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The Divine Office, Part II: Formation of the Divine Office

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


This 1924 article is the second in a series by The Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey on the Divine Office. The focus of this installment is the origin and development of the Divine Office and the Breviary, with special highlight of St. Benedict's influence on the formation of the Divine Office.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


149 - 156

Publisher & Date

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

Part II. Formation of the Divine Office

We commonly speak of the divine office as the Breviary. Our Breviary is never laid aside for long — it accompanies us on all our journeys — its well-thumbed pages are the confidants of our daily thoughts. How frequently it happens that, as we open the book, we are suddenly reminded of what befell us, perhaps years ago, because on that particular day — maybe it was a day of joy, or else of sorrow — we happened to say the very psalms, or prayers which are appointed for today. It is therefore a matter of supreme interest to all priests to have at least some general notions as to how the Breviary originated, grew and developed, until it acquired its present familiar form.

Originally the word "Breviarium" signifies a register or inventory. It is used in that sense by St. Benedict in his Rule, when he says that Abbas brevem teneat of all the tools belonging to the monastery. In the Middle Ages it often signifies the same thing as Comes, that is, a list of the extracts of the Gospels to be read in church in the course of the year. Generally speaking, Breviarium is the same thing as our Ordo — and even less, for it was simply a sheet upon which were written down some directions for the celebration of the Masses and the Psalmody. We know it as the entire collection, generally divided into four volumes, according to the four seasons of the year, of the complete pensum of our service to God, as distinct from the Missal, the Pontificale and Ritual, which contain the text of the Masses, the various rites of the Sacraments and so forth. Already Alcuin, at the end of the eighth century, uses the word when speaking of a Book of Hours composed by him for the use of the Emperor Charlemagne.

We can only give some slight outline of the history of the formation of the Breviary. The observance of some public, or liturgical, forms of Prayer by the Church, is of Apostolic origin. The Jews, we know, had their three sacrifices each day, viz., at dawn, in the middle of the day and in the late afternoon or evening. It is equally certain that the Apostles and early disciples of Christ did not, from the very outset, cut themselves adrift from the Synagogue. On the contrary, we are expressly told that they continued "daily, with one accord, in the Temple, "the only divergence from Jewish practice being this, that they "broke bread, from house to house, praising God . . ." (Acts ii. 46). It would have been all but impossible to improvise a new form of worship, complete and all of a piece, even had the Apostles wished to precipitate so radical a change. The Old Law is but the shadow of the New, none the less, it seemed but natural to retain at least the framework of Jewish religious life, were it only to smooth the transition from the Synagogue to the Christian Church. We know from a reading of the Acts, how the Church of Jerusalem in particular clung with the utmost tenacity and almost up to the last, to the Temple services which they had loved so long.

The Acts likewise show us St. Peter and St. John going up to the Temple to pray, at the ninth hour of the day. On the day of Pentecost we find the Apostolic College in prayer, when, at the third hour of the day, the Holy Ghost came down in the shape of fiery tongues. Again, when St. Peter saw the vision of the great linen sheet let down by the four corners from heaven to earth, he was in prayer in the higher parts of the house, about the sixth hour. (Acts x. 9.)

These hours of Apostolic prayer correspond with the hours of sacrifice and praise in the Temple, as well as with those fixed hours of prayer which devout Jews had made a law unto themselves ever since the day of the captivity. During the mournful years by the rivers of Babylon there was no sacrifice, — hence it was replaced by prayer, the reading of the Scriptures and the singing of the psalms. These pious practices survived the return from the captivity and were, as a matter of course, religiously observed throughout the Dispersion.

In the hours of prayer observed by the Apostles we have, so to speak, the nucleus from which sprang that majestic and fruitful tree, the divine Liturgy, which yields so rich a harvest of sweetest flowers and fruit, to the glory of God and the help of man. Morning, noon and night were marked by a separate religious ceremony, — the other Canonical Hours were ail easy and early sequel.

Christian worship includes from the very beginning, and of necessity, two very distinct elements, that is, the breaking of bread, or the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and the recitation of prayers and Psalms with which the new converts had been familiar from their earliest years. We may learn something of the nature of these prayers from a famous text of St. Paul. Writing to his beloved Timothy, whom he had appointed Bishop of Crete, the Apostle gives him directions, not only for his personal conduct, but also concerning the life and practice of the Church. When the faithful meet for prayer let there be four different acts of worship: Obsecro igitur primum omnium fieri obsecrationes, orationes, postulationes, gratiarum actiones, pro omnibus hominibus. (I Tim. ii. 1.) Obviously there is no question here of mere private devotion, but of corporate prayer and thanksgiving — in other words, of a liturgical service. The earliest commentators have seen in this Apostolic injunction the rudiments, at least, of a Liturgy: Disciplinae leges tradidit (Paulus) pro publicis Ecclesiae precibus in Missa et Officio divino, says St. Ambrose (in Tim. Cf. Migne P. L. xvii. 466). St. Augustine, it is true, tries to apply the four Pauline terms exclusively to the four parts of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. However, already in the first century, St. Clement of Rome mentions an Apostolic ordinance of hours of worship. Obviously St. Paul insists only that Timothy should faithfully carry out in his church what was already an established custom elsewhere.

