A School for the Lord’s Service: On the Divine Office
We believe that the divine presence is on all sides and that the eyes of the Lord behold all, both good and bad wheresoever they may be. Especially however let us believe this without any doubt whatever when we assist at the Work of God: and thus let us be always mindful of what the prophet says: “Serve the Lord in fear”; and again: “Sing wisely”; and: “In the sight of the angels will I sing to Thee.” Therefore let us consider how we ought to comport ourselves in the sight of God and His angels and let us so take our part in the office that mind accord with voice.
- The Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter XIX
It has been one of the great joys of my life to see our parish embrace the discipline of the Daily Office. Many of you have said that the Office has become an essential anchor of your whole life. The Divine Office, in Saint Benedict’s time, was simply understood to be the duty of the monk, from the Latin officium, meaning “service, kindness, duty, or ceremonial observance.”
We don’t view duties in a positive light these days, especially when it comes to the life of prayer. In our time, the work of Christian prayer is viewed as something we should desire in and of itself. It should be something we enjoy, and therefore do. But, how does that work out? When we come upon dryness in prayer, or when it becomes difficult, is it not easily given up? The great Saints, Benedict included, tell us that the life of prayer is hard work, and it must become habitual if it is ever to become easy. Many of us were raised believing that prayer is easy, but never found it to be so in the long run. Benedict’s prescription for this is actually fairly straightforward: the recitation of the Psalms, usually all 150 in a week, and chanted. This is how monks have memorized the Psalter for 1500 years. When I visit a monastery, it is the visitors who have psalters in front of them. The monks have committed it to memory. They have internalized not only the words, but chant forms assigned to them.
Why the Psalter? Because the Psalms train not only our minds, but our hearts as well, in the work of God. When the Psalter becomes internalized, it is a means to remembering God throughout each day, it becomes the language of our prayers, and what a good language it is! The idea is that prayer is something which must be learned, over the long haul, and with continual discipline.
In addition to the Psalms, Benedict directs that readings from the Old and New Testaments be read in the night office, along with various expositions from the Fathers, who in his day would have been recent! The Psalter provides something like proper conditioning for our minds to hear the words of Holy Scripture. As Anglicans, we have inherited this scheme from the Benedictine tradition. The Psalms prime the pump for meditation on Holy Scripture, which builds up in us these wonderful habits of recollection. Remember how the Rule began with one word - Listen! The Benedictine Life is that of listening to Holy Scripture such that it becomes the air the monk breathes.
But, there is something else we ought to say about the Daily Office, lest you think that this is some kind of elitist exercise done by super-Christians! That is this: the Office is done vicariously on behalf of the whole Church and therefore by the whole Church. Ecclesiologically speaking, no Christian can undertake an action for only his or her own benefit. When Christians pray the Office together, the whole Church is constituted, and the whole Church benefits. One of my favorite authors, Martin Thornton, likens this to what happens when people are watching a soccer match on TV in a pub: they cheer as if every goal was their own, and when their team wins, they cry out together: “We won!” When Christians pray the Office, the whole Church benefits. When you consider Holy Scripture, it has always been this way: God chooses a people, a remnant people, to be faithful to him, so that through them, He may bring blessing to the world. In our day, we are all too ready to believe that it only “counts” if everyone shows up. Benedict’s wisdom is that there is great power in a few Christians praying together for the world and being obedient in the duties of prayer.
As a parish family, it is my prayer that we would embody this wisdom: that the goal not be appeal to the multitudes, but faithfulness in the small, but immensely important, duties that our ours, attention to daily prayer, the rhythm of Sunday Eucharists and sabbath rests, the instruction of our children and grandchildren, and works of charity offered to those in need. The temptation when reading Benedict’s Rule is to see his vision as extraordinary. He didn’t intend it to be so. Instead, the Rule describes a life that contains “nothing burdensome, nothing harsh” so that it can be taken on by all who desire to listen and listen truly to the living God.
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