A Layman’s introduction to the divine office: part 2

This is largely a follow up of the initial post, on the Divine Office for Laymen, I wrote way, way back during Lent. I feel that the Divine Office is a lost treasure and am trying to present it in as clear and approachable a way as possible. This, I hope, will be a practical guide, for ordinary people.  In the  future I hope to cover the resources available. There will possibly be follow-ups as well, in the form of reviews of books and resources.

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I will try to keep details of the history of liturgical development to a minimum. While not of interest to everyone, some discussion of the development of this liturgy is helpful for understanding it. I am of the opinion that ordinary Christians can benefit and through this liturgy pray with the Church and in a stream which connects Christians through the centuries. It is helpful I think to have a general understanding of where the Divine Office comes from, so I will give a sparse and somewhat oversimplified overview.

We can divide the different families of liturgy into two basic groups.

1 Eastern (primarily Byzantine but other’s as well) and

2 Western.

Since I’m largely ignorant of the Byzantine form of the Office I won’t be discussing it.

Within the Latin (western) Church their exist a number of different forms of the office. they are all similar and related. Historically different geographical regions developed local forms of liturgy. Additionally different religious orders had their own forms particular to them.

As I mentioned in part 1 the practice of prayers and psalms at different periods of the day is something organically carried into the Church from the temple and synagogue. “Now Peter and John went up into the temple at the ninth hour of prayer.” Acts 3:1. These ‘hours’ of prayer naturally developed over time. In the west, St. Benedict (5th century) gave a great deal of shape to the office through his rule for monks. The Rule of St. Benedict lays out the daily cycle of psalms, distributing them over the course of a week. The importance of Benedictine monasteries as centers of learning and culture in early Europe influenced the development of the local liturgies as well as giving shape to the medieval day. The monastic bells, marking the hours of prayer, served as a sort of communal clock for the communities of Christendom. As other religious orders came into being many of them standardized their own variations of the Office. The Council of Trent (16th century) made the form used in Rome universal, that is, a default standard.

Ok, that’s a pretty brief history and incomplete, but it gets us to today. We have the following forms of the Office in active use-

  • Roman (both the Ordinary post Vatican II and Extraordinary 1962 forms)
  • Monastic
  • Dominican
  • Carthusian
  • Carmelite
  • Ordinariate (Anglican Use in communion with Rome)
  • Ambrosian (Diocese of Milan)

There may be others I am unaware of, as well.

I will not be discussing the Modern (post Vatican II) Liturgy of the Hours. There are several websites and moble apps that put it at the fingertips of anyone who wants to use it. If you like it go ahead. I personally dislike it for a number of reasons I’m not going to go into here.

Some practical considerations.

Clergy and religious are obligated to recite or sing the office. Additionally clerics are obligated to use official texts (which are in Latin) or approved translations. Lay people have no such obligations. Their participation is entirely voluntary and to the extent they choose. There are some people who argue that unless you participate in the office within the same parameters as the clergy “you haven’t participated in the public prayer of the church” and your prayer is “only devotional”. This strikes me as excessively legalistic and stupid. Yes, technically you haven’t canonically fulfilled the Office … but you have no such duty to fulfill. Moot.

So, If we are considering how laity can join in the office the logical place to start is by looking at how laity have always done so. Historically laity participated primarily by attending the offices (the suggestions I gave in part one are a good place to start). Prior to the printing press, literate laymen also, provided they had the means (books were expensive), made use of private “Books of Hours”. These “Books of Hours” typically contained “little offices”, (most commonly the office used on feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary) which were said each day. These little offices, unlike the full blown Liturgy did not change from day to day. Finally, laymen substituted other prayers in place of the office. You hear the bell ring at the church and pause to say a few brief prayers, it’s not the liturgy but you are spiritually connecting with it. Some religious orders have allowed substitutionary prayers to fulfill obligations when the members could not join in for various reasons (currently for example, the lay order of the Poor Knights of Christ allows any brother to substitute a decade of the Rosary for any office with good reason).

How does one incorporate the Divine Office into ones day or devotional life? How does one get started? For the laity it makes sense to adapt the office to the individual and their situation. Let’s review the different hours, what part of the day they belong to and approximately how long they take to pray.

  • Matins- midnight or very early morning, about an hour long.
  • Lauds- first thing in the morning around sunrise, 20 minutes.
  • Prime- morning 6ish, 15 minutes.
  • Terce- the ‘third hour’ about 9, 15 minutes.
  • Sext- noon ‘the sixth hour’, 15 minutes.
  • None- 3PM ‘the ninth Hour’, 15 minutes.
  • Vespers- evening, 20 minutes.
  • Compline- before bed, 15 minutes.

Realistically, for most laymen, the entire office is probably not practical. For most people Matins is out. Can you pray in the morning? Can you duck out of work during a break? Can you pray before bed? Also, take into consideration the possible combination of offices. It is quite acceptable to join the offices together the times given are not strict. One could say Vespers and Compline together for example.

Now with the historical practice, and understanding of the structure of the Office in mind, I’m going to suggest some options.

  1. Attend public celebrations of the Divine Office (realistically this is limited in availability for most people).
  2. Get a copy of the “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary” and start using it. (this is essentially the same as a medieval book of hours which laity).
  3. Incorporate the some full form of the Breviary, to the extent possible into ones prayer life. Perhaps just Compline before bed or Prime in the morning.
  4. (This really is an extention of #3 and there are those who would disagree with me) Use the Anglican morning and evening prayer. With the creation of the Ordinariate for former Anglicans the Catholic Church has approved this liturgy.
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