A BIT OF HISTORY
What is it that really happened? The tradition brings us back to the third century, when all the men in a roman legion were executed. They were massacred at Agaunum for refusing to obey an order that went against their faith, and their chief was called Maurice. In 515 AD the king Sigismond established a new monastery at Agaunum, which is known today as St-Maurice, the same place as the martyrdom. During its inauguration, he established the perpetual psalmody. The inspiration came from the Acemetesof Constantinople, a group of around 300 monks, that under the direction of Alexander took it in turns to put into practice Paul’s exhortation to pray incessantly. Their name’s origin is in the phrase ‘those that never sleep’. The establishment of this psalmody, that today is referred to as the laus perennis, in St-Maurice required the recruitment of a large number of monks. They took turns in groups, for five to nine months at a time, to sing the praise of God 24 hours each day. As these monks were exempted from manual work, sufficient land and labour needed to be found to maintain them. The Basilica also needed to be illuminated day and night.
Here is an extract from the homely delivered by St Avitus of Vienne, France at the inauguration of the basilica, marking the beginning of laus perennis: « Because sanctuaries are sometimes deserted in the interval between offices, one could easily miss what is glorious here: The faithful of Christ will ever lift up their worship, Christ will always be present, one can always sense that He is listening, one always sees that He hears. It is true that you are fleeing from the world, but you are praying for the world… May your holy vigilance watch over everyone… Through such an institution… may this Gaul, which is dear to us, blossom and prosper! May the universe envy what this place has just inaugurated! May Eternity begin today for this pious work, and for this country its renown » – St Avitus of Vienne 515 AD.
What was born in Agaunum was unique in Gaul. It was a synthesis between the monastic rite of singing the praise of God, which was practiced apart from the world so that it would reach angels in the sky, and the public worship organised in the basilicas. In one way or another, they had found a way to integrate sung praise and the intercession of the faithful into the same uninterrupted flow. It was also unique that through its eastern inspiration, Agaune wanted itself to become a bridge between the east and the west. This was a considerable undertaking. They had to call on existing groups of monks from different monasteries: from Lyon, Jura, Romaimôtier, Grenoble etc. This created tension, as it took so much from some of these monasteries.
The Abbey of St-Maurice shone throughout a large part of Gaul, and several monasteries would introduce the laus perennis to their practice. It could be found at Saint-Bégnine in Dijon, Saint-Michel in Châlons, Saint-Denys, Luxueil, Saint-Germain-des-Près of Paris, Rémiremont, Saint-Martin of Tours and Saint-Médard of Soissons, for example.
Pressure to change the Laus Perennis came quickly because it was incompatible with the manual work that was so important in Western monasteries. Nevertheless, this psalmody lasted more than three centuries. It is difficult to establish the end date of the laus perennis in St-Maurice. It seems that an important event happened in 824 AD, when the monks were replaced by canons who also had pastoral positions. We might guess that they were no longer able to manage the demands of 24 hour a day prayer, so they adopted new rules that were more in keeping with the practices of other monasteries. In contrast to other monasteries that were also known for their fervent prayer, such as Bangor or Cluny, the monastery of St Maurice still runs today. Even if the laus perennis finished a long time ago, a stable group of canons chants several times each day as they did in the beginning. It is in fact the oldest abbey in Western Europe. Not a single day in the last 1500 years has prayer failed to ring out from this place!