The Divine Office as a Foundation of Culture: Why It Must Be Restored
by J.T.M. Griffin
Dear friends, it should no longer be a surprise to anyone that the Church, especially in the developed world, is in dire straits. We have heard it all by now: weekly church attendance is lower than ever, parishes and schools are closing every week, settlements are still being paid for the crimes of abusive clergy. The "new springtime" hoped for by Vatican II has not come to pass. Speaking as a young man, I could not stress enough how unusual it is for someone of my generation to regularly attend a Catholic church, much less care about the liturgy, sacred music and art, or any of the other things pertaining to religion that I have written about in the past. Formal worship has long since ceased to be relevant in the eyes of most of my peers. It is why the great cathedrals of Europe are now largely museums, and why if the trends of modern apathy to religion continue, they will soon enough become ruins.
And since the decline of religion in the West is no surprise, there is also no lack of attempts to bring the youth back to church. From raves and rock bands at Mass to pizza parties, lock-ins, and weekly meetings to gather 'round the campfire and discuss each other's feelings, the Church has tried all the gimmicks, yet the cathedrals remain mostly silent. I, and an ever-increasing number of other young adults, simply expect the Catholic Church to be the Catholic Church: unapologetically Christian, unabashedly unreformed, with all its "backward" traditions and beliefs in tow. The liturgical movement has already made great headway in this department. Thanks to their efforts, we've received such fruits as a more faithful English translation of the Mass and a revival of interest in Gregorian chant. More and more churches are, once again, offering the traditional Roman Mass in Latin. Other extra-liturgical practices like the Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament are being asserted as part of Catholic life. There is, however, one very critical aspect of traditional Christian worship which has been near-completely overlooked: the Divine Office.
What is the Divine Office? A Painfully Brief History
The Divine Office is the system of sanctifying the times of day with liturgical prayer. From dawn to dusk, monks, priests, and laymen alike gathered in the churches at specific hours to sing praises to God according to a very strictly appointed set of prayers: liturgical, though not the Mass. The Office's canticles and hymns such as Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, and Te Deum are immortalized in classical music, but at its heart lies the 150 psalms of David. The traditional ideal, as laid out in chapter 18 of the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict, was for monks to chant all 150 psalms over the course of a week. The Office provided the framework for Benedict's monks to carry out their holy work.
Keeping the Hours, though, was by no means Benedict's invention, nor even of any of his predecessors. Praying the Hours reaches back even before the time of Christ. When the ancient Israelites were conquered and dispersed by the Babylonians, the Temple of Solomon was destroyed. No longer able to offer the sacrifice of animals in a holy place, the Jews erected the first synagogues, where they offered sacrifices of praise, rather than of animals, by chanting the Psalms at specially appointed hours of the day.
Later, under the dominion of Rome, Jews scattered across the empire eventually adopted the Roman method of marking the hours as calls to prayer. The Roman Forum, and fora in every hub of the empire likewise, rung the bells at 6am, what they called the "first hour", to open the day's business. The bells rung again at 9am, the "third hour", to mark the day's progress. The bells of noon, the "sixth hour", heralded lunch and a rest (the Spanish word for the midday rest, siesta, maintains this tradition in its reference to sexta, the sixth hour in the Roman reckoning). The people were called back to work at 3pm, the "ninth hour", to toil again while there was still daylight left. The final bell tolled at sunset for the close of business.
With this in mind, the references in the Bible to the Apostles observing the Hours should become clear. We see, for example, that "Peter and John went up into the temple at the ninth hour of prayer" (Acts 3:1), or that "Peter went up to the higher parts of the house to pray, about the sixth hour" (Acts 10:9). Furthermore, "at midnight, Paul and Silas, praying, praised God. And they that were in prison heard them." (Acts 16:25) In the earliest days of the Church, praying the Hours may have been more of a private devotion rather than liturgical prayer. This would change soon enough with the development of the Mass.
In the days of persecution, the Eucharistic liturgy, celebrated in the catacombs or the private homes of the faithful, was preceded on great feasts by a vigil starting the night before, terminating with the Eucharist after dawn. The early Christians sang hymns of praise from the Psalms above all, but likely also hymns of their own composition (the Gloria and Te Deum being ancient examples), as well as lessons from the other parts of Scripture. These prayers grew to become distinct, yet intimately related to the Eucharistic liturgy. Just as the Jews had always observed the beginning of the day at sunset, we can imagine the early Church beginning the vigil with what would eventually be known as Vespers. The vigil would continue through the night in a series of watches, which may be the origin of the nocturns of the great office of Matins. The last portion of the vigil, to coincide with the dawn, was the divine praises, now called Lauds. The great vigils of the early Church, therefore, account for the three major hours (Vespers, Matins, and Lauds) of the traditional Office, while the day hours marked by the bells of the Roman Forum account for the Office's minor hours (Terce, Sext, and None). This leaves only Prime and Compline, seemingly the least ancient of the Divine Hours. Both were introduced in the monastic communities before making their way to the Church at large. As the early medieval monasteries commonly prayed Matins and Lauds in the dead of night, it allowed them to go back to sleep without any further obligations until Terce. Waking at nine in the morning was considered slothful in the eyes of certain abbots, so an additional hour, that of Prime, was imposed to ensure that the monks would rise at dawn. At last, there is Compline, which some say was introduced by Saint Benedict for his monks to have a suitable prayer immediately before bedtime.
Altogether, by the 6th century, the Divine Hours developed into something like this:
Vespers: sunset (around 6pm, though adjusted depending on the season)
Compline: before bed (9pm)
Matins: anywhere from midnight to before dawn
Lauds: at the conclusion of Matins
Prime: sunrise (6am)
Terce: midmorning (9am)
Sext: midday (12pm)
None: midafternoon (3pm)
The altar is incensed during the Magnificat in this Vespers the chapel of Merton College, Oxford
The Office: Cornerstone of Medieval Culture
Very early on, the Hours were understood to be a mandatory, if not the most essential, aspect of a cleric's duty to the Church. The Apostolic Constitutions, an instruction for clergy dating to the 4th century, stated: "Offer up your prayers in the morning, at the third hour, the sixth, the ninth, the evening, and at cock-crowing". To this day, with a few exceptions, all clerics in major orders are bound to pray the Office daily. So vital is this obligation that a priest is not bound to celebrate Mass even on Sundays, but if he does so much as skip one of the Hours of the Office on any day without good reason, he commits a mortal sin. The Church has imposed this on the clergy because his first duty is to live a life of prayer, and no prayer is more powerful than those of the Office. In the Middle Ages, praying the Office was literally part of a major cleric's job description: if a cleric was known to neglect his Office obligation, he was to be denied his wages and even food.
What is more remarkable, though, is how integral the Office was to the peasants and ordinary lay citizens of the medieval world who were not bound by oath to pray it. Multiple sources attest that it was customary in England before the Protestant Reformation for the people to arrive in church and attend Matins and Lauds before Mass on Sundays. Of course, that raises a practical question: if Matins is prayed in the middle of the night, as outlined above, why would laypeople leave their homes and attend services at such a strange hour? Abbot Gasquet's book, Parish Life in Mediaeval England, suggests that in the parishes, Sunday Matins began at 6 or 7 in the morning. He quotes Saint Thomas More, who wrote:
"'Some of us laymen,' he says, 'thinke it a payne in a weeke to ryse so soon fro sleepe, and some to tarry so long fasting, as on the Sonday to com and hear out they Matins. And yet is not Matins in every parish, neyther, all thynge so early begonne norfully so longe in doyng, as it is in the Charterhouse, ye wot wel.'"
