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The Little Office of Our Lady

by William J. Lallou

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  • Description:
    This article by William J. Lallou, from August 1949, takes a closer look at the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, a popular private devotion as well as a liturgical prayer, which is believed to have been instituted by the Dominicans and fervently recommended by St. Peter Damian in the eleventh century.
  • Larger Work:
    The American Ecclesiastical Review
  • Pages: 100 – 110
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., August 1949

The liturgy perfectly mirrors the exalted position of our Lady in the Church. The fundamental doctrine of Christianity is that of the Incarnation of the Word of God. The manner, divinely ordained, by which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us involves the Blessed Virgin Mary. When the Eternal Son became man, He did not elect to assume a heavenly body, mysteriously fashioned by the hands of angels, but He chose to be born into the world through the co-operation of Mary. He became man of her. She was the mould in which His sacred Humanity was cast. Her flesh and blood were the source of His holy Body and precious Blood. Mary is His mother and He is her Son. So, the Church throughout the ages has loved to glorify Mary whom God Himself has so signally honored. Therefore, the Church has multiplied feasts in her liturgy in honor of Mary, observing the day of her birth and the day of her Assumption, celebrating the privileges of her Immaculate Conception and her Maternity, commemorating her joys and her sorrows.

The Church reiterates every day her greetings to Mary, saluting her as Mother, Virgin, and Queen in the invocations of the Litany of Loreto. Mary's image is in every Catholic home and her rosary in the hands of every child of the Church. In the liturgy, the official public worship of the Church, we find nineteen special Masses in the Missal, in addition to votive and similar Masses and twenty-three particular ones for feasts of our Lady restricted to certain places. The Breviary reproduces for the Divine Office the observance of the feasts of our Lady for which the Missal provides Masses. In addition to the solemn, liturgical cult of Mary, there are other devotions in her honor, high in favor with the faithful. These include the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, which ranks also as a liturgical prayer, because it is found in the Breviary, an official service book of the Church, though its recitation in choir is no longer a matter of added obligation for those who are bound to the public performance of the canonical hours.

The Little Office de Beata was originally an increment added to the Divine Office when it was recited in choir. Later, but still in medieval times, it found its way into popular prayer books as a devotion for the laity. With the reform of the Breviary after the Council of Trent, supplementary hours and additional psalms, like those called the gradual and penitential psalms, were much reduced on the occasions when they were of obligation and the reform of Pope Pius X suppressed them entirely as epilogues of the Divine Office.

The Little Office of our Lady still continues to be de rigueur with the Trappists and the Carthusians, who recite it daily in addition to the canonical hours of the long office. The Franciscans for now some centuries have substituted the final anthems of the Blessed Virgin, which we all say at the end of the office, for the supplementary hours de Beata. The Dominicans, who had retained the practice even after the Tridentine reform, abolished it altogether after the Divino afflatus of Pius X, regarding the daily recitation of the rosary as taking its place.1

The Little Office at present serves as the liturgical prayer, instead of the greater office of the Breviary, for lay brothers and lay sisters in some of the contemplative orders. It also forms the daily choir service of most of the congregations of women whose members are engaged in educational and other active work. To a limited extent, the hours of our Lady furnish a daily prayer for the laity, who are unequal to the complexity of the Divine Office or have not sufficient time to devote to it. Vespers and Compline of this office are the usual service of prayer at the meetings of parish branches of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin. It is customary, in some seminaries, especially during the month of May, for the seminarians, not yet promoted to major orders, to recite daily the short Marian office. Concessions are occasionally made, per modum gratiae, to substitute this office for the canonical hours, when the recitation of the latter becomes difficult.

