Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Great School of Spirituality: Learning to Love the Divine Office

Dominican Vespers photo by Lawrence OP

By Michael P. Foley

During a recent Angelus address, the Holy Father referred to the liturgy as “a great school of spirituality.” By that the Pope meant not simply the Mass but the Divine Office. Together these two sacrifices—one of the altar, the other of praise—school the believer in the divine mysteries, shaping his sensibilities, honing his judgment, and conditioning his heart to a life of holiness. The Divine Office is also a key to unlocking the great secrets of the Catholic liturgical year: its prayers and readings perfectly complement the propers of the Mass.

Today, however, the Divine Office remains relatively unknown or unused by lay Catholics, even by those who otherwise savor every morsel of our grand and sacred tradition. To address this situation, we offer a brief overview of the Divine Office and discuss some available “back-to-school supplies.”

What It Is

The Divine Office consists of the hours of Matins (originally 12:00 a.m.) and Lauds (3 a.m.), Prime (6 a.m.), Terce (9 a.m.), Sext (12:00 p.m.), None (3 p.m.), Vespers (6 p.m.), and Compline (9 p.m.). Most of these predate Christianity by several centuries. Lauds and Vespers, for instance, are heirs to the grand morning and evening liturgies before the Ark of the Covenant ordered by King David, liturgies in which over a hundred Levites would chant the Psalms.1 Since their institution on Mount Zion, these services have never been discontinued: Solomon’s Temple, the Jewish Diaspora, and now the Church have kept up the daily praise of God in this form.2

The so-called “Little Hours” of Terce, Sext, and None, on the other hand, arose from the Jewish custom of going to the Temple for private prayer at the third (tertia), sixth (sexta), and ninth (nona) hours of the day (Sts. Peter and John were observing this custom when they cured the man lame since birth).3 Finally, Matins, Prime, and Compline were added in the early centuries of Christianity: Matins began as an anticipation of the Second Coming and a commemoration of the Resurrection, while Prime and Compline are the products of early monasticism.

Together, these eight daily sacrifices of praise fulfill Psalm 118:62 and 164 -- “I rose at midnight to give praise to Thee” and “seven times a day I have given praise to Thee.” Moreover, they punctuate the day, helping to keep the soul from becoming overwhelmed by worldly concerns, and they consecrate time itself with the fragrant incense of prayer.

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Since their institution on Mount Zion, these services have never been discontinued: Solomon’s Temple, the Jewish Diaspora, and now the Church have kept up the daily praise of
God in this form.

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God’s Prayer Book

The format of each Hour varies, but at their center is the chanting or reciting of the Psalms. As the only book of prayer written by God, the Psalms hold a unique place in the devout life. In the eloquent words of St. Augustine (354-430): “That God may be praised well by man, God Himself has praised Himself; and since He has been pleased to praise Himself, man has found the way to praise Him.”4 St. Basil (330-379) called the Psalter the natural voice of the Church,5 and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-274) goes so far as to say that the Psalms contain the whole of theology.6 No wonder that St. John Chrysostom (347-407) wrote that the Christians of his time used the Psalms more than any other part of the Old or New Testament.7

Special mention must also be made of the Latin hymns in the Breviary (the name of the book that contains the Divine Office). Penned by saints as early as the fourth century, these hymns are, in the words of the great liturgist Fr. Adrian Fortescue, “immeasurably more beautiful than any others ever composed. Other religious bodies take all their best hymns from us. It would be a disgrace if we Catholics were the only people who did not appreciate what is our property.”8

Later History

The Divine Office essentially received its current configuration from Pope St. Gregory the Great, though it continued to develop long after and in somewhat diverging directions. The multiplication of saints’ days, for instance, ended up superseding the weekly rotation of the Psalms, with the result that the whole Psalter was no longer being recited within the year, let alone in a week, as intended by St. Gregory.9 The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was forced to deal with this problem, and calls for radical reform were legion. As Vilma Little, writing in 1957, notes with eerie relevance to our own times: “As so often happens in times of general abuses calling for redress, the suggested remedies would have been worse than the disease. Ruthless plans of wholesale alterations were put forward by certain French and German theorists.”10

Fortunately, Little continues, “the saner views of the more level-headed bishops prevailed.”11 Trent outlined a moderate plan for revising the Breviary, which was enacted by Pope St. Pius V. The Sunday and weekday offices were restored while not upsetting the arrangement as a whole.

