Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Divine Office, Part I: Introductory

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


This 1924 article is the first in a series by The Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey on the Divine Office: an introduction explaining the duty of collective and public prayer.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


43 – 49

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, October 1924

Part I.


Prayer, in some form or other, may be said to be natural to man. All but the most degraded of human beings turn to God, as it were, by instinct, at least when danger threatens them. The mind of man is a spiritual faculty which makes him akin to his Creator. Unconsciously perhaps, too vaguely in most cases, we experience the need of God. This yearning is the testimony which our nature bears to the solemn truth that God made us, and made us to no other end but that we might know and love Him and be happy in this loving knowledge both now and in the vaster life which awaits us hereafter.

There is a fine axiom in the old Roman Code — that noble contribution of the genius of the Roman people to the ethical and intellectual wealth of mankind: Res clamat domino. The Roman, like the modern Anglo-Saxon, had a keen sense of the sacredness of private property. Like the honor of woman, it was safeguarded by a hundred provisions of the law. By a legal fiction, whatsoever belonged to a citizen of the commonwealth was, so to speak, sensitive and touchy on this point of proprietorship. If he happened to lose any of his possessions, the Roman need have no fear of its being appropriated by the first comer who should chance to pick it up; the object itself would protest against misappropriation and cry out for its rightful owner, as some domestic pet whines and cries for its master: Res clamat domino.

Our heart cries out to, God whose property we are. What else is prayer but the uplifting of the mind and will to God? Nor is there need of words to enable us to commune with Him, nor bodily displacement to get in touch with Him, since He fills all space with the majesty of His unseen presence. In that sense the poet is right when he describes prayer in words that haunt the memory, as being nothing else and nothing more than:

The burden of a sigh
The falling of a tear:
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near.

However, human nature is not wholly spiritual, but a compound of soul and body. Hence it is necessary that man should pay homage to his Maker, not only in the secret chamber of the heart, but likewise by external and bodily manifestations of reverence and love. Moreover man is by nature a gregarious being. We form but one vast family of brothers, having the same God as our common Father. For this reason the practice of collective and public prayer is founded upon the deepest instincts and also the truest, of human nature. Such public and corporate worship of the Divine Majesty is a strict duty. How often does not the inspired writer call upon the nations of the earth to praise their Lord?

Omnes gentes plaudite manibus: jubilate Deo in voce exultationis . . . .
Psallite Deo nostro, psallite: psallite Regi nostro, psallite
(Ps. 46).

Again the message of the familiar Psalm 116 — so brief yet so rich in meaning — is no mere pious wish, or poetic effusion, but a plain statement of the duty incumbent upon all men to praise God, and the reasons of this obligation:

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes: laudate eum omnes populi.
Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus: et veritas Domini manet in aeternum.

The praise of God began with the first origin of our race. In the Garden of delights — in the radiant and unsullied beauty of primeval innocence — our first parents glorified their Maker of whose greatness they possessed a knowledge and understanding that far exceeds the measure to be attained by our powers, enfeebled by reason of their fall and our own personal sins. "God created man of the earth, and made him after His own image . . . He created of him a helpmate like to Himself. He gave them counsel, and a tongue, and eyes, and ears, and a heart to desire (to love) . . . He filled their hearts with wisdom. He set His eye upon their hearts, to show them the greatness of His works: that they might praise the name which He hath sanctified, and glory in His wondrous acts: that they might declare the glorious things of His works." (Eccli. xvii. 1. ss.)

When men began to multiply and spread over the earth, evil took increase. None the less we see, side by side with human folly and wickedness, an organized form of divine worship, for we read of the sacrifice of Abel and Cain, and we are expressly told of Enos, the son of Seth, that he "began to call upon the name of the Lord." (Gen. iv. 26.) Here we are manifestly given to understand some form of public worship, for there can be no doubt that, besides the just Abel, Adam and Eve also called upon the name of the Lord during the long centuries of penance by which they expiated the evil deed of the fateful garden.

In the fullness of time, God's own Son came into the world, that He might be unto all men both a Saviour and a pattern of holiness and moral perfection. Jesus Christ enforced the duty of prayer both by word and example: Erat pernoctans in oratione Dei, says the Evangelist, and His express command is that we should always pray and never grow weary in the discharge of a duty which is also man's highest privilege.

