Ritual Action

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Catholic liturgical prayer recognizes that human beings are a union of soul and body.  This reality is reflected in a practice of prayer that is not only a matter of thought, but thought united to the body; that is, thoughts finding expression in audible sounds/symbols called speech, made by the body.  But expression or communication is made sensible in other bodily actions that accompany the thoughts and sounds of prayer: procession, sign of the cross, bow (to altar, persons, holy name, etc.), genuflect, kneel, prostrate, strike the breast, turn to the altar.  These actions are natural human responses that seek to unite soul and body (the five senses) in the worship of God.

All this is inherent to Catholic prayer because of the Incarnation, the center of Catholic belief: God became a man; He took on flesh, appealing to our five senses.  That sacramental principle (spiritual reality taking physical expression) is at the heart of Christian faith and practice.  Jesus is the “sacrament” of God; the Church is the “sacrament” of Jesus, who comes to us in those seven ways properly called Sacraments.

The following are some of the traditional ritual actions within the Benedictine Divine Office.  St. Bernard Abbey, like other monasteries, determines which of the customs will be followed.  As monks we observe actions in unity, together, just as we sing and speak together, not erratically or at personal whim.  Such actions help us unite the total self, body and soul, and the community, in the praise of God.  Can these actions be meaningless?  Of course, just like the bodily action of human speech.  It is a person’s responsibility to unite the heart and mind to speech and other symbolic, bodily actions – to make prayer real and fully human.

Sign of the Cross:  THE Christian sign, calling to mind God’s saving love and the Most Holy Trinity.  The sign of the cross is made from the forehead to the breast and from the left shoulder to the right:
  • at the beginning of the hours when O God, come to my assistance or the O Lord, open my lips is said.
  • at the versicle Our help is in the name of the Lord at Compline.
  • at the absolution May the almighty and merciful Lord after the confession at Compline.
  • at the beginning of the Gospel canticles Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis; and at the Matins Gospel in the same fashion as at Mass.
  • at the blessing at the end of Compline.
  • at the versicle May the divine assistance at the end of the Divine Office.
  • at the words Convert us, O God at Compline the sign of the cross is made on the breast.

Turning to the East (to the altar and the cross): The question might be asked, why do the monks occasionally turn to the altar during the Divine Office.  A better question might be, why do they not always face the altar.  The altar, the symbol of Christ, is the focus of all liturgical prayer, especially at moments of intense supplication.  It is God whom we address and face in prayer.  We face in other directions only for physical convenience.  For instance the monastic choir tradition has monks sitting in two groups, facing each other, for some practical purposes.  It allows the monks to hear one another better, thus stay together in recitation and singing.  It also allows for bowing and kneeling, which would be awkward if all were facing the altar.  That said, monks facing one another in prayer also has the benefit of reminding them that they are bound together in Christ – that we are saved not just individually but as a people, and through others.  Yet when it is practical, tradition has the monks face the altar at the following times:
  • The call to prayer at the beginning of most offices.
  • Little Chapter and Responsory.
  • Versicle and Response.
  • Kyrie.
  • Superior faces the altar during the Our Father; others face choir, profound bow.
  • Heb faces the altar during the oration (prayer); others face choir, profound bow.

Stand/Sit:
  • Traditionally all Psalmody, in fact the entire office with the exception of the readings of Matins, is prayed while standing, the traditional posture during liturgical prayer.
  • It is typical contemporary practice to sit during the Psalmody, the Old Testament Canticles, the readings at Matins, and during the responsory after the first reading at ferial Matins which has no Glory Be.
  • One stands out of respect for God and those representing Him, especially the abbot.

Kneel/Genuflect: 
  • During the invitatory (Ps. 94) at Matins genuflect at the words Come in; let us bow and bend low; let us kneel before the God who made us.
  • During the Te Deum at the verse We beseech you, therefore (Te ergo quaesumus).
  • At Compline during the examination of conscience (silence) before the I confess.
  • During certain hymns and at other times as indicated.
  • From the Kyrie through the prayer during Lent, Advent, Office of the Dead and penitential days.
  • At Compline during the Marian Antiphon, Vers. & Resp. and prayer – except when the ReginaCoeli is used.
  • During the Angelus except on Sundays and solemnities, then genuflect at “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The Regina Coeli is always prayed standing.
  • Never kneel on Sundays (beginning with I Vespers) even during Advent and Lent.

Profound Bow (palms on knees):
  • During the Glory Be, the Our Father and the Oration at each office.
  • During the final verse (doxology) of most hymns.
  • During the Suscipe verses (116 & 122) of Ps. 118 sung at Sext.
  • During the I confess at Compline and the two verses of absolution that follow.
  • During the blessing by the superior at Compline.

