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Divine Office: Matins—Prayer at Night

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey

Descriptive Title

Divine Office: Matins —Prayer at Night


This 1925 article continues the Benedictine Monks' series on the Divine Office, focusing on the development of the office of Matins or night prayer and the Psalms.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


361 – 367

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, January 1925

The Office of Matins is the longest, and by far the most important section of our liturgical worship. As the word itself indicates, the name Matins — Matutinum — designated originally the Office which was said at break of day and which we now call Lauds. Its primitive name was Vigilae — the night-watches. The early Christians generally — and the clergy and monks in particular — were wont to sanctify the silent hours of the night by the solemn and corporate praise of God. It would appear that there was even more than one nocturnal meeting, and that the assemblies of the faithful corresponded to the night-watches of the Roman army. Hence we get the designation Nocturn, or Vigil. It is, of course, impossible to prove categorically that the same set of persons assembled in church, at three different intervals, each consecutive night. Such a proceeding would have made the ordinary avocations of a work-a-day life all but impossible. But there is no doubt whatever that the practice of rising at about the middle of the night, for the purpose of prayer, is as old as the Church herself.

Prayer during the hours of darkness and silence has ever been one of the favorite practices of the saints of all ages. An inspired writer in the Old Testament tells us that such was his custom: Media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi (Ps. cxviii.). The ministers of the Temple are commanded to praise the Lord in the night-watches: Qui statis in domo Domini: in atriis Dei nostri; In noctibus extollite manus vestras in sancta: et benedicite Dominum! (Ps. cxxxiii.). Our divine Lord also warns us, and exhorts us, to watch during the hours of the night, for we know not the time of His coming "Watch ye, therefore, for you know not when the lord of the house cometh; at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning" (Mark xiii. 3.5).

All the faithful, as a body, were wont to observe, as a matter of course, the great Vigil before the feasts of Easter and Pentecost and, possibly, of some of the greater solemnities, such as the Epiphany. However, already in the fifth century there was but one meeting for prayer and praise, at about the middle of the night. To this night Office, properly so called, Lauds were immediately subjoined, at least during the summer months.

The Rule of St. Benedict is a faithful mirror of that which constituted the practice both of clerics and of monks during about the latter half of the fifth century. The Patriarch of Western Monachism ordains that during the winter months, when the nights are longest, his monks should rise at about the eighth hour of the night: ut modice amplius de media nocte pausetur. Lauds are separated from the night Office by a fairly long interval, during which, far from retiring to rest, the monks are to give themselves to private prayer and to the study of the psalms. At all times of the year Lauds are to be said at break of day, hence, during the short summer nights, there is but the briefest of intervals between the night-Office and Matins, which we now call Lauds: "parvissimo intervallo custodito, mox Matutini, qui incipiente luce agendi sunt, subsequantur" (Regula, cap. VIII).

The early Fathers are eloquent in their praise of nocturnal prayer. "Fire does not more efficaciously burn the rust from off iron, than prayer in the night consumes the rust of our sins: in the night-time our souls are refreshed with heavenly dew, even as the plants are, and that which is dried up by the heat of the day is refreshed during the night" (St. J. Chrysost. Hom. XXVI. in Act. Ap.). Even pagan philosophers understood the spiritual value of the night-watches. In Homer one of the Greek heroes is told that it becomes a leader of the people to sleep through the night, seeing that the welfare of so many people is committed to his keeping >em> (Iliad II). In effect, the silent hours of the night are eminently favorable to quiet thought and deep reflection. It is when we are freed from the vexatious cares of the day, when the garish light of this world no longer dazzles our vision, that we begin to understand the true value of life and to interpret its many riddles. Such was the experience of the royal prophet: "I thought upon the days of old, and I had in my mind the eternal years, and I meditated in the night with my own heart, and I was exercised, and I swept my spirit" (Ps. lxxvi. 6). We know prayer in the night to have been an apostolic practice. When Paul and Silas were cast into prison, at Philippi, they prayed in the middle of the night: "Media autem nocte, Paulus et Silas orantes, laudabant Deum" (Acts xvi. 25). The incident is alluded to in the hymn of Matins on Wednesday:

"Mentes manusque tollimus,
Propheta sicut noctibus
Nobis gerendum praecipit,
Paulusque gestis censuit."

