The Night Office

CHAPTER VIII. Of the Divine Office at Night
10 Feb. 11 June. 11 Oct.
In winter time, that is, from the first of November until Easter, the brethren shall rise at what may be reasonably calculated to be the eighth hour of the night; so that having rested till some time past midnight, they may rise having had their full sleep. And let the time that remains after the Night-Office be spent in study by those brethren who have still some part of the Psalter and lessons to learn. But from Easter to the first of November let the hour for the Night-Office be so arranged that, after a very short interval, during which the brethren may go out for the necessities of nature, Lauds, which are to be said at day-break, may follow without delay.

I have often, in the past, commented on the passage from Chapter VII to Chapter VIII in the light of the inclinato capite of John 19:30 and the glory of the Resurrection in the opening psalm of the Night Office:

Ego dormivi, et soporatus sum; et exsurrexi, quia Dominus suscepit me.
I have slept and have taken my rest: and I have risen up, because the Lord hath lifted me up. (Psalm 3:6)

It seems to me, as I continue to read the Holy Rule through a kind of Marian lens, that with Chapter VIII we pass from the life of the Mother of God after the Ascension of her Son and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost to the heavenly life that is hers in the glory of her Assumption, where she is hidden with her Son in God.

Therefore if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1–4)

The Assumption is the mystery of the Blessed Virgin Mary in which we discover a clear image of the monastic life such as we propose to live it here: (1) in a real separation from the world by means of  enclosure and silence; (2) in giving absolute primacy to the liturgical worship of God, according to that word of Dante, disposto a sola latria; (3) in an adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament that becomes, over time, a participation in the humility, hiddenness, and silence of the Host. Not for nothing does the traditional Gospel for the feast of the Assumption give us the words of Our Lord concerning Mary of Bethany applied liturgically to Mary, the Mother of God:

Now it came to pass as they went, that he entered into a certain town: and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord’s feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me. And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38–42)

Nothing in our observance expresses the meaning of the monastic life as clearly as does the Night Office. There is no earthly reason for us to rise while it is still dark and spend an hour or more in psalmody, readings, and responsories. When we come down to choir for the Night Office, it is for God alone. No one from the outside is waiting for us to begin; there is only the hidden presence of Christ in the tabernacle and, always, the anticipation of His return as Bridegroom, King, and Judge. Matins, or Vigils as it may also be called, is, I think, of all the Hours the one that most effectively strengthens a monk in his vocation to the purely contemplative life.

The structure of Matins with its succession of prolonged psalmody, lessons, and responses is a monk’s first and indispensable initiation into monastic prayer: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. The psalmody and lessons constitute our lectio. The responsories constitute our meditatio. The hymn, the blessings, and the Collect constitute our oratio. The silence that follows upon the Night Office and prepares us for the Office of Lauds disposes us, better than anything else, to contemplatio, that is, to a gratuitous and patient waiting upon God for God’s sake alone.

Our monastery will not begin to realise its potential until the Night Office becomes an indispensable element of our daily round of prayer. This will require much preparation and sacrifice, but it promises much fruit. Our particular dedication to reparation comes into play here. A French Trappist known for his holiness, — one Père Jérôme of the Abbey of Sept–Fons (1907–1985) — says that we monks are bound to pray on behalf of a sleeping world that cannot, or will not, or knows not how to pray. We are also bound to supply in a maximal way for those who, while belonging to the Church, are calculating and minimalist in offering God the faith, hope, charity, praise, and thanksgiving that are His due.

The Night Office, precisely because it has no pragmatic finality, and because it gets men out of bed to do nothing other than watch and pray, is properly constitutive of the contemplative monastic life. The prophet Jeremias says:

Consurge, lauda in nocte, in principio vigiliarum; effunde sicut aquam cor tuum ante conspectum Domini: leva ad eum manus tuas pro anima parvulorum tuorum, qui defecerunt in fame in capite omnium compitorum.

Arise, give praise in the night, in the beginning of the watches: pour out thy heart like water before the face of the Lord: lift up thy hands to him for the life of thy little children, that have fainted for hunger at the top of all the streets. (Lamentations 2:19)

In some way, monks do nothing other than repeat the cry that rose from Mount Carmel after the fire of the Lord consumed Elias’s holocaust:

And when it was now time to offer the holocaust, Elias the prophet came near and said: O Lord God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Israel, shew this day that thou art the God of Israel, and I thy servant, and that according to thy commandment I have done all these things. Hear me, O Lord, hear me: that this people may learn, that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart again. Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the holocaust, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw this, they fell on their faces, and they said: The Lord he is God, the Lord he is God. (3 Kings 18:36–39)

So long as there are men rising in the watches of the night to say only this, The Lord he is God, the Lord he is God, there is yet hope for the conversion of the nations. You will recall that, in October 1917, when the Mother of God showed herself to the three shepherds of Fatima, there was a moment at which they recognised her as Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Various reasons have been advanced to explain this particular phase of the apparition. For me, at least, upon reflection, this was the Mother of God’s appeal to all those who, like the prophet Elias, stand before the face of the Lord of Hosts (3 Kings 18:15), and who perpetuate the cry of the adoring people on Mount Carmel, The Lord he is God, the Lord he is God. What do we chant in the Invitatory Psalm that opens the Night Office?

Venite, adoremus, et procidamus,
et ploremus ante Dominum qui fecit nos:
quia ipse est Dominus Deus noster.

Come let us adore and fall down:
and weep before the Lord that made us:
For he is the Lord our God. (Psalm 94:6–7)