In his letter to the Church of Corinth written about the year 96, St. Clement makes a very marked distinction between the Eucharistic Sacrifice and other religious functions: "We must do all things in order, whatsoever our Lord has commanded us to do; at regular intervals Sacrifices and sacred Offices must be offered up at stated times and hours."

A little later we come across another allusion to the liturgical practices of the early Christians, one that is all the more valuable because it was never made for the sake of facilitating the antiquarian studies of posterity. Pliny the Younger was governor of Bithynia at the opening of the second century. In a report drawn up for his master, Trajan, the governor speaks of the assemblies of the Christians. He has nothing to reproach them with. All he knows about them is that they are wont to meet very early, ere the break of day: ant lucem convenire, hymnumque Christo quasi Deo canere. "Then they retire for a time" quibus peractis moram discedendi, to return once more at night, for a common meal." The Agape followed by the Eucharistic Supper. (Plin. Epist. I. x. 97.)

The Didache prescribes the recitation of the Lord's Prayer three times in the day and at fixed hours. This Prayer corresponds to the threefold sacrifice and worship of the Temple. These various prescriptions give us all the elements of a true Canonical Office. We must, moreover, bear in mind that the Jewish sacrifice of the middle of the day, and that of evening, had, by degrees, coalesced into but one, so that there were only two general assemblies in the Temple, for the purpose of sacrifice, one in the morning, the other in the late afternoon, or the early hours of evening. People still spoke of three sacrifices, just as we speak of Matins and Lauds as two distinct Offices. These were indeed at first distinct and separate, not only in character, but also as regards the time of their celebration; virtually, however, they form but the one Night-Office of the Church.

The writings of Tertullian are a most important source of information for the last two decades of the second century. In his book on Prayer he takes it for granted that all Christians observe the appointed times of prayer in the morning and at night. As for the remainder of the day, there is no special law, nevertheless he declares that "non erit otiosa extrinsecus observatio etiam horarum quarumdam, istarum dico communium quae diem inter spatia signant, tertia, sexta, nona, quas sollemniores in Scriptura invenire est." We must worship not less than three times a day, we who are the debtors of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. This obligation is altogether distinct from the established Prayer which must be offered, without any further insistence, at the beginning of night and day. (De Orat. 23-25.)

From the earliest times we likewise notice a tendency to associate certain hours of prayer with the mysteries of our Redemption. Thus in the Canones Hippolyti we read that all Christians should pray at the third hour of the day because at that hour the Saviour of the world voluntarily suffered Himself to be crucified for our salvation. (Another reading is: because at that hour our Lord was condemned by Pilate.) We should pray at the sixth hour, because at that hour all creation was perturbed by the grievous crime of the Jews; at the ninth hour, because at that hour Christ prayed and surrendered His spirit into the hands of His Father.

Each succeeding century adds its quota both to the stability and the solemnity of the Church's public Prayer. However, it was only at the peace of the Church, when she at last emerged from the thraldom and the cruel persecutions of the civilian powers, that the divine Office definitely took the form in which we know it. Two facts contributed very powerfully to this development, namely, the foundation and spread of the religious Orders and the religious observance of the mysteries of the Incarnation, that is, the establishment of the festivals of our Lord, our Lady, the Martyrs, and finally, even those of Saints who were not Confessors of the faith.

One would scarcely dare to affirm that the ascetae, or Monks, invented the Divine Office, the celebration whereof was their chief occupation. All they did was to add yet further to that which already constituted the daily task of the clergy, nay, even of the laity. As Thomassin remarks: "The holy discipline of monachism throws not a little light upon what I am about to say concerning Ecclesiastical Offices: quod enim a Matre acceperant, non sine foenore filii reddidere. The Monks began by being disciples of the Church, but such disciples that the Church deemed it a gain and an honor to follow in their wake." (Vet. et Nov. Eccl. Discipl. p. I, c. 2.)

