CHAPTER XLVII. Of signifying the hour for the Work of God
27 Mar. 27 July. 26 Nov.
Let the announcing of the hour for the Work of God, both by day and night, be the Abbot’s care: either by signifying it himself, or by entrusting the duty to such a careful brother, that all things may be done at the appointed times. Let the Psalms and antiphons be intoned by those whose duty it is, each in his order, after the Abbot. Let no one presume to sing or to read except such as can so perform the office that the hearers may be edified. And let it be done with humility, gravity, and awe, and by those whom the Abbot hath appointed.
In Saint Benedict’s day, time–keeping was not a simple matter. There were no modern electronic or digital clocks. There was the water–clock, and the hour–glass, and, when the sun was shining, there was the sundial. All the same, the rhythm of the monastic day had to be observed exactly and the time of the Hours announced punctually. Saint Benedict charges the abbot himself or a diligent brother chosen by the abbot with summoning the monks to choir for the Opus Dei. We are blessed to have D. Finnian, a model of regularity, who has been our faithful bell–ringer almost from the very beginning of the monastery.
In Egypt, at the time of Saint Pachomius, the monks were summoned to choir with the blast of a trumpet. Saint Pachomius himself is known to have blown the trumpet to call his monks to church. It would seem that, already, by the time of Saint Benedict, bells were used in Italy. The Church confers great dignity upon the bells used to call the faithful to divine worship. The prayers used for the so–called “baptism of bells” merit special attention. Here, for example, is the prayer of blessing for the water with which the new bell is washed:
Bless this water, O Lord, with a blessing from heaven, and may the virtue of the Holy Spirit come down upon it, that when this vessel, which is prepared for summoning the children of Holy Church, hath been moistened with it, wherever this bell may sound, may the power of those who lie in ambush, the shadow of apparitions, the attack of whirlwinds, the striking of lightning, the ruin of thunderbolts, the calamity of tempests, and all spirits of storms be scared away; and when the children of Christians hear its ringing, may devotion grow within them, that, hastening to the bosom of Holy Mother Church, they may there sing unto Thee in the assembly of the Saints a new canticle, introducing in their music the stirring sound of the trumpet, the sweet notes of the psaltery, the harmony of the organ, the cheerfulness of the drum and the gladness of the cymbal: so that by their prayers and worship they may invite to join them the multitude of the Angelic hosts who dwell in the holy temple of Thy glory.
Another prayer from the same rite describes the manifold blessings that come with the ringing of a church bell:
O Almighty Ruler, Christ, who, when sleeping in the ship according to the needs of that nature which Thou didst assume, didst awake, and instantly calm the sudden storm, so now do Thou graciously come to the help of Thy people in their necessities: spread over this bell the dew of the Holy Spirit, that the enemy of all good may ever flee before its sound; the Christian people be invited to profess their faith; the hostile army be scared away, and Thy people, in obedience to its call, be strengthened in the Lord; and may the Holy Spirit, charmed as by David’s harp, come down from on high; and as, when Samuel was offering up a suckling lamb as a holocaust to the Ruler of the everlasting kingdom, the thunder of the skies drove back the crowd of his assailants, so, whilst the sound of this vessel travels through the clouds, may the bands of Angel save the assembly of the Church and may Thy ceaseless protection guard the fruits, the minds and the bodies of those who believe in Thee.
On the Holy Mountain and elsewhere in the East where the Turkish hegemony forbade the ringing of church bells, monks used the semandron, a wooden percussion instrument, striking it rhythmically with a hammer. The sound of the semandron recalls the hammer of Noe constructing the ark. The animals, at the sound of the wood being struck by Noe’s hammer, came in procession, two by two, to enter the ark of their salvation. The compelling rhythm of the monastic symandron seems to say, «Come now. Come in. Come quickly. Come now. Come in. Come quickly. Come now. Come in. Come quickly».