According to Msgr. Batiffol,2 the first mention which we have of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin dates from the eleventh century and comes from the Camaldolese abbey of Fonte Avellano, in Italy. Cardinal Baronius is quoted as attributing the institution of this daily office to St. Peter Damian who was a monk of this abbey before he became a cardinal and bishop of Ostia. Batiffol doubts this but admits as certain that St. Peter Damian worked very hard to spread the practice of reciting this office of our Lady. At all events, during the second half of the eleventh century the custom of reciting daily the Horae de Beata had extended throughout Italy and into France and Germany and even beyond the Continent into England. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this liturgical observance, added to the canonical hours of the Divine Office, was of general practice. It was late, however, in reaching Rome, where we first find it during the Pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216). Some trace the origin of the Little Office to an earlier date than the eleventh century.3 A Cursus in honore S. Mariae is cited as evidence of the existence of the Little Office in the tenth century but Batiffol regards this and similar prayers more in the nature of what we now call a suffragium than an officium plenum and points out that the Cursus was not a daily office but an appendix to the Divine Office only on certain days, namely, Saturdays on which feasts of saints were not celebrated. The question of the Little Office is one of the daily addition of an abbreviated office of our Lady to the hours of the Breviary, like the similar appending of the daily office of the dead, and not something in the nature of a commemoration, or suffrage.

As time went on into the fourteenth century, there was opposition to the burdening of the already long office with rather lengthy epilogues, like the seven penitential psalms, the gradual psalms, the office of the dead and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. The last named was to be said, in addition to the canonical hours, on every day of the year, except the greater festivals, the last three days of Holy Week, the octave of Easter, and the feasts of our Lady herself. The Constitutiones Lateranenses of Gregory XI (1370-78) prescribed that the office of the hours of the Breviary of the Curia was to be sung (cum nota) and then followed every day by the recitation (sine nota) of the office of the Blessed Virgin.4 The Franciscans were accused of multiplying feasts of nine lessons in order to get rid of the obligation of adding to the office the penitential and gradual psalms and the office of the dead. They were also charged with growing laxity in the observance of the daily recital of the office of our Lady. So, it is not surprising that in the proposals for the reform of the Breviary, made especially in the sixteenth century, there was always included that of suppressing additions to the office which made it unduly prolix and increased its complexity.

When, after the Council of Trent, Pope St. Pius V published the reformed Breviary, the occasions on which the gradual and penitential psalms were to be said were reduced to the Wednesdays of Lent for the former and the Fridays for the latter. The office of the dead was confined to the first of each month, ember days and vigils, and every Monday in Advent and Lent. The Little Office of our Lady became of obligation only on Saturdays but with the exception of Ember Saturdays, vigils, and the Saturdays of Lent. This continued to be the rule until the revision ordered by Pius X, in the Bull Divino afflatu, 1911, which resulted in the Breviary of today. This decree abrogated entirely the rubrics which prescribed the recitation in choir of the Little Office of our Lady, the office of the dead, and the gradual and penitential psalms. Since that time, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, remaining still a liturgical prayer, included in the Breviary, has become a private devotion and a substitute for the Divine Office in certain religious congregations of men and women. The small office is still in high honor and indulgences are attached to its recitation even by those for whom it is of obligation.5

The Little Office of our Lady figured in the contents of the common medieval prayer-book for the laity, the Prymer, or, in its Latin version, Primarium. An interesting example of such a prayer book, with a collation of varying texts, was published by the Early English Text Society, under the title of Prymer, or Lay Folks' Prayer Book.6 The Prymer contained those forms of prayer which, having been accretions added to the Divine Office for those obliged to the recitation of it, passed into popular devotions of the laity in substitution for the longer canonical hours which they had ceased to attend. The normal contents of the medieval Prymer were: the Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the seven penitential psalms, the fifteen gradual psalms, the litany of the Saints, the office for the dead, and the "commendations," which mean Psalm 118, divided into twenty-two sections, and Psalm 138, concluding with a prayer for the faithful departed.

