A school of the Lord’s service (Prologue 7)

7 Jan. 8 May. 7 Sept.
We have, therefore, to establish a school of the Lord’s service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous. But if anything be somewhat strictly laid down, according to the dictates of sound reason, for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be strait and difficult. But as we go forward in our life and in faith, we shall with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love run in the way of God’s commandments; so that never departing from His guidance, but persevering in His teaching in the monastery until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers of His kingdom. Amen.

I have explained before that Saint Benedict’s dominici schola servitii (school of the Lord’s service) is nothing other than a school of divine worship. A man comes to the monastery to learn how to adore God as He Himself desires to be adored, that is “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). A man adores the Father in spirit when, attuned to the the Spirit of the Only–Begotten Son, whom God has sent forth into our hearts, the ecstatic cry of the Only–Begotten Son becomes his own: Abba, Father! I use the word “ecstatic” designedly and in its true sense, for when the Holy Ghost unites a soul to the prayer of Christ, that prayer lifts a man out of himself in a Godward movement. This is what William of Saint–Thierry calls “passing from oneself to God.” Whereas non–Christian methods of meditation cause a man to sink into himself, that is, into nothingness, and thereby to lose his personhood, Christian prayer is always the leap of a son into his Father’ arms, a movement out of self, a stretching upward and outward to meet the embrace of the Father as a little child.

How does a Benedictine monk or, for that matter, any Christian, allow the Holy Ghost to attune him to the prayer of the Son? He does this, above all and before all, by submitting every movement of his own prayer to the Great Prayer of the Church, that is, the sacred liturgy. The sacred liturgy is the prayer of the whole Christ, Head and members, Bridegroom and Bride, offered to the Father in the Holy Ghost. “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, be unto Thee, O God the Father Almighty, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

We, sons of Saint Benedict, attend the school of the Lord’s service seven times in the day and once in the night. Saint Benedict says in Chapter XVI:

As the prophet saith: “Seven times in the day have I given praise to Thee.” And we shall observe this sacred number of seven if, at the times of Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, we fulfil the duties of our service. For it was of these hours of the day that he said: “Seven times in the day have I given praise to Thee”; just as the same prophet saith of the night watches: “At midnight I arose to give Thee praise.” At these times, therefore, let us sing the praises of our Creator for the judgments of His justice: that is, at Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline; and at night let us arise to praise Him.

This does not mean that every brother must be present at every Hour of the Divine Office. The monastic family forms a single body, the members of which have different functions. When these functions are coordinated by the Head, and animated by the filial and priestly spirit of Christ, the action accomplished by one member redounds to the benefit of all. The brothers who are working at their appointed tasks while other brothers are chanting the praises of God in choir are no less part of the Opus Dei than those who are in the choir stalls.

For as the body is one, and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body, so also is Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)

The service of the choir is a corporate action carried out, as the Byzantine liturgy puts it, with reference to the offering of the Holy Gifts, “on behalf of all and for all.” The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council echo the teaching of the Church through the ages when, in Sacrosanctum Concilium‘s stupendous article 7, they say:

Every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.

The sacred liturgy is the means by which the Holy Ghost infuses into our bodies, souls, and spirits the prayer that, being divine by reason of its origin in the Heart of the Son, is singularly worthy of the Father’s glory. The Apostle says:

The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; when we do not know what prayer to offer, to pray as we ought, the Spirit himself intercedes for us, with groans beyond all utterance: and God, who can read our hearts, knows well what the Spirit’s intent is; for indeed it is according to the mind of God that he makes intercession for the saints. (Romans 8:26–27).

One who enrols in Saint Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service” dedicates himself to learning the prayer of Christ, beloved Son and Eternal High Priest, and to making that prayer his own by attending to what Pope Saint Pius X called, “the foremost and indispensable wellspring of the authentic Christian spirit” (Tra le sollecitudini, 1), that is, the Divine Office, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the various sacramental rites and acts of divine worship that, under the action of the Holy Ghost, have developed organically in the course of the Church’s history. This sacred apprenticeship to Christ and to the prayer of His Body and Bride the Church is not completed once and for all; it is the work of a lifetime.

A Benedictine monk never permits himself to say, “Now I have mastered all that I need to know of the sacred liturgy. All is familiar to me. The liturgical books hold no secrets for me, no surprises, nothing more to discover.” Such words would be an egregious expression of both pride and stupidity. We are to approach the Divine Office each day as a little child discovering a garden for the first time. In the “school of the Lord’s service” one never loses the sense of wonderment. Even though the same antiphons and psalms may be repeated over and over again, to the point of learning them by heart, the grace that they contain is always new, always efficacious, always life–changing for the man who receives them humbly and repeats them with an attitude of interior submission to the operations of divine grace.