Of the Divine Office at Night (VIII)


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.

With Chapter VIII of the Holy Rule we pass from our participation in the mysteries of Christ’s passion and death (Chapters V, VI, and VII) to participation in the mysteries of His holy resurrection and glorious ascension. Saint Benedict devotes twelve chapters to the Opus Dei (the Divine Office), and in so doing elaborates for us the service of the Divine Majesty by which we anticipate sacramentally the liturgy of the temple of God in heaven.

For Jesus is not entered into the holies made with hands, the patterns of the true: but into heaven itself, that he may appear now in the presence of God for us. (Hebrews 9:24)

Saint Benedict attributes a primary and indispensable place to the solemn celebration of the Divine Office. All of Benedictine life converges in the choir Office as a gratuitous service of the Divine Majesty, carried out by day and by night, and this with no pastoral motivation, but for God alone. It is the Divine Office that gives the rhythm of a regular heartbeat to the monastic community as a whole, and to the soul of each monk. The Opus Dei, before being the monastic community’s daily offering to God, is God’s work in the monastic community, consolidating and consecrating it.

Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)

The Jewish tradition, and the primitive Christian tradition after it, enjoined three times of prayer each day: at dawn, at midday, and at the setting of the sun.

Vespere, et mane, et meridie, narrabo, et annuntiabo; et exaudiet vocem meam.
Evening and morning, and at noon I will speak and declare: and he shall hear my voice. (Psalm 54:18)

Even the prophet Daniel, exiled in Babylon, prayed three times a day, turning his face towards Jerusalem.

Daniel went into his house: and opening the windows in his upper chamber towards Jerusalem, he knelt down three times a day, and adored, and gave thanks before his God, as he had been accustomed to do before. (Daniel 6:10)

Psalm 118 recalls the secret prayer made in the middle of the night:

I rose at midnight to give praise to thee; for the judgments of thy justification. (Psalm 118:62)

Saint Luke tells us that Peter and John went up to the temple to offer prayer at the ninth hour (Acts 3:1). Paul and Silas, imprisoned in Philippi, prayed at midnight, raising their voices in the praise of God, and this to great effect:

And at midnight, Paul and Silas praying, praised God. And they that were in prison, heard them. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and the bands of all were loosed. (Acts 16:25–26)

Already, Saint Benedict, in his time, recognised seven distinct times of prayer each day, in addition to the Night Office: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. Vespers, Compline, and the Night Office are layers of what was, originally, a single nocturnal prayer beginning after the setting of the sun. At the time of Saint Benedict, the Hours of prayer that he sets forth in the Rule were already in general use throughout the West. Saint Cyprian writing on the Lord’s Prayer in about the year 251, already treats of the full cursus of the Hours. The relevant passage of Saint Cyprian’s text is worth quoting in full:

Now in the offering of prayer we find that the Three Children with Daniel, being strong in faith and victors even in captivity, observed the third, sixth, and ninth hours, in as it were a symbol of the Trinity Which in these last times should be revealed. For the progress of the first hour to the third shows the perfected number of the Trinity; likewise from the fourth to the sixth declares another Trinity; and when the period from the seventh to the ninth is completed, the perfect Trinity is numbered through a triad of hours each.

These spaces of hours were long ago fixed upon by the worshippers of God, who observed them as the appointed and lawful times for prayer. After-events have made it manifest that of old these were types, inasmuch as righteous men thus formerly prayed. For at the third hour the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and fulfilled the gracious promise of the Lord. Likewise at the sixth hour Peter, going up to the house-top, was instructed as well by the sign as by the voice of God bidding him admit all to the grace of salvation, when he was doubtful previously whether Gentiles ought to be cleansed. And from the sixth to the ninth hour the Lord, being crucified, washed away our sins in His own Blood; and that He might redeem and quicken us He then perfected His victory by His Passion.

But for us, dearly beloved brethren, in addition to the hours anciently observed, both the times and the rules of prayer have now increased in number. For we must pray also in the morning, in order that the Resurrection of the Lord may be celebrated by morning prayer. And this the Holy Spirit formerly pointed out in the Psalms, saying, “My King and my God! for unto Thee will I pray O Lord, in the morning, and Thou shalt hear my voice: in the morning will I stand to Thee, and I shall see Thee” (Ps. 5:3). And again, the Lord speaks by the Prophet: “Early in the morning shall they watch for Me, saying: Let us go and return unto the Lord our God.” (Osee 6:1)

Likewise at sunset and the decline of day must we needs pray again. For since Christ is the true Sun and true Day, when we pray at the decline of the world’s sun and day and entreat that the light may again come upon us, we are asking for the Advent of Christ, which will bestow on us the grace of eternal light. The Holy Spirit declares in the Psalms that Christ is called the Day. “The stone,” He says, “which the builders refused is become the head of the corner. This has been done by the Lord, and it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the Day which the Lord hath made: let us rejoice and feast in it” (Ps. 118:22). Also that He is called the Sun, the Prophet Malachi testifies, saying: “But unto you that fear the Name of the Lord shall the Sun of Righteousness arise, and in His wings is Healing.” (Mal. 4:2) But if in the Holy Scriptures Christ is the true Sun and true Day, there is no hour excepted when Christians ought not constantly and continually to worship God; so that we who are in Christ that is, in the true Sun and Day may all day long be instant in entreaties and prayers; and when by the world’s law the revolving night, recurring in its alternate changes, succeeds, there can be no loss to us from its nocturnal shades, because to the sons of light it is day even in the night. For when can he be without light who has the Light in his heart? Or when is the sun and the day not his to whom Christ is both Sun and Day?

