St. Benedict’s liturgical scheme for the Daily Office had a profound impact on the ever-developing pattern of prayer throughout the Western Church. While the claim that Anglican liturgy is “Benedictine” is historically dubious (since Cranmer’s primary influence was the Sarum rite of the Western office, which in turn reflected Benedictine, Roman, Gallican, and a whole host of other influences), it is true that Cranmer’s vision of a “nation-as-monastery” has a certain Benedictine ring to it. In particular, the combination of Mass, Office, and private devotion — which Martin Thornton has so eloquently described in his classic works English Spirituality (a true gem) and Pastoral Theology (all priests and seminarians who have not read: attend!) — may be integrated into the life of any Christian of any state, as a pattern of life and means of grace.
Cranmer’s liturgical revision was at the same time incredibly radical yet completely recognizable to the tradition that preceded him (something much more difficult to say for the Holy Communion service from 1552 until the Scottish BCP). He pared the Office down to almost nothing save Scripture (save for the Gloria Patri, Te Deum, Creed, Preces, and collects). And yet its structure, the centrality of Psalmody, the scriptural and traditional canticles, all bespeak the monastic and cathedral offices of which it is a direct descendent. Many agree it may be Cranmer’s most brilliant piece of revision: the radicalism is directly proportional to the need he sought to fill, namely, an office whose saying didn’t require hours of preparation, which could fulfill the spiritual needs of clergy and laity alike, and which placed the Scriptures at the intersection of corporate and private prayer.
One of the things Cranmer wisely retained is something we find in Chapter 9 of the The Rule of St. Benedict. There, St Benedict directed how Vigils or the Night Office is to be said (in constructing Mattins/Morning Prayer, Cranmer drew from this office, along with Lauds and Prime). Whether in winter or in summer, the Benedictine office begins in the same way: a three-fold repetition of “Lord, open thou our lips/And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise,” followed by Psalm 95, which Anglicans the world over refer to under its Latin title, Venite (whether said with the Italian or Anglicana pronunciation is another matter). Although “Lord, open thou our lips” is only recited once in Cranmer’s Mattins, Psalm 95 is retained.
One of the losses most lamentable in the American Prayer Book tradition, in addition to the disappearance of the Kyrie in the Office, was when they took up the scissors of Thomas Jefferson and excised verses 7b-11 from Psalm 95:
Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts
as in the provocation,
and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness;
When your fathers tempted me,
proved me, and saw my works.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said,
It is a people that do err in their hearts,
for they have not known my ways.
Unto whom I sware in my wrath,
that they should not enter into my rest.
From the very first American Prayer Book in 1789, the revisers replaced these verses with the following ones from Psalm 96, verses 9 and 13:
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
let the whole earth stand in awe of him.
For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth,
and with righteousness to judge the world
and the peoples with his truth.
Wonderfully, however, the 1979 BCP restored the end of verse 7 in the Rite II service (“Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!”) and also provided the full psalm in Coverdale’s translation on page 146 for optional use.
But why are these last verses of the Venite so critical?
The epistle to the Hebrews presents an exegetical sermon on Psalm 95 in chapters three and four. The first chapter opens with a luminous description of the coming of Jesus Christ (“In these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed as the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world”). Then, beginning at verse 5, it weaves together a host of direct Old Testament quotations, which the author reads allegorically to buttress the argument. “Therefore,” chapter 2 begins, “we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” Jesus is an apostle, a great high priest (3:1), and interestingly, “the builder of a house” (3:3). “We are his house,” the sermon explains, “if we hold fast our confidence” (3:6). The warning from the Holy Spirit (3:7) at the end of Psalm 95 is quoted in its entirety in order that we might “take care…lest there be in any of you an evil and unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (3:12). The sermon is relentless and direct: “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it” (4:1).
Thus, St. Benedict’s instruction that this Psalm be recited daily reflects a tradition that clearly predated him. This tradition believed that one of the results of the unity of the vine called Israel with the ecclesial Body of Christ (into which every catechumen is grafted/baptized) is that there are temptations common to both. This is reflected in the demand made by the Divine Office that the Christian begin each day with a prayerful meditation on the profound similitude between Israel’s rebellion and that which lurks deep in every heart.
We must “strive to enter” (4:11) the “Sabbath rest [that remains] for the people of God” (4:9) by true repentance (3:13-18), by seeking after the divine gift of Faith (3:19—4:4), and by means of the Word of God (4:12), whom we encounter in sacred scripture and the sacraments. Our confidence and hope rests only on Jesus, for “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (5:2). To pray Psalm 95 in earnest is to find ourselves united to the eternal victim who offers himself as our great high priest. Only there do we find life. And we find this life when, by grace, we choose holiness. If only “today, when you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
The image above is “the prayer continued” (2008) by an anonymous Flickr user. It is licensed under Creative Commons.