Medieval society so valued constant prayer that many people made substantial donations to monasteries so that monks and nuns, largely freed from manual labor, could become “professional” pray-ers on behalf of the rest of society. In fact, many monks and nuns, in obedience to Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing,” lived an institutional life of prayer, praying day and night.
If the chief monastic activity was prayer, what would be better suited than the Jewish-Christian prayer book, the Psalms? Most Benedictine monks and nuns chanted all 150 psalms once a week in a cycle of seven daily “hours.” Thus the first thing required of new monks or nuns was learning to read, if they did not already know how to. Second, they had to memorize the Psalms, which might take anywhere from six months to two years. The Rule of the Master, a forerunner of Benedict’s Rule, says that monks traveling on monastery business should take with them wax tablets covered with Psalms to memorize.
The Scripture-saturated life of a medieval monk is evident in the spiritual writings monks and nuns left behind. The works of Gregory the Great, Julian of Norwich, and Bernard of Clairvaux, to name three, are at many places nothing but a web of Scripture quotations and allusions.
For example, the following passage from Bernard’s On Loving God, which is typical, contains at least 12 biblical quotations or allusions:
“The faithful … know how totally they need Jesus and him crucified [1 Cor. 2:2]. While they admire and embrace in him the charity that surpasses all knowledge [Eph. 3:19], they are ashamed at failing to give what little they have in return for so great a love and honor. Easily they love more who realize they are loved more: ‘He loves less ...