The Liturgy of the Hours

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Those of you who know me personally will know that I have a deep affection for something called The Liturgy of the Hours, also know as the Divine Office, or Breviary. But if you don't know me, you might be wondering what on earth it is... In this post I would like to touch on the history of the Liturgy of the Hours, its appeal, and why the Church enjoins us to participate in this, the 'prayer of the Church'.

History and structure

(Note: this refers to the traditions of the Latin Church, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church, and those Churches in communion with her. For other traditions, see the Wikipedia article 'Canonical Hours'.)

The current Liturgy of the Hours originates from 1974 when the Breviarum Romanum -- or Roman Breviary -- was reformed according to the principles Vatican II outlines in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. However the Breviary itself is much older.

The Breviary (latin, meaning short/concise book) evolved from the ancient custom of Jewish prayer ("Seven times a day do I praise Thee", c.f. Ps. 119:164) in monasteries and chapterhouses across Europe. With the addition of a pre-Eucharistic vigil or "watch", there became eight "Hours" or "Offices" of prayer. These were not strictly of one hour in length; indeed, prayer during the day is most short, whilst the night vigil is long! Until the reforms of Vatican II, the "Hours" of the Latin Church were:

  • matins -- the modern-day Office of Readings, which had a vigil or nocturnal character;
  • lauds -- morning-prayer, which together with vespers is considered a principal hour of prayer (both matins and lauds were observed during the night);
  • prime -- the "odd Hour", said upon rising
  • terce -- the "third" hour,
  • sext -- the "sixth" hour, and
  • none -- the "ninth" hour (together these constitute the modern "Prayer during the Day");
  • vespers -- evening-prayer, said around sunset; and
  • compline -- night-prayer, said before bed, and traditionally followed by a Marian Antiphon (e.g. Alma Redemptoris Mater in Advent, Salve Regina in Ordinary Time).
(In addition, the first "Hour" is usually prefaced by the Invitatory, though this is optional in private recitation.)

Each of the "Hours" has a particular character, e.g. compline has a slightly pentitential character, reflecting on the day and calling on God's mercy and can easily incorporate an examination of conscience; accordingly, they have different structural elements:
  • Psalms -- the staple element of the Liturgy of the Hours is the Psalter; these are said in all "Hours" and over a particular period -- in the older Breviary one week, and now, post Vatican II, over four weeks;
  • scriptural readings -- each "Hour" has scriptural readings, some quite small (in the case of the minor, midday, Hours between lauds and vespers), some extensive (matins could contain anywhere from three readings upwards, and nowadays contains two lengthy passages);
  • Gospel Canticles -- the modern arrangement of the Psalter includes certain canticles from the Prophets, Revelation, etc., but the three Canticles of note are the Benedictus(?) (Zecharias' song of thanksgiving on the birth of his son, St John Baptist), the Magnificat(?) (Mary's "yes" to God at the Annunciation), and the Nunc Dimittis(?) (Simeon's heart-rending thanks to God on the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple), featuring in Morning Prayer (lauds), Evening Prayer (vespers), and Night Prayer (compline) respectively;
  • Intercessions -- since Vatican II, both Morning and Evening Prayer have contained intercessions -- and Responsories -- both of these echo the pre-Vatican II preces;
  • the Our Father -- along with Mass, the Our Father is also said at the conclusion of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, providing a threefold santification of the day; and
  • a Concluding Prayer.
In addition to the rhythm of a four-week Psalter, the Liturgy of the Hours, like Mass, also changes according to the liturgical year and the calendar of the Saints.

Note: for an in-depth survey of the transition from the pre-Vatican II Breviarum Romanum to the Liturgy of the Hours, I would recommend Stanislaus Campbell's From Breviary to Liturgy of the Hours.


The appeal of the Liturgy of the Hours can be put down to a number of factors, all potentially subtly interlinked. For instance, I remember an Anglican vicar exhorting the the daily reading of the Psalter to me as, to quote, "it contains the whole of life and death, joy and sadness, all that there is". The sheer scope and beauty of the Psalter has a true appeal, especially in this modern world where there is little emotional outlet for the human spirit under times of pressure. How amazingly beautiful it is for the words of ones prayer to God eloquently echoing the various chapters of our lives!

Meanwhile, the Gospel Canticles provide a familiar and consistent rhythm to each day, strongly echoing the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) as expressed by Zechariah, Mary and Simeon respectively. As noted above, the Liturgy of the Hours also provides the opportunity for the contemplation of and veneration of the Saints. The "Hours" are all themselves suited to longer periods of meditation and introspection.

As regards the "words" themselves, there is always a danger in prayer that it can become like a spiritual shopping list. God does not need that. After all, do we honestly believe that God does not know our deepest needs and desires? No; of course he knows. Equally, we hope -- like John, believing "because we have heard" (Jn. 4:42) -- that these already written/authorised prayers of the Church, are free from error, and a fitting devotion or sacrifice to God. Indeed, the Church in calling them Opus Dei -- the work of God -- shows this to be true.

From a psychochological point of view, there is certainly something liberating about letting go of "having" to find the words, and embracing something already written down for you. As with the Most Holy Rosary, the words flow over you, and at the same time engage the intellectual and cognitive parts of you, whilst the deep emotional parts are let go to commune with God.

Another factor is quite simply that, for centuries now, the Liturgy of the Hours is truly the official Prayer of the Church. Indeed, Priests and Deacons have a canonical obligation to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as religious (i.e. monks, nuns, etc.). Some religious are obliged to celebrate older arrangements of the Psalter, and the Societies of Apostolic Life which celebrate the sacraments according to pre-Vatican II liturgical books (e.g. FSSP, Institute of Christ the King, etc.) use these older books which include the eight "Hours". In prayer, one is then participating in the great Prayer of the entire Church, with all the members of the Church in the past, present, and to come. Your prayers are literally joining those of the Blessed in Heaven.


Whilst Churches are enjoined by the Holy See to faciliate the public celebration of Morning and Evening Prayer(1), the bulk of celebration outside monasteries and other religious communities appears to be private, individual observation. A number of options are available to assist English-speakers in this effort:

On-line matter:

  • The Universalis website provides the text of the Liturgy of the Hours "calculated" for each day, and configurable according to national calendar and timezone;
  • meanwhile, Praystation Portable provides mp3 files of audio to download
Printed matter:

The Liturgy of the Hours is available in a number of formats, split both by jurisdiction (for each, different translations for USA vs. UK) and by length (e.g. Morning and Evening Prayer alone in one volume). These include:

It is possible also to acquire both modern and pre-Vatican II Latin Breviaries, as well as the popular Elizabethan English (and Anglican) translation, the "Anglican Breviary". The UK publisher Baronius Press is also working on an parallel English-Latin edition of the 1962 Breviarum Romanum, expected in the first-half of 2008. Those discerning vocations to the religious life may instead wish to consider the Roman Diurnal, or the Monastic Diurnal put out by St Michael's Abbey, Farnborough.


The following resources may be of some help to those interested in finding out more about the Liturgy of the Hours:
  • David Chiang's A brief guide to the breviary;
  • Discovering Prayer -- Seth H. Murray's excellent PDF guide to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, whichever edition you use;
  • Instructions for Praying the LotH -- I found this via Google on a site in San Francisco;
  • The Roman Breviary -- the entire pre-Vatican II in both Latin, and the Elizabethan English of the Anglican Breviary; This is the pre-1955 Breviary which is before the 1962 changes and therefore before the Vatican II changes in the late 60's
  • St Francis de Sales' Guide to Christian Prayer -- this indispensable online version of the Saint Joseph Guide for 'Christian Prayer' lists page numbers for this edition; and finally,
  • The full texts of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (1971), and the Apostolic Constitution Laudis Canticum (1970), promulgating the new LotH.

Having prayed the Liturgy of the Hours in different forms for almost three years now, it is my constant companion, lending God's sanctification to each day, and allowing me to commune with my maker both on a literary and aesthetic level, but also on a deeper level, beyond words. I would heartily commend it, in any form, to all on this blog and beyond discerning a call to the Priestly or Religious state. At the same time, I would urge the laity to take up the Breviary too; they may find more there than simply the easing of the frenetic "structure" of their lives.

Note: The resources listed above go some way to helping to explain the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, however I would be willing to make this into a regular series of posts, based on feedback. I would also be deeply honoured to assist those starting out with the Breviary (tip: even if you want to use the older books, start out with Christian Prayer and learn the structure one "Hour" at a time).

As the day draws to a close at Vespers, "may the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to ever-lasting life". + 

(Images: Wikipedia/flickr.)


Anonymous,  Friday, January 21, 2011 at 9:44:00 AM PST  

Thank you for this post. I live in a Western suburb of Chicago. Do you know of a place where I could pray The Hours here? Thanks!

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