Let us then, who are ever in Christ, that is, in the Light, cease not from prayer even by night. Thus the widow Anna without ceasing persevered with constant prayer and watching in being well-pleasing to God ; as it is written in the Gospel: “She departed not from the temple, serving with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37).

It is no relief to us that there are Gentiles who have not yet been enlightened, or Jews who have deserted the light and abide in darkness. Let us, dearly beloved brethren, who are ever in the light of the Lord, and who remember and hold fast what we have begun to be by grace given, reckon for “day.” Let us deem ourselves to be ever walking in the light; let us not be hindered by the darkness from which we have escaped; let there be no loss of prayers in the night hours, no idle and slothful time-losing in opportunities of prayer. Let us, spiritually recreated and born again by the tender mercy of God, imitate that which we are destined to be; for since in the Kingdom we shall have day only without intervention of night, let us so watch by night as if in the light; and since we are to pray and give thanks to God for ever, let us not cease here also to offer prayers and thanksgivings. (On the Lord’s Prayer, 34–36)

Saint Ambrose, in his commentary on Psalm 1, also alludes to the chant of the psalms by day and by night:

A psalm is a blessing on the lips of the people, a hymn in praise of God, the assembly’s homage, a general acclamation, a word that speaks for all, the voice of the Church, a confession of faith in song. It is the voice of complete assent, the joy of freedom, a cry of happiness, the echo of gladness. It soothes the temper, distracts from care, lightens the burden of sorrow. It is a source of security at night, a lesson in wisdom by day. (Exposition on Psalm 1, 9)

In the light of the Church’s oldest traditions of liturgical prayer, one understands why Saint Benedict dedicates twelve out of seventy–three chapters of his Rule to the ordering of the Divine Office. The ancients referred to these chapters as the Cursus Sancti Benedicti. One also understands why, in Chapter LVIII, Saint Benedict makes “solicitude for the Work of God” (si sollicitus est ad opus Dei) one of the criteria by which the abbot evaluates a man’s suitability for the monastic life.

Let a senior, one who is skilled in gaining souls, be appointed over him to watch him with the utmost care, and to see whether he is truly seeking God, and is fervent in the Work of God, in obedience and in humiliations. (Chapter LVIII)

Not all men knocking at the door of the cloister are familiar with the Divine Office. For many, it is something entirely unknown. Men from various backgrounds come to the monastery with different experiences of prayer: the rosary, adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, and popular devotions. Very few men come to the monastery with a knowledge of the Psalter.  Zeal for the Divine Office is, however, a grace that God will not deny a man who sincerely seeks Him and aspires to serve Him as a monk.

Fervour in the Divine Office must not be confused with an emotional state. It has nothing to do with the consolations that ebb and flow in the course of one’s life with God. The Divine Office is a manly prayer: it is characterised by sobriety, regularity, and dedication to duty. Like a heartbeat, the choral service of the Divine Majesty imparts a steady rhythm to the life of the monastery and to the life of each monk. The Divine Office is a sacred duty; it is not the occasional pursuit of the pious dilettante. The monk who faithfully goes to choir in season and out of season, by day and by night, is simply doing his job as a humble and reliable workman in the house of the Lord. In Chapter XVIII, Saint Benedict says:

Those monks would shew themselves very slothful in the divine service who said in the course of a week less than the entire Psalter, with the usual canticles; since we read that our holy fathers resolutely performed in a single day what I pray we tepid monks may achieve in a whole week.

In Chapter L, Saint Benedict uses the expression servitutis pensum, the weight of one’s service, in reference to the Divine Office.

In like manner, let not those who are sent on a journey allow the appointed Hours to pass by; but, as far as they can, observe them by themselves, and not neglect to fulfil their obligation of divine service.

The expression servitutis pensum (obligation of divine service), far from being a legalistic and negative way of viewing the Divine Office, underscores its essentially objective character. A monastic community goes to choir seven times a day and once in the night, not because there are people waiting in the nave of the church for a scheduled service, but simply because God is God. The fidelity of a monastic community to prayer hangs on this alone: Quis ut Deus? Who is like unto God?

And a voice came out from the throne, saying: Give praise to our God, all ye his servants; and you that fear him, little and great. 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. (Apocalypse 19:5–6)
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