Chapter 9: The Number of Psalms at the Night Office

1 During the winter season, Vigils begin with the verse: Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise (Ps 50[51]:17). After this has been said three times, 2 the following order is observed: Psalm 3 with “Glory be to the Father”; 3 Psalm 94 with a refrain, or at least chanted; 4 an Ambrosian hymn; then six psalms with refrain. 5 After the psalmody, a versicle is said and the abbot gives a blessing. When all are seated on the benches, the brothers in turn read three selections from the book on the lectern. After each reading a responsory is sung. 6 “Glory be to the Father” is not sung after the first two responsories, but only after the third reading. 7 As soon as the cantor begins to sing “Glory be to the Father,” let all the monks rise from their seats in honor and reverence for the Holy Trinity. 8 Besides the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox catholic Fathers. 9 When these three readings and their responsories have been finished, the remaining six psalms are sung with an “alleluia” refrain. 10 This ended, there follow a reading from the Apostle recited by heart, a versicle and the litany, that is, “Lord, have mercy.” 11 And so Vigils are concluded.

Commentary by Abbot Philip Lawrence, OSB

Always the day begins with asking God to open our lips. We can meditate on that a lot because so often during the day it is no longer God who is on our lips! So often during the day it is not God’s praises that come forth from our mouths. We want to strive to live each day with only the words of God passing our lips and only the thoughts of God coming from our hearts. Right from the beginning of describing the structure that he wants in the Divine Office, Saint Benedict is putting the Divine Office into a divine context, insisting that we are there for God, to praise God and only to speak with and to God.

The structure of Vigils is very clear in the Rule. The opening versicle, Psalm 3, Psalm 94 (the Invitatory), the hymn, then 6 psalms. After those 6 psalms, a versicle and response, the abbot’s blessing, then three readings each with a response but the third response has a “Glory be to the Father” added to is. When that “Glory be to the Father” is sing, all the monks rise and bow. Then there are 6 more psalms with an alleluia refrain. Then a short lesson fro heart, a versicle and response, the litany and so the end.

If we simply look at the structure of Vigils, we must realize that this is the strongest and longest of all of the hours of the Divine Office. It is supposed to happen before daybreak and needs to be long enough so that it really is a vigil, a keeping watch for the Lord. Vigils is supposed to take some effort on the part of the monk. Saint Benedict simply presumes this and does not talk about it. Christians and monks of his time knew that Vigils was important and a strong part of the Divine Office. There are more psalms in the Vigils of Saint Benedict than there are in the entire daily Roman Office as it is now celebrated.

We can probably say, without much dispute, that Vigils is a defining office of the monk. The monk is a Christian who keeps vigil every day. It is not easy to maintain this strong discipline in our own time. So many people want to look at the Divine Office simply as a form of prayer which can altered easily. Certain Saint Benedict will later allow it to be altered, but he seems not happy about that and insists that the monks should always have at least 150 psalms in their public prayer every week. Today those who strive to live the life according the Rule fairly closely are almost put on the defensive, even by their monastic superiors, for insisting on such a strong life. On the other hand, history seems to show, over and over again, that if we want a strong monastic life, we need only return to the Rule of Benedict and somehow life comes back into a monastic way of living.

May we be strong in our monastic life! May we not be arrogant but humble! May we seek the Lord in this monastic way given to us by our Holy Father Saint Benedict.