CHAPTER XVIII. In what order the Psalms are to be said
24 Feb. ( if it be leap-year; if not it is added to the preceding day). 25 June. 25 Oct.
The order of psalmody for the Day-Hours being now arranged, let all the remaining 25 Psalms be equally distributed among the seven Night- Offices, dividing the longer Psalms among them, and assigning twelve to each night. Above all, we recommend that if this arrangement of the Psalms be displeasing to anyone, he should, if he think fit, order it otherwise; taking care in any case that the whole Psalter of a hundred and fifty Psalms be recited every week, and always begun afresh at the Night-Office on Sunday. For those monks would shew themselves very slothful in the divine service who said in the course of a week less than the entire Psalter, with the usual canticles; since we read that our holy fathers resolutely performed in a single day what I pray we tepid monks may achieve in a whole week.
Our father Saint Benedict charges his monks with the recitation of the entire Psalter, all 150 Psalms, in the course of a week. This is one of the very few injunctions of the Holy Rule that are, so to speak, non-negotiable. One cannot depart from the principle of the Psalter said over one week without taking liberties with an element that Saint Benedict himself deems untouchable. The manner of distributing the Psalms may be adjusted to local needs; Saint Benedict explicitly authorises such adaptations. What may not be changed is the distribution of the Psalms over one week.
Above all, we recommend that if this arrangement of the Psalms be displeasing to anyone, he should, if he think fit, order it otherwise; taking care in any case that the whole Psalter of a hundred and fifty Psalms be recited every week, and always begun afresh at the Night-Office on Sunday.
As necessary as it is to hold fast to Saint Benedict’s principle, the integral recitation of the Psalter over one week requires something more than a merely material execution of what is prescribed. Article 11 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, even after 57 years, remains fully actual. It is noteworthy that this same Article 11 alludes to Chapter XIX of the Holy Rule: Et sic stemus ad psallendum ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae. “And let us so assist at the Divine Office, that our mind and our voice may accord together.” The Conciliar text says this:
In order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration.
“Something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration.” What does this mean for us, sons of Saint Benedict, with regard to our celebration of the Divine Office? It means, among other things, that we open the Psalter, as one would open the tabernacle, that is, with a view to finding there Christ, Beloved Son and Eternal High Priest, praying to His Father. The Psalter, from beginning to end, gives us the prayer of the Heart of Christ. It is, in a certain sense, a “sacrament” of the prayer of Jesus. The Psalter is the expression of every cry of men addressed to God: cries of distress, bewilderment, anguish, and fear, as well as cries of desire, confidence, faith, hope, love, and surrender. At the same time, the Psalter gives us the very same words of praise, thanksgiving, and jubilation that rose from the Heart of Jesus and came to flower on His lips. When we chant the Psalms, even if, on a given day or at a particular hour, we feel nothing at the emotive level, we are nonetheless submitting our own subjective sentiments to those of the Heart of Jesus, and thus allowing His prayer to descend into our hearts and find expression in our chant.
I have had occasion to say this before, but I believe it important enough to bear repetition: the Psalter was inspired by the Holy Ghost and entrusted to the children of Israel in view of the day when the Incarnate Word would stand in need of a human prayer language, prepared for His Sacred Humanity by the Holy Ghost, and perfectly fitted to all the movements of His Heart. The first utterance of the Word upon taking flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin was taken from the Psalter:
Sacrifice and oblation thou didst not desire; but thou hast pierced ears for me. Burnt offering and sin offering thou didst not require: then said I, Behold I come. In the head of the book it is written of me that I should do thy will. (Psalm 39:7-7; Hebrews 10:5-7)
The Psalms—one may assume that Our Lord learned the Psalms first by hearing Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary recite them—became not only the expression of Our Lord’s filial prayer to the Father, but also an instrument of His priesthood. When, from the high place of the Cross, Our Lord intoned Psalm 21 and made His cry of Psalm 30—In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 30:6)—He was in fact showing the Church how to find in the Psalter words perfectly attuned to the inward movements of the Spirit who “intercedes for us, with groans beyond all utterance” (Romans 8:26). The Psalter, as used by the Church in the Mass and in the Divine Office, is the primary and indispensable devotion of the monk.