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The Number of Psalms at the Night Office

Wednesday, June 12, 2024
Chapter 9

During the winter season, Vigils begin with the verse: "O God, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise (Ps. 51: 17)" After this has been said three times, the following order is observed: Psalm 3 with Doxology; Psalm 9 with a refrain, or at least chanted; an Ambrosian hymn; then six psalms with refrain.

When these three readings and their responsories have been finished, the remaining six psalms are sung with an "alleluia" refrain. This ended, there follows a reading from the apostle recited by heart, a versicle and the litany, that is, "Christ, have mercy." And so Vigils are concluded.

In his instruction on the Night Office, Benedict supplies even the technologically advanced twenty-first century with valuable insights into prayer that may, at first sight, get lost in the strange details of the prayer format itself. Benedict asks for four elements of prayer, each of which give a special dimension to the spiritual life: a specific versicle, the doxology or Glory Be, responsories and explanations of scripture.

The versicle Benedict puts in our minds is a simple but important one. "O God, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise," (Ps.51:17) he teaches us to pray. All life is in the hands of God. Even the desire to pray is the grace to pray. The movement to pray is the movement of God in our souls. Our ability to pray depends on the power and place of God in our life. We pray because God attracts us and we pray only because God is attracting us. We are not, in other words, even the author of our own prayer life. It is the goodness of God, not any virtue that we have developed on our own, that brings us to the heart of God. And it is with God's help we seek to go there.

The doxology or "Glory be..." gave solemnity to the office but it gave witness as well to the divinity of all Three Persons of the Trinity, a concept disputed by the priest Arius who held that Jesus was merely human, but one held to firmly by the Church. To rise for the "Glory be," then, was to make a public witness to the Divinity of Christ in an era when people were still divided on the subject, politically as well as theologically. It was a literal call to stand up for the faith, to claim the Gospel publicly, a situation that is demanded in every day and age including our own.

The direction to include responsories at prayer was a clear expectation that every member of the group would participate consciously in the act of prayer by reciting the responses that captured the spirit of what was being read to them in an age when manuscripts were rare and members were often illiterate and prayer was more oral than written. Prayer is not something that is done to us or on us under any conditions. It is meant to engage us wholly--our minds, our bodies and our souls--whatever its form. It is not a passive exercise. It is the work of God in us and it demands our full attention.

Finally, Benedict introduces in Chapter Nine what is central to Benedictine spirituality, immersion in the Scriptures. He wants us to do more than read them. He wants us to study them, to wrestle with them, to understand them, to make them part of us, to let them grow in us through the work of traditional and contemporary scholarship so that the faith can stay green in us.

Here, as a result of these concepts, is a prayer life grounded in faith, witness, attention and serious study. Here is a prayer life that is serious, not superficial; concentrated not comfortable; full of witness, full of faith.