Abbreviating the Breviary (iv)


In the Rule of St. Benedict what we today refer to as Matins is called Vigils rather than Matins. The meaning of the terms Vigils and Matins has changed since St. Benedict’s days. The Office of Matins is the Office of Nocturns. It as a night – nocturnal – office. It is quite long and probably the most complex of the offices in the Breviary. I have long puzzled over Laszlo Dobszay’s ternio’s for Matins. After almost a year of not having looked at it the time has come to return to the issue.

Monastic and Cathedral Psalmody

Matins can be found in its ancient form in the Breviary of St. Pius V. In this form the Psalms included in this office range from 1 to 109 (or 1 to 108 according to the LXX numbering). The Office of Vespers runs through Psalms 110-147 (or 109 to 147 according to the LXX numbering). This division of the Psalter between Matins (Vigils) and Vespers is very ancient and likely a gift from the monastic tradition of reciting all 150 Psalms in the order found in the Bible: psalmodia currens. The so-called Cathedral custom was to use selected Psalms not necessarily in the order as they are found in the Bible. We find the following Cathedral scheme:

Psalm 50 (LXX= 51) assigned to the beginning of Lauds, or on Sundays and Feasts Psalm 93 (LXX = 92). Psalms 63 & 67 (LXX = 62 & 66) are also assigned to Lauds and are recited as one Psalm. Concluding the psalmody of the office of Lauds we find Psalms 148, 149, 150. These are the so-called Laudate Psalms from which the office of Lauds derives its name. The laudate Psalms are also recited as one unit. Selected Psalms were also used for the second place in the daily psalmody beginning on Sunday with: 100, 5, 43, 65, 90, 143, 92 (LXX = 99, 5, 42, 64, 89, 142, 91). Fourth place in Lauds is occupied by the canticle (Benedicite) of the three young men on Sundays, but throughout the week other canticles are used. For Prime, Terce, Sext, and None Psalm 119 (LXX = 118) was used as divided in 11 smaller units. The Psalms used for Compline also do not vary (4, 91, 134). The Roman Breviary combined the psamodia currens with the selected cathedral Psalms and this gives us the unique structure of the Roman distribution of the Psalms. It was this ancient structure that was profoundly disturbed and thrown out of whack by the reforms of St. Pius X (the distribution of Psalms in the AB is that of St. Pius X).

Breviary and Prayer Book

The re-arrangement of the Psalter may seem innocent enough. After all St. Benedict himself provides for this possibility in his Holy Rule. On the other hand it must be acknowledge that there is a certain balance in the classic Roman distribution not to be found in the Breviary post-Pius X nor the Book of Common Prayer. Though I would not want to be numbered among those that believe this reform of the Psalter destroys the Office and that the reformed Breviary of Pius X and the Book of Common Prayer are useless. I do think that there is a clear break with the tradition and I would agree that this destabilizes the Office as an entity given by God to further our spiritual life. I would also want to affirm that both could be used profitably while simultaneously affirming that the old tradition is the better.

Laszlo Dobszay, referencing the reformed Breviary of Pius X rather than the Prayer Book, observes that:

By this arrangement the order of psalmody of the classical Roman Rite totally disappeared.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Restoration and Organic Development of the Roman Rite, p. 108.

Which is true. There is no organic connection between the psalmody of Pius X and that of the Roman Rite before him. There is rather a sharp break off, a clear discontinuity with the previous tradition. This is noticed by the editors of the Anglican Breviary and is to them a reason to recommend the Breviary of Pius X because:

… it should be recalled that the daily, two-fold Prayer Book Office is based on the principles of the Breviary of Quignonez, and in 1911 the secular Breviary returned to these same principles in the daily use of Psalms and Scripture, so that the Prayer-Book Office and the Secular Breviary are now in accord in this fundamental usage.

The Anglican Breviary, Explanations and Acknowledgments, p. vii.

The words of the eminent Benedictine scholar Canon Winfred Douglas has the following to say about the reforms of Pius X:

The recent reform of the Roman Breviary under Pius X was a successful effort to achieve these qualities [great variety and comparative brevity] by a radical redistribution of the Psalter, and by other novelties. Although its result was a thoroughly practical book, it nevertheless lacks the holy associations of age-long use possessed in so high a degree by the Monastic Office.

Canon Douglas, The Monastic Diurnal, p. vi.

This critique is, of course, spot on! and even though not mentioned by Douglas, it also applies to the radicalism of Dr. Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer. The latter being far more radical (and ideological) than the reforms of Pius X. Dobszay suggests a different way to reform the office. It is his belief that a reform can be done which maintains the “holy associations of age-long use” as well as providing “great variety and comparative brevity.” Of this more in the next posting on the subject.

To lift a tip of the veil for the next post: Dobszay’s reform of Matins seeks to retain both the selected Psalms as well as the distribution of the Psalter in two basic units: Psalms 1 to 109 (1-108) for Matins and 110 to 147 (110-147) for Vespers. He does this by dividing the Matins portion of the Psalter in 48 groups of three, dividing certain Psalms in two or three sections (not unlike St. Benedict in the Holy Rule, which is also done in the post-Pius X Breviary). These individual groups of three he calls ternios. These ternios are now the backbone to the Office and, as Dobszay believes, retain a positive connection with the previous tradition.

Fr. Gregory Wassen


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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