After the grand silence, which traditionally begins with the end of Compline, the monk awakes in the darkness, goes to the oratory and approaches God. He makes the sign of the cross on his closed lips and sings “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Traditionally, according to the Holy Rule, this is sung three times, there being a preference for three’s in the liturgy for obvious reasons. It is sung first by the abbot, then by the first side of choir, then by the second.
Recalling the nocturnal prayer of Christ on the mountains of Galilee, Matins is traditionally offered in darkness, anticipating the coming of the light, longing for the Lord’s return. In many monasteries the hour is prayed just before Lauds, or even the night before. After the call to prayer, the invitatory, always sung with Psalm 94, pierces the night like a herald announcing the good news, then follows the hymn that reflects the Christian’s rising from sleep and longing for the light, or it mirrors the current season or feast of the Church year.
Then follows the (first) nocturn. The word “nocturn” refers to the night or keeping watch during the night, and recalls the ancient custom of observing three nocturns, one being prayed at each of three points in the night: the beginning, middle and end. A nocturn is a small, complete service of prayer, a collection of three Psalms (or an Old Testament canticle), each with its own antiphon. After the Psalms and their antiphons follows a versicle and response, then a reading – or two readings if there is only one nocturn as on weekdays – with each reading followed by a responsory, a burst of song in response to hearing the Word of God.
On Sundays and major feasts, two nocturns are prayed, the second nocturn being an Old Testament canticle with its antiphon, followed by a versicle and response, then a reading and a responsory. The second nocturn completed, there is sung the great hymn of praise, the Te Deum, after which is read the Gospel, followed by Te Decet Laus, (To you be praise), then the oration of the day.