Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 10

To be read: February 12, June 12, October 15

From Easter until the first of November let the whole number of psalms, as explained above, be said. 2However, because of the shortness of the nights, no lessons are read from the book, but instead of these three lessons let one from the Old Testament be said from memory. Let a short responsory follow this. 3And let all the rest be performed as was said, namely, that never fewer than twelve psalms be said at Vigils, in addition to Psalms 3 and 94. 

Benedict did not have the blessing (or is it a curse) of modern time-keeping devices.  So, the good father recognized the need to adjust schedules to fit the seasons.  But regardless of the season, the focus of Vigils was to remain unchanged—a service of praise.  Lessons from the Scriptures and the Fathers are good, but in order to adjust for the work of the community in the Summer sun, the service must be shortened to take advantage of cool mornings.  Nevertheless, the heart of the community must continue to be turned toward God in worship and praise at the beginning of the day.  

The Opus Dei, the Work of God or the Divine Office, begins with praise, whether that is inclusive of readings or not.  Benedict recognized that for the work of the community to thrive, we must give back to God, first our praise and thanks, and only then to ask for His blessing and aid.  We are called to give a sacrifice of praise.  As the Psalmist says, “He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me…” (Psalm 50:23). It is far better to begin our day in thanksgiving and praise rather than seeking gifts from His hand or consuming more knowledge from the readings.  St. Paul reminds us of what Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

If your work requires an early start, you too can adjust your morning devotions.  But recognize that omitting those morning devotions is not an adjustment, it is an abdication.  If your discipline has not previously included morning devotions, there is no better time than the present to begin.  Start slowly and work up.  To dive into the recitation of twelve psalms and four lessons, with versicles and responsories could be daunting for even the most saintly of worshipers.  Let God guide you in your worship of Him.  It is His party, let Him show you the way.

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Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 9

To be read: February 11, June 11, October 14

During the winter season, Vigils begins with the verse: O Lord open my lips; and my mouth shall declare Your praise (Ps 50[51]:17).  This is to be said three times. 2After this Psalm 3 and the Gloria are to be added, 3and Psalm 94 [95] with its antiphon is to be said or chanted. 4Then let an Ambrosian hymn follow, and after that six psalms with antiphons. 5When these and the versicle have been said, let the Abbot give the blessing. All being seated on the benches, let three lessons be read by the brothers from the book on the lectern, and between each let a responsory be said or sung. 6Let two of the responsories be said without the Gloria, but after the third lesson let him who is chanting say the Gloria. 7When the cantor begins to sing, let all rise at once from their seats in honor and reverence of the Blessed Trinity.  8Besides the inspired books of the Old and the New Testaments to be read at Vigils, also the expositions of the Scriptures which have been made by reputable orthodox and Catholic Fathers should be included. 9After these three lessons with their responsories, let six other psalms follow, together with a sung Alleluia. 10After these let the lessons from the Apostle follow, to be said by heart, then the versicle and the litany, that is, Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). 11And the service of Vigils is thus completed. 

This is the second of four installments in the Rule of Saint Benedict about the service of Vigils, or as it is sometimes called, Matins.  This office garners so much attention because in many ways it is the foundational service of worship for the day.  This chapter details the number of Psalms and lessons to be recited and read at this service, the focus being praise, with a total of 12 Psalms being recited, besides the introductory Psalms (3 and 95).  

To begin one’s day in adoration and praise is a wonderful alternative to most modern practices.  How many modern Americans open their eyes and grab their phone?  They check their social media accounts, or tap into one of the news feeds.  But Benedict offers an alternative.  Roll out of bed and sing praises to the Lord, beginning with the opening acclamation, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.”  And the opening verses of Psalm 95 set the tone for the service and the day:  “O come, let us sing unto the Lord; let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.  Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, and show ourselves glad in Him with psalms.”  What a wonderful way to set our hearts aright for the day.

The number of psalms or lessons said during the service is less important than the inclination of the heart to worship.  As the Psalmist said in Psalm 95, “let us heartily rejoice…”  Having visited various Benedictine communities over the years I have yet to find one that pharisaically observes the routine described in this section of the Rule for the office of Vigils.  For example, at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist Monastery, they recite six psalms (or sections thereof) and read two lessons (the second being from “reputable orthodox and Catholic Fathers”).  They maintain the heart and intent of the Rule, while making the service itself a little less formidable.  Nevertheless, the service is one of praise to the God Who has created the new day.  Ask the Lord to open your lips, that you may “come before His presence with thanksgiving, and show [yourself] glad in Him with psalms.”

Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 8

To be read: February 10, June 10, October 12-13

The brothers will rise during the winter season, that is, from the first day of November until Easter, making due allowance for circumstances, at the eighth hour of the night; 2so that, having slept until a little after midnight, they may rise refreshed. 3The time, however, which remains after Vigils will be used for study by those of the brothers who still have some parts of the psalms and the lessons to learn.  4But from Easter to the first of November mentioned above, let the hour for celebrating Vigils be arranged so that a very short interval be provided the brothers that they may take care of the necessities of nature. Then Lauds, which is to be said at daybreak, may follow immediately. 

Having dealt with the spiritual life of the community in the first seven chapters of the Rule, Benedict now begins his teaching on the practical aspects of living life in community by addressing the discipline of communal prayer.  Chapters eight through twenty deal with the practice of the Divine Office.  The clear message in this transition from the spiritual to the practice of prayer is that everything done in community must flow from the common prayer of the Divine Office.  We begin and end each day in prayer and praise, and pause throughout the hours of our workday to offer to God our selves in prayerful unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  This discipline of prayer is essential to sustaining our communal life whether we live in an enclosed community or in the secular world.  We need to nurture the discipline of prayer.  In the same way as making habits of the steps of humility, so we make habits of the hours of prayer until the habit becomes part of the natural rhythm of life and we find that we are praying constantly.

It is daunting at first to consider the possibility of rising in the middle of the night on a daily basis to pray.  After we were first married, Miranda wanted me to change my pattern of sleep to a more “normal” routine.  But “normal” is what is prescribed as the norm for the community in which you live.  The norms of the world are far different than the norms of the disciplined spiritual life.  Over the four decades that we have been together, Miranda has come to accept, and I believe respect, my somewhat strange sleep schedule in making time for prayer.

It is not mandatory for us, as Benedict instructs, to “rise during the winter season…at the eighth hour of the night”, which is 2:00 AM.  Even Benedict recognizes the need for “making due allowance for circumstances.”  But rising in the quiet, dark hours of the night, or the early morning before our day is upon us, offers opportunity to bore into the silence of the night and close out the distractions of the world.  The removal of the world’s demands gives us the freedom to enter the day in closer communion with God, and to tune into His still, small voice speaking to us through the quiet of our stilled hearts and minds.  This may not work for everyone, but “due allowance for circumstances” is acceptable.  Nevertheless, if your circumstances do allow for pre-dawn prayers, you might want to give it a try. 

Note:  This meditation is designated for both October 12 and 13.  There will be no posting tomorrow.

Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 7:67-70

To be read: February 9, June 9, October 11

Having, therefore, ascended all these steps of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18). 68Through this love, all things which he once performed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, as it were, naturally by force of habit, 69no longer from the fear of hell, but for the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue. 70May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin. 

Benedict is prescribing that we form habits which will both enhance and establish positive patterns of behavior.  If we are truly participating in a school for the Lord’s service, then we are learning the material by repetition.  We study what is included in the curriculum and then practice it.  We become proficient in it through repetition until it becomes second nature.  Thus, as Benedict states in verse 68, “Through this love, all things which he once performed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, as it were, naturally by force of habit…”  

We will falter in our steps toward true humility.  But the Lord is a lord of redemption and invites us to make repeated new starts.  And so we try again, repeating the steps until we “begin to keep [them] without any effort.”

Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 7:62-66

To be read: February 8, June 8, October 10

The twelfth step of humility is, when a monk is not only humble of heart, but always lets it appear also in his bearing so that it becomes evident. 63At the Work of God, in the garden, on a journey, in the field, or wherever he may be, sitting, walking, or standing, let him always have his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the ground, 64ever holding himself guilty of his sins, thinking that he is already standing before the fearful judgment seat of God, 65and always saying to himself in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said, with his eyes fixed on the ground: “Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to lift up my eyes to heaven”(Lk 18:13); 66and again with the Prophet: “I am bowed down and humbled in every way” (Ps 37[38]:7-9; Ps 118[119]:107)

The final step.  Benedict says that “a monk is not only humble of heart, but always lets it appear also in his bearing so that it becomes evident.”  Humility ought to be observable, but never a false facade.  False humility is deadly; it undermines our witness for Christ.  So, how might we best exhibit our humility?  St. Benedict presents a picture of monastic life within the enclosure of a monastery.  He says that the outward appearance of the monk, whether “at the Work of God, in the garden, on a journey, in the field, or wherever he may be, sitting, walking, or standing, let him always have his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the ground…”  That sounds harsh and an unreal expectation for those living outside the cloister.  If any were to behave in that manner in the world, someone would assume such a person is suffering depression and call for help.  Nevertheless, there are some basics which Benedict highlights in these verses which would serve us all well.  When he says that we must always judge ourselves guilty of our sins, it is a truth.  For who else would be culpable?  And also, as was noted in the meditation on the opening verses of this chapter, St. Paul commends us to “in humility count others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).  

Developing an attitude of gratitude before God will strengthen our recognition that any grounds we may have for boasting are to be directed toward God, from Whom every good and perfect gift derives (James 1:17).  A ready will to compliment others also brings harmony and peace to the community, and builds up the Body.  It is, therefore, not so much a matter of self-demeaning as it is honoring God and our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Draw the attention toward God, and encourage the members of the Body.  That is the heart of humble service in the Lord.

Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 7:60-61

To be read: February 7, June 7, October 9

The eleventh step of humility is, that, when a monk speaks, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, with few and sensible words, without raising his voice, 61as it is written: “The wise man is known by his few words.” 

As noted yesterday, Benedict has a three step process for restraint of speech.  Today’s verses represent the third in that three step process.  He gives a quick rundown of the type of speech acceptable for a monk.  He says, a monk will “speak gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, with few and sensible words, without raising his voice…”  This is sound advice for any Christian.  As it says in Proverbs 15, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1).  Seldom will a harsh word or a voice raised in anger accomplish good in a relationship.  Gentleness in speech opens opportunity for discussion and dialog where hearts as well as ears can hear.

It is also wise advice, given in verse 61, to refrain from abundance of words.  Too many of us suffer from verbal diarrhea—we love to hear ourselves talk.  There is also a common tendency to verbally dance around a topic rather than zero in and come to the heart of the matter at hand.  This is particularly true in the south.  We like to schmooze, to tell stories, illustrate our message.  But as Benedict declares, “The wise man is known by his few words.”  The words attributed to Jesus in Acts that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” could be applied to the gift of listening.  It is more blessed to give an open ear—to listen—than to talk endlessly.

May we learn to speak “with few and sensible words, without raising our voices.”

Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 7:59

To be read: February 6, June 6, October 8

The tenth step of humility is, when a monk is not quickly given to laughter, for it is written: “Only the fool raises his voice in laughter”(Sir 21:23)

The tenth step is Benedict’s prohibition against laughter:  “a monk is not quickly given to laughter…”  This is bothersome to many modern Christians, and it is easy to get the sense that St. Benedict was a killjoy.  However, there are other parts of the Rule which point to a subtle humor in Benedict’s presentation of the disciplines.  Throughout the Rule there is great concern for restraint from speech.  We have already seen the multiple tools in chapter 4 exhorting “moderation in speech” (vs.52), “avoidance of chatter” (vs. 53), and to not love “boisterous laughter” (vs. 54).  The entirety of chapter six counsels restraint of speech and the importance of silence.  But now we come to the issue of humility.  Steps nine through eleven of the ladder concern the need to be moderate in our use of words, and cautious in expressions of mirth.

Clearly one quarter of the steps to true humility involve the use of the tongue.  St. James gave the clarion call of warning at the beginning of the Christian era.  He said, “the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell…no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:6-8).  In this middle step of the three regarding speech, the monk is commanded to “not [be] quickly given to laughter.”  Does Benedict presume to forbid the expression of joy through laughter?  Not at all.  For example, in his instructions for Lent in chapter 49:5-7 he says that we are to deny ourselves “some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting…”  If we are to deny “some” chatter and laughter in Lent, the presupposition is that it occurs at other times.  He is not promoting dour demeanors from those who pursue the Way of Christ, rather moderation in all things.  But laughter should not be a constant.

Whereas joking can relieve tension and be therapeutic for the individual or group, often it is used to draw attention to self.  The goal of self-denial is thwarted when we seek others’ responses to our humorous banter.  Would it not be better to engage the one speaking and elicit their further insights rather than draw attention to self with humor?  And never should our jesting be at the expense of another or be cruel and vulgar.  Good humor has its place, but all things should be done decently and in order and in moderation.