March 27, July 27, November 26
Chapter 47: On Giving the Signal for the Time of the Work of God
The indicating of the hour for the Work of God
by day and by night
shall devolve upon the Abbot
either to give the signal himself
or to assign this duty to such a careful brother
that everything will take place at the proper hours.
Let the Psalms and the antiphons be intoned
by those who are appointed for it,
in their order after the Abbot.
And no one shall presume to sing or read
unless he can fulfill that office
in such a way as to edify the hearers.
Let this function be performed
with humility, gravity and reverence,
and by him whom the Abbot has appointed.
One thing I notice over and over again in the Rule is Benedict’s attention to detail. Here is one important to him: that the monastics be called to prayer in a timely manner and on time. Either the monastic superior or someone who is careful enough has this responsibility. And we know it is a weighty one because no monastic is to fail at the most serious of occupations: prayer.
But during Benedict’s time, how was a person to know what time it was? Mechanical clocks as we know them did not exist. During the Middle Ages, people used a combination of water clocks, sundials, and candle clocks to tell time though none of those could tell time to the minute. If one lived anywhere near a monastery, one would have heard the bells ringing eight times a day, calling monks to prayer. These sort of devices could only tell someone the approximate hour because none of the devices available to them could have told time to the minute.
One’s time belonged to God and thus even outside the monastery, laypeople told time by the hour of monastic prayer. And of course, telling time by a sundial and a water clock meant that the length of an hour would be different in different parts of Europe. Probably the origin of the modern-day time zones.
It also seems clear that in Europe, Benedictine monks ar responsible for the invention of the first mechanical clocks, so concerned were they to keep the hours of prayer.
It is really fascinating to me how much of modern life we owe to the Rule of St. Benedict and Benedict’s foresight into the needs of his communities.