Our Lord's Prayer was an integral part of His Redemptive office in behalf of mankind. He needed naught for Himself, but pleaded for us, for grace and mercy. Christ's prayer was made up of both praise and supplication: "I confess to Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and has revealed them to little ones." (Matt. xi. 25.) Of His supplication St. Paul says: "Who in the days of His flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to Him who was able to save Him from death, was heard for His reverence." (Heb. v. 7.)

Prayer is an act of the virtue of religion, a special virtue, says St. Thomas, the noblest among moral virtues and belonging to the cardinal virtue of justice. It inclines our heart to render unto God the homage that is due to Him. Now, since God's perfections are infinite and our capacity of acknowledging and admiring them is confined within exceedingly narrow boundaries, religion prompts us to honor and glorify, praise and worship the Majesty of God to the furthermost extent of our powers, knowing that even when we shall have striven our utmost, we shall yet fall far short of that which He rightly claims at our hands. "We shall say much, and yet shall want words: but the sum of our words is: He is All. What shall we be able to do to glorify Him? For the Almighty Himself is above all His works." (Eccli. xliii. 29-30.)

Righteousness, or moral perfection, is therefore closely connected with the praise of God and prayer: Vere novit recte vivere, qui recte novit orare, we read in a sermon long attributed to St. Augustine (Migne, P.L., Op. S. Aug. v, p. 1847). Our worship of God must be external as well as internal. It is sheer sophistry on the part of Puritans to allege the words which our Lord spoke to the woman of Samaria in which He declared that "the hour cometh, and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth." (John iv. 23.) Surely that were not "true and sincere worship which would be so confined within the heart as never to break forth externally; nor is it possible long to cherish in mind a disposition which is not enkindled and inflamed by external acts," says a Council of Cologne of the year 1860.

St. Paul is of a very different mind, and he, assuredly, was no mere externalist, or soulless formalist. "By Him (Jesus Christ) therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise always to God, that is to say, the fruit of lips confessing to His name." (Heb. xiii. 15.)


Whilst we lay due stress upon the duty of worshipping God, let us never overlook the fact that God is in no need of our praise. We cannot add one atom to the sum total of His adorable perfections in the contemplation whereof consists His infinite and eternal glory. St. Thomas states the reason of why we owe internal and external worship to God in the following words: "We show reverence and honor to God, not for His own sake, for in Himself He is full of glory and the creature cannot add anything to it. We pay homage to Him for our own sakes, inasmuch as, by reason of the honor and reverence we pay unto God, our mind is subjected to Him and our mind's perfection consists in this very subjection. Now in order that it may reach unto God, the human mind requires the guiding help of sensible things, because, says the Apostle, "the invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made." (Rom. i. 20.) Hence the divine service demands the use of certain sensible ceremonies, that by them, as by signs, the mind of man should be incited to make those spiritual acts by which he is united to God. For this reason religion includes, indeed, spiritual acts, as being its primary manifestations and properly belonging to its nature, and external acts, as secondary ones and subordinate to the primary acts." (St. Thomas, Summa II-II, q. 81, a. 7.)

That the duty of prayer, or, to speak more generally, the obligation of worshipping the Majesty of God binds every rational creature, is not denied by anyone who believes in God and acknowledges his own dependence on Him. The benefits which we receive from God are of every hour of the day: at every moment He gives us life and being. Every best and every perfect gift is forever coming down from above, from the Father of Lights. Hence also the duty of praise and thanksgiving urges at all hours and in all places. True, the individual is not capable of such a sustained effort. Yet, woe to the world, if the fragrance of praise and prayer were to cease from rising in the sight of God!

The Catholic Church — the spotless Bride of the Lamb — takes it upon herself to discharge this most urgent and most blessed duty. At all hours of the day and the night, throughout the world, she blesses and glorifies the Lord of heaven and earth. The Liturgy of the Catholic Church is the continuation of our Lord's pleading and supplication during the days of His mortal life. It may be said without exaggeration that even as our daily Mass is the continuation, and mystical re-enactment of the sacrifice of Calvary, so is the Church's liturgical prayer the sequel and continuation of the prayer which Jesus poured out to His heavenly Father when He was pernoctans in oration Dei.

