Chapter 18. The Order of the Psalmody


1 Each of the day hours begins with the verse, God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me (Ps 69[70]:2), followed by “Glory be to the Father” and the appropriate hymn. 2 Then, on Sunday at Prime, four sections of Psalm 118 are said. 3 At the other hours, that is, at Terce, Sext and None, three sections of this psalm are said. 4 On Monday three psalms are said at Prime: Psalms 1, 2 and 6. 5 At Prime each day thereafter until Sunday, three psalms are said in consecutive order as far as Psalm 19. Psalms 9 and 17 are each divided into two sections. 6 In this way, Sunday Vigils can always begin with Psalm 20.

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

Today we can reflect on the opening verse: “O God, come to my assistance.” And its response: “O Lord, make haste to help me.” How often do we forget what we are saying. We repeat this opening five times a day and yet at times we have no sense of the presence of the Lord. Repeated phrases can become simply a part of a routine. Our challenge as monks and as Christians is to mean what we say. So these five times a day, we want really to call on the Lord and say to Him: “You can help me! Come and help me now.”

It is not easy to mean what we repeat so many times. We can only mean such a strong statement if we really believe it and that belief must deepen year after year. We must know that when we call on the Lord, He does answer us. We must have this personal relationship with Him in order to continue to mean this strong request: Come and help me!!

We note here that the Little Hours are called the Day Hours. That is because Lauds comes just as day is beginning and Vespers just as day is ending, at least in the ideal setup of the Rule. Here in our monastery, the daylight does not always work quite that way, but we stay fairly close to it.

We should also note that Saint Benedict has no problem dividing Psalms or combining them. It is a matter of making the Psalms really work for the structure of the Divine Office that he has in mind. Again there is a sense here of a deep freedom of working with the Scriptures and a deep sense of the value of the structure that Saint Benedict has worked out.

Let us strive each day to mean what we say in the Divine Office. Saint Benedict would say that our hearts and our minds should be at one with the words that we say out loud. May it be!!

Chapter 18, Verses 7-11

7 On Monday at Terce, Sext and None, the remaining nine sections of Psalm 118 are said, three sections at each hour. 8 Psalm 118 is thus completed in two days, Sunday and Monday. 9 On Tuesday, three psalms are said at each of the hours of Terce, Sext and None. These are the nine psalms, 119 through 127. 10 The same psalms are repeated at these hours daily up to Sunday. Likewise, the arrangement of hymns, readings and versicles for these days remains the same. 11 In this way, Psalm 118 will always begin on Sunday.

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

Saint Benedict seems to like clear beginnings. He wants Vigils to begin with Psalm 20 every Sunday (that is, after Psalm 3 and Psalm 94, which occur every day). Here he wants Psalm 118 to begin every Sunday at Prime. He is not afraid of repeating Psalms, such as the Psalms for the Little Hours of Terce, Sext and None during the week.

As we have mentioned already several times, for Saint Benedict, the Psalms are the heart of the Divine Office. And nothing is to be preferred to the Divine Office. So in the monks’ day, the Divine Office is always the heart and center of the monastic life. This is shown in the Rule of Benedict by the amount of time that is needed to pray the Divine Office on an ordinary day. A solemn feast will have an office even more extensive, although not with more Psalms. For the solemn feasts, it is generally the antiphons that make the office slightly longer.

If we begin to think about the amount of time in an ordinary day that must be given to the Divine Office, we could add it in this way:

Vigils 1 hour
Lauds 40 minutes
Prime 15 minutes
Terce 15 minutes
Sext 15 minutes
None 15 minutes
Vespers 35 minutes
Compline 15 minutes

This adds up to 3 and 1/2 hours each day. On Sunday or solemn feasts, the time would be closer to 4 hours or perhaps even a little more. If we then add on to this at least one hour of Lectio Divina each day and at least a half hour of silent prayer, we are now speaking of the monk spend at a minimum at least 5 hours each day in prayer.

No other activity in the day takes that amount of time. Work is about an equal amount of time. It is important to look at these aspects of our monastic life so that we can understand the intense focus on prayer in the Rule of Saint Benedict. May we be faithful!

Chapter 18, verses 12-19

12 Four psalms are sung each day at Vespers, 13 starting with Psalm 109 and ending with Psalm 147, 14 omitting the psalms in this series already assigned to other hours, namely, Psalms 117 through 127, Psalm 133 and Psalm 142. 15 All the remaining psalms are said at Vespers. 16 Since this leaves three psalms too few, the longer ones in the series should be divided: that is, Psalms 138, 143 and 144. 17 And because Psalm 116 is short, it can be joined to Psalm 115. 18 This is the order of psalms for Vespers; the rest is as arranged above: the reading, responsory, hymn, versicle and canticle. 19 The same psalms–4, 90 and 133–are said each day at Compline.

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

We continue with the distribution of the Psalms for the Divine Office. It should be noted that Saint Benedict likes to pray the Psalms straight through, in their order in the Book of Psalms. He has selected a few Psalms for Lauds and a few for the other hours such as Compline, but almost always his preference is that the Psalter be sung straightforward. This contracts today with the Scheme B of the Thesaurus for monks, which is based on themes.

For Vespers, which is described in this small part of Chapter 18, Saint Benedict is willing cut some Psalms in two and to paste a short Psalm together with another Psalm. This shows some care about making the offices of about equal length. All of us who pray the Psalter according to the Rule recognize that Tuesday Vespers is the shortest of the Vespers during the week, just as Thursday Vigils is the longest of the Vigils. The differences are not enormous, but we always feel them.

There is a sense of being comfortable with the Scriptures in the way that Saint Benedict divides Psalms or combines 116 with 115. The Scriptures are sacred texts, but not texts that are impossible to divine and combine. Those familiar with the history of the Book of Psalms know that it is not clear how the various Psalms were divided in the past.

For our spirituality, we need to have an easy familiarity with the Psalms. We need to continue to study them year after year and let them deepen in us. For Benedictine spirituality, the Psalms are the heart of the Divine Office and we need to spend our lives knowing them more and more. May God help us all to grow in knowledge of Him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Chapter 18, Verses 20-25

20 The remaining psalms not accounted for in this arrangement for the day hours are distributed evenly at Vigils over the seven nights of the week. 21 Longer psalms are to be divided so that twelve psalms are said each night. 22 Above all else we urge that if anyone finds this distribution of the psalms unsatisfactory, he should arrange whatever he judges better, 23 provided that the full complement of one hundred and fifty psalms is by all means carefully maintained every week, and that the series begins anew each Sunday at Vigils. 24 For monks who in a week’s time say less than the full Psalter with the customary canticles betray extreme indolence and lack of devotion in their service. 25 We read, after all, that our holy Fathers, energetic as they were, did all this in a single day. Let us hope that we, lukewarm as we are, can achieve it in a whole week.

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

Here we have the ending of this Chapter about the order of the Psalms. We note again the ability to cut Psalms into two and call each one a Psalms. Saint Benedict wants twelve Psalms each night at Vigils, in addition to Psalm 3 and Psalm 94. Perhaps the preference for twelve Psalms at Vigils comes from the angelic rule established, at least in the tradition, by Saint Pachomius.

Saint Benedict really prefers his own arrangement, but allows that it could be changed but he does insist on a certain length to the Divine Office. This is difficult today when so many prefer a much shorter Divine Office. But if we are going to be true to our own Benedictine tradition, the best way is to follow the Divine Office as it is described in the Holy Rule. If we cannot do that, for some truly strong reason, then we can rearrange the Psalms but so as to have at least all 150 Psalms in one week.

For most of Benedictine history, Benedictine monasteries have followed this Divine Office as we find it in the Rule. Almost exclusively in our own age have monasteries chosen other arrangements. Although we cannot blame the lack of vocations on this change, we should note that the Holy Father has called all religious communities to return to the original charism of their founders, echoing again the teaching of the Second Vatican Council

Saint Benedict is quite clear is stating the tradition that the early monks would have prayed the whole Psalter in one day and he is not asking that much.

As we have stated earlier in this commentary: the life of the monk is supposed to be a life of prayer. That is our main focus. We do not try to get our praying done so that we can get on with the rest of our life! No, our life is prayer. And we must strive to learn to pray always, every day. The Divine Office helps recall us to this task of learning to pray always. May we be given this gift of prayer.