At least the great trial of waking up in the morning is not a new one; but the placement of Matins was adjusted enough to allow the people to reasonably attend. Gasquet goes on to say that high Mass was celebrated around 9 or 10, giving the laity enough time to return to their homes and break the fast before returning to church. This highlights two things: first, the fact that Communion was not regularly received in those days (or else they could not break the fast before Mass), and second, that the attending of Matins and Lauds was so important to the people that they could be bothered to rise quite early in the morning to attend the Offices and still have time to go back home, before returning to church once again for Mass. As the morning Hours were not celebrated merely as a precursor to the Mass, the people must have attended the Office solely on its own merits! Furthermore, Gasquet goes on to explain that the people would return to the church yet again later in the day, around the hours of 2 and 3, to attend Vespers.
If that seems like an excessive amount of church attendance for a layman, it should be stressed that the liturgy was nothing less than the lifeblood of all religious devotion in the Middle Ages. Attending the liturgy, both of the Hours and Mass, was the primary reason for resting on Sunday in the first place. In those days, servile work, while not necessarily falling afoul of secular law as in the days of Protestant Elizabeth, was still considered a mortal sin. (It is interesting to note here that, similar to the Jewish practice, Sunday "was reckoned from the Vesper hour on the Saturday", as it still is according to the Office today.) A man known to labor on Sunday could have been denounced by name from the pulpit.
The medieval order was not unreasonable on this point, so exceptions bound. Buying and selling of food and necessities, the operation of hospitals, and the preparation of goods for Monday's business, among other examples, were all permitted. But even these exceptions show that the Office was of near-obligatory status for a layman. Dives and Pauper, a medieval English religious text, reads:
"Also messengers, pilgrims, and wayfarers that might well rest without great harm are excused, so that they do their duty to hear Matins and Mass, if they mown, for long abyding in many journeys is costful and perilous."
How Medieval Laymen Could Have Participated in the Hours
For those of the noble and scholarly classes, we have ample physical proofs of their participation in the Office. Go to a collection of medieval treasures in any great museum and you will likely run into a book of Hours. The books of Hours were compilations of religious texts for the use of the laity who could read. A typical book would contain the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Litany of Saints, some of the Psalms, the Office of the Dead, and perhaps the Order of Mass and devotions to use while attending Mass. They could really be thought of as the precursors to the modern hand Missals. The books of Hours were so esteemed in medieval culture that many were richly illuminated. In fact, the books of Hours make up the largest collection of illuminated manuscripts in existence.
This, of course, does not account for the vast majority of laymen who could not read. Nonetheless, they attended the Hours with as much devotion as the nobility. Though they perhaps could not participate in the reciting of the Psalms, it would not be a stretch to imagine that, week after week, even the humble peasant would know the words of the Magnificat or the Te Deum by heart. What undoubtedly made the Office a feasible devotion for the medieval layman was the fact that the Hours were prayed publicly every single day in the parishes, regardless of who attended. For an illiterate layman who regularly attended the Office day after day since childhood, even Matins would seem a lot less daunting than it would be for a 21st century believer attending it for the first time.
The public nature of the Office in those days cannot be stressed enough. The death of the Office in the hearts of the people can be traced in no small part to the fact that in current Latin Catholic practice, priests pray it all but exclusively in private. It has devolved into a devotion to be read out of a book in between the parish council meeting and dinner; thus, it plays no part whatsoever in the lives of the laity. The medieval clergy, for all their faults, would have found this fate simply unthinkable. Gasquet notes that during visitations, when the bishop or his delegate came to inspect a church's facilities for the proper rendering of divine services:
"The evidence of the various Visitations shows that even the smallest churches were expected to be provided by the rector with the Matin books. For example, in the Visitation of churches in the diocese of Exeter, in 1440, there were constant notes as to the 'libri matutinales' being in need of repair, or being 'sufficiently good.' In one case it is stated that the rector had built a new chancel, had done much to the rectory house, and had 'provided good Matin books.' In another the rector is said to have 'hired a scribe to write new books.'"
If the rector failed to provide for Matins to the people's satisfaction, they complained to the bishop.