Though made up of frail and sinful human beings, the Catholic Church is in very deed the body of Christ. In her, Jesus Christ lives yet in this world, suffers, prays and praises His heavenly Father. Thus the voice of the Church is the voice of Jesus Christ. With due reservations we may apply to the public offices of the Church what St. Augustine says of Baptism: Petrus baptizet, hic est qui baptizat; Paulus baptizet, hic est qui baptizat; Judas baptizet, hic est qui baptizat. (In Joan.) Liturgical Prayer is of such priceless value precisely because it is not a private and personal manifestation of piety, but an act performed in the name of the universal Church and by her authority and delegation.

The recitation of the Divine office, in one form or another, is a necessary adjunct to the priestly character. The ideal of the priesthood includes two things: sacrifice and prayer. This was St. Peter's conception of the Apostolic life, in which our priesthood makes us share. It is not right, says the Prince of the Apostles, that we should spend our time in serving tables — let others be chosen for these duties — nos vero orationi et ministerio instantes erimus. (Acts vi. 4.) St. Thomas says of the Divine Office that it is not a personal and private exercise of devotion: Communis oratio est quae per ministros Ecclesiae in persona totius populi Deo offertur. (II-II, q. 83, a. 12.)

Religious, even if they are not priests, or if they are simple virgins consecrated to God — if the recitation of the Divine Office is part of their daily life, do so, not as private persons, but as delegates also, and representatives of the whole Church. In the mind of the chief law-giver of Western monks, the Divine Office is their most important occupation to which nothing may be preferred: Nihil operi Dei praeponatur. (Reg. St. Bened.)

The Office is the Church's prayer — hence it has an efficacy akin to that of the Sacraments, for Christ cannot remain deaf to the sweet accents of His Bride. Our Liturgical Prayer readily pierces the clouds and reaches the ears of our Father in heaven — for it is not so much to our halting accents that He listens, as to the strong voice of His beloved Son with which our feeble voices blend. Do we not formally unite ourselves with our Lord at the beginning of the Canonical Hours? Domine in unione illius divinae intentionis, qua ipse in terris laudes Deo persolvisti, has tibi horas persolvo.

The singular dignity of the Church's public Prayer should rouse our devotion and attention. We pray, plead, adore and praise as the accredited representatives of the Church, and our worship is united to that of the God-Man. Far from us, therefore, all slovenliness or unseemly haste, all idle preoccupations and foolish imaginations. When we say our Office — be it in the lofty choir or some noble cathedral, or in the privacy of our study — we prelude on earth to that which is to be our everlasting occupation in heaven. Divina psalmodia est ejus hymnodiae filia quae canitur assidue ante sedem Dei et Agni: so we read in the Preface of Urban VIII to the Breviary which we use day by day. The same thought is nobly expressed in the hymn of the Dedication of a church:

Sed illa sedes caelitum
Semper resultat laudibus,
Deumque trinum et unicum
Jugi canore praedicat:
Illi canentes jungimur
Almae Sionis aemuli.

Of the public prayer of the Catholic Church we may say, with due qualifications, what the devout author of the Imitation says of the Sacrifice of the Mass: By a devout recitation of his Office — even if it be in a railway carriage — a priest honors God, gladdens the Angels, edifies the Church, helps the living, obtains rest for the dead and makes himself a sharer in all that is good.

We are not isolated, nor thrown back upon ourselves. By grace, we are living members of a living organism, reacting upon it and being ourselves acted upon and influenced in a thousand mysterious ways. Surely the recitation of our daily Office will become, not a burdensome task, but rather, a source of happiness, if we will only look at it in the light of supernatural faith. Already in the third century the great African Martyr, St. Cyprian, could say of ecclesiastical Prayer: Publica est nobis et communis oratio, et quando oramus, non pro uno, sed pro toto populo oramus, quia totus populus unum sumus (St. Cypr., De Orat. dom., viii).

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

See also:

The Divine Office: Formation

The Divine Office: From St. Gregory the Great to Pius X

The Divine Office: Matins — Prayer at Night

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