The Divine Office
The Divine Office is at the center of the Benedictine life. Through it the monk lifts heart and mind to Almighty God, and uniting himself to his confreres, the Church and the entire world in offering God praise and thanks, in confessing his sins, and in calling on God for the needs of all people. The office punctuates the day of the monk; like a leaven awakening his soul to make the entire day, indeed the whole of life, a gift of the self to God. Praying the hours puts the monk into the real world, sanctifying his whole life and assisting him toward his goal of unceasing prayer – Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus.
The Benedictine Office is a rich collection of prayer that is based on the Rule of St. Benedict. The general framework of every office is composed of the following major components, applied or distributed according to the days of the week / season / year / feast:
Psalms (150) and Canticles
Readings (Scripture, and the patristic reading at Matins)
Orations (The Our Father and the Prayer of the Day at each office)
The office is composed principally of the 150 Psalms, the inspired word of God that is the human response to life – in relationship to God. The Psalms reflect all of human experience: joy, suffering, fear, anger, praise, thanks, contrition, petition. The monks sing the Psalms on behalf of themselves and the rest of the world, aware that they reflect the real condition of men throughout the world. The Psalms are the cry of the People of Israel. They were on the lips of Our Lord and his disciples and continue to be the “hymnbook of the Church” in an unbroken tradition.
Most readings of Holy Scripture during the office are very short segments (lectio brevis). Traditionally they are the same for most days, with variations appearing on feast days. In their brevity and their repetition, the readings lend themselves to a positive familiarity and even memorization. The short readings of the Liturgy of the Hours change daily; some monasteries prefer that variety. Extended readings, one from Scripture and one patristic reading, are found only at Matins, and each is followed by an extended period of silence to allow for meditation.
To learn more about the Divine Office at St. Bernard Abbey and the Traditional Monastic Hours of Prayer, click on the links below or scroll down.
Traditional Monastic Hours
After the last prayers of the day, called Compline, there begins the grand silence lasting through the night. Early the next morning, the monk awakes in the darkness, goes to the oratory (church) and approaches God. At a signal he stands with his confreres and 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.
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.
Sharing the same basic structure, Lauds and Vespers are the “hinges” of the Divine Office, i.e., the day opens and closes on them. The sun rises, light appears and the day is born as Lauds is being sung. The sun sets, light wanes and the day begins to die away at Vespers. They are the natural and most important times of prayer.
The time and the spirit of Lauds recalls the resurrection, the dawn of the new day, a new creation, as Christ dispels the darkness. Our Savior and all of nature rise, and so do we in this great act of praise – every sunrise an Easter. Lauds also has an eschatological aspect, pointing to that great and final day as described in the Apocalypse.
Beginning with the words, “O God, come to my assistance,” the Blessed Trinity is praised in the Glory Be and the joyful exclamation of praise, Alleluia, is sung, recalling that the Lord is truly risen. Alleluia is sung not only on Sundays but daily, with the exception of Lent when the joyful exclamation is suppressed; instead is sung, “Praise to you, O Lord, King of everlasting glory.”
Lauds continues with two Psalms and an Old Testament canticle between them, each with its own antiphon. Then follows a short reading from Scripture and a responsory. After that is sung a hymn, then a versicle and response before the climax of the hour, the Benedictus (Canticle of Zachary). The Church is “Zachary,” and she sings of the world’s redemption. After the Gospel canticle comes the Kyrie, the Our Father (which is given to the community by the abbot, as Christ did for his apostles), the oration of the day, the dismissal Let us bless the Lord and the versicles and responses praying for the faithful departed and asking God’s assistance for the whole monastic community, brothers present and absent.
THE LITTLE HOURs
(PRIME, TERCE, SEXT & NONE)
These hours punctuate the day between the hinge hours of Lauds (sunrise) and Vespers (sunset), calling the monk to pray unceasingly, offering all of his day – his entire life – to God. The little hours bear only slight resemblance to the others, and have always had a subordinate place in the liturgy. Though Prime is now suppressed in the Roman (non-monastic) use of the Divine Office, that does not effect monastic prayer; some monasteries retain the hour.
The Roman Office expects that one of the three “little hours” will be prayed, depending on the time of day a person offers it. When just one of the hours is chosen in monasteries, as is typical, the office of Sext is the one elected, falling in the middle of the day. At the height of the day, the themes of work and family are strong at Sext, when the monk leaves his work and runs with his brothers to the oratory. There Sext is prayed while the sun gives us the most heat, and at the time when we remember Our Lord put on the cross. Hell unleashes its might, and we battle a fallen nature.
Sung toward evening, Vespers is the second of the two “hinge” hours. It is a service of praise, but with a stronger accent on thanks for the day’s blessings. Vespers is often related to the Eucharist because of its note of thanksgiving and its time of day. In fact many of its psalms are Eucharistic, including those sung at the Lord’s Supper, the Hallel (Pss. 112-117), and the Gradual Psalms (119-133) sung by pilgrims making their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. Four psalms, each with its antiphon, are sung. Again the structure is that of Lauds.
As the climax of Lauds is the Benedictus, that of Vespers is the other great canticle of the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, the glorious song of praise and thanks offered by the Blessed Mother of God, the image of the Church, filled with God’s love and singing of his marvelous works.
After Vespers and just before bedtime, Compline is prayed. While Vespers praises God as one looks in gratitude at the day ending, Compline is the prayer of the person aware of his weakness and sin, seeking the peace that is rest and protection in God. It is St. Benedict’s composition and, unlike the other offices, it begins with no call to prayer but with a blessing and with a Scripture passage that reminds all to be sober and watchful in the face of evil. This is followed by an examination of conscience and an act of contrition. We seem to join Christ in Gethsemane, and the themes of darkness (evil), light (God), and sleep (death) predominate, and we pray for a happy death. In contrition, petition and confidence, we cry out, “Do not forsake us, O Lord, our God.” Compline concludes with all bidding “good night” to the Blessed Mother as an antiphon in her honor is sung.