CHAPTER LII. Of the Oratory of the Monastery
3 Apr. 3 Aug. 3 Dec.
Let the Oratory be what it is called, a place of prayer: and let nothing else be done, or kept there. When the Work of God is ended, let all go out with the utmost silence, paying due reverence to God, so that a brother, who perchance wishes to pray by himself, may not be hindered by another’s misconduct. If any one desire to pray in private, let him go in quietly and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and fervour of heart. And let it not be permitted, as we have said, to remain in the Oratory when the Work of God is finished, except it be for a like purpose, lest hindrance be caused to others.
Saint Benedict derives a good part of the present chapter from the Rule of Saint Augustine, in which we read:
In the Oratory no one should do anything other than that for which it was intended and from which it also takes its name. Consequently, if there are some who might wish to pray there during their free time, even outside the hours appointed, they should not be hindered by those who think something else must be done there. (Rule of Saint Augustine 2:2)
Inspired by the Bishop of Hippo, Saint Benedict begins his treatment of the Oratory of the monastery by breaking with the practice of Egyptian monasticism. In the monasteries of Egypt, while one of the Fathers chanted psalms, the others responded with a short refrain, working all the while at the weaving of baskets and of mats so as not to give way to sleep. The Egyptian Oratory resembled a large open work–room; it would have contained stacks of reeds and date–palm leaves as well as buckets of water in which to soak the materials so as to soften them.
Marked by his Roman culture, Saint Benedict was incapable of such an approach to the worship of the Divine Majesty. Saint Benedict’s canonical situation was, moreover, different from that of the Egyptian Fathers. Saint Benedict and his sons celebrated the Opus Dei in churches solemnly consecrated by the bishop. These churches had an altar in which relics of the saints rested; there would also have been sacred images, and, as we know from Chapters IX and XI, seating for the choir. For Saint Benedict, it was inconceivable to have a kind of multi–purpose space for prayer, and to use the Oratory of the monastery as a workshop or store–room would have seemed to him a sacrilege.
In the Oratory, Saint Benedict would have his sons conduct themselves with profound respect and with reverence for the presence of God and of His holy Angels. The psalmody was to be executed with skill and with devotion:
Therefore let us consider how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and of His angels, and so assist at the Divine Office, that our mind and our voice may accord together. (Chapter XIX)
The Office of Matins is possessed of a special grace. While all is still dark and the world around us sleeps, we take up the psalms and chant them to God and, yes also, to one another. The psalmody is a confessio, a confession of praise made to God, and also a confession made to one another.
Per ipsum ergo offeramus hostiam laudis semper Deo, id est, fructum labiorum confitentium nomini ejus.
By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise always to God, that is to say, the fruit of lips confessing to his name. (Hebrews 13:15)
To one another we offer the psalms in a rhythm of giving and receiving, of chanting and of silence. At every moment the choir is made up of cantantes (chanters), legentes (readers), and audientes (listeners). Saint Paul says:
Implemini Spiritu Sancto, loquentes vobismetipsis in psalmis, et hymnis, et canticis spiritualibus.
Be ye filled with the holy Spirit, speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles. (Ephesians 5:18–19)
There are those who offer the Word of God, the cantantes (chanters) and the legentes (readers), and there are those who in imitation of Mary, the Virgo Audiens, receive the Word of God, like seed thrown into good ground (cf. Matthew 13:8). “But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Do not trouble yourselves because you do not process intellectually every word of every verse of every psalm. This is not the important thing. Study the psalms outside of choir. A monk never finishes studying the psalms: before the Office in preparation for it, and after the Office in rememoration and in prolongation of it. Go to Matins, and to the other Hours as well, to offer your heart as earth ready to receive the seed. Trust that the seed sown in your heart during the long psalmody will, in due time, sprout and bear fruit.
What renders the Office fruitful is not what you do during it, and is, rather, what God does in you during it. We call it the Opus Dei because in it God works in us. The operations of God in us are not contingent upon our processing intellectually every word of every verse of every psalm. A monk’s physical presence in choir, on good days and bad, in light and in darkness, says to God, “be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). For this to happen, it is not necessary to understand everything, nor to feel anything, nor to succeed at anything. It is enough to to go to choir, to carry out the Divine Office as best as one can, to present one’s heart to God as a field to be plowed, and seeded, and tended, and to trust in the secret operations of His grace.
Et dicebat: Sic est regnum Dei, quemadmodum si homo jaciat sementem in terram, et dormiat, et exsurgat nocte et die, et semen germinet, et increscat dum nescit ille.
And he said: So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the earth, and should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not. (Mark 4:26-27)
Saint Augustine says, “Think over in your hearts the words that come from your lips” (Rule of Saint Augustine 2:2). Saint Benedict expresses the same idea somewhat differently: “Let us so assist at the Divine Office, that our mind and our voice may accord together”. The Benedictine Oratory is a place of profound silence and adoration, not only during the Hours of the Opus Dei, but even outside the times consecrated to liturgical prayer: “When the Work of God is ended, let all go out with the utmost silence, paying due reverence to God” (Chapter XLII).
A monk may remain in the Oratory outside the time of the Divine Office, provided that he pray quietly, without raising his voice in loud exclamations or dramatic sighs. An adoring silence characterises Benedictine solitary prayer. One who violates this silence is to be excluded from the Oratory.
The one thing the devil seeks above all else is get a monk to forsake prayer. The devil can and does tempt monks against purity, obedience, stability, silence, and all the other virtues, but his chief strategy is to draw a monk away from prayer. The monk who stops praying closes his soul to divine grace and opens himself to every manner of temptation. The devil especially fears a monk’s secret prayer because secret prayer is the subterranean stream that irrigates liturgical prayer and makes it wonderfully fruitful. Saint Benedict describes the qualities of secret prayer in Chapter XX of the Holy Rule:
Let us remember that not for our much speaking, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction shall we be heard. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, except it be perchance prolonged by the inspiration of Divine Grace.
Saint Benedict recognises that some of his monks may, in fact, have the gift of prolonging their secret prayer in watches of adoration and in stillness before the altar. The Holy Patriarch himself was familiar with this kind of prayer, for Saint Gregory, describing Saint Benedict’s mystical experience, says:
The inward light which was in his soul ravished the mind of the beholder to supernatural things and showed him how small all earthly things are. (Second Book of the Dialogues, Chapter 35)
In Benedictine life, secret prayer is the necessary and indispensable complement of choral prayer and of lectio divina. Without the experience of silent adoration of the Divine Majesty, or of confident, filial conversation with God, or of simple resting in the radiance of the Face of Christ, close to to His Heart, the hours spent in choral prayer can become tedious and, little by little, lose something of their vitality. Precisely because a Benedictine monk is bound to prolonged liturgical prayer in choir, he absolutely needs the balance assured by secret prayer, by a daily seeking of the divine intimacy.
It is said in an antiphon of the Office of Saint Gertrude that Our Lord spoke to her as He did to Moses. “And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man is wont to speak to his friend” (Exodus 33:10). This may not describe the ordinary experience of every monk, but it must be the object of every monk’s desire. When a monk goes to silent prayer—to his watch of adoration—he opens himself to the gift of the divine intimacy or, if you will, to the surpassing friendship of Jesus Christ. In this kind of prayer, words are not necessary. If there are words, they are uttered as a means to the union of love in silence.