Thursday, July 5, 2018

Liturgy of the Divine Office, Part 1: Introduction to the traditional Divine Office

A true religion requires some sort of two-way exchange between God and mankind—God gives something to men, and men offer something to God. God created us, loves us infinitely, and gives us his grace and the opportunity to be with him in heaven. We offer him our prayer and adoration. The sacred liturgy is our public, organized expression of this two-way exchange.

The most important part of the sacred liturgy is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in which we participate simultaneously in God's greatest gift to us and our greatest sacrifice to God. Jesus gave himself to us, dying on the Cross for our redemption. In return, we offer God our obedience and faithfulness to his sacrifice, along with our contrite and devout hearts desiring to receive his grace. Since it is impossible for us to match the great gift that God has given us, the best we can do is to offer our obedience and devotion to him. Thus, our faithful devotion to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has been the cornerstone of the Catholic religion since its beginning.

However, in addition to the Mass, the Church also wishes to extend her devotion to God throughout the day. Thus, seven times throughout the day, the Church offers liturgical prayer to God in the Divine Office. Like the Mass, the Divine Office has its origins in the Old Covenant. God commanded Aaron and his priests to offer sacrifices in the morning and evening (Exodus 29:38-39). In Psalm 118:164, King David writes, “Seven times a day I have given praise to thee, for the judgments of thy justice.” Similarly, in Psalm 54:18, he writes, “Evening and morning, and at noon I will speak and declare: and he shall hear my voice.” The apostles continued to observe prayer at fixed hours of the day (Acts 3:1, 10:9), and St. Paul commanded us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Thus, the Divine Office has been a part of the Church's liturgy since the earliest times.

Like in the series on the Mass, I will be describing the traditional form of the Divine Office. As a general rule, I am using the 1960 edition of the Roman Breviary, the book containing the Divine Office.

Since the time of St. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, the Divine Office has consisted of eight canonical hours, which are the times of day at which this liturgical prayer is offered. The name “hour” comes from the fact that it is offered at a certain hour, not from its duration.
  • Matutinum or Matins is the longest hour, offered before dawn.
  • Laudes or Lauds is offered in the morning.
  • Prima or Prime is offered at the first hour, about 6:00 a.m., traditionally the beginning of the work day.
  • Tertia or Terce is offered at the third hour, about 9:00 a.m.
  • Sexta or Sext is offered at the sixth hour, about noon. (It was a prayer before it became a sin.)
  • Nona or None is offered at the ninth hour, about 3:00 p.m. (It is pronounced “nohn,” not “nuhn.”)
  • Vesperae or Vespers is the most solemn hour, offered in the evening.
  • Completorium or Compline is offered at night, before going to sleep.

The Divine Office is commonly spoken of as being offered seven times a day, though sources disagree as to whether the “seven times” comes from the fact that Matins and Lauds are usually offered consecutively, or from the fact that Matins is during the night and thus does not count toward the seven times during the day. In traditional Benedictine monasteries, the monks would arise during the night to sing Matins. This would be followed by a period of silent prayer or study, or perhaps additional sleep. They would then sing Lauds around dawn. Prime would be sung at the beginning of the workday, before or after breakfast. Mass traditionally follows Terce, except on certain special occasions. Compline is sung at the end of the day.

In modern times, all priests, clergy, and members of religious communities are bound to offer the entirety of the Divine Office each day. They are not bound to specific times, so they may say each hour whenever is convenient for them, but it is a good devotion to pray the hours at their traditional times. If necessary, Matins and Lauds may be said the previous evening. However, it is a solemn obligation to offer the Divine Office, and if someone with this obligation omits even one hour of the Divine Office without grave reason, he commits a mortal sin. In addition, priests should, if possible, offer at least Matins and Lauds before offering Mass that day. Finally, although only certain people are obligated to offer the Divine Office, all Catholics are encouraged to join the Church in at least some part of the Divine Office.

Religious communities or groups of clergy may offer the Divine Office in choir, that is, publicly in a church as a group. Clergy assisting in the Divine Office in choir typically wear a surplice, a white linen garment similar to the alb, but shorter and less tailored.

The most important part of the Divine Office is the chanting of psalms. The Psalms are the songs of praise, adoration, thanksgiving, and supplication attributed to King David and inspired by God. They are some of the most beautiful and sacred liturgical texts in existence. For every emotion or desire, there is a psalm to accompany it. Recall from the series on the traditional Latin Mass how important psalms are to the Mass.

The use of psalms in the Divine Office comes from the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, the Jews were commanded to offer daily sacrifices in the Temple. To supplement these sacrifices, they offered daily worship in the synagogues at certain hours of the day, consisting of scripture readings and psalms. This tradition was continued by the apostles and is continued today in the Divine Office. At each hour, several psalms or portions of psalms are sung, so that over the course of a week, all 150 psalms are sung. In addition to the psalms, the Divine Office, like the Jewish synagogue worship, includes scripture readings, hymns, and prayers.

Although the Mass can be a Low Mass, Sung Mass, or Solemn Mass, the Divine Office does not have such a distinction. It may be said or sung, alone or with others, but it remains essentially the same in either case. Before each hour, the following prayer may be said silently. Until 1956, it was prescribed in the Breviary.

Aperi, Dómine, os meum ad benedicéndum nomen sanctum tuum: munda quoque cor meum ab ómnibus vanis, pervérsis et aliénis cogitatiónibus; intelléctum illúmina, afféctum inflámma, ut digne, atténte ac devóte hoc Offícium recitáre váleam, et exaudíri mérear ante conspéctum divínæ Majestátis tuæ. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum. Amen.

Dómine, in unióne illíus divínæ intentiónis, qua ipse in terris laudes Deo persolvísti, hanc tibi Horam persólvo.
O Lord, open thou my mouth to bless thy holy name; cleanse my heart also from all vain, evil and wandering thoughts; enlighten my understanding, kindle my affections, that I may be able to recite this Office worthily, attentively and devoutly, and may deserve to be heard in the presence of thy divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Lord, in union with that divine intention, wherewith thou thyself didst praise God whilst thou wast on earth, I offer this Hour unto thee.

In this prayer, we pray against any distraction or irreverance. To spiritually benefit from prayer, we must seek to pray meditatively with our whole mind and being rather than mindlessly saying words. Except before Compline, this prayer is traditionally followed by an Our Father and a Hail Mary. Before Matins, the beginning of the Divine Office for the day, and before Prime, the beginning of the workday, the Apostles' Creed is also added. The Our Father, Hail Mary, and Apostles' Creed are traditionally said after Compline, not before. Thus, the prayer that our Lord himself gave us is used repeatedly throughout the Church's liturgy.

New terms

  • Divine Office – Liturgical prayer offered at certain hours throughout the day to supplement the Mass, consisting primarily of psalms.
  • Breviary – The book that contains the texts of the Divine Office.
  • Canonical hours – The specific times of day at which parts of the Divine Office are offered.
  • Matins – The first and longest part of the Divine Office, offered during the night.
  • Lauds – Offered at dawn.
  • Prime – Offered at the first hour, about 6:00 a.m., traditionally the beginning of the workday.
  • Terce – Offered at the third hour, about 9:00 a.m., traditionally followed by Mass.
  • Sext – Offered at the sixth hour, about noon.
  • None – Offered at the ninth hour, about 3:00 p.m.
  • Vespers – Offered in the evening.
  • Compline – The final part of the Divine Office, offered before going to bed.
  • in choir – The Divine Office offered publicly by a religious community or group of clergy.
  • surplice – A white linen garment similar to the alb but shorter and less tailored, worn by clergy offering the Divine Office.

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