Though we no longer observe the solemn watches of the night, but recite our Matins at more convenient hours, the night Office always retains its peculiar features. Its chief characteristic is that it stimulates the mind to serious reflection. Its most important elements are the psalms, carefully chosen readings from the Scriptures, the homilies of the Fathers and the lives of the saints and martyrs of God. Hymns, responsories, antiphons and versicles are interspersed between psalms and readings, in order to introduce a further element of variety and greater movement.


Since the psalms form so considerable a portion of the Divine Office it will not be out of place here to set down a few considerations and suggestions which may perhaps prove helpful towards a deeper appreciation and understanding of these sublime songs which we know to be truly inspired, not only in the loose sense in which a piece of poetry may be said to be inspired, but in the sense that they have been composed under the direct impulse and prompting of the Holy Ghost, "for prophecy came not by the will of man at any time, but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Ghost (II Pet. i. 21). It cannot be denied that the psalms are often obscure and do not readily yield their secret meaning — study and reflection are indispensable if we would understand the mystic burden of the songs of Sion. Many psalms are directly prophetic, telling of the mysteries of the Incarnation, and the sufferings and glories of the Messiah. In them, and through them, we indeed hear the voice of Christ Himself — for the psalm is often spoken in the name of the divine Descendant of David. St. Augustine, explaining the sixty-second psalm, speaks thus to his people: "The psalms which we sing were composed at the dictation of the Holy Ghost, ere Christ was born of the Virgin Mary: all that which we now read, or see, was foretold by these Prophets . . . This psalm (Ps. lxii.) is spoken in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and the members. For He is our Head, who was born of Mary, who suffered, was buried, rose again, ascended into heaven, and now pleads with the Father in our behalf . . ." Let us hear the psalm and let us understand Christ who speaks in it: "audiamus psalmum, et in eo Christum loquentem audiamus" (Enarrat. in ps. lxii.).

The psalms have a twofold sacredness, inasmuch as Jesus Christ Himself made of them the vehicle of His worship of His heavenly Father. They became the expression of the sentiments of submission, adoration and love with which His divine heart was filled. He knew them by heart — and treasured them up in His holy mind. He sang them with His disciples. Ere He entered upon His public ministry, during the long years of silence, solitude and labor, how often did He not unite His voice with the sweet voice of Mary, His Mother, and the manly voice of His foster-father, when these three holiest of beings sat together, at the close of the day, when the hours of toil were over and there was leisure for mutual intercourse. Surely, never since the world began, did such accents rise from earth to Heaven. Well might the Cherubs and Seraphs interrupt their everlasting Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, around the throne of God, that they might hearken to the ineffable melodies rising up from our sinful earth. That our blessed Lady's most noble intelligence was steeped in the knowledge of the sacred Scriptures, and the psalms, is made abundantly clear by her own sublime contribution to the daily song of the Church. The Magnificat contains the quintessence of the Scriptures and could only have been sung by one who had long fed upon the Word of God, until every thought spontaneously clothed itself in the phraseology of the inspired volume.

There are no hymns, or prayers, of human authorship that can stand a comparison with the psalms. The psalter is a priceless inheritance, enhanced by its antiquity and made yet richer by those who have used it before handing it down to us. Those very words which we have daily and almost hourly upon our lips, were spoken by the lips of the saints of the Old and the New Law. These canticles resounded once through the halls of Solomon's Temple, and re-echoed through the narrow streets of Jerusalem. They have been sung, deep down in the bowels of the earth, among the sepulchres of the dead, in the Catacombs of Rome, during three long centuries of persecution. Later on they re-echoed first under the golden roofs of imperial basilicas; then through the "lengthened aisle" and under "the fretted roof" of the noble cathedrals and stately abbey churches of the ages of faith. In the darkest forest of Central Africa they cheer the exiled missionary; like an echo of home, and a memory of youthful days, they gladden the loneliness of the apostles stationed in some isle lost in the wastes of the Pacific Ocean.

In whatever mood we may find ourselves, whatever may be the need of the moment, the difficulty of the hour — the words of the psalms will ever be found appropriate to the disposition of our souls, adapting itself, like the manna of old, to the taste and liking of all: paratum panem de coelo . . . omne delectamentum in se habentem, et omnis saporis suavitatem . . . deserviens uniuscujusque voluntati, ad quