and canticles of Lauds, and today I want to provide a brief overview of where I am coming from on this topic.

On the ordering of St Benedict's psalm cursus

One of the staples of current orthodoxy about the Benedictine Office, courtesy largely of the work of Dom Adalbert de Vogue, is that the allocation of psalms to particular hours by St Benedict has no particular rationale other than keeping the hours relatively short.

The prevailing consensus is that St Benedict largely took the Roman Office of his time (and/or perhaps that of 'the Master'), and tweaked it a bit to make the day hours a bit shorter and more varied: the reasoning for his redistribution of psalms is essentially 'mechanistic'.

This view continues to be propagated through the work of Paul Bradshaw and others, who argued, for example, that St Benedict's Prime was simply as place to dump the unneeded psalms of Matins freed up by the alleged reduction in the length of the Night Office compared to that of the Master's (Daily Prayer in the Church, 1981, pg 148).

There are several problems with this position, which I won't go into here.  Suffice it to say for the moment that our knowledge of the details of Roman Church's Office at this time is pretty much entirely speculation: the first full description of it dates from around 850 AD.  In my view the numerous tables of reconstructed Roman Offices so popular in twentieth century and current liturgical studies reflect the same mentality as attempts to construct the mythological 'Q' source text for the synoptic Gospels.  And just as the consensus around that theory is now happily collapsing, sooner or later the current orthodoxy around the Office will surely follow.

But what should replace it?

The content of the psalms

The biggest problem with virtually all of the modern commentaries on the Office seems to me to be that they pay only superficial attention to comments by the Fathers and monastic writers on the content and meaning of the psalms, and largely ignore the symbolism embedded in some of the features of the Office.

This isn't terribly surprising.  Given that the modern Office has entirely abandoned the traditional eight hour structure, one wouldn't expect a lot of emphasis on the symbolism that underlies that number for example.  And when it comes to the psalms themselves, the Christological meaning of the psalms that was so central to the Fathers has largely been lost in recent centuries, replaced by historico-critical preoccupation with the development of the texts and their literal sense that renders them largely devoid of modern relevance.

My view is that by learning to walk 'in the steps of the Fathers', and understand the way they approached the psalms (and the symbolism of the Office more generally), I think we can arrive at a much richer understanding of the Divine Office.

St Benedict's liturgical genius

Fr Cassian Folsom, in his series of conferences on monastic prayer a few years back, for example argued that when St Benedict, in the Rule, says put nothing before the Office, he is implicitly saying put nothing before Christ (who we can find in the Office).  He noted that understanding the Christological content of the psalms is essential to this end.

One way in which St Benedict uses these Christological means, in my view is through a certain 'vertical' unity in the Office, with the psalms chosen for each day effectively providing a meditation on key events in the life of Christ.  Lauds is key to this program, since my theory is that St Benedict started from the ferial canticles he took from Roman practice, and developed his Office around the program they set up.  My recent series on the first psalms of Matins each day suggested that these psalms were specifically chosen to give effect to this program, and I've previously looked at the variable psalms of Lauds in this context.

I've also suggested that St Benedict gives the individual hours of his Office a certain 'horizontal unity'.

Prime, for example, far from being a mere dumping ground for some psalms surplus to requirements as some have suggested, I would argue is very carefully designed indeed, focusing on the kingship (including the judicial power) of Christ.

And I'm not alone in thinking that the themes of Prime are very closely connected to the Benedictine Rule: the Rule's very opening lines invite us to renounce our own will and take up arms under Christ our true King; and mindfulness of God's scrutiny of our actions and the coming judgement is a key theme of both the Prologue and the spiritual teaching of the Rule.

Where Lauds fits

In this series I want to focus primarily on another key theme of the Prologue to the Rule, namely that Christ is calling us into his kingdom, inviting us to be dwellers in heaven, and pointing to the way to enter.  It is this theme, centred on the priesthood of Christ, that I think is the key focus for Lauds.

The key Scriptural text for the priesthood of Christ is the book of Hebrews, which draws out the idea of Christ's sacrifice on the cross as playing out the role of the High Priest, who on the feast of the Atonement each year offered a sacrifice and then brought the blood into the holy of holies, the innermost sanctum of the temple and the microcosm of heaven.  Through his death he offers the perfect sacrifice for our sins; through his Resurrection he enters with his blood into the holy of holies, allowing us 'to follow him to glory' (RB Prologue).

The second Matins invitatory, Psalm 94, which is given an extensive exposition in Hebrews, perhaps invites us to reflect on the twelve tribes of Israel wondering in the desert for forty years, unable to enter the Promised Land.

Lauds in St Benedict's conception, I think, moves us to the happy resolution of this piece of salvation history, with Christ reopening the way to the true promised land for those who respond to his call.

Above all, Lauds is a celebration of the Resurrection, an hour at which Christ continuously calls us into the kingdom, and invites us to enter the gates of heaven, to become dwellers in his tabernacle through faith and good works.

Click here for the next part in this series.

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