Te decet laus (XI)

CHAPTER XI. How the Night-Office is to be said on Sundays
13 Feb. 14 June. 14 Oct.

On Sunday let the brethren rise earlier for the Night-Office, which is to be arranged as follows. When six Psalms and a versicle have been sung (as already prescribed), all being seated in order in their stalls, let four lessons with their responsories be read from the book, as before: and to the last responsory only let the reader add a Gloria, all reverently rising as soon as he begins it. After the lessons let six more Psalms follow in order, with their antiphons and versicle as before; and then let four more lessons, with their responsories, be read in the same way as the former. Next let three canticles from the Prophets be said, as the Abbot shall appoint, which canticles are to be sung with an Alleluia. After the versicle, and the blessing given by the Abbot, let four more lessons from the New Testament be read as before; and at the end of the fourth responsory, let the Abbot begin the hymn, Te Deum laudamus. After the hymn, let the Abbot read the lesson from the Gospel, while all stand in awe and reverence. The Gospel being ended, let all answer Amen. Then let the Abbot go on with the hymn, Te decet laus; and after the blessing hath been given,* let them begin Lauds. This order for the Night-Offices is always to be observed on Sunday, alike in summer and in winter, unless perchance (which God forbid) they rise too late, in which case the lessons or responsories must be somewhat shortened.* Let all care, however, be taken that this do not happen; but if it should, let him, through whose neglect it hath come to pass, make satisfaction for it in the oratory.

The architecture of the Night Office on Sunday is magnificent. After the thrice–repeated verse, ” O Lord, thou wilt open my lips, and my mouth shall tell of thy praise” (Psalm 50:17), there follows Psalm 3, the prayer of the risen Christ:

But thou, O Lord, art my protector, my glory, and the lifter up of my head. I have cried to the Lord with my voice: and he hath heard me from his holy hill. I have slept and have taken my rest: and I have risen up, because the Lord hath protected me. (Psalm 3:4–6)

Then comes the great summons to praise and adoration, the Venite, that is Psalm 94. The invitatory antiphon changes according to the Sunday, the feast, and the season, giving colour and luminosity to the familiar repetition of the psalm. The various modal melodies of Psalm 94, corresponding to the modes of the antiphons, are among the most beautiful pieces in the whole Gregorian repertoire. In hearing them sung, one is compelled to fall down in adoration, to rise in jubilation, to repent of every hard–heartedness, and to yearn for the eternal sabbath, the promised day of perfect repose in God.

After the Invitatory, there is the hymn. As a rule, the hymn follows the classic structure of the Collect: (1) we address God; (2) we recall His mirabilia, His wondrous deeds in the past; (3) there are one or two verses of supplication, making us ask, as we also do in the Collect of the day, for the graces that God is already disposed to give us; (4) there is a doxology addressed to the Most Holy Trinity.

These four elements, i.e. the opening verse, Psalm 3, the Invitatory, and the hymn constitute the narthex of the Night Office. With the intonation of the six psalms, we pass from the narthex into the body of the structure. We remain there, taking our place among the blessed of every age in whom Psalm 1 (Beatus vir) is fulfilled:

Sed in lege Domini voluntas ejus, et in lege ejus meditabitur die ac nocte.
But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night. (Psalm 1:2)

The psalmody of the First Nocturn (a word meaning Night Watch) dilates the heart and opens in each one a place for the indwelling of the Word of God. And so, with the Versicle, we pass from the psalmody to the blessing, a kind of ἐπίκλησις  (epiclesis) over the community for the fruitful lectio (reading/hearing) of the lessons. The reader asks for the blessing, but the blessing is not given to the reader alone; it is prayed over the whole community of the audientes, that is, over the listeners. The Second Nocturn is like the first.

With the Third Nocturn, beginning with its three Canticles, the rhythm of the chant seems to quicken in anticipation. One can almost hear in the distance the long-awaited cry in the night: Ecce sponsus venit. “And at midnight there was a cry made: Behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye forth to meet him” (Matthew 25:6). Whereas at Holy Mass, the homily follows the reading of the Gospel, at the Night Office, the homily precedes the Gospel. The homily, taken from the Fathers, announces the Gospel and prepares us to hear it with understanding.

