Thursday, October 13, 2016

The liturgical genius of St Benedict's Lauds - Pt 3: The fixed psalms, structure and symbolism of the hour

Image result for building up the walls of jerusalem
c6th mosaic map of Jerusalem

In the previous part of this series I talked about some of the theological context for the hour of Lauds, and today I want to take that theme a little bit further, and look very briefly at the fixed psalms of the hour.

The table below summarises the structure of the psalmody section of Lauds.  The weekday and Sunday prescriptions are from St Benedict's Rule; the festal version is a later development.

The psalmody at Lauds 
Opening prayers
Psalm 66
Variable (normally alleluia)

Psalm 50+ Gloria
Psalm 92+variable antiphon
Fixed +variable antiphon
Psalm 117
Psalm 99+variable antiphon
Of the day +variable antiphon
Psalm 62
Psalm 62+variable antiphon
Of the day +variable antiphon

Antiphon for the canticle
OT Canticle
Benedicite Domino (no Gloria)
Festal canticle of the day of the week with Gloria
Ferial or festal canticle of the day of the week  with Gloria

Ps 148+149+150+Gloria
                                     Fixed (Laudate psalms)

The symbolism of seven?

The first issue worth noting is how many psalms are said at the hour - should we count it as five (ie the Laudate psalms count as one not three since they are said under the same Gloria); seven (counting Psalms 148-150 separately); or eight (including the Old Testament canticle as a pseudo-psalm)?

This is not just of arithmetic interest, but goes to the symbolism of the hour.

A later commentary on the Roman Office Office, for example, by Amalarius of Metz, pointed to the five psalms of Lauds and Vespers as symbolising the five wounds of Christ.

St Benedict, of course, has only four psalms at Vespers.  But his Office, too, has a certain parallelism in the psalms - provided you count Lauds as having seven, and the two evening Offices, Vespers and Compline has having seven between them. This then provides to a parallel psalm number for the rest of the night and day - twelve (plus two) at Matins, and twelve from Prime to None.

There is another reason to think St Benedict had the number seven in mind as well that goes to number symbolism, and that is a mathematical connection between seven and twelve.  St Augustine, for example, makes a great deal of play upon in several different places on the symbolic meanings and mathematical relationships between these numbers and their constituents, viz three (Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Compline) plus four (Vespers) makes seven (Lauds, Vespers/Compline); three times four makes twelve (Matins).

So what is the significance of seven?  One obvious meaning is that it goes to the idea of praying without ceasing - seven in Scripture often standards for universality or continuousness due to the association with the days of creation.  It also stands for this life (as opposed to the 'eighth' eternal day ushered in by the Resurrection, perhaps also relevant to this hour's meaning courtesy of that Canticle!), and the cultivation of'the sevenfold graces of the Holy Ghost.

One particularly important association of seven, though, is the idea of venturing out into the wide world, or the expansion of the faith: Abraham set out from his fathers land with 70 in his group; when Jesus appeared to the apostles after the Resurrection and they hauled in 153 fish, seven of the apostles were present; and seven deacons were appointed to help the Twelve as the number of faithful grew for example.  It is this particular association that I think is worth considering in relation to Lauds.

Mission in Psalms 66 

Lauds begins and ends with a call to praise God.  In Psalm 66, the call is to all the peoples of the earth; in the Laudate psalms at the end, the call is to the whole universe, to all of creation.

After the opening prayers, Lauds always starts with Psalm 66, a joyful and uplifting psalm that starts and ends by requesting God’s blessing on us.  

Its placement at Lauds each day is no doubt due in large part to its images of light, and the commitment to praise God in all places, as well as foreshadowing the Benedictus Canticle also said at Lauds.  It is also the quintessential psalm of the Church’s mission though: it asks for and points to God’s guidance for Governments, and for the spread of God’s word and praise across the whole world.

