Sunday, January 7, 2018

Learn the Office Pt 1.1 - Benedictine Office Basics


Limoges Plaque with St. Benedict.jpg


Let nothing be put before the Work of God.
Rule of St Benedict, ch 43


I'm starting a new series here, for those wanting to learn how to day the Benedictine Office using the Monastic Diurnal.  The first few posts are by way of preparation - some background reading for those considering buying a Diurnal, or some pre-reading before you actually try to use it.


1.  The Benedictine Office was formulated by St Benedict in the first half of the sixth century

The traditional form of the Benedictine Office as set out in the Monastic Diurnal follows the guidelines set out by St Benedict in his Rule in chapters 8 to 19.  The rubrics for the Office have evolved over a time a little, including to take account of the development of feasts, but the basic structure of the 'hours', including the psalms assigned to them, remains unchanged.

Many modern Benedictine monasteries use different distributions of the psalms and hours, following either the 1970 Roman Liturgy of the Hours, or one of the schemas permitted under the 1977 Monastic Thesaurus.  St Benedict certainly permits other distributions of the psalms in his Rule.

But until Vatican II Benedictine monasteries almost invariably followed the structure for the Office he sets out in the Rule.  In my view, St Benedict's particular form of the Office is part of the patrimony of the Order to be treasured and preserved.

2.  The Benedictine Office according to the 1962-3 rubrics (and approved variants used by individual monasteries) is an approved form of the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church.

The Benedictine Office is a form of the Liturgy of the Hours, the public prayer of the Church even when it is said by one person alone.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs us that:
In this public prayer of the Church, the faithful (clergy, religious, and lay people) exercise the royal priesthood of the baptized. Celebrated in "the form approved" by the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours "is truly the voice of the Bride herself addressed to her Bridegroom. It is the very prayer which Christ himself together with his Body addresses to the Father.
As liturgy, it is the highest form of prayer in the Church, but praying it comes with responsibilities: it should be approached with the same reverence we do the Mass, and abide by the rubrics (rules) that govern it for the same reasons.

Accordingly, while you are learning the Office you should consider praying it devotionally, at least at first, practising until you have it right, just as a transitional deacon preparing for ordination practices saying the Mass.

3.  Learning the Office takes a bit of work

The Office is not straightforward to learn - the various books for it generally assume you already know it (they were written for novices, and religious travelling outside the monastery).  So be prepared to do a bit of work!

In particular, the traditional Benedictine Office is meant to be sung (even if just on one note) if at all possible, and said in Latin (though of course you can pray it devotionally in English).

4.  The Office consists of eight 'hours'

St Benedict specified that he wanted his monks to pray seven times through the day, and again at night.  These different prayer times are called 'hours' although the actual length of the day 'hours' is mostly much shorter than that.

The Monastic Diurnal provides the texts needed to pray the seven day hours: Lauds (said at first light, before dawn), Prime (before work), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (noon), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (sunset) and Compline (before bed).  Matins (not in the Diurnal) is said in darkness (traditionally in the very early morning).

5.  The core of the Benedictine Office is the psalms

Each hour of the Benedictine Office includes a hymn, short verse of Scripture (called the 'chapter'), a prayer, and other texts.

The main component of each of the hours, though, is the psalms.

St Benedict organised his Office to ensure that all of the psalms are said each week, but with quite a few of the more important ones repeated each day.

6.  You don't have to say all of the hours

You don't have to say any or all of the hours - it is entirely up to you.

A good way to start is Prime and Compline, as these provide a good morning and evening prayer and are the simplest to say.

You can also be reasonably flexible about the times you say them at.  Although St Benedict was pretty insistent on starting Lauds at first light, because the hour links the rising sun with the Resurrection, he was prepared to move most of the other hours around a bit to fit the needs of the particular monastery, and the modern rules are more flexible still.

7.  The Office is linked to the Mass

As well as changing for each day of the week, the Divine Office follows the cycle of the liturgical year.  Many of the texts and chants of the Office, such as the antiphons, collects and hymns change with the seasons and to mark feasts.

The Monastic Diurnal uses a calendar that is aligned with the weekly liturgical cycle of the (1962) EF Mass, so that the collect at Sunday Mass is usually the collect used at many of hours in the Office during the week for example.

When it comes to the feasts of saints, there are some differences in the calendars though, and individual monasteries can also have their own calendars and rubrics.

Next up

The next post in this series covers Books for the Office.

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