Reading or learning the Psalms (XLVII:2)

CHAPTER XLVIII. Of the daily manual labour
29 Mar. 29 July. 28 Nov.

From the first of October to the beginning of Lent let them apply to reading until the end of the second hour. Let Tierce be then said, and until the ninth hour let all labour at the work that is enjoined them. When the first signal for None is given, let every one break off from his work, and be ready as soon as the second signal is sounded. After their meal, let them occupy themselves in their reading, or in learning the Psalms. During Lent, let them apply themselves to reading from morning until the end of the third hour, and then, until the end of the tenth, labour at whatever is enjoined them. And in these days of Lent let each one receive a book from the library, and read it all through in order. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent. Above all, let one or two seniors be appointed to go round the Monastery, at the hours when the brethren are engaged in reading, and see that there be no slothful brother giving himself to idleness or to foolish talk, and not applying himself to his reading, so that he is thus not only useless to himself, but a distraction to others. If such a one be found (which God forbid) let him be corrected once and a second time; and if he do not amend, let him be subjected to the chastisement of the Rule, so that the rest may be afraid. And let not one brother associate with another at unseasonable hours.

For Saint Benedict, the time after the harvest and the winter months until the beginning of Lent have their own rhythm. Apart from the choir Offices, the monks dedicate their mornings to reading until the end of the second hour. A long stretch of time for work follows, interrupted only by the Office of Sext. In the middle of the afternoon, None is said, followed by the only meal of the day, which must be taken while there is still natural light. After the meal, Saint Benedict would have his monks occupy themselves in their reading or in learning the psalms.

Today, in a northern climate with shorter daylight hours, this timetable must be adapted. The health of the brethren and somewhat weaker physical constitutions must also be taken into account lest the strong become inflated with pride over their ascetical achievements and the weak be driven away by the harshness of the fast. Our horarium is also affected by the daily Conventual Mass and the celebration of private Masses; these elements of our daily observance are not only legitimate, but altogether essential, even if the time given to them is necessarily lost to other pursuits. Article 60 of our Declarations says this:

The daily Conventual Mass, as well as the private Masses which may be offered after Matins, suffuses the rest of the day with the radiance of the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest and spotless Victim, through Whom all things are reconciled to the Father. Abiding in Him, by partaking of the mysteries of His Most Sacred Body and Blood, the monks will become adorers in spirit and in truth such as the Father seeks.

There was a time when, in certain monasteries, the traditional practice was to have the Conventual Mass after Terce on Sundays, feasts, and during Octaves; to have it after Sext on ferial days; and to have it after None during Advent and Lent, on Vigils, and on Ember Days. In practice, the Little Hours were often grouped together around the Conventual Mass, forming a single block of time in choir rather earlier than later in the day. Similarly, during Lent it was not uncommon to advance the hour of Vespers rather than delay the meal to later in the day. In the first years of our monastery we tried having the Conventual Mass after None and the single meal in the evening during Lent, but quickly discovered the meaning of the verse, Esurientes et sitientes, anima eorum in ipsis defecit, “They were hungry and thirsty: their soul fainted in them” (Psalm 106:5). In the end, we fell back on Saint Benedict’s great over-arching principle concerning the abbot in Chapter LXIV:

In the works which he imposeth, let him be discreet and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, when he said “If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all perish in one day.” Taking, then, the testimonies, borne by these and the like words, to discretion, the mother of virtues, let him so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm.

One last comment is in order. One often hears clergy and layfolk cite the maxim, Ora et Labora, as emblematic of Benedictine life. Some even it attribute it to Saint Benedict himself, thinking that it is found in the Holy Rule. The formula is found neither in the Holy Rule nor in Saint Gregory’s Life of Saint Benedict. It is not found in antiquity. In order to correspond to the mind of Saint Benedict as expressed in Chapter XLVIII, it would have to be changed to Ora, lege et labora (pray, read and work). This would be a more accurate description of our life, given that it corresponds to the three principal activities of a monk. The Apostle says: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), and again, “All whatsoever you do in word or in work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Colossians 3:17).

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