Simple or Moderate Bow (head or head and shoulders):
  • Bow to the abbot, a confrere, sides of choir, etc. – recognizing the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God, especially the abbot, who holds the place of Christ in the monastery.
  • Bow at the Holy Name of Jesus and of Mary.

Procession/Statio: We are all going somewhere, in some direction.  In the monastery, that direction is to God, and we do so together as a Holy People led by God.  Rather than simply walking to a place of prayer individually, monks go together on pilgrimage to God, unified in purpose and action.  In statio the monastic community stands and prepares to process by spending time in quiet reflection, as a soldier readying himself for battle.  During this time of reflection and preparation the monk customarily covers his head with the capuche.  When the procession begins and holy water is taken, the capuche is removed from the head.  Traditionally the head is covered when processing outside.

Dialogue: In the Amen, the litany, the versicle and response, etc., we demonstrate that all of life is a dialogue: God calling and we responding, neighbor proposing and we agreeing:  V. The Lord be with you.  R. And also with you.  This dialogue is also well expressed in the monastic tradition of antiphonal singing of Psalms, hymns, etc.  Rather than all singing at once, chanters or one side of choir sings a verse or phrase, then the rest of the choir sings the next verse or phrase.  This custom heightens the awareness of and dependence on the “other,” the community; and it allows a time of rest, letting one section of the community take responsibility while the other surrenders.  This dialogue and awareness of the other is encouraged by the monastic tradition of two sides of choir – one facing the other, going to God together.

Repetition:  To repeat is to learn.  To experience over and over again is to know a thing, and to live it.  This is primary in the liturgy which is, of its essence, repetition.  There is variety of course, but the core and highlights of the office are repeated daily, allowing for a familiarity that is truly familial – a part of the family.  Obvious daily examples are the calls to prayer, the invitatory Psalm (94) at Matins, the Compline Psalms (4, 90, 133) and Compline itself, the Gospel canticles, Kyrie, Our Father, Let us bless the Lord, May the Souls, and May the divine assistance.  Even the hymns of the various seasons remain constant for each office each day, drawing us home and focusing on a mystery.  Variety certainly exists in the liturgy, and positively so, but repetition allows the word to soak into us, letting us absorb the Good News, to learn it “by heart.”

Silence: It has been said that in the monastic liturgy, silence is as important as sound, just as being is as important as doing.  When the monks stand for an office to begin, it is customary that about thirty seconds of silence is observed (the Our Father, Hail Mary and Apostle’s Creed have been used to measure the time) so that all might “be still and know that I am God,” recollected and ready to sing His praises.  An audible signal from the superior begins the office.  Quiet is also observed even during the Psalmody; the asterisk (*) separating each Psalm verse indicates a period of silence, about two beats.  And after each reading at Matins a period of silent reflection is traditional.  Silence is observed again when the office is ended, after which a signal initiates the departure from choir.

Singing:  It is ancient tradition that when people gather to worship God they sing.  Why?  The worship of God is a self-offering, and singing is the opportunity to make that offering fuller and more complete.  When one sings, he gives more of himself, lifting his praise to a new dimension, beyond ordinary communication.  St. Augustine explained that “singing is for lovers.”  Singing is what lovers do, and singing helps one to love.  It seems that simple speech is just not enough when praising and loving God.  And when melodies or Psalm tones are not used, it is traditional to sing nonetheless – on one pitch, recto tono, as it is called.  In this simple way one still sings to the Lord, encouraged again by St. Augustine who reminds us that, “he who sings well, prays twice (Qui bene cantat, bis orat.)”.  In addition, singing has the effect of uniting a group of people, helping them celebrate more fully and to pray as one.  And when one sings, one celebrates and gives dignity to what is celebrated.  Such dignity is given especially to the Gospel and other texts of Holy Scripture.

Monastic song is not individual; in it, many become one.  It is fervent but not demonstrative, passionate but not performed, zealous but not loud.  Each phrase of any piece of music is a prayer, even a simple sung “Amen.”  It bursts into life, then comes to a quiet rest.

In liturgical prayer, particular respect has been given throughout the ages to the Church’s song called Gregorian Chant, afforded what the Second Vatican Council called “pride of place” in the Liturgy, particularly suited to the worship of God.  The office at St. Bernard accepts that ancient tradition adapted to the English language and in the original Latin and Greek.  Sing to the Lord.


Pages 1-8, Copyright © 2007 Saint Bernard Abbey, Cullman, Alabama U.S.A.  All rights reserved.


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