While there are minor variations in the English primer between the more prevalent usage of Sarum and those of York, Durham, and Hereford, the structure of the hours of our Lady was substantially identical in all the extant texts of her office. Matins has the opening verses, the Venite exultemus, the hymn Quem terra, the three psalms at present found appointed to be said on Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays (Nos. 8, 18, and 23), each with its "Glorie be to the fadir," three lessons, shorter than and different from the present ones, each with a brief responsory following it, and the Te Deum at the end. The office of Lauds is like today's with the same psalms and the Benedicite canticle, but Psalm 66 is added to Psalm 62 and Psalms 149 and 150 are appended to 148, making eight in all, including the canticle, instead of the five as we have them. There follow the little chapter, the hymn O gloriosa, the Benedictus, its antiphon and a V. and R., the prayer Concede, and then, in place of our suffrage of the saints, a series of three prayers, each with an antiphon and a V. and R. At the end of Lauds and of each of the succeeding hours, there is a proper antiphon of the Passion, to which reference will be made later. Prime, Tierce, Sext, and None show an identical structure with the opening verses, the hymn, three psalms, an antiphon, the little chapter, a V. and R., the prayer, in each instance the familiar Concede nos, and the concluding commemoration of the Passion, the antiphon varying for each hour. Instead of our repeated hymn Memento rerum Conditor, the medieval day hours had the Veni Creator, "Come holi goost." Vespers of the medieval little office had five psalms, but they were, with the exception of the Laetatus sum, different from the present ones, being in succession psalms 121, 122, 123, 124, and 125. The antiphon, the little chapter, and the hymn followed. The last named was, as now, the Ave maris stella. This had its V. and R., which introduced the Magnificat and its concluding antiphon, which was Sancta Maria succurre miseris. The oration Concede followed and the hour concluded with another antiphon of the Passion with its V. and R. and oration. Compline began as does ours, but had four psalms (Nos. 12, 42, 128, and 130) instead of the three which are now said. Then came the concluding antiphon, the little chapter, and the hymn. A hymn Virgo singularis was found in place of our Memento rerum Conditor, which we repeat from the day hours. The V. and R. following the hymn are succeeded by the Nunc dimittis, an antiphon, another V. and R. and the prayer, Gratiam tuam, which with us is said as the oration after the Alma Redemptoris Mater of Advent. Compline concluded with the usual commemoration of the Passion, similar to that found at the end of the other hours. Only two, instead of our four, anthems of the Blessed Virgin, appear after Compline of the medieval Prymer. These are the Salve Regina and the Ave Regina coelorum. The De profundis, omitted from the series of psalms at Compline, comes at the conclusion of the office with a number of versicles and responses and a final prayer for the faithful departed.

In explanation of the commemoration of the Passion at the end of each hour of the medieval form of the little office, let us state that it consisted of an antiphon, which varied in each instance, followed by identical verses and responses and an unvarying oration. The changing antiphon of the Passion was accommodated to suit the traditional hour of different phases of our Lord's sufferings and death. His taking by the soldiers formed the subject of the antiphon at Lauds. Prime commemorated His appearance before Pilate, Tierce the crowning with thorns and the carrying of the cross, Sext His nailing to the cross and the offering of "galle," and None recalled His death and the piercing with the "spere." The Vesper antiphon remembered the taking down from the cross and that of Compline the entombment in the sepulchre. This commemoration of the Passion was most probably the surviving remnant of "the hours of the Passion," another medieval accretion of the Divine Office.

According to Fr. Herbert Thurston, S.J.,7 the origin of the word "Primer," applied to a prayer book for the laity in the later middle ages, is connected with the primer for children. We still speak, or we used to do so until recent years, of a primer, meaning a first reading book for children. In medieval times instruction in reading was given to children with the more or less definite idea that the child would become a cleric, hence along with the alphabet, he learned the Pater and Ave and gradually, as he advanced in his studies, the psalms which a cleric should know by heart. A sixteenth century Primarium pro pueris contained the Little Office of our Lady and other prayers. Fr. Thurston has no doubt that the prymer, spoken of in Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale," from which "this litel child" learned "as he sat in the scole" was a religious manual similar to that which we have just described. Attention is also called to the definition of the word "primer" as late as Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (1773) where it is identified with "a small prayer book in which children are taught to read." Medieval primers, with the office of our Lady and that for the dead, usually known as Horae in Latin editions, were common not only in the days of manuscript but there were many printed copies after the invention of movable type. Some of these books were elaborately illuminated with pictures, which often seem very quaint today, especially the more macabre ones found along with the hours of the office for the dead.

