IN WINTERTIME, THAT IS FROM NOVEMBER FIRST UNTIL EASTER. RIGHT REASON DICTATES THEY SHOULD ARISE AT 2 A.M. (RB8) ON SUNDAYS THEY SHOULD ARISE EARLIER FOR VIGILS (RB 11). While Lauds and Vespers are commonly considered the public prayer of the whole church, Vigils are most characteristic of monks, as Fr. Terrence Kardong, osb, points out (Benedict’s Rule,.169. I use his translation of RB). Benedict considered Sunday Vigils deserving of a special arrangement. He includes, in addition to the traditional twelve psalms, three canticles for that office. Significantly, he mentions in this connection that all care should be taken that the brothers do not rise any later due to the negligence of the monk who rings the bell, lest it prove necessary to shorten the time given to this service.  

Should necessity require to curtail some part of the office, he provides for the readings to be reduced but not the number of psalms. Obviously, Benedict considered the psalms the most important element of the office. Another indication of the high value he places on the psalms is the fact that in the summer season when he shortens the structure of Vigils, he does so by eliminating long readings but maintains the same number of psalms throughout the year. 

We are not surprised then when he prescribes that “The time that remains after Vigils should be used for the learning (meditationi) of psalms and lessons by those brothers who need to do so. (RB 8) The Latin word translated as ‘learning’ is ‘meditationi’, ‘for meditating’. This word no longer has the meaning it conveyed in the time when Benedict wrote. Meditation was not a silent, intellectual exercise in which one focused attention on the implications of some text or thought; rather, it consisted in the repetition of texts that had been learned by heart. To study a text at that period was to repeat it aloud to oneself with attention to the words. To memorize the psalms was a general monastic practice. Many learned the whole Psalter by heart; all monks were expected to learn at least a good portion of this book by heart. St. Pachomius had begun this practice already in the three hundreds. Before a candidate could enter the monastery he had to know some of the psalms by heart. Pachomius made it an important element in his monastic formation for the monks to say these prayers by heart as they went from place to place in the monastery and to repeat them during their work.  

There were practical reasons for this requirement, but these were secondary to the spirituality of constant prayer. For in the times when printing was unknown and each book was hand-written, there were not copies of the books needed for the office available for everyone. Accordingly, a memorized knowledge of the Psalter was considered highly desirable if not essential for formation. An additional advantage of such memorization was that it saved having to try to read in the semi-obscurity of a Church only dimly lit at night by candles. 

If St. Benedict provides for the study of psalms after Vigils, it is because he appreciated the role of these prayers not only in the office but as a major element of the life of constant prayer which characterizes the life of the monk.   In modern times the practice of memorizing texts and its place in the inner life has been largely forgotten and its role not at all understood. This was the situation already before the advent of computers and the Internet, but the prevalence of these means of access to information and its processing have made the role of such memorization still less comprehensible.  

Like all human activities, memorizing can lead to abuse. Learning words by heart can be a substitute for understanding their meaning. Hearing them repeated too often, even to oneself, can render them so familiar that they no long call for our attentive response to their sense. Memorizing as a tool of education and of formation of skills, however, is still widely employed in many if not all areas of acquired learning. We cannot use a computer unless we first learn and remember all of the proper steps in turn as required for employing its programs. Its algorithms are pitiless in their demand for sequential consistency; forget one step and it matters not if you remember all the rest, nothing will function.  

The psychology of memory is a field of study that has received a great deal of attention in recent times. So has the physiology and neuroanatomical basis for memory been investigated with illuminating results. Although none of you who are listening to me, or who are reading this text, have adverted to the fact, you could not understand a single sentence without the workings of your memory system. For a sentence is composed of words and words of syllables and syllables of letters that symbolize sounds which in turn represent meanings. By the time a sentence is completed the first words composing it have ceased to resound in the air or to be conveyed by light to the retina. Memory retains the effects of the passing stimuli so that they are perceived as part of a whole. Memory too connects the sounds and signs to previously learned meanings in such a way that consciously we usually advert only to the sense of what is said or written and not to the individual syllables or even words that convey the meaning. Interrupt the pathways leading from sound perception to the area where the meaning of words is stored as happens in sensory aphasia, and there is no recall of meaning.  

Memory then is integral to apperception even in regard to the functioning of the senses. It comes into play in all interpersonal relations. Without adverting to the fact, when I meet a member of my community I greet him familiarly, for in the very sight is included a spontaneous recollection of who he is and in what relation he stands to me. Without this including of memory, the sense of sight beholds the same form but is devoid of the significance it has for me. This occurs in Alzheimer’s disease. A monk I knew well could see his sister and speak with her when she visited him at the monastery, but did not know who she was or what she meant to him. The point I wish to stress here is that memory permeates our life in hidden, active ways that give meaning and significance to events.  

In keeping with this fact of human experience and behavior, St. Basil taught that preserving the memory of God is essential to the life of monastic observance. He wrote: “But in the careful zeal to do our work as God wills we shall be joined to God in memory.” And he adds that we are to avoid distracting activities so that: “we may bear about the holy thought of God with continual and pure memory imprinted on our souls like an indelible seal.” (Long Rule 5, cited in A. Holmes, “A Life Pleasing to God”, 118)    

St. Benedict followed up on St. Basil’s teaching and gave prominence to preserving a memory of God in daily life as he developed his doctrine of humility. The first degree of humility, he writes, that “a man always keeps the Fear of God before his eyes and flee all forgetfulness and always be mindful of everything God commands.”  The monk is to   guard his thoughts at all times, a practice that requires constant memory of God and his judgments. He states:  

Let each one take into account that he is constantly observed by God from heaven and our deeds everywhere lie open to the divine gaze… we must continually make sure, as the psalmist says, that God never sees us falling into evil and becoming useless people.   

