The Divine Office

THE BENEDICTINE MONASTIC 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. Historically it is distinct from the Roman Office – also recently called the Liturgy of the Hours – which, after the Second Vatican Council, was reshaped to simplify and make more practical the prayer of the hours for the secular clergy, as well as the religious who use it, and the laity who make it a part of their life of prayer.

In 1966 the Breviarium Monasticum was the universal order of Divine Office for Benedictines. In that year the monks were given a period of time for liturgical experimentation, allowing each congregation of monasteries to adapt the tradition for its particular use, under certain guidelines. To this day the Breviarium Monasticum remains “official” and the time of experimentation is still in effect. In that circumstance, communities are using various forms of the Divine Office, and a few communities have even elected to take the new Roman Office (Liturgy of the Hours) as a convenient guideline because of its universal use among the secular clergy.

The following is a brief, general description of the centuries old Benedictine tradition of prayer in word and action. Reference is made occasionally to the Roman Office as another point of reference. The structure of the Office described below and outlined is according to the use at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama.

Traditional Monastic Hours
(which became the standard for the Roman Office)
New Roman Office (Liturgy of the Hours)
(American English version uses terms in parentheses)
Matins (Vigils) Matins (Office of Readings) – any time of day
Lauds Lauds (Morning Prayer)
Prime Prime omitted in New Roman Office
Terce Terce (Mid-Morning Prayer)
Sext Sext (Mid-Day Prayer)
None None (Mid-Afternoon Prayer)
Vespers Vespers (Evening Prayer)
Compline Compline (Night Prayer)

MATINS (VIGILS)

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.

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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.


LAUDS

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.

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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 OF 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 Office, that does not effect monastic prayer; some monasteries retain the hour.

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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.

VESPERS

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.

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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.

COMPLINE

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.


HISTORY AND THEME IN THE HOURS

Matins Anticipate the Resurrection and the Parousia.
Lauds The Resurrection; praise. The Parousia.
Sext Christ on the Cross; lead us not into temptation.
Vespers Time of the Last Supper; thanksgiving.
Compline Christ in Gethsemane; contrition, plea for protection.

COMPONENTS OF THE OFFICE

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)

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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. St. Bernard Abbey observes a now common 4-week cycle of Psalmody, with the schedule of Vespers psalms remaining the same each week. Note that in the tradition of St. Benedict the daily invitatory psalm of Matins is 94, and the Compline Psalms are 4, 90 and 133 each day. Also repeated frequently are Psalms 148, 149 and 150 – one of the three always being used as the final Psalm of Lauds.

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.

In addition to the orations, smaller parts surround and embellish the framework described above. Those parts are verses/versicles, antiphons, responsories and hymns. They are explained as follows.

VERSICLES (SHORT VERSES)

These are the shortest parts of the Divine Office; a call by an individual and an answer by the choir, like the dialogue of life: God calling to us through the neighbor and, hopefully, our positive response.

At the beginning of every office except Compline we come to attention, face the altar of God and hear the words, “O God, come to my assistance,” or at Matins, “O Lord, open my lips.” It is the springboard into the offering of praise. And, with the exception of Matins, there is added the Lesser Doxology (the Glory Be), mirroring the eternal praise of God in heaven. The Glory Be typically closes each Psalm, except during the office of the dead and during the Sacred Triduum (until the celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection). To the Glory Be is added, except during Lent, the Alleluia (“praise to the Lord”), the exclamation of joy, the “resurrection song of the Lord” that calls to mind the good news: Christ is risen!

At the end of the office proper comes “Let us bless the Lord,” and the response, “Thanks be to God.” Benedicamus Domino and Deo Gratias. It is a farewell of the soul calling on God as it gradually, not abruptly, pulls away to re-enter the necessities of the day or night, asking that in those duties of life, as in all things, God may be glorified. Note that this abruptness does take place in the Sacred Triduum Office, a fitting expression of our grief for the One Who lays in the tomb. And it is significant that likewise the jubilant call to prayer at the beginning of the office is absent from the sober Triduum as well.

In the middle of the office, the versicle, dramatic and stirring, serves as a cockcrow. As we turn to the altar of God, it arouses us to the principal idea of the hour, day, feast, or season; or it helps us respond to the Psalmody that precedes it (at Matins & Sext); or it serves as a transition from hymn to Gospel canticle, stirring us as we prepare to sing the Gospel song of praise at Lauds & Vespers, e.g., before the Magnificat at II Vespers of Sunday:

  1. May our evening prayer ascend to you, O Lord.
  2. And may your mercy descend upon us.

Or on a weekday at Matins during Advent:

  1. A voice is heard crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.
  2. Make straight the path of our God.

Another versicle traditionally used at several points in the office is “The Lord be with you.” This greeting is used by the ordained monk (bishop, priest or deacon), who is answered with “And with your spirit,” referring to the Spirit received from God, the power conferred by Holy Orders. The greeting used by all others is “O Lord, hear my prayer,” answered with, “And let my cry come unto you.” One of these dialogues is traditionally heard before the oration and at the end of the office.

At the end of the office there is the ancient cry, Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison, and the final versicles and responses, “May the souls of the faithful departed…Amen,” and “May the divine assistance…our absent brethren. Amen,” remembering, as St. Benedict directed, those who have died and the brothers away from the community.

ANTIPHONS

As a setting is for a gem or a frame for a picture, so is an antiphon for a Psalm. Sung before and after a Psalm (or group of Psalms or canticle), the antiphon suggests and arouses a particular thought or disposition related to the Psalm or the feast or season. In this way the antiphon colors the Psalm and shows us how to pray it. Note that the invitatory antiphon at the beginning of Matins is sung by all before, between and after sections of Psalm 94, those sections being sung by the chanters.

During the Easter Season, groups of Psalms at Matins, Sext and Vespers are frequently sung under the one-word antiphon, Alleluia. This jubilant cry informs every Psalm; it is the joyful resurrection theme, the good news, and it brightens every thought and word.

RESPONSORIES

The responsory follows a Scripture reading and reflects on it – responds to it. The responsory is sung by chanters, with the choir echoing the thought or responding with its own words. The responsory calls us to react to the word of God in many ways; it narrates, instructs, rejoices, laments. Often the responsory directly echoes the theme of the Scripture reading preceding it; at other times it is more general, and can be according to the liturgical theme of a given day of the week, as the responsory at Vespers on Thursdays which commemorates the gift of Holy Thursday, the Body and Blood of Our Lord.

HYMNS

A hymn is a prayer-chant, a paraphrase of the Word of God; it is text and melody united in meter and rhythm, and sometimes rhyme. It is a lyrical and emotional song that stokes devotion; a boost, which is why a hymn occurs at the beginning of the offices of Matins, to stir from sleep, and at Sext, when we are dulled by noon-day sluggishness. When it occurs in the middle of hours, it follows and serves as a response to Psalmody.

St. Benedict prescribed a hymn for every hour of prayer, breaking from the Roman tradition which avoided hymns until the Middle Ages. Though hymns reflect seasons and particular celebrations, some reflect the time of day a given office is prayed; and some, the ferial Vespers hymns in particular, tell the story of creation as it unfolds on each appropriate day.


RITUAL ACTION

Catholic liturgical prayer recognizes that human beings are a union of soul and body. This reality is reflected in a practice of prayer that is not only a matter of thought, but thought united to the body; that is, thoughts finding expression in audible sounds/symbols called speech, made by the body. But expression or communication is made sensible in other bodily actions that accompany the thoughts and sounds of prayer: procession, sign of the cross, bow (to altar, persons, holy name, etc.), genuflect, kneel, prostrate, strike the breast, turn to the altar. These actions are natural human responses that seek to unite soul and body (the five senses) in the worship of God.

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All this is inherent to Catholic prayer because of the Incarnation, the center of Catholic belief: God became a man; He took on flesh, appealing to our five senses. That sacramental principle (spiritual reality taking physical expression) is at the heart of Christian faith and practice. Jesus is the “sacrament” of God; the Church is the “sacrament” of Jesus, who comes to us in those seven ways properly called Sacraments.

The following are some of the traditional ritual actions within the Benedictine Divine Office. St. Bernard Abbey, like other monasteries, determines which of the customs will be followed. As monks we observe actions in unity, together, just as we sing and speak together, not erratically or at personal whim. Such actions help us unite the total self, body and soul, and the community, in the praise of God. Can these actions be meaningless? Of course, just like the bodily action of human speech. It is a person’s responsibility to unite the heart and mind to speech and other symbolic, bodily actions – to make prayer real and fully human.

Sign of the Cross: THE Christian sign, calling to mind God’s saving love and the Most Holy Trinity. The large sign of the cross is made from the forehead to the breast and from the left shoulder to the right at the following times according to the tradition of a given monastery:

  • the beginning of the hours when O God, come to my assistance or the O Lord, open my lips is said.
  • the versicle Our help is in the name of the Lord at Compline.
  • the absolution May the almighty and merciful Lord after the confession at Compline.
  • the words Convert us, O God, our salvation at Compline; a small cross on the breast (heart).
  • the beginning of the Gospel canticles Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis; and at the Matins Gospel in the same fashion as at Mass: a small cross on the forehead, lips and breast.
  • the blessing at the end of Compline.
  • the versicle May the divine assistance at the end of the Divine Office.
  • the words Convert us, O God at Compline the sign of the cross is made on the breast.

Turning to the East (to the altar and the cross):The question might be asked, why do the monks occasionally turn to the altar during the Divine Office. A better question might be, why do they not always face the altar. The altar, the symbol of Christ, is the focus of all liturgical prayer, especially at moments of intense supplication. It is God whom we address and face in prayer. We face in other directions only for physical convenience. For instance the monastic choir tradition has monks sitting in two groups, facing each other, for some practical purposes. It allows the monks to hear one another better, thus stay together in recitation and singing. It also allows for bowing and kneeling, which would be awkward if all were facing the altar. That said, monks facing one another in prayer also has the benefit of reminding them that they are bound together in Christ – that we are saved not just individually but as a people, and through others. Yet when it is practical, tradition has the monks face the altar at the following times:

  • The call to prayer at the beginning of most offices.
  • Little Chapter and Responsory.
  • Versicle and Response.
  • Superior faces the altar during the Our Father; others face choir, profound bow.
  • Heb faces the altar during the oration (prayer); others face choir, profound bow.

Stand/Sit:

  • Traditionally all Psalmody, in fact the entire office with the exception of the readings of Matins, is prayed while standing, the traditional posture during liturgical prayer.
  • It is typical contemporary practice to sit during the Psalmody, the Old Testament Canticles, the readings at Matins, and during the responsory after the first reading at ferial Matins which has no Glory Be.
  • One stands out of respect for God and those representing Him, especially the abbot.

Kneel/Genuflect:

  • During the invitatory (Ps. 94) at Matins genuflect at the words Come in; let us bow and bend low; let us kneel before the God who made us.
  • During the Te Deum at the verse We beseech you, therefore (Te ergo quaesumus).
  • At Compline during the examination of conscience (silence) before the I confess.
  • During certain hymns and at other times as indicated.
  • From the Kyrie through the prayer during Lent, Advent, Office of the Dead and penitential days.
  • At Compline during the Marian Antiphon, Vers. & Resp. and prayer – except when the Regina Coeli is used.
  • During the Angelus except on Sundays and solemnities, then genuflect at “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Regina Coeli is always prayed standing.
  • Never kneel on Sundays (beginning with I Vespers) even during Advent and Lent.

Profound Bow (palms on knees):

  • During the Glory Be, the Our Father and the Oration at each office.
  • During the final verse (doxology) of most hymns.
  • During the Suscipe verses (116 & 122) of Ps. 118 sung at Sext.
  • During the I confess at Compline and the two verses of absolution that follow.
  • During the blessing by the superior at Compline.

Simple or Moderate Bow (head or head and shoulders):

  • Bow to the abbot, a confrere, sides of choir, etc. – recognizing the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God, especially the abbot, who holds the place of Christ in the monastery.
  • Bow at the Holy Name of Jesus and of Mary.

Procession/Statio: We are all going somewhere, in some direction. In the monastery, that direction is to God, and we do so together as a Holy People led by God. Rather than simply walking to a place of prayer individually, monks go together on pilgrimage to God, unified in purpose and action. In statio the monastic community stands and prepares to process by spending time in quiet reflection, as a soldier readying himself for battle. During this time of reflection and preparation the monk customarily covers his head with the capuche. When the procession begins and holy water is taken, the capuche is removed from the head. Traditionally the head is covered when processing outside.

Dialogue: In the Amen, the litany, the versicle and response, etc., we demonstrate that all of life is a dialogue: God calling and we responding, neighbor proposing and we agreeing: V. The Lord be with you. R. And with your spirit. This dialogue is also well expressed in the monastic tradition of antiphonal singing of Psalms, hymns, etc. Rather than all singing at once, chanters or one side of choir sings a verse or phrase, then the rest of the choir sings the next verse or phrase. This custom heightens the awareness of and dependence on the “other,” the community; and it allows a time of rest, letting one section of the community take responsibility while the other surrenders. This dialogue and awareness of the other is encouraged by the monastic tradition of two sides of choir – one facing the other, going to God together.

Repetition: To repeat is to learn. To experience over and over again is to know a thing, and to live it. This is primary in the liturgy which is, of its essence, repetition. There is variety of course, but the core and highlights of the office are repeated daily, allowing for a familiarity that is truly familial – a part of the family. Obvious daily examples are the calls to prayer, the invitatory Psalm (94) at Matins, the Compline Psalms (4, 90, 133) and Compline itself, the Gospel canticles, Kyrie, Our Father, Let us bless the Lord, May the Souls, and May the divine assistance. Even the hymns of the various seasons remain constant for each office each day, drawing us home and focusing on a mystery. Variety certainly exists in the liturgy, and positively so, but repetition allows the word to soak into us, letting us absorb the Good News, to learn it “by heart.”

Silence: It has been said that in the monastic liturgy, silence is as important as sound, just as being is as important as doing. When the monks stand for an office to begin, it is customary that about thirty seconds of silence is observed (the Our Father, Hail Mary and Apostle’s Creed have been used to measure the time) so that all might “be still and know that I am God,” recollected and ready to sing His praises. An audible signal from the superior begins the office. Quiet is also observed even during the Psalmody; the asterisk (*) separating each Psalm verse indicates a period of silence, about two beats. And after each reading at Matins a period of silent reflection is traditional. Silence is observed again when the office is ended, after which a signal initiates the departure from choir.

Singing: It is ancient tradition that when people gather to worship God they sing. Why? The worship of God is a self-offering, and singing is the opportunity to make that offering fuller and more complete. When one sings, he gives more of himself, lifting his praise to a new dimension, beyond ordinary communication. St. Augustine explained that “singing is for lovers (Cantare amantis est).” Singing is what lovers do, and singing helps one to love. It seems that simple speech is just not enough when praising and loving God. And when melodies or Psalm tones are not used, it is traditional to sing nonetheless – on one pitch, recto tono, as it is called. In this simple way one still sings to the Lord, encouraged again by St. Augustine who reminds us that, “he who sings well, prays twice (Qui bene cantat, bis orat.)”. In addition, singing has the effect of uniting a group of people, helping them celebrate more fully and to pray as one. And when one sings, one celebrates and gives dignity to what is celebrated. Such dignity is given especially to the Gospel and other texts of Holy Scripture.

Monastic song is not individual; in it, many become one. It is fervent but not demonstrative, passionate but not performed, zealous but not loud. Each phrase of any piece of music is a prayer, even a simple sung “Amen.” It bursts into life, then comes to a quiet rest.

In liturgical prayer, particular respect has been given throughout the ages to the Church’s song called Gregorian Chant, afforded what the Second Vatican Council called “pride of place” in the Liturgy, particularly suited to the worship of God. The office at St. Bernard accepts that ancient tradition adapted to the English language and in the original Latin and Greek. Sing to the Lord.


Copyright © 2007 Saint Bernard Abbey, Cullman, Alabama U.S.A. All rights reserved.