"In the same diocese, in 1301, it was made an article of complaint, by the parishioners of Colebrooke, at the Visitation, that their vicar did not 'sing Matins on the Greater Feasts with music' (cum nota), and that he 'only said Mass every other day.'"
How the Public Office Declined into Obscurity
How did the Office, publicly prayed in the churches, fall from such an exalted place in our worship? There are a number of reasons. I propose four theories.
1.) The invention of the Breviary, as mentioned above, condensed the whole Office into a single book that made the liturgy portable. Previously, the Office was public largely as a matter of necessity: a book for the antiphons, another for the Scriptures, another for the collects, another for readings from the early Church Fathers, and so on. Praying the Office required a division of labor, so clergy had to assemble in common. The Breviary's introduction, incredibly convenient, had the unfortunate consequence of compartmentalizing the Office into something more akin to a private devotion.
2.) The elimination of the chancel and choir stalls. I very recently posted Augustus Welby Pugin's Earnest Appeal for the Revival of the Ancient Plain Song, in which the architect unflinchingly assaulted the modern practice of using choir lofts instead of the traditional arrangement of stalls within the sanctuary. Catholic church architects during the Counter-Reformation, to address the complaint of Protestants who accused the Church of dividing the people from the action on the altar, removed the choir stalls and shortened the sanctuaries to bring the laity closer. But removing the chancel and its stalls inevitably had the consequence of asserting that having the clergy gather together to pray the Office publicly was no longer an important part of clerical life. It undoubtedly encouraged the clergy to pray the Office in private, in between multiple Masses or devotions deemed more important for the development of laymen in the new, reformed Church.
The choir stalls prevalent in the medieval churches provided amply for the public praying of the Divine Office
3.) Urban sprawl. This is unavoidable, but since the churches are no longer physically the center of the community, it takes much longer to commute there for worship. And since it takes more time, people will only go to church for what are considered the most important events.
4.) The Church's own negligence. Priests and deacons simply do not preach about the importance of the Office, or even draw from its lessons at the pulpit. When was the last time you heard a sermon where the preacher quoted from the reading at Matins that morning, or the antiphon from yesterday evening's Vespers? A solidly orthodox priest will emphasize the importance of attending Mass, receiving Communion, praying the Rosary, adoring the Sacrament, reading Scripture, performing works of mercy, or going to confession. They are all great things to strengthen our faith. But on the subject of the Divine Office, which is the Church's highest prayer after the Mass, they are silent. If the Office is not important enough to even reference in a homily, then of course it will be completely wiped out from popular Catholic culture.
5.) The silence of the cathedrals. This is the worst point of all. The cathedral of a city, the bishop's own parish, ought to be the model that all his parishes follow. When I visited the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia earlier this year, I mused to myself at how much money must have been spent to make that church appear to be a Saint Peter's in miniature. And yet, six days of the week, the church is mostly empty. Save for a couple of simple Masses and a small fortune on air conditioning bills, the Cathedral Basilica is quiet as a tomb. It is shameful that such an opulent church, the see of this nation's only canonized bishop, has not even one of the Divine Hours on its schedule whatsoever. The same is true for virtually every other cathedral in the United States.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, a splendid temple with no public Office whatsoever.
A Plan to Restore the Public Office to Its Rightful Place
If I came across as overly harsh above, I acknowledge that the question of actually restoring the public Office is easier said than done. I don't pretend to know all the obstacles that a pastor faces, but I nevertheless offer the following suggestions which might be helpful to any priests, deacons, choir directors, or other people in a position to organize a public celebration of the Hours in their church. If even one parish or chapel reads this and successfully adopts one of these proposed solutions, I will have considered this column a success.
1.) Restore Sunday Vespers. The Hour of Vespers has long enjoyed the most popularity with the people until the 20th century, and there are more musical compositions for its hymns and the Magnificat than for any other Hour. From Pugin's Earnest Appeal, already cited before in this column, we read:
"It is a monstrous error to suppose that the people cannot be brought to enter fully into the spirit of the Divine Office. In France, there is hardly a country parish where the people do not join in the Vesper Chaunt and the offices with heartfelt devotion."
That was in 1850, long after the close of the Middle Ages. We also read in the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on Vespers, published in 1912:
"We can now see the great importance which the Church appears to have attached always to the Office of Vespers. It is the only one which has remained popular (excepting, of course, the Holy Sacrifice which we do not consider here as an Office) among pious Christians up to the present day. Matins and Lauds, on account of the hour at which they are celebrated, have always been more or less inaccessible to the faithful; likewise the little hours, except, perhaps, Terce, which serves as an introduction to the Mass. Vespers, on the contrary, occupies a privileged place towards the end of the day. On Sundays it is the Office most likely to bring the faithful together in church for the second time and thus becomingly completes the Divine Service for that day. This is why, in the majority of Catholic countries, the custom of Sunday Vespers has been for so long a time, and is still, maintained."
I confess that my most vivid memory during a week-long journey through France last December was of attending a weekday Vespers in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris where, though I could not sing the French portions with the locals, I could add my voice to theirs for the Latin Magnificat, as so many generations of Christians did before.
The 19th century Church in America evidently thought the public celebration of Vespers was still essential. The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866, whose decrees were approved by Pope Pius IX, laid down that:
"complete vespers be sung on Sundays and feasts in all churches, as far as possible, after the Roman fashion, and that vespers never be replaced by other exercises of piety; 'for the solemn worship approved by bishops of the Church and flourishing through so many centuries must be deemed pleasing to Almighty God'."
Even the Second Vatican Council's Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms the need for parishes to celebrate Vespers:
"100. Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually."
With so many authorities asserting the importance of Sunday Vespers, there are fewer and fewer excuses to offer it. I can already foresee two further objections, the first being that it would be difficult for the people to follow along without investing in breviaries. To this, I answer that modern technology allows us to easily print out the entire order of Vespers, or any other Hour, in a single program without the need to turn pages. To quote Pugin's brilliant tract again, "How easy in the age of printing to multiply Choral books ad infinitum. How simple to print music for the five Gregorian Masses, so as to bring them within the reach of the humblest individual."
I have already begun setting orders for the Divine Hours in printable programs for anyone who desires it. Below is a sample page from my order for Sext from 1962 Breviary:
One day I will post them for download when I acquire the needed storage space. For now, I will be happy to prepare and send an order for any Hour, from any type of Breviary, for anyone who sends me a request by email or comment.
The second objection I anticipate is that it would be too difficult for parishioners to keep up with all the variable psalms, antiphons, or hymns. The 1962 Breviary, thanks to the reforms of Pope Saint Pius X, largely avoids this problem, as the psalms for Sunday Vespers in that order are always the same. Pope Paul VI's Liturgy of the Hours has many more variations, but the Church has already provided a solution. For the devotion of the people, it is permitted to publicly celebrate Vespers with Propers taken from any office. Therefore, so long as the clergy privately recite Vespers with the corresponding Propers for the day, the public Vespers may be repeated week after week.
2.) Sanctify holy days of obligation with Vespers or Compline. For centuries, it was forbidden to celebrate Mass during the evening hours except for midnight on Christmas. Today, that restriction is no longer in place, so it is much easier to fulfill our obligation on solemnities by attending Mass in the evening after work or school. The fact that so many people now go to church in the evening for Mass presents a perfect opportunity to further sanctify the day with one of the Divine Hours. If possible, incorporate Vespers as a precursor to the evening Mass with copes, incense, and the highest solemnity. If there is too much resistance, you could at least retreat to a chapel, such as the one where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, to pray Compline after Mass with a smaller group.
3.) Mark the start of the Lord's Day with Vespers. It is already a common practice in many parishes to have a vigil Mass on Saturday evening, but most Catholics do not understand why this counts as part of Sunday. Since the Lord's day properly begins with the Vespers of Saturday evening, why not celebrate it publicly as a precursor to the vigil Mass?