We get a very clear idea of the constituent elements of the Divine Office after the peace of the Church by studying the famous Peregrinatio of Etheria. This noble and enterprising Gallo-Roman lady witnessed the celebration of the Liturgy in the Holy City towards the close of the fourth century. "Every morning," she tells us, "before cock-crow, the doors of the church of the Resurrection are opened, when Monks and Nuns come down — and not only they, but likewise such men and women as desire to keep watch with them. From that hour, until daybreak, hymns and psalms, responsories and antiphons are recited, and after each psalm a prayer is said . . . As soon as daylight appears, they begin the psalms of Matins and Lauds." Terce, Sexte and None are likewise observed. "At the tenth hour, which we call Lucernarium, the whole multitude gathers once more in the Anastasis, all the lamps and candles are lit and there is much brightness: then the psalms of Vespers are sung: dicuntur psalmi lucernares, sed et Antiphonae diutius"; that is, the Vesper Office was longer than that of Terce, Sexte and None. Also, the psalms that were sung were already determined by custom or ecclesiastical law.

In the writings of the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries we find many allusions to the offices, both of the day and the night. Nor were priests and monks the only ones to attend them; the faithful also participated in them, the more fervent among them assisting ever at the nocturnal psalmody. The Vigil, or nightwatch of the Paschal festival was universally observed. The Vigils of the Martyrs were also frequented, but a measure of liberty was allowed with regard to attendance at the latter. (Cf. St. Hieronym contra Vigilant.) The same St. Jerome recommends to Laeta that she take with her her little daughter, though still in her infancy, whenever she attends the night Offices of the great feasts. St. Jerome speaks of the Hours of Terce, Sexte, None, Vespers, Midnight and Morning.

Up to the fifth century the Divine Office was still in a state of flux. There was much variety and uncertainty. A master-hand was needed to co-ordinate the diverse elements of the Liturgy so as to make one harmonious whole. To this end God gave His Church that wonderful Liturgist, St. Benedict, the Patriarch of Western Monachism, who did for the Latin Church what King David had done for the services of the Temple: dedit in celebrationibus decus et ornavit tempora usque ad consummationem vitae, ut laudarent nomen sanctum Domini, et emplificarent mane Dei sanctitatem. (Eccll. xlvii. 12.)

It must be admitted that St. Benedict only legislated for his Monks. In his humility he goes so far as to suggest that if his ordering of the Divine Office displeases any one, he should hold himself at liberty to change, or improve upon it. However, the Church has not only maintained his work, but all historians and liturgists readily grant that the Roman Church has taken the arrangement of St. Benedict as her own model in the final ordering of her Liturgy. "As for the exact ordering of the Offices, the distribution of psalms, antiphons or responsories . . . there has been much variety in different churches . . . Provincial Councils strove to bring about uniformity. When this was at last realized, it was only brought about under the inspiration of the Benedictine Rule, particularly through the influence and practice of the monasteries of Rome, those great abbeys grouped round the basilicas of the Lateran, the Vatican, St. Mary Major, which gradually became Chapters, regular ones at first, and later on secular ones." (Duchesne, Origines du culte chret., p. 437.)

St. Benedict's aim was, in the first instance, so to order the distribution of the psalms that the entire psalter should be recited in the course of a week. The Scriptures, also, were to be read in their entirety, in the course of each year, together with those homilies or commentaries quae a nominatissimis, et orthodozis, et Catholicis patribus factae sunt. (Regula, c. 9.) The Night Office is to consist of never less than twelve psalms. Twelve psalms were also said at the Day Hours, three at each. The Lucernariurn was split into two Offices, respectively called Vespers and Compline. Each Hour begins with the invocation so dear to the ancient Saints of the Eastern deserts: Deus in adjutorium meum intende. St. Benedict also gives hospitality to metric hymns — the Ambrosianus, as he calls the new composition. By this we see that the great Law-giver borrowed from Milan as well as from Rome. However, it is always the great Roman Church that is his model (sicut psallit Ecclesia Romana) (Regula, c. 13).

When the Lombards destroyed the last foundation of St. Benedict, the Abbey of Monte Cassino, its Monks sought and found a new home near the Lateran. At the same time Benedictine monasteries sprang up in the immediate neighborhood of the other basilicas. In these, the Monks sang the Divine Office by day and by night. In this way, the ordering of the Office, as made by St. Benedict, obtained yet greater importance and influence. We may say that we owe to the great Saint a definitive ordering of the Divine Psalmody which was followed from the middle of the sixth century onwards, not only at Subiaco and Monte Cassino, but in the very centre of Christianity.

We may ask ourselves the question: "Did St. Benedict evolve a brand new order of psalmody, or did he base his disciplina psallendi upon what was in use in Rome?" It would appear that the latter was the case — or perhaps more correctly Monte Cassino and Rome reacted upon each other in this matter. A writer of the eighth century, or perhaps even of the middle of the seventh, says that the cursus of St. Benedict bears the greatest resemblance to the Roman liturgical curses: "Est et alius cursus, beati Benedicti, quem singulariter pauco discordantem a cursu Romano in sua Regula reperies scriptum." (Cf. Dict. d'archeol. chret. Breviaire, p. 1307.)

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

See also:

The Divine Office: Introductory

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

The Divine Office: Matins — Prayer at Night

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