After the fourth responsory, the abbot himself intones the Te Deum, the Church’s great nocturnal thanksgiving. The Te Deum is a hymn of praise that from the first two words raises us upward and out of ourselves into “so great a cloud of witnesses over our head” (Hebrews 12:1), with whom we contemplate the glory of God; they in the light of glory, and we by the light of faith. While the three Nocturns are, up until this point, profoundly recollected and focused on hearing the Word of God, and on giving it voice in Psalms, and responsories, and Canticles, with the intonation of the Te Deum, there is what is properly called an ecstatic movement, that is, a movement out of ourselves, a kind of leap of grace ad Deum (towards God). The Te Deum is, then, to the Night Office, what the Preface is to Holy Mass. Compare the Preface of the Holy Ghost with the Te Deum:

It is truly meet and just, right and for our salvation, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God: through Christ our Lord. Who ascending above all in the heavens and sitting at Thy Right Hand, poured out the Holy Spirit upon the children of adoption. Wherefore the whole world doth rejoice with overflowing joy; and the heavenly Hosts also and the angelic Powers sing together the hymn of Thy glory.

All Christian prayer, while it begins in the hearing (lectio), and repetition (meditatio), and praying of the Word of God (oratio), culminates in a movement out of self towards union with God. United to the Son as the members of the Body to their Head, and in the descending grace of the Holy Ghost, we are, as the Preface of Christmas says, “ravished unto the love of things invisible,” in invisibilium rapiamur. This is the great movement of the reditus ad Deum, the return to God: Ad Patrem, per Filium, in Spiritu. “To the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Ghost.” The Divine Office saves Christians from a prayer that is stunted, from a prayer that goes only half-way, and from a prayer that, in the end, may degenerate into self-absorption. In October 1989, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote his Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. It is a text that every monk must study well, in which Cardinal Ratzinger says:

There is no doubt that in prayer one should concentrate entirely on God and as far as possible exclude the things of this world which bind us to our selfishness. On this topic St. Augustine is an excellent teacher: if you want to find God, he says, abandon the exterior world and re-enter into yourself. However, he continues, do not remain in yourself, but go beyond yourself because you are not God: He is deeper and greater than you. “I look for his substance in my soul and I do not find it; I have however meditated on the search for God and, reaching out to him, through created things, I have sought to know ‘the invisible perfections of God’ (Rom 1:20).” “To remain in oneself”: this is the real danger.

If to remain in oneself is the real danger, the real saving grace of the Te Deum is that it lifts us out of ourselves, allowing us to correspond to what Saint Paul writes to the Colossians:

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. (Colossians 3:1–2)

The Te Deum sets the tone for the right hearing of the Holy Gospel. The Gospel can only be heard rightly when the heart is dilated by the praise of God. The liturgic Gospel of the Night Office is a true παρουσία (parousia); the Greek word means presence, arrival, or even royal visitation. The Gospel is a revelatio, a pulling back of the veil of the sanctuary that allows us to behold something of the majesty of Christ in glory. “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known. The Gospel is the advent of the risen and ascended Christ, who speaks in the midst of His Church to vivify her, to purify her, to heal her, and to communicate the Holy Ghost to her in a way that is—all theological rigour and proportion being respected—sacramental. We respond to the Gospel with the great word of the end of the book of the Apocalypse: Amen.

He that giveth testimony of these things, saith, Surely I come quickly: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. (Apocalypse 22:20–21)

The Amen that places the seal of faith and adoration on the Gospel must be sung with firmness and intensity. It is the word to which the whole Night Office is ordered. The Te Decet Laus that follows immediately upon the Amen is the deployment of all that it contains. It is the final doxology that the hearing of the Gospel calls forth from the hearts of the hearers. It is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy. After the Te Decet Laus, the Night Office closes peacefully, almost quietly with the Collect and the Benedicamus Domino. Or does it close really? It is, rather, suspended in order that we may catch our breath for the Office of the Matutinorum Sollemnitas, the Matutinal Solemnity as Saint Benedict calls the Office that we have come to call Lauds.

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