31 Oct Like listening to the sea
I like to think of my friends at Mucknell speaking or singing the daily office during my working day. I try to coincide with them when possible, during my working day, speaking the same psalms at the same times. Terce (at 8.45am) and None (at 2.15pm) take around five minutes each when you’re on your own and speaking the psalms quietly rather than singing them.
It’s 8.45am and I’ve already been at work for a while, writing emails. But it’s time for Terce. I know they will just be starting it at Mucknell. So, I open the second drawer down of my desk and take out my Book of Common Prayer. Miles Coverdale’s translations of the Psalms remain an instant gift and, whilst I don’t tend to use his version in my prayer corner at home, I look forward to it in my workplace, and when I’m travelling (online, via my mobile phone). Alongside my prayerbook is list of the verses from Psalm 119 that Mucknell sing each morning.
Today is Tuesday. That means verses 57-80. I sit still at my desk. In front of me is my computer screen with a sentence unfinished in the e-mail I’ve interrupted in order to say Terce. I am now looking down at the small prayerbook in front of my keyboard, Coverdale’s translation. What will I notice today? What will strike me as I whisper the lines of Psalm? ‘I am a companion of all them that fear thee: and keep thy commandments’ (verse 63: I am thinking of writing to my Bishop, and this verse encourages me to do so). ‘It is good that I have been in trouble: that I may learn of thy statutes’ (verse 71: I think of how I recovered from a seizure two and a half years ago and how, only last evening, I was able to say to friend, ‘God was there in that time with me, re-shaping my ministry’). It is now 8.50am. I put the prayerbook back into the second drawer down, and continue my email.
Benedict structures Christian worship around the Psalms because we can listen to them, and hear God in them. It’s like picking up a conch and hearing the sound of the sea, but also knowing that this will happen every time you do so and, for Benedictines, at regular intervals, seven times a day.
In Chapter 18 of his Rule, Benedict recommends that Psalm 119 is read over just two days (he also allows the Psalms to be ordered differently, as Mucknell does). On Sundays and Mondays, says Benedict, three sections of Psalm 119 should be spoken at each of the offices of Terce, Sext, and None. Psalms 120-128 are then repeated during these offices, three of them at a time consecutively, for the rest of the week.
In her commentary on this chapter of the Rule, Joan Chittister reflects on how the monastic repeats ‘descants in the structure of Benedict’s daily office.’ ‘Over and over, every day of their lives the monastic hears the same message: God delivers us, God is our refuge, God will save us from those who seek to destroy us, God will bring us home.’ She concludes ‘in the minor hours, the psalms carry us from hardship to joy, from inner captivity to liberation, from despair to trust. It is a message to us all that remembering to trust in God can be enough to carry us for a lifetime.’
Monastics, then, are among the most liberated of human beings. Perhaps I can catch something of what this means and feels like when I pick up the Psalms to listen to the sea during my working day.
Paul Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 2011 and is a long-standing friend of SSMV.