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CHAPTER XV. At What Times of the Year Alleluia Is to Be Said

18 Feb. 19 June. 19 Oct.
From the holy Feast of Pascha until Pentecost, without interruption, let Alleluia be said both with the Psalms and the responsories. From Pentecost until the beginning of Lent it is to be said at the Night-Office with the six latter Psalms only. But on every Sunday out of Lent let the Canticles, Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext and None be said with Alleluia: Vespers, however, with an antiphon. The responses are never to be said with Alleluia, except from Pascha to Pentecost

Readers discovering the Rule of Saint Benedict for the first time are often surprised by the Holy Patriarch’s careful attention to the minutest details of the Opus Dei (the Work of God or Divine Office). He goes so far as to devote a chapter of the Holy Rule to the times of the year during which Alleluia is said. Alleluia is the transliteration of two Hebrew words: hallel meaning praise, and Ya, the shortened two-letter version of the name of God. Some rabbis hold that the final syllable is a superlative suffix meaning abundance. According to the first interpretation, Alleluia means “Praise ye the Lord”; according to the second, it means, “Praise [Him] with many praises”. The chant of the Alleluia is not left to random personal inspiration, lest it become an element of disorder in the sacred liturgy. One recalls, in this regard, the angel who appeared in the assembly of the Fathers in Egypt:

And while they were all sitting (as is still the custom in Egypt ), with their minds intently fixed on the words of the chanter, when he had sung eleven Psalms, separated by prayers introduced between them, verse after verse being evenly enunciated, he finished the twelfth with a response of Alleluia, and then, by his sudden disappearance from the eyes of all, put an end at once to their discussion and their service. (Institutes II, Chapter 5)

The Alleluia is woven into the texture of the Office in such a manner that when it is said, the Alleluia creates a holy enchantment, and when it is not said, the very ethos of the Office is changed in such a way that the soul longs for the return of the Alleluia as for the return of a dearly loved friend at the sound of whose voice one experiences gladness.

Blessed Schuster, in his commentary on the Holy Rule, goes into great detail with regard to the various liturgical traditions and their use of the Alleluia. It is sufficient to say that, for Saint Benedict, Alleluia belongs, first of all, to Paschaltide. Then, from Pentecost until the beginning of Lent (when it is silenced), Alleluia is said with the psalms of the Second Nocturn at Matins. Sundays are like Pascha itself; Alleluia recurs at the Canticles of the Third Nocturn, at Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext and None. Alleluia is the great Paschal word; more than a word, it is a mystery, a sacramentum. The Alleluia is, in the mouth of the monk who sings it, a foretaste of heaven. In the book of Tobias, Alleluia resounds in the streets of the earthly Jerusalem, a figure of the Jerusalem above.

The gates of Jerusalem shall be built of sapphire, and of emerald, and all the walls thereof round about of precious stones. All its streets shall be paved with white and clean stones: and Alleluia shall be sung in its streets. (Tobias 13:21–22)

Among the holy words that grace the lips of man in prayer, there is perhaps none lovelier than Alleluia. It is a word that requires the development of melody. It calls for a soaring vocal jubilation. It contains within itself a cantus obscurior, the hidden and most secret form of verbal expression that the chant of the Church brings to life. Alleluia is a heavenly word, an echo and a foretaste of the liturgy described by Saint John in the Apocalypse:

And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of great thunders, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord our God the Almighty hath reigned. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give glory to him; for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath prepared herself. (Apocalypse 19:6-7)

Father Maurice Zundel (1887-1975), a master at once of the interior life and of its most poetic expression, wrote the following incomparable page on the Alleluia:

The anonymous Englishman who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing puts the following question into the mouth of the disciple he is guiding to contemplation. “Now thou askest me and sayest : How shall I think on God, and what is He? Unto this I cannot answer Thee except to say I know not.” This is the traditional teaching of all the great mystics. They do not know. Words seem to them a mockery, concepts a prison, the entire apparatus of speech the shadow of a shade. . . .

From this point of view, few pages give such delight to the believer, Denys excepted, as the article in his Summa which St. Thomas devotes to the relation between the sixth beatitude and the gift of understanding, where he speaks of this vision, in which though we do not see what God is, at least we see what he is not, and adds that “the more perfectly we know God in this life, the more we understand that He exceeds whatever the intellect can understand”. This denial, however, is the supreme affirmation of our understanding. For it is the refusal to limit the Infinite. And the heart has the wider field for its love, and feels itself free at last to attach itself fully without being made captive. Impatient now of the oars which beat the waves to the laborious rhythm of thought, it asks that the sail be hoisted and that it be permitted to follow freely the wind of the Spirit through God’s incomprehensible transcendence, far from banishing Him to an inaccessible sublimity, assures us that His relations with the universe are infinitely gratuitous and that no other bond with His creatures is possible than His goodness which diffuses itself and His love which gives. What could He expect or receive who is the fullness of being? He truly gives what He gives. . . .

