Ergo nihil operi Dei praeponatur (XLIII:2)

CHAPTER XLIII. Of those who come late to the Work of God, or to table
23 Mar. 23 July. 22 Nov.

Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God. And should any one come to the Night-Office after the Gloria of the ninety-fourth Psalm (which for this reason we wish to be said very slowly and protractedly), let him not stand in his order in the choir, but last of all, or in the place set apart by the Abbot for the negligent, so that he may be seen by him and by all, until, the work of God being ended, he have made satisfaction by public penance. The reason why we have judged it fitting for them to stand in the last place, or apart, is that, being seen of all, they may amend for very shame. For, if they were to remain outside the Oratory, some one perchance would return to his place and go to sleep, or at all events would sit down outside, and give himself to idle talk, and thus an occasion would be given to the evil one. Let him therefore enter, that he may not lose the whole, and may amend for the future. At the day Hours, let him who cometh to the Work of God after the Verse, and the Gloria of the first Psalm which followeth it, stand in the last place, as ordered above, and not presume to join with the choir in the Divine Office, until he hath made satisfaction: unless perchance the Abbot shall permit him so to do, on condition, however, that he afterwards do penance.

If any one, through his own negligence and fault, come not to table before the Verse, so that all may say this and the prayer together, and together sit down to table, let him be once or twice corrected. If after this he do not amend, let him not be admitted to share in the common table, but be separated from the companionship of all, and eat alone, his portion of wine being taken from him, until he hath made satisfaction and amends. Let him be punished in like manner, who is not present also at the Verse which is said after meals. And let no one presume to take food or drink before or after the appointed hour: but should a brother be offered anything by the Superior, and refuse to take it, if he afterwards desire either what he before refused, or anything else, he shall receive nothing whatever, until he hath made proper satisfaction.

Ergo nihil operi Dei praeponatur. “Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God.” This is one of the most often quoted injunctions of the Holy Rule, almost to the point of having become emblematic of Benedictine life. In the Preface that Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 2015 to the Russian edition of his Opera Omnia, he draws out the implications of this injunction of Saint Benedict not only for monasteries but for the whole Church.

Nihil Operi Dei praeponatur – “Let nothing be set before the Divine Worship.” With these words, Saint Benedict, in his Rule (43,3), established the absolute priority of Divine Worship in relation with any other task of monastic life. This, even in monastic life, was not necessarily obvious, because for monks the work in agriculture and in knowledge was also an essential task.

In agriculture, as also in crafts, and in the work of formation, there could be temporal emergencies that might appear more important than the liturgy. Faced with all this, Benedict, with the priority given to the liturgy, puts in unequivocal relief the priority of God himself in our life. “At the hour for the Divine Office, as soon as the signal is heard, let them abandon whatever they may have in hand and hasten with the greatest speed.” (43, 1)

With his characteristic serenity and clarity, Pope Benedict says that, even in monastic life, the absolute priority of Divine Worship may risk being eclipsed by other tasks or even supplanted by other work deemed more necessary. The truth is that for us monks nothing is more pressing, nothing more urgent, nothing more important than the Opus Dei. Monasteries rise and flourish or decline and become sterile on fidelity or infidelity to this principle: “Let nothing be set before the Opus Dei.” The absolute priority given to the Opus Dei is incumbent on the abbot, first of all, and on the community as a whole. There will always be individual monks who, even at the hour of the Opus Dei, are obliged to carry out particular tasks under the blessing of obedience. These monks, however, allow the Opus Dei to go on. They free their brethren to go to choir, and make the absolute priority given to the Opus Dei possible. It remains, nonetheless, that the absolute priority given to the Divine Office, is the distinctive mark of Benedictine life and its single greatest contribution to the life of the Church in any place and at any moment in history. Pope Benedict goes on to say:

In the conscience of the men of today, the things of God, and with this the liturgy, do not appear urgent in fact. There is urgency for every possible thing. The things of God do not ever seem urgent. Well, it could be affirmed that monastic life is,  in any event, something different from the lives of men of the world, and that is undoubtedly fair. Nevertheless, the priority of God which we have forgotten is valid for all. If God is no longer important, the criteria to establish what is important are changed. Man, by setting God aside, submits his own self to constraints that render him a slave to material forces and that are therefore opposed to his dignity.

Here Pope Benedict speaks prophetically. He tells us that there is nothing more urgent than the things of God and, therefore, nothing more urgent than the sacred liturgy, which for us monks always signifies the full round of the Divine Office and the daily Conventual Mass, celebrated with as much solemnity and dignity as possible. By placing other pursuits before the worship of God, men, and yes, even monks, risk becoming enslaved to material contingencies and thereby falling into a descending spiral of dehumanisation. Pope Benedict reviews the past sixty years, a moment in the life of the Church in which he was actively and intimately engaged. He says:

In the years that followed Vatican II, I became once again aware of the priority of God and of the divine liturgy. The misunderstanding of the liturgical reform that has spread widely in the Catholic Church led to putting ever more in first place the aspect of instruction and that of one’s own activity and creativity. The action of men led almost to forgetting of the presence of God. In such a situation, it becomes ever clearer that the existence of the Church lives on the just celebration of the liturgy, and that the Church is in danger when the primacy of God does not appear anymore in the liturgy, and therefore in life. The deepest cause of the crisis that has subverted the Church is located in the effacing of the priority of God in the liturgy.

Hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness? Pope Benedict’s affirmation is as clear as it is critical. “It becomes ever clearer that the existence of the Church lives on the just celebration of the liturgy, and that the Church is in danger when the primacy of God does not appear anymore in the liturgy, and therefore in life.” It is a tragic loss and an immense woe when the psalmody of the Church falls silent in a land or in a diocese. It is a silence of death, like that of the netherworld in which no one intones a song of praise, a lament of repentance, a hymn of thanksgiving, an ode of love. At the end of the day, monks do not exist to do or say anything apart from Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. Everything else in the monastic life—work, art, study, administration, writing, speaking, hospitality, and all the rest—is undertaken to support the absolute primacy of the worship of God. Pope Benedict concludes:

All this led me to dedicate myself to the theme of the liturgy more widely than in the past because I knew that the true renewal of the liturgy is a fundamental condition for the renewal of the Church. The studies collected in this volume 11 of the Opera Omnia are based on this conviction. But in the end, despite all the differences, the essence of the liturgy in East and West is one and the same. And therefore I hope that this book may aid also the Christians of Russia to understand in a new and better way the great gift that is given to us in the Sacred Liturgy.

Vatican City, on the feast of Saint Benedict
July 11, 2015

“The true renewal of the liturgy is a fundamental condition for the renewal of the Church.” To a great extent we monks are, therefore, albeit in way that is mysterious and largely hidden, responsible for the renewal of the Church. The primacy of God—the primacy given to latria— is the deepest and highest joy of the monastic life.