“During the winter season the office of vigils begins with this verse recited three times; Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise. To this should be added the third psalm and the Gloria. Then will come the ninety fourth psalm chanted with its antiphon and after that an Ambrosian hymn, followed by six psalms with their antiphons” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter Nine).
Benedict is nothing if not practical. Sure, he has a lot to say about the spiritual practices of his monks. But he has a lot more to say about the details of their worship, eating, dressing, and living arrangements. In a lot of ways, Benedict’s practicality is a relief to me. Much more of my life is spent in the physical needs of the moment than it is in the ephemeral experience of the holy.
So, of course Benedict would have a separate plan for his monks in the winter when days are short and nights are long. (Practicality, you see.) He asks his monks to offer their lips, their mouths, their voices for worship. They commit the words they are about to utter, words that Chapter Nine insists should be uttered in the middle of the night (after their food is well digested!). Words said from tired mouths and drooping heads. Words spoken from the mouths of those who have failed that day or laughed or worked hard or sat lazily. Words spoken by those who practice saying the same words over and over in order to make a home in those words. Those who live by a sacred calendar and sacred hours. Those who eat in silence and pray in chanted whispers.
Benedict says we are to offer this prayer: It is small. It is simple. It is rich with meaning.
We pray for our mouths to open as David prayed in Psalm 51, a repentant soul, begging for purpose, begging for deliverance. He asks: “Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise” (verse 15).
And what is it we hope for? That we might actually bring praise to the God we long to honor? How to truly worship? How to offer real praise? Is it the singing? Is it the heart burst while running in the sunshine alone? Is it the moment of gratitude, wiping the baby’s spinach covered face?
Benedict called his monks out of their beds, middle of the night, thick vestments and cold air, an outdoor walk to the holy place. And there, he asked not for voices in song. He asked not for acts of service or impressive feats of faith.
No, he asked for David’s words, those words in the Psalm of humble repentance, where David begged God’s mercy on his head. Benedict said, “Say these words. Pray them three times because, obviously, you’re going to need the reminder.”
There’s something about our lips opening, not for gossip or lecture or words of frustration. But our lips opening for the God who has earned our praise with every act of grace, every leaf dangling brown from the bare tree, every child shouting “Mommy!” from the dark bedroom, every sunset, every meal around the table with new friends. Let our lips open for worship. Because all can be an act of praise if our lips are open to it.