A comparison between the text of our little office and that found in extant copies of medieval books of hours shows an identity, save in unimportant details, such as appear in some of the hymns and orations and, less frequently, in the selection of psalms. The most striking difference is the complement to each hour in the form of a commemoration of the Passion varied through the day to correspond to the stages of the sad events of the last hours of our Lord's life on earth. The Regina coeli and the Alma Redemptoris Mater are lacking in the anthems terminating the little office at the end of Compline, though both date from periods antecedent to the general use of the Prymer. Perhaps the basis of the explanation of this omission is that it was not till the sixteenth century that the four anthems of our Lady at the end of the canonical hours became a universal substitute for the office of the Blessed Virgin when this began to be no longer daily appended to the choral service of the Breviary.

The Little Office of our Lady, as it was originally and as we have it today, is constructed on the general pattern of the Divine Office. Lauds and Vespers are, apart from several variations in detail, duplicates of these same hours in the common office of the Blessed Virgin of the Breviary. Matins is divided into three nocturns, each consisting of three psalms and three lessons, but only one nocturn is recited each day. Prime resembles that of the long office but lacks the chapter section which is the second part of that hour in the Breviary. The other day hours are of the familiar structure of a hymn, three psalms, a little chapter, a short responsory, and an oration. Compline has none of the features, which distinguish that hour as a form of night prayer in the Divine Office, consisting merely of three psalms, a hymn, a little chapter, the Nunc dimittis, and an oration. The office concludes with one of the four anthems of the Blessed Virgin, the same as are said at the end of the long office.

The little office shows slight variation in its recitation throughout the year. There are, however, some changes, chiefly in the antiphons, outside of Matins, and in the three lessons of the single nocturn, which justify the distinction into three offices proper to as many seasons of the year. These three are: the first, from the Purification to Advent; the second, for the time of Advent; the third from the first Vespers of Christmas until the Purification, inclusive. It is strange that the little office has no special form, with multiplied Alleluias, for the season of Easter. The Te Deum terminates Matins throughout the year, except during Advent and Lent, when its place is taken by a third responsory after the final lesson. A commemoration of the saints, with a variant for the season of Advent, structurally resembling the suffragium of the canonical hours, is appended to the oration at Lauds and Vespers. We find nothing in the nature of the Preces of the Divine Office. The absolution and the blessings before the lessons of Matins are the ones which are familiar to all clergy in major orders as they are identical with those recited in the Officium S. Mariae in Sabbato of the long office.

The text of the Little Office shows an a propos which is the resultant of the pious tradition of centuries. The psalms are some Messianic and some in praise of the Jerusalem of which Mary is the glory while others apply to Mary the glories of Sion, the Lord's dwelling-place, or give thanks to God for the benefits conferred on mankind in the person of Mary. Psalm 23, Domini est terra, has its fulfillment in her who became the sanctuary of God. Psalm 44, Eructavit cor meum, a marriage hymn celebrating the union of the Messias and His Church, is well applied to Mary, the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Psalm 86, Fundamenta ejus, singing of Sion, the mother of all nations, well becomes her who was given, through St. John, to be the mother of us all. Psalm 121, Laetatus sum, which invites us to rejoice in the Holy City which is the home of the Lord, is appropriately sung of Mary, who became the actual dwelling-place of the Son of God. And similar examples may be found in the other psalms selected for the office in honor of our Lady.

Passing outside the psalter, the lessons of Matins are from Ecclesiasticus, whose words are most appropriately said of Mary, who in the eternal designs of God was chosen to be the mother of the Word-made-flesh. So she was cultivated as the cedar and the cypress, as the palm-tree and the olive-tree, as the balsam and the myrrh. During Advent, we read as lessons, from the first chapter of St. Luke, the story of the archangel who came with his momentous message to the humble virgin of Nazareth. The little chapters, Scriptural throughout the office, picture Mary as the subject of praise of the daughters of Sion and the queens, or repeat the prophecy of Isaias concerning the flower of Jesse upon whom the Spirit of God would rest. They bid us admire her who comes like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, who is "the mother of fair love and of fear and of knowledge and of holy hope."

The antiphons, which introduce and follow the psalms, reiterate the praise of Mary, some repeating verses of the psalms themselves, some echoing texts of the Gospel, and others resounding age-old expressions of the glories of our Lady. Of this third class we have the Gaude Maria Virgo cunctas haereses sola intermisti in universo mundo and the dignare me laudare te, etc., together with the very familiar Sub tuum praesidium. What is said of the antiphons may be predicated of the versicles and responses, of which some are Scriptural, like the oft-said Diffusa est gratia in labiis tuis (Psalm 44), and several, traditional, like the Post partum, Virgo, inviolate permansisti. The hymns of the Little Office are largely the same examples of Marian poetry which brighten the hours of the Divine Office on feasts of our Lady. We have Quem terra, pontus, sidera, ascribed to Fortunatus, which appears in Matins. Lauds gives us O gloriosa Virginum, the second part of the same hymn. Memento rerum Conditor, the hymn repeated in the four day hours and found again in Compline, is not sung in the Divine Office but is peculiar to this short one. The hymn of Vespers, common to this hour both in the Breviary office and in the little office, is the famous Ave maris stella, of medieval composition but not to be credited to St. Bernard nor to Venantius Fortunatus.8

The orations, recited near the conclusion of each hour, are all favorite liturgical prayers, found elsewhere, in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Deus qui de beatae is familiar as a commemoration de tempore in the Missal and as the oration of the Officium S. Mariae in Sabbato during the period before Feb. 2. Deus qui salutis aeternae is equally familiar as a seasonal commemoratio communis at Mass as well as being the oration after the Alma Redemptoris Mater, from Christmas to the Purification. Concede nos famulos tuos, of Vespers of the Little Office, is the oration for feasts of our Lady in the greater office, when the prayer is from the Common. Three other orations, recited in the little office, belong in the category of well-known prayers: Deus qui virginalem aulam, Concede misericors Deus, and Famulorum tuorum. The very brief Beatae et gloriosae, assigned to Compline during the greater part of the year, is proper to the little office.

Of the four concluding anthems of the Blessed Virgin, which this office has in common with the long office, little need be said here. The Ave Regina and the Alma Redemptoris are of unknown origin but both were popular during the later middle ages. The last named is referred to by Chaucer in his "Prioress's Tale," in the passage quoted before in this article where the "litel childe" is sitting in the "scole with his prymer." The Regina coeli may date from the tenth century but the legend ascribing it to St. Gregory the Great, who heard the opening lines from angels, must be considered apocryphal. The Salve Regina, however, is definitely assigned to Hermann Contract (1054), a monk of Reichenau.9 We have already noted that in the medieval Prymer, the little office knows only two of these terminal anthems, the Salve Regina and the Alma Redemptoris.

Lacking the variety of the canonical hours of the Breviary, this short office of our Lady is adapted for the use of the laity by its more simple structure and the absence of the many complexities which arise in the Divine Office because of the constant conflict between the calendar of fixed feasts and that of the movable ones. The objection of repetitiousness may validly be urged against its daily recitation but this same objection has still greater force against the Litany of Loreto and, even more cogently, the rosary; yet both these devotions maintain their hold on the piety of Catholics. Midway between the difficultly-ordered hours of the Breviary and the easily-learned prayers and mysteries of the rosary stands this centuries-old office of our Lady, for clerics and lay-folk alike, a treasured expression of the praises of Mary, in fulfillment of the oft-repeated versicle and response: Dignare me laudare to Virgo sacrata . . .

End Notes

  1. Cf. Wm. Bonniwell O.P., A History of the Dominican Liturgy, p. 349.
  2. Cf. Batiffol, History of the Roman Breviary, p. 147.
  3. Cf. ibid., p. 147 n.
  4. Cf. ibid., p. 170 n.
  5. Cf. Raccolta, n. 289.
  6. Early English Text Society, Nos. 105, 109 (London, 1895 and 1897).
  7. Cf. art. "Primer," Catholic Encyclopaedia, XI.
  8. Cf. art. "Ave Maris Stella," Catholic Encyclopaedia, II.
  9. Cf. Batiffol, op. cit., p. 172, n.

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