You can find my previous notes on this psalm in the following posts:

Psalm 50: Penitence and mission

Psalm 50 has been described as the penitential psalm par excellence, and I think that’s a fair description: it is a powerful expression of deep humility and contrition, and every verse has great spiritual and theological riches waiting to be uncovered.  

But it also reflects the whole path of the soul, from penitence to joy.  St Benedict, I think, actually puts more emphasis on the second half of the psalm, due to his use of verse 16 (O Lord open my lips that I may announce your praise) to open Matins each day, and through both with his insistence that it be said even on Sundays, with an alleluia as antiphon.  St Benedict is, I think, directing us to the last two verses, which pray for the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem, a meaning explained by his biographer St Gregory the Great as follows:  
Holy Church has two lives: one that she lives in time, the other that she receives eternally; one with which she struggles on earth, the other that is rewarded in heaven; one with which she accumulates merits, the other that henceforth enjoys the merits earned. And in both these lives she offers a sacrifice: here below, the sacrifice of compunction, and in heaven above, the sacrifice of praise. Of the former sacrifice it is said: "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit'; of the latter it is written: "Then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and in whole burnt offerings'.... In both, flesh is offered, since the sacrifice of the flesh is the mortification of the body, up above; the sacrifice of the flesh is the glory of the resurrection in praise to God. In heaven, flesh will be offered as a burnt holocaust when it is transformed into eternal incorruptibility, and there will be no more conflict for us and nothing that is mortal, for our flesh will endure in everlasting praise, all on fire with love for him.
The monk or nun arguably bridges St Gregory's 'two lives', living the angelic life as far as this is possible in this life through the total holocaust of self and offering the sacrifice of praise on behalf of the Church.

You can find my previous posts on Psalm 50 through the links below:

Psalm 50 at Lauds

Psalm 50 as a penitential psalm:

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

The Laudate psalms

The psalms that give Lauds its (current) name though, are the three Laudate, or 'praise' psalms, Psalm 148, 149 and 150 that end the Book of Psalms and praise God for his creation of the world, and its recreation through Christ.

Psalm 148 has been described as Genesis 1 in poetic form, because it invites all creation to give God in an order that mirrors the days of creation.  It's content and structure is echoed in a number of other Old Testament canticles, including the Benedicite (Daniel 3) said at Lauds on Sunday, Job 28, and Sirach 43.  Read in the light of the New Testament however, the call to praise is not just for creation, but more particularly for our redemption through the Resurrection of Christ.  St Augustine explains the context:
This is the Halleluia which we sing, which, as you know, means (in Latin), Praise ye the Lord...this, after His Resurrection: by which time is signified the future hope which as yet we have not: for what we represent after the Lord's Resurrection, we shall have after our own. For in our Head both are figured, both are set forth. The Baptism of the Lord sets forth to us this present life of trial, for in it we must toil, be harassed, and, at last, die; but the Resurrection and Glorification of the Lord sets forth to us the life which we are to have hereafter, when He shall come to recompense due rewards, evil to the evil, good to the good.
Psalm 149 very much picks up where Psalm 148 leaves off, for the last verse of Psalm 148 shifts from the universal praise of God to the role of the faithful (the 'saints') in particular, and this is the main focus of Psalm 149.  The psalm opens with a call to sing a 'new song', a phrase that the Fathers always interpret as a reference to the Messianic era inaugurated by Christ's Incarnation and Resurrection, and especially the conversion of the nations to Christianity (cf Rev 5:9).

The last psalm of the psalter, and the final psalm of Lauds each day, serves as a doxology to the whole book, conjuring up an image of the celestial liturgy played out with voices and orchestra, as the universe reverberates with praise for the greatness of God.  It consists of ten separate calls to praise God - a number that the Fathers associated both with then 'ten words' of creation, and the ten commandments.

For more on these, follow the links below...

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

The variable psalms and canticle

Sitting in between these fixed psalms of the hour then, and the progression they map in our lives and the history of salvation, come the variable psalms and canticles, and it is at these I want to turn in the next part of this series

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