Chapter 17: The Number of Psalms to be Sung at These Hours

1 We have already established the order for psalmody at Vigils and Lauds. Now let us arrange the remaining hours. 2 Three psalms are to be said at Prime, each followed by “Glory be to the Father.” 3 The hymn for this hour is sung after the opening versicle, God, come to my assistance (Ps 69[70]:2), before the psalmody begins. 4 One reading follows the three psalms, and the hour is concluded with a versicle, “Lord, have mercy” and the dismissal. 5 Prayer is celebrated in the same way at Terce, Sext and None: that is, the opening verse, the hymn appropriate to each hour, three psalms, a reading with a versicle, “Lord, have mercy” and the dismissal. 6 If the community is rather large, refrains are used with the psalms; if it is smaller, the psalms are said without refrain. 7 At Vespers the number of psalms should be limited to four, with refrain. 8 After these psalms there follow: a reading and responsory, an Ambrosian hymn, a versicle, the Gospel Canticle, the litany, and, immediately before the dismissal, the Lord’s Prayer. 9 Compline is limited to three psalms without refrain. 10After the psalmody comes the hymn for this hour, followed by a reading, a versicle, “Lord, have mercy,” a blessing and the dismissal.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Saint Benedict continues to speak about the structures of the Divine Office here. It is clear that the “Little Hours” are really supposed to be fairly short. Prime, Terce, Sext and None all have the same structure.

We should note that the modern versions of the Divine Office always have the Hymn first, where for Saint Benedict, the hymns come at different places in different hours of the Divine Office. For Vigils, there is first Psalm 3, then the Invitatory (Psalm 94) and then the Hymn. For Lauds and Vespers the hymn comes after the psalmody, short reading and short response. For the Little Hours, the Hymn comes at the beginning and for Compline it comes right after the psalmody. So for the eight hours of the Divine Office, we have four different placements of the hymn.

Another point to comment on in this chapter is the use of antiphons–in this translation called “refrains.” If the community is large, antiphons should be used. All of us who have lived in large communities know that there is a much better chance to have a larger number of good singers in a large community. Antiphons require that at least some of the monks can sing the antiphons! But there is an important principal here: the Divine Office needs to be adjusted to fit the particular community. Saint Benedict does not generally think of cutting down the number of psalms, since that, for him, is the heart of the Divine Office. Rather, other elements can be reduced so that the psalmody can be prayed without too much difficulty for the community.

As we continue to hear Saint Benedict’s arrangement of the Divine Office, we know for sure that it took a good amount of time every day. This time speaks eloquently to the centrality of the Divine Office in the life of the monk. If we are to be faithful to this original charism of our founder, the Divine Office must become central in our lives as monks: central as our form of prayer but also central in the amount of time that it takes in our day.