Not all changes to the Breviary during the Tridentine period, however, were for the better. In 1632 Pope Urban VIII allowed the spirit of Renaissance humanism to affect the hymns of the Breviary, revising almost all of them so that they would conform to the rules of classical prosody. The original verses of St. Ambrose and the like were butchered on the grounds that they were not “good Latin,” yet the new versions were hardly improvements.

Speaking of the four Jesuits commissioned with revising these hymns, Fortescue writes: “They slashed and tinkered, they re-wrote lines and altered words, they changed the sense and finally produced the poor imitations that we still have in place of the hymns our fathers sang for over a thousand years. Indeed their confidence in themselves is amazing.”12 Fortunately, there is a note in the 1912 Antiphonale stating that the old hymns can be used where they are permissible “by law, custom, or indult.” It is difficult to say what this would mean after Vatican II, but it is my personal opinion that a certain latitude can be applied in good conscience.13

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“As so often happens in times of general abuses calling for redress, the suggested remedies would have been worse than the disease. Ruthless plans of wholesale alterations were put forward by certain French and German theorists.”

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But while the modifications made by Trent were sensible, they were not complete; it was left to Pope St. Pius X to enact further reforms. The Pope redistributed the entire Psalter, again with the goal of ensuring its recital within a single week. Further changes were made in 1956 and again in 1960 which simplified certain aspects of the Hours and accorded greater dignity to the Sunday Office.

Around the same time, some editions of the Breviary began to use the Psalterium Novum or Pius XII Psalter,14 which was an unfortunate repeat of the same classicist hubris that marred the hymns in 1632 now applied to the Psalms themselves.15 Fortunately, these Ciceronianized Psalms were made optional but never mandated.

Happily, all of the books considered in this article use only the traditional Vulgate Psalter. The Fraternity of St. Peter has published an impressive, new, two-volume edition of the Breviarium Romanum with the Vulgate and in accord with the rubrics of 1962, and so has Angelus Press. Both of these publications reflect the loving care that went into them: their only drawback, from a typical layman’s perspective, is that they are in Latin only. Baronius Press promises to remedy this with a new, three-volume version in English and Latin based on the popular Collegeville Breviary from 1963, which will be out in August. For bilingual alternatives currently in print, we must turn to the different variations of the Breviary.16


The celebration of the Divine Office has always admitted of greater variety than that of the Mass. To begin with, the Office used by the secular clergy and others (the “Roman Breviary”) was different from the Office used by various monastic orders (the “Monastic Breviary”). And even within this division there were further subdivisions. The Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans all had their own versions of the Roman Breviary, to say nothing of different regions and dioceses; and the Benedictines, Carthusians, and Cistercians all had their own versions of the Monastic Breviary.

One of these versions now back in print is St. Michael’s Abbey Press’s The Monastic Diurnal, Or the Day Hours of the Monastic Breviary.17 A diurnal is an abridged monastic Breviary containing only the “day Hours,” that is, every canonical hour except Matins. Diurnals were originally designed to be a handy single volume for monks and nuns to use when they were away from the cloister during the day, but they can also be used by laymen. This edition, originally compiled by the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota and published between 1948 and 1963, has been lovingly reproduced according to the highest standards. Bound in Moroccan leather with gilt edges and six cloth marker ribbons, The Monastic Diurnal is a visual treasure. In addition to all of the Psalms one needs for the week, it contains all of the relevant propers for the entire liturgical year in both Latin and English.

Another variation to the Divine Office were the breviaria parva, or “little Breviaries,” abridged editions tailored to specific uses or devotions. The best known of these is the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was especially popular with the laity and with religious communities with active apostolates and not a great deal of time for communal or private prayer. A beautiful edition of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been reprinted by Baronius Press featuring a blue leather cover, gilt edges, all of the prayers in both Latin and English, and much helpful information. The Little Office is an exquisite prayer to our Lady: its only drawback is that it does not include the calendar’s various saints of the day and some of its seasons.

Another abridged Breviary, which has been specially published by Angelus Press for use by the laity, is Divine Office: Officium Divinum. This handsome, leather-bound volume contains, in both Latin and English, Sunday Lauds, Prime, Sext, Vespers, and Compline, as well as Prime, Sext, and Compline for the entire week. Each Office and Psalm are prefaced by brief and enlightening excerpts from Fr. Pius Parsch’s The Breviary Explained, the first book of its kind when it was published in the early 1950s. The Divine Office also includes musical notation for much of the chant. Like the Little Office and the other breviaria parva, its only drawback is the absence of feast days.

Not Just For Clerics

A common misconception is that the Divine Office is only for the clergy. It is true that clerics are required to say the Divine Office: indeed, priests and seminarians sometimes joke about this requirement by calling the Office the onus Dei (burden of God) instead of its more poetic title, opus Dei (the work of God).