The signal for the Divine Office announces a moment of grace, a return to God, a summons to that for which we were created:
Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2)
Come let us praise the Lord with joy: let us joyfully sing to God our saviour. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; and make a joyful noise to him with psalms. (Psalm 94:1–2)
One can speak of the missionary vocation of the monastery bell. The bells of a monastery are a tool of evangelisation. Those who, increasingly in the secular culture, seek to silence the bells of church and monastery are, in effect, closing their ears to a preaching of the Gospel. To the ears of the faithful and, even, to the ears of unbelievers, the sound of the bell echoes the voice of Christ calling men to Himself.
And on the last, and great day of the festivity, Jesus stood and cried, saying: If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink. (John 7:37)
In this same chapter on the signal for the Divine Office, Saint Benedict gives details not addressed in the liturgical directory (i.e., Chapters VIII—XX).
Let the Psalms and antiphons be intoned by those whose duty it is, each in his order, after the Abbot. Let no one presume to sing or to read except such as can so perform the office that the hearers may be edified. And let it be done with humility, gravity, and awe, and by those whom the Abbot hath appointed.
We monks do not speak out, pray, and sing each one according to his private inspiration. The monastic choir is a single hierarchically ordered body. The Opus Dei glorifies God, who orders “all things in measure, and number, and weight” (Wisdom 11:23). The choir is made up of cantantes (chanters), legentes (readers), and audientes (listeners). Of these, the audientes are the object of the beatitude that Our Lord pronounces in the Gospel of the Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturday: “Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:28). The gift of chanting and of reading is not given in equal measure to all, the abbot being the judge of each brother’s competencies. To all who ask for it, however, Our Lord will grant the gift of a listening heart. The brother who hears the word of God and keeps it enters into a particular affinity with the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He will, over time, begin to say at the Divine Office and in all of life: “Let it be unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
Finally, Saint Benedict points to the three qualities that ought to characterise the Opus Dei in any monastery under his Rule: quod cum humilitate et gravitate et tremore fiat, et cui iusserit abbas. The Divine Office is to be carried out with humility, gravity, and awe, by those whom the abbot shall have appointed.
Humility, gravity, and awe: these three distinctive qualities of Benedictine worship are expressions of the virtue of religion. Peter Van der Meer de Walcheren (1880–1970), the godson of Léon Bloy, and a writer of the French Catholic revival of the last century, was, in effect, converted to the Catholic faith by the humility, gravity, and awe of the rites of Holy Week as carried out in the Benedictine monastery of the rue Monsieur in Paris. He wrote:
The liturgy is a holy magnificence. I am well aware that it is absurd to speak words of admiration. All too evident is the beauty of this worship that expresses the inexpressible and causes the pure splendor of a flame to burn upright and bright in life’s blackness. Art is so superficial and poor; it appears so empty next to these sublime chants, next to these biblical words chanted, next to these holy texts, next to these prayers of mourning, these poems of extreme joy! I still hear the chant of the end of Lauds: Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis; to which is added on the third night; propter quod et Deus exaltavit illum et dedit illi nomen quod est super omne nomen. The music of it, the slow, plaintive, desperate music laden with every sorrow and with every mystery! How shall I ever forget the Lamentations of Jeremiah at the first Nocturn of Tenebrae? And the Ecce lignum crucis of Friday . . . ? And the Reproaches, divine reproaches of a crucified God to his people?
On Holy Saturday the new fire is kindled. The priest, advancing slowly towards the altar, sings the thrice-repeated words at equal intervals: Lumen Christi, each time on a higher tone; and the light increases until it becomes an immense interior fire. One senses in one’s soul a tangible deliverance. Where can one find a thing more lovely, more sublime than the chant of the Exultet jam angelica turba caelorum, in which, by the words and by the music, the desire of an incommensurable joy lifts itself up and erects a kind of rainbow stretching from earth to heaven? And the Preface that follows, with its sublime cries: O certe necessarium Adae peccatum!. . . O felix culpa!. . . Oh, to be able to believe, to be unshakably certain that this is not an empty spectacle, not a beautiful dream, but signs and symbols which are but the reflection of an inexpressible divine reality. I am shaken in the very depths of my soul. Illusion and appearance could never make me weep like this. I sense that behind all that I see and hear are luminous roads leading towards God.