4.) Use Vespers as the first among several devotions on a weekday. The church of Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, where I was baptized, deserves special mention because they offer Evensong, followed by the Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament on Friday evenings of Lent. As many churches already have Lenten Friday devotions, there is no reason why Vespers could not be incorporated as chief among them.
5.) Precede the "principal" Sunday Mass with Lauds or Terce. In churches which have only one or two Masses on Sunday morning, this should present no difficulty whatsoever. I would go so far as to say that the principal Mass could be advertised on the bulletin as "after Lauds", which for pastoral reasons, could be brought later in the morning than it is usually said.
For those churches that have many Masses on Sunday, the church is probably large enough to have a secondary chapel. I would propose that one priest or deacon be appointed to officiate over Lauds or Terce in the chapel before the principal Sunday Mass.
6.) Use Vespers as a devotion for the altar society and schola. This is an idea I have often proposed in armchair discussions of the ideal parish. In a healthy parish, there are far too many altar servers to all serve at the same Mass. Imagine if all the servers and chanters could join together in cassock and surplice to sing the divine praises at Vespers on the first Sunday of the month. Choir stalls would be especially useful here, but failing that, at least the first pews of the church could be reserved for all the members who cannot fit in the sanctuary.
7.) Appoint and teach laymen to lead the Hours. I understand that even the most solid priests and deacons may find themselves too busy to preside over the public Office. Fortunately, the Office has ample provision to be led by laymen. It could be very fruitful to designate members of the local Knights of Columbus council to lead the Hours, especially the Office of the Dead for funerals.
Why the Office Matters
If the Catholic Church is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then the Divine Office cannot possibly be considered an obsolete relic of the Middle Ages. It is as relevant today as it was in the past. In fact, we have one distinct advantage that our medieval forebears did not: we are, for the most part, literate. Where the medieval peasant reverently attended a liturgy he could not read from, in a language he could not understand, we can easily mass-produce orders of service, and if they are not already in the common tongue, we can provide translations to run in parallel with the Latin text. We have fewer excuses than ever to put the Office at the forefront of our devotions.
I offer one last thought, the most important consideration of all. The Office is the most powerful prayer of the Church after the Holy Mass. It is higher than Benediction, even though the priest makes the sign of the cross with the true presence of Jesus Himself. The Office is even more powerful than the Holy Rosary, with all its promises and indulgences. In the Middle Ages especially, the Office of the Dead was always prayed before a Requiem Mass as the most effective remedy to release a soul from the fires of purgation. I refer to the words of Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori in his meditations on the Divine Office:
"Many private prayers do not equal in value only one prayer of the divine Office, as being offered to God in the name of the whole Church and in his own appointed words. Hence St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi says that, in comparison with the divine Office, all other prayers and devotions are but of little merit and efficacy with God. Let us be convinced, then, that after the holy Sacrifice of the Mass the Church possesses no source, no treasure, so abundant as the Office, from which we may draw such daily streams of grace."
I am sure there is much more that can be said about the spiritual nature of the Office that I have neglected here, being the mere lay student of history that I am. I have not even a single day's experience in seminary or monastic life; but I cannot ignore how essential the public Office was to the devout laymen of the Ages of Faith. When I established this blog, I set out to demonstrate how the ideals of the Middle Ages could be applied in the modern age, from the more frivolous matters such as dress and calligraphy, to essential principles in statesmanship and worship. To the medieval mind, nothing was of graver consequence than the worship offered to God in the liturgy; and as a medievalist, I see no reason why this should be any different today. Therefore, if the substance of this column awoke even a slight interest in seeing the public Office celebrated throughout the Church once again, I ask that you take a moment to pass this message along to any friends and acquaintances of yours who are clergy, seminarians, or other leaders of the Church and the liturgical movement. With hope and the grace of God, we may see the beginnings of a movement toward the divine praises of David resounding in the halls of the churches again, as they did in the Ages of Faith.