Never less than twelve Psalms (X)

CHAPTER X. How the Night-Office is to be said in Summer Time
12 Feb. 13 June. 13 Oct.

From Easter to the first of November let the same number of Psalms be recited as prescribed above; only that no lessons are to be read from the book, on account of the shortness of the night: but instead of those three lessons let one from the Old Testament be said by heart, followed by a short responsory, and the rest as before laid down; so that never less than twelve Psalms, not counting the third and ninety-fourth, be said at the Night-Office.

For Saint Benedict, the number of psalms recited at the Night Office, or at any other Hour of the Office, for that matter, is not left to private inspiration, not even to the inspiration and judgment of the abbot who, in certain other liturgical matters, may exercise a certain liberty and discretion. I am thinking, for example, of the choice of the canticles from the Prophets for the Third Nocturn (XI); the reduction of the lessons and responsories when the brethren fail to rise at the appointed time (XI); the distribution of the psalms over one week, provided that all 150 psalms be recited every week, and always begun afresh at the Night-Office on Sunday (XVIII); and the duration of the silent prayer that all make in common (XX). The abbot also, and he alone, bids priest monks offer Holy Mass and give blessings (LX). For all other matters pertaining to the Opus Dei, the abbot is bound to observe the prescriptions laid down in the Holy Rule.

Here is another example of Saint Benedict’s gift for harmonising what is objective and laid down by the Holy Rule with the abbot’s duty to make adjustments, to provide for accommodations, and to take into account particular circumstances in such wise “that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm” (LXIV). Saint Benedict insists, all the same, “that never less than twelve Psalms, not counting the third and ninety-fourth, be said at the Night-Office” (X). The division of longer psalms into sections, each having its Gloria Patri, is itself a principle authorised in Chapter XVIII, each section being counted as a psalm.

Saint Benedict, therefore, would have the abbot and his monks carry out the Divine Office with rigorous fidelity to what is laid down in non-negotiable terms in the Holy Rule, and with a prudent liberty in those matters left to the discretion of the abbot. The Benedictine approach, not only with regard to the Opus Dei, but in all of life, is marked by a remarkable balance of what is objective and normative with what may be adapted to particular needs and to human weakness.

In the matter of common prayer and notably with regard to psalmody, quantity is not a negligible consideration. A wise spiritual father said, “If you cannot pray well, pray much.” There is much to be said for having a fixed allotment of time given to prayer. Whereas in personal secret prayer, one may linger over a sIngle psalm, or even over a single verse of a psalm, in choral prayer the verses of the psalms pass quickly, and it is must be so. You know the story of how Abba Pambo, a Father of the Egyptian desert, at the very outset of his monastic life, betook himself to an aged monk, and asked direction of him.

The old monk opened his Psalter, and began to read the opening verse of Psalm 38, “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue”. The young Pambo said, “Stop there. That is enough. Let me go home now and practice this verse”. Long years after, a brother asked Abba Pambo if he was yet perfect in the practice of this first lesson of his monastic life. The dear saint, now a venerable elder, replied, ” Forty and nine years have I dwelt in this desert, and am only just beginning to learn how to obey this commandment”.

A solitary may linger over a single verse for forty-nine years; in liturgical prayer there is, for want of a better word, a canonical standard. To reduce the Divine Office quantitatively by falling below this canonical standard is to fail in the duty of the community’s servitutis pensum. To increase the quantity laid down is both imprudent and presumptuous.