Lord, Close My Lips

Every Western Christian familiar with the Divine Office knows the verse “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Ps. 51:17) at the beginning of the office each morning (Matins or Lauds).

The verse “Lord, open my lips” obviously fits its liturgical place. You might find or create other verses that also make sense at the beginning of a morning prayer service, but this one clearly is a good choice. It does not need much reflection to be understood, there is nothing enigmatic or mysterious about it.

I think this is the reason why we do not realize that something is missing when we use “Lord, open my lips” at the beginning of any morning prayer.

But there used to be a sibling – or more than that: a twin – to this verse at the very end of the daily liturgical cycle. The Rule of the Master (probably written around the early 6th century somewhere in Italy), one of the most important sources for the Rule of St. Benedict, prescribed Ps. 141:3 as the closing verse of the Compline: “Set a guard, Lord, before my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips.”

Between these two verses at the end of the day and at the beginning of the following day there was nothing but silence and sleep in the monastery – the Rule of the Master is very strict on that point.

So we have “Lord, open my lips” at the beginning of the day, and we also have “Lord, close my lips” at the end of the day. But we should think of it in reverse order: “Lord, close my lips” before the hours of rest and sleep, and “Lord, open my lips” after awakening the next morning.

It should be quite clear that this is a metaphor for death and resurrection: The human being commits her or his life to God and gracefully gets renewed and refreshed life from God. It is not any human power that gives new life, it is nothing but God’s gift. We can ask for it and pray for it, but we cannot make it ourselves. Or to make it short: Every morning (and every morning prayer) is a commemoration of Easter.

As far as I know, the Rule of the Master is the only document for “Lord, close my lips” at the end of the day. The Rule of St. Benedict does not have it and it was not reintroduced at any time in the history of liturgy – while “Lord, open my lips” remained the opening verse every morning in all Western traditions.

1,500 years of liturgy do not have “Lord, close my lips” in mind whenever “Lord, open my lips” is sung in the morning. But after having read this article, I am sure that you will!

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5 comments

  1. What a marvelous reflection. Many thanks for this.

    Regarding night-time as a metaphor for death: the conclusion to Night Prayer has always struck me: “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.”

  2. Jim Pauwels :

    Yes, since the reform of 1971 the Roman Catholic Compline has this conclusion, and it is a very good choice (and for me one of the most impressing elements of the Divine Office)! I just wanted to point out that you need the old (and forgotten) “Lord, close my lips” from the Rule of the Master in order to fully understand the meaning of “Lord, open my lips” at the beginning of the day.

  3. I guess the reason that the verse didn’t enter the wider circulation in such particular way is that it can easily be understood to mean the temperance of speech and not complete silence.

    As st. Augustine says:

    4. …“Set, O Lord, a watch before my mouth, and a door of restraint around my lips.” (Psalm 140:3.) He said not a barrier of restraint, but a door of restraint. A door is opened as well as shut. If then it be a door, let it be both opened and shut; opened, to confession of sin; closed, to excusing sin. So will it be a door of restraint, not of ruin. For what does this door of restraint profit us? What does Christ pray in the name of His Body? “That Thou turn not aside My heart to wicked words.” (Psalm 140:4.) What is, My heart? The heart of My Church; the heart, that is, of My Body….

    Moreover, Carthusian Rite has it as the opening verse for their Mass…

  4. It quite depends on one’s theology, and how one integrates the same into one’s life. If you hold the tension that every day is a wee paschal mystery, i.e. that every human being suffers in some way every day; and with the abundant grace of the Spirit (and Abba, and the Risen One) believes, trusts, and surrenders to Divine Love at the end of the day (i.e. dies as Jesus did); with the hope of rising again in the morning to be missio’d…, then the office wording offers beautiful highlights, whether or not they include full Divine Truth..

  5. Actually the use of this verse before bed is also mentioned in Ordines Romani XVIII, and dates either to the late eighth century Francia (if you accept the view of Andrieu, the editor of the Ordines), or Rome circa 680 (if you accept its attribution to John the Archcantor, Abbot of St Martin’s, one of the monasteries attached to St Peter’s who visited England at that time and documented Roman practices according to Bede). In that document it wasn’t formally part of Compline, but said after it just before bed.

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