No longer able to hold back its rapture, and having moreover climbed above the zone of words, the jubilant soul bursts into the ecstatic vocalisations of the Alleluia. “He who jubilates”, St. Augustine explains, “utters no words, but a sound of joy without words: for it is the voice of the spirit lost in joy, expressing that joy to the utmost of its power but unable to define its meaning. And who is the fit object of this jubilation but the ineffable God? Ineffable indeed is He whom thou canst not name. But if thou canst not name Him, yet may not keep silence, what canst thou do but jubilate, that thy heart may rejoice without words, and the immensity of thy joy escape the constraint of syllables”. It would be impossible to express better the mystery of the Alleluia, its sublime aspiration to utter the ineffable by the ineffable. (The Splendour of the Liturgy)

And after Father Zundel, there is Saint Augustine on the Alleluia:

Our thoughts in this present life should turn on the praise of God, because it is in praising God that we shall rejoice for ever in the life to come; and no one can be ready for the next life unless he trains himself for it now.

Benedictine life is just this: training for the life of heaven. Just as grace is the seed of glory, so too is the Divine Office, celebrated in this valley of tears, the seed of what, in heaven, shall blossom into the perfect and ceaseless liturgy served by the angelic choirs and all the blessed before the throne of God and of the Lamb.

So we praise God during our earthly life, and at the same time we make our petitions to him. Our praise is expressed with joy, our petitions with yearning. We have been promised something we do not yet possess, and because the promise was made by one who keeps his word, we trust him and are glad; but insofar as possession is delayed, we can only long and yearn for it. It is good for us to persevere in longing until we receive what was promised, and yearning is over; then praise alone will remain.

Yearning for heaven characterises Saint Benedict and his sons. Thus does our patriarch say in Chapter IV of the Holy Rule that the monk is to “to desire with a special longing everlasting life”.

Because there are these two periods of time – the one that now is, beset with the trials and troubles of this life, and the other yet to come, a life of everlasting serenity and joy – we are given two liturgical seasons, one before Pascha and the other after. The season before Pascha signifies the troubles in which we live here and now, while the time after Pascha which we are celebrating at present signifies the happiness that will be ours in the future. What we commemorate before Pascha is what we experience in this life; what we celebrate after Pascha points to something we do not yet possess. This is why we keep the first season with fasting and prayer; but now the fast is over and we devote the present season to praise. Such is the meaning of the Alleluia we sing.

The same two periods—the first corresponding to Our Lord’s humiliation (exinanitio), and the second to His glorification are reflected in the very construction of the Holy Rule. Chapters V, VI, and VII present the monk’s participation in the Passion of Christ; Chapters VIII through XX present his participation in the heavenly life of the risen and ascended Christ, who exercises His priesthood of glory before the Father in the heavenly sanctuary beyond the veil.

Both these periods are represented and demonstrated for us in Christ our Head. The Lord’s passion depicts for us our present life of trial—shows how we must suffer and be afflicted and finally die. The Lord’s resurrection and glorification show us the life that will be given to us in the future.

The Sacred Host veils the whole mystery of the Christus Passus, the suffering Christ who, from the altar of the Cross, makes Himself over as “a pure victim, a holy victim, a spotless victim” to the Father. The naked Host lying upon the corporal—utterly fragile, poor, and vulnerable—is the image of the life of suffering and affliction by which a man participates by patience in the victimhood of Christ. The Alleluia rises slowly from the tomb, says D. Aemiliana Löhr, “with the Blood of Christ on its wings”.

Now therefore, brethren, we urge you to praise God. That is what we are all telling each other when we say Alleluia. You say to your neighbor, “Praise the Lord!” and he says the same to you. We are all urging one another to praise the Lord, and all thereby doing what each of us urges the other to do. But see that your praise comes from your whole being; in other words, see that you praise God not with your lips and voices alone, but with your minds, your lives and all your actions.

We are praising God now, assembled as we are here in church; but when we go on our various ways again, it seems as if we cease to praise God. But provided we do not cease to live a good life, we shall always be praising God. You cease to praise God only when you swerve from justice and from what is pleasing to God. If you never turn aside from the good life, your tongue may be silent but your actions will cry aloud, and God will perceive your intentions; for as our ears hear each other’s voices, so do God’s ears hear our thoughts. (Discourse on the Psalms, Psalm 148, 1-2: CCL 40, 2165-2166)

What Saint Augustine says here concerning ceaseless adoration is the paradigm for our life of perpetual adoration. Adoration provides the breath by which our Alleluia is carried aloft into heaven. We do not cease to adore when we leave the Oratory; all our life is adoration because at every moment it is given us “to participate by patience in the Passion of Christ” (Prologue). The Alleluia that rises from our choir and from our hearts is the expression of this, for the praise that finds its voice in the Alleluia is most beautiful when it rises out of the silence of adoration.