However, this does not mean that the Church wants the clergy to have a monopoly on the Office. St. Augustine tells us that his mother St. Monica went twice a day to church for Lauds and Vespers in addition to daily Mass,18 and the crusader king St. Louis of France, a man with eleven children and a country to rule, is said to have grieved more about the loss of his Breviary than being taken captive by the Saracens. In addition to hearing Mass twice a day, St. Louis also rose at midnight for Matins and said Prime when he woke in the morning. More recently, the Dominican spiritual master Fr. A.G. Sertillanges recommended Prime to the layman first thing in the morning, for “there are no prayers more beautiful, more efficacious, more inspiring.”19

Solemn Vespers on the Lord’s Day was once so well known among the faithful that Sunday dinner was known in some parts of Europe as the Vespers meal. St. Alphonsus Liguori assumed Sunday Vespers would be available at most parishes when he wrote: “Although there is no express commandment which makes it a mortal sin to be absent from Vespers, yet every good Catholic will make it his duty to attend when he can, and see that his family are present also. We are commanded to sanctify the Lord’s day, and the other Holy days of obligation; but if a Catholic neglects the public service of the Church on Sunday afternoons, without any reasonable excuse, how can it be expected that he will apply himself to sanctity in other ways?”20

Vespers by Karl Brulloff

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Making the effort to understand the Psalms is well worth it. With their exultations of joy or their impassioned pleas for mercy, help, and even vengeance, the Psalms speak from the heart.

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The best way to learn any method of prayer is directly from an experienced practitioner. For those who do not have access to such a person, there are several useful resources available. Both Preserving Christian Publications (PCP) and the Fraternity of St. Peter offer reprints of Cardinal Cicognani’s Rubrics of the Roman Breviary and Missal, translated by Leonard Doyle. This booklet contains the English translation of the sections in the Rubricae Generales of the 1962 Missale Romanum and Breviarium Romanum, as well as the motu proprio of Pope John XXIII introducing the changes made to the liturgy in 1960. It explains both the Breviary and Mass in minute detail and contains all of the textual changes of 1960 so that one may use this book in tandem with an older edition of the Missal or Breviary and still stay current. The PCP reprint is more handsome and durable than its FSSP counterpart (which has a comb binding), and subsequently it costs a little more: $15 for the former, $10 for the latter.

PCP has also reprinted Bernard A. Hausman’s Learning the New Breviary, “new” referring to the changes of 1960. Hausman’s little book, which retails for $14, is an excellent introduction to the mechanics of reciting the hours and following the calendar: it is written in clear, accessible prose and follows a “user-friendly” order. In 2008, the Fraternity, on the other hand, came out with its own aptly named Pocket Guide for the Recitation of the Divine Office According to the 1962 Edition of the Breviarium Romanum. This tiny, 21-page booklet is a compendium of all you need to remember about the Breviary once you have already learned it from a more thorough source. It also has a helpful section titled, “Frequently Asked Questions about Reciting the 1962 Breviary.” The Pocket Guide sells for a mere $1.50.

Seeking Understanding

At first, praying the Divine Office can be confusing, but like any other form of prayer, once it becomes familiar, its value becomes apparent. The most valuable part of the Office, however, is also one of its lingering challenges: the Psalms. The Psalms are unquestionably beautiful, but they are often difficult to understand, since we are often ignorant of the context out of which they arose. It is not unusual to recite a Psalm verse and to find oneself asking: “What on earth does that mean?” Yet making the effort to understand the Psalms is well worth it. With their exultations of joy or their impassioned pleas for mercy, help, and even vengeance, the Psalms speak from the heart.

Fortunately, there are several fine aids to assist our efforts. Thomas Merton, before he went a bit screwy in the late 60s, wrote a lovely little book on the Psalms in general entitled Praying the Psalms. A more detailed alternative is St. Robert Bellarmine’s (1542-1621) A Commentary on the Book of Psalms, translated by John O’Sullivan and reprinted by PCP. This well-made, single volume is able to contain Bellarmine’s commentary on every Psalm because it omits some of his more arcane analyses of the Hebrew wording. The result is a readable commentary which, at $56, is an excellent value.

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The Divine Office essentially received its current configuration from Pope St. Gregory the Great

* * * * * * *

There are also aids to understanding the hymns. Fr. Joseph Connelly’s 1957 Hymns of the Roman Liturgy explains the meaning and history of the 154 hymns of the Roman Breviary, as does Dom Matthew Britt’s 1922 Hymns of the Breviary and Missal. Both are still in print.

