Nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God
By Br Daniel Benedict Rowlands, O.P | This then is the true heart of the monastic Office: to learn to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), so that the entire day may become wholly permeated by a ceaseless spirit of prayer. This wonderful function of the Office is one that is especially attractive on account of its universality: all Christians may profitably pray the Divine Office. So, then, let us all strive to take up this Work of God and so run “on the path of God’s commandments, [with] hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love”.
“[N]othing is to be preferred to the Work of God [Opus Dei]”. This maxim appearing in the Rule of St Benedict seems to have become the defining stereotype of the Benedictine monk. Indeed, it is one that holds currency even in today’s secular culture. If you ask someone what they know about monastic life, almost certainly one can expect a response alluding to a fixed daily cycle of choral liturgical prayer. This daily rhythm of prayer, dominated by the recitation of the psalms, is what St Benedict referred to as the Work of God, and what we typically call the Divine Office: the public prayer of the Church by which the hours of the day are sanctified by the praise of God.
In the centuries following St Benedict (c. 480-547), it is indeed true that monasteries came to be seen as great organs of intercession for the world. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, society literally nucleated around monasteries which served as vital organs in numerous auxiliary respects – agriculture, education, and medicine for instance – in addition to their intercessory function. The notion of monks as intercessors had come clearly into view by the time of the great Abbey of Cluny (c. 10th century), whose elaborate liturgies served to emphasise the centrality of liturgical intercession as the chief characteristic of their way of life. That said, to reduce Benedictine monks to merely ecclesial functionaries misses, I think, a key element of the spirituality of St Benedict and the tradition he emerged from, an element that should nourish and inspire all Christians.
The Second Vatican Council reminds us of the two principal purposes of the Divine Office. I have already alluded to the first: to publicly give glory to God. The Church, the body of Christ, sees in her liturgy a direct participation in the priestly office of her Head, our Lord Jesus Christ, as he glorifies the Father and intercedes for his mystical body. This is the dimension that is emphasised by the Cathedral (or canonical) Office, in which the bishop gathers with his clergy to intercede for the diocese. To this ecclesial purpose must be added a second purpose that concerns the individual Christian: personal sanctification. Whilst the Mass may be the source and summit of the Church’s liturgy, being in and of itself a source of sacramental grace, the Holy Rule points to the mechanism by which the Divine Office also contributes to our growth in holiness. The intimate bond between communal and personal prayer is the dimension that is stressed by the monastic Office.
For St Benedict, the key characteristic he urges the novice master to look for in a novice is that he “truly seeks God”. All the structures the Holy Patriarch advocates are to facilitate the monks’ positive response to the “delightful voice of the Lord calling to us” so as to dwell eternally in union with Him in His kingdom. The monastery is thus a microcosm of the Church and a “school of the Lord’s service”. How does the Work of God fit into the curriculum? Well, St Benedict towards the beginning of the rule asserts that “love of Christ must come before all else” and at the end that the monks must “prefer absolutely nothing to Christ”. These two formulae echo what St Cyprian (c. 3rd century) had earlier brought together: “prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ, because He did not prefer anything to us”. We are to imitate Christ in his perfect love for us, just as our Lord in St Matthew’s Gospel instructs: “[t]ake my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matt. 11:29). So, then, these two markers embracing the body of the Rule – and which together constitute the summation of the life of Christian discipleship – provide the lens through which we can make sense of the exhortation to prefer nothing to the Work of God. The Divine Office is a privileged means by which Christ continues to instruct his disciples. That’s not only because “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching… and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). It is psalmody that comprises the bulk of the Office, and thus it is to the psalms that we must look more closely in order to appreciate St Benedict’s vision for the Office.
Amongst the psalms we find prayers of praise, adoration, thanksgiving, and supplication. Moreover, we find historical narrative, lamentation, and even cursing. This alone would be sufficient to exhibit that the psalter’s great pedagogical value; after all, the Rule is written for beginners in the spiritual life. However, it is the Christological interpretation of the psalter popularised by the Fathers that is the primary justification for making the psalms the cornerstone of Christian liturgical prayer. Concealed in the psalms, we find prophecies of Christ: “Our God comes, he keeps silence no longer” (Ps 50); “The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring him gifts, before him all kings shall fall prostrate, all nations shall serve him” (Ps 72); “the Lord goes up with trumpet blast” (Ps 47). Even more crucially, the voice of the incarnate Word himself rings out in the psalmist’s inspired words: “Sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire, but thou hast given me an open ear… Then I said, ‘Lo, I come… I delight to do thy will, O my God'” (Ps 40); “My God, my God why have you forsaken me…They tear holes in my hands and my feet” (Ps 22).
It is not simply that the explicit prayers of the psalter are exemplars to guide our own prayer, or that the recapitulation of the mysteries of Christ’s life provides us with stimulus material for meditation, but rather, that if we recite the psalms such that “our minds are in harmony with our voices” as St Benedict commends (and indeed, as St Augustine had earlier stipulated in his Rule, which is the Rule that we follow as Dominicans), then we immerse ourselves in Christ’s own prayer to the Father. Prayer in common thereby provides a framework and bedrock for a life of prayer, which is the entire life of the monk. This then is the true heart of the monastic Office: to learn to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) by attunement of one’s voice to that of Christ’s, so that the entire day, already punctuated by liturgical prayer, may become wholly permeated by a ceaseless spirit of prayer. This wonderful function of the Office stands quite independently of the priestly, ecclesial, and intercessory function (laudable though it may be), and is one that is especially attractive on account of its universality. All Christians – lay, clerical, and religious (recall that St Benedict and most of his monks were not clerics) – may profitably pray the Divine Office, as the Council Fathers of Vatican II so rightly affirmed. So, then, let us all take up this Work of God, whether for the first time or else with renewed zeal, and so join St Benedict’s holy society of monks and nuns in running “on the path of God’s commandments, [with] hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love”.
The texts of the Divine Office according to the Roman Rite can be found here, whilst those interested in the (pre-conciliar) monastic Office can find it here (and listen to it sung here). For those approaching the Divine Office for the first time, Compline (night prayer) is perhaps the best place to start.