Thus Benedict follows in the paths traced out by St. Basil in relation to preserving the memory of God as constantly. He also requires his monks to fill the memory with the words of God, and in particular the Psalms which they are to study in the interval after Vigils. The practice of meditation in the sense that the Rule gives to that term, namely, the repetition to oneself, usually aloud at that period, was a positive way of carrying out the injunction to pray always, which St. Paul enjoined upon the Christian faithful. Adalbert de Vogue is persuaded that the Benedictine motto, to be complete should be not only ‘Ora et Labora’ as it is generally given, but ‘Ora, Labora, Lege, Meditare’ (Pray, Work, Read, Meditate). He goes on to give the following comments after explaining that meditation means repeating to oneself the memorized words of Scripture especially the Psalms. 

Without meditation, the day of the monk is not complete. Continual prayer would lack its support, reading lack its prolongation, work its accompaniment. It merits surely to take place among the fundamental elements of monastic life, this work that ties together the major occupations and binds them together in unity.

Presence of the Word in the midst of work, meditation is the necessary complement of reading. By it reading bears its fruit of constant prayer. (‘La Regle De Saint Benoit VII: Commentaire Doctrinal Et Spirituel,’ [Paris;Cerf, 1977] 339) 

In this view, Father Adalbert is but representing the monastic way of living the contemplative life as it was actually lived out by many generations of holy monks. While it has become less fashionable in modern times to read and commit to memory word for word certain texts, yet in some areas of study it is still the practice. Where it is required the apprentice derives considerable profit all his life. Anybody who was constrained to memorize the multiplication tables has experienced the benefits that accrue from having such knowledge ready at hand. For the monk too there are many advantages that derive from reading attentively and preserving in memory key passages that meet his needs or attract his spontaneous response because they correspond to some aspiration. In addition, he will benefit by memorizing those Psalms that he finds well suited to those situations where he would be helped by repeating them to remain in communion with the Lord.  

Such benefits are discovered and appreciated, however, only after a man has actually done the work required to discover in practice that he truly is better able to live his vocation effectively by possessing such a skill. It is quite helpful to be able to say the office by heart on occasions when traveling it is inconvenient to make use of a breviary or Bible. How often when walking along one can more readily pray by reciting the words of a Psalm learned by heart; at work too when we are familiar enough with the words of such a prayer we can more effectively remain in the presence of God by repeating it with attention that does not detract from our labor. We do well to recall that Jesus himself often and regularly prayed to the Father in the words of Psalms. Mary and Joseph made use of Psalms in their interior lives as well, so that when we do the same we enter the more readily into communion with them. Consequently, it is not surprising that of all the books of the Hebrew Bible cited in the New Testament writers, the most frequently quoted is the Book of Psalms. And regularly it is viewed not only as a collection of prayers and praises but also as a book of prophecy concerning the person and life of  Christ. 

In order to appreciate with greater fullness the meaning of the original Hebrew text and the manifold relations of the Psalter to other books of the Hebrew bible, it can be very helpful to read attentively the Jewish commentators. They have many insights and observations possible only to a sincere piety and vast learning of their own traditions that enable us Christians to discover some of the meanings of the text that otherwise lie hidden. Certain of their comments that are based upon an extraordinary application to reflecting on the words and expressions used give a freshness to a familiar text and contribute to our ability to pray them. One instance among many is the first word of the first Psalm. In Hebrew ‘ashrey’usually is translated ‘happy’ or ‘The happiness’; but one Rabbi derives it from the verb meaning to ‘stride forward’ so the opening line of the Psalter admonishes us to advance spiritually by avoiding the counsel of the lawless. 

In praying and studying the Psalter we also join the many other holy men and women who have nurtured their interior lives and attained to union with God by praying this book of inspired prayers, often saying them by heart. It is the fact that for the early Cistercian monks one of the most important works in their spiritual formation was the voluminous Ennarationes in Psalmos (Commentary on the Psalms) of St. Augustine. The guiding principle of his manner of praying these writings is at once simple and profound. He was convinced that the key to the Psalms was the person of Christ. Not only the individual person of Christ, but the Whole Christ, as he affirms: “Christus itaque totus loquitur” [And so it is the Whole Christ who speaks (‘In Ps. XXIX.2, col. 214.) At times it is Christ himself who speaks (‘ipse Dominus Jesus Christus loquitur’, he writes at the beginning of Psalm 21). In other compositions it is the members of Christ who address God; finally, on some occasions it is both head and members who speak as one, addressing themselves to the Father.  

Not that every individual psalm fits neatly into this scheme, for it is Augustine’s way to read the text with close attention and to follow where it leads. As a result he has a wide variety of reflections to make, all of which contribute in some manner to prayer and the Christian life. But it is this Christological principle that personalizes his reading of the Psalms and serves to render them more accessible to Christians. To give further examples, he states “Hence that voice was the voice of his members, not of the head. So is it here.”(In Ps.21, Enn. II.4, Opera, Paris 1841, Tom 4, 173) On occasion he interprets the verses as the prayer of the Church to Christ (Ennaratio in Psalmum XXII.1, col. 182), and in Ps. XXV.1 where he writes: “For David. This can be attributed not to the mediator, the man Jesus Christ, but to the whole Church now perfectly stabilized in Christ.”  

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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