Chapter 8: The Divine Office at Night

1 During the winter season, that is, from the first of November until Easter, it seems reasonable to arise at the eighth hour of the night. 2 By sleeping until a little past the middle of the night, the brothers can arise with their food fully digested. 3 In the time remaining after Vigils, those who need to learn some of the psalter or readings should study them. 4 Between Easter and the first of November mentioned above, the time for Vigils should be adjusted so that a very short interval after Vigils will give the monks opportunity to care for nature’s needs. Then, at daybreak, Lauds should follow immediately.

Commentary by Abbot Philip Lawrence, OSB

We leave Chapter 7 on the steps of humility behind us now and begin to speak of the Divine Office and how it should be arranged and prayed. These Chapters, from 8 through 20, are very important for understanding life in a Benedictine monastery. Today very few follow these chapters of the Rule, especially with regard to the structure of the Divine Office. Unless we understand them well, we will begin to lose a truly Benedictine life, which has at its heart the praying of the Divine Office. There is no way that one can follow this structure of Rule of Benedict and not be aware of the truly important place of the Divine Office in the daily life of the monk and the amount of time that Saint Benedict presumed that a monk would spend in public prayer.

The winter season in Subiaco, Italy, and in Monte Cassino, Italy, probably had a sunrise of about 7:15 am and a sunset of about 5:15 pm. That means that the night would have been about 840 minutes. Divine that by 12 and the night hours would have been 70 minutes each. We don’t think of time that way, but that would have probably been the way of reckoning in the time of Saint Benedict. The middle of the night would have been 440 minutes or a bit over 7 hours of sleep–if one got to sleep immediately. The night office would have begun about 12 midnight or about 1:00 am. The monk would be getting up early, but would have a good amount of sleep.

If the summer months have a sunrise of 6:00 am and a sunset of 6:00 pm, the schedule changes by itself. The night hours now become about 60 minutes. If the monk go to bed at sunset and the monk will get about 6 or 7 hours of sleep. Still he will arise for the night office about 1:00 am.

None of this works very well in situations where in the summer the sun can rise at 5:00 am and set at 9:00 pm and in the winter where the sun can rise about 7:00 am and set at 5:00 pm. So we must always look at the relative arrangement of the elements in a typical day in Saint Benedict’s monastery. We can see that sleep deprivation is not a concern of the Rule! Rather, the monk generally is able to get between 6 and 8 hours of sleep. And when the sleep is less, there is a siesta!

Also it is clear that Saint Benedict is not concerned so much with the comfort of the monk–although there is some concern–as with accomplishing a very strong and demanding schedule of prayer. Vigils, the night office, is certainly an anchor of the Divine Office and one of the anchors that is far too easily throw away today.

For our spirituality, we must reflect on whether the Divine Office is at the heart of my personal spirituality. This is a teaching of the Rule that is very important. Let us strive to keep the Divine Office central in our lives by being present, by praying and by giving ourselves generously to the demands of this type of prayer.