For those who pray the Office in Latin, Dom Britt’s A Dictionary of the Psalter is an essential resource. This meticulously researched volume, again reprinted by PCP, provides vital information about the peculiar Latin of the Vulgate not found in typical Latin dictionaries. To give but one example: years ago I used to recite Friday Vespers with my mentor, a priest who had suffered a stroke and was no longer able to read. When we came to Psalm 138:3, funiculum meum investigasti, he would sometimes ask, “What’s a funiculus?” I looked it up in a conventional Latin dictionary and discovered that it meant a thin cord or rope. Hence the verse literally says, “you have investigated my little rope” (the Douay Rheims renders it, “my line thou hast searched out”). That made us even more confused.

Had I only had Britt’s Dictionary, I could have learned that funiculus also signifies a measuring cord, and thus by way of metonymy it refers to one’s estate or inheritance, the portion of land measured out by surveyors’ lines. The verse, then, is stating that God has marked out my inheritance for me; God is not portrayed here not as a glorified string-inspector but a benevolent probate judge. Clearing up that ambiguity alone was worth the price of the book.

As for the Office itself, the text of Parsch’s The Breviary Explained is available online at;21 excerpts from it are also used in Baronius Press’s forthcoming Breviary and in Angelus Press’s abridged Divine Office. Votaries of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, on the other hand, have at their disposal Angelus Press’s reprint of Sr. Marianna Gildea’s 1955 Living the Little Office: Reflections on the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.This accessible book guides the reader through the prayers of the Office as it follows their order. Sr. Marianna’s commentary is insightful but not overbearing.


“It is good to give praise to the Lord,” the psalmist sings, “and to sing to Thy name, O most High: to shew forth Thy mercy in the morning, and Thy truth in the night” (Ps. 91:2-3). How true that is, as those who mold their daily lives to the rhythm of the canonical Hours know so well.

Resources Notes
  1. See 1 Paralip. 15 and 16. [back]
  2. The fact that incense may only be used at Lauds and Vespers hearkens to this Davidic tradition. [back]
  3. Acts 3:1-8. [back]
  4. In Ps. Cxliv, 1. [back]
  5. Homil. In Ps. I, 2. [back]
  6. Postilla super Psalmos, prologue. [back]
  7. Homily 6 on penitence. [back]
  8. Adrian Fortescue, quoted in Michael Davies, The Wisdom of Adrian Fortescue (Roman Catholic Books, 1999), p. 45. [back]
  9. Gregory, in turn, took this arrangement from St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism. [back]
  10. Vilma G. Little, The Sacrifice of Praise: An Introduction to the Meaning and Use of the Divine Office (P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1957), pp. 17-18. [back]
  11. Little, p. 18. [back]
  12. Davies, pp. 30-31. As the old saying has it, Accessit latinitas, recessit pietas: When Latinity came in, piety went out. [back]
  13. It should also be mentioned that the changes of 1632 only affected the Roman Breviary, not the Monastic Breviary. [back]
  14. It is also called the Bea Psalter after its main author, the Jesuit priest Augustin Bea, Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and confessor of Pius XII who was later made a cardinal by Pope John XXIII. [back]
  15. To be fair, these retranslations were often more accurate renderings of the Hebrew. [back]
  16. Online, however, the impressive contains the entire Breviary in both Latin and English. has a downloadable book of the Diurnale as well as other resources. [back]
  17. The FSSP and PCP also sell an all-Latin Diurnale Romanum. [back]
  18. Confessions 5.9.17. [back]
  19. A.G. Sertillanges, O.P., The Intellectual Life, trans. Mary Ryan (CUA Press, 1998), p. 89. [back]
  20. St. Alphonsus Liguori, The Mission Book: A Manual of Instructions and Prayers Adapted to Preserve the Fruits of the Mission, Drawn chiefly from the works of St. Alphonsus Liguori (NY: D & J Sadlier & Co., 1853), p. 67. [back]
  21. Unfortunately, the rest of the website is a sedevacantist mishmash. [back]
Michael P. Foley is an associate professor of Patristics at Baylor University. He is author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Wedding Rites: A Complete Guide to Traditional Vows, Music, Ceremonies, Blessings, and Interfaith Services(Eerdmans, 2008). Dr. Foley's article, "The Great School of Spirituality: Learning to Love the Divine Office," Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition Vol. 20, No. 2 (Spring 2011), is reproduced here by kind permission of Latin Mass, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060, and the author.