We know that monastic communities were established in various places by the fourth century, particularly in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. With the existence of these communities regular times of common prayer came into being, especially in the morning and evening. We now call these times Lauds and Vespers. Since the monastic life was structured around the call to “pray without ceasing,” early on the “little hours” or “minor hours” also came into being. But perhaps the most characteristic monastic Office was and is Vigils, the pre-dawn assembly, longer than other Offices and perhaps richest in content. It was kept not only on great feasts but every day, and then the monks did something most ordinary Christians would not be inclined to do: rise well before dawn and gather in church for prayer. The time was to be spent in prayerful watching, in vocal and silent prayer and psalmody, as well as the proclamation of and listening to God’s inspired Word and commentary by Fathers of the Church.
The celebration of the Office in the early monastic communities included solo cantors who read or chanted while the rest of the assembly listened and then responded with simple refrains. We might ask why that was so. Perhaps it was due to the simple reality of a lack of books and inadequate lighting in the prayer place. This form of praying the hours might seem to us today to have been a more passive, if not boring, kind of celebration than what we associate with the Office today, with everyone able to join in for most of the office.
Approaching the Office in a contemplative spirit, the monks of old might have felt it was completely fitting that most of them listen rather than actively contribute with vocal participation. In those days there was no preoccupation with “active participation,” a hallmark of post-Vatican II worship, but emphasis was more on truly listening to God’s Word in silence, pondering it in the heart, and making simple response by a few words only. This is still a valid approach to celebrating the Office.
At Christ in the Desert we experience this more passive approach to the Opus Dei at Vigils on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when the church remains dark except for the Tenebrae stand of thirteen candles. The psalms of the Office are chanted by soloists at the Lectern where there is a small light. Scripture and Patristic texts are read from the same Lectern. After each psalm or reading a candle is extinguished on the Tenebrae stand. At the end of Vigils only one candle remains lit under a large woven image of our Lord. At that moment we kneel for silent prayer followed by the chanting, on our knees, of the “Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortum,” (Christ became for us obedient unto death, etc., from Philippians 2).
Admittedly, those in ancient times or today who are not actually doing the soloist chanting or reading could tend to fall asleep instead of actually contemplatively listening and praying in the dark. Most likely no one would ever know. But hopefully the majority are listening and praying with the soloist cantors.
In any case, the early monastic Office, however it was carried out, had a definite form. In other words, the monks knew what to expect when they went to pray in common. One of the norms or expectations of the long Office of Vigils, for example, was the praying of twelve psalms. The story is told that Saint Pachomius (+345 A.D.)–often called the “Father of Cenobitic Monasticism”–received the vision of an angel who warned Pachomius not to go beyond twelve psalms at Vigils. Later on Saint Benedict held to this norm, though in fact some of the longer psalms he divided, thus making two psalms out of what is technically just one psalm.
Here it should be said that much was made in the ancient world of symbolic numbers and quantities. Twelve was two times six, a perfect number. Four, the quantity of psalms at Vespers, was a special number, as was three, the number of psalms at the Little Hours. The biblical “seven times a day I praise you,” seven being a number of perfection, was also incorporated into the mentality of legislators of the monastic Office, such as Saint Benedict.
The recitation or chanting of the entire Book of Psalms, often called the “Psalter,” within a week was also an early monastic custom. Many monks before Saint Benedict settled on the weekly praying of the Psalter, as is clear in Benedict’s outline, though several of the psalms were to be repeated daily (namely, Psalms 3 and 94 at Vigils, Psalms 66 and 50 at Lauds, and Psalms 4, 90, and 133 at Compline). Some psalms would be repeated several days during the week at some of the little hours once the chanting of the longest psalm, Psalm 118, was completed early in the week. Saint Benedict refers to desert monks praying the entire Psalter within a given day. For his monks, however, the recitation extended over an entire week.
We have to acknowledge that there is no set number of psalms or prayer times that is automatically pleasing to God. What is essential, though, is that the Office be carried out reverently and regularly. Heartfelt prayer is the goal, so that God may be worshiped and the participants be led to the Maker of all. As such, each Office should be characterized by reverence and care. We believe the all-Holy God is present always and everywhere, but especially so when we gather in his name. “Where two or three in My name are gathered together,” our Lord Himself said, “there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Reverence and a spirit of sincere devotion, then, should characterize those who have assembled to pray in common. Perhaps the approach needs to be something else when praying in private. Common prayer, though, has its particular form. This should not include fussiness and tension over ceremonies, nor should breezy casualness be the norm. Common worship in the presence of the Creator should be done with care and devotion, which includes a certain formality, uniformity, and concern for detail. We know many in our day are drawn to liturgy that is done with dignity, where a sense of mystery prevails and the transcendent God is not reduced to a “good buddy” or an equal. We are and always will be God’s creatures and so this relationship should be reflected in the way we approach the Triune God in our public worship.
Saint Benedict devised a fairly strict pattern of psalm distribution, which was already a tradition before him, and a break from another tradition, which favored what has been called a “running Psalter,” that is, simply praying the Psalms in their numerical order, one after another. Benedict’s tradition was to assign specific psalms to specific hours of the day or night. Both traditions were used in early monastic Offices, but the Benedictine one became more widely accepted as time went on, and that is still so today. Other Christian Churches, such as present-day Coptic Christians of Egypt, continue to favor the tradition of the running Psalter. In either case, once again, the strict interpretation of using the Psalter was to complete all 150 psalms in a week.
The history of monasticism saw other practices, many of them going to the extremes, such as praying the psalter in a day or the Laus perennis, that is, choirs chanting the Office non-stop, as in the Middle Ages, but generally the virtue of discretio won the day. Until Vatican II the entire Psalter was usually prayed by monks in the course of a week. Today there is a variety from a one week to a four-week distribution of the Psalter, all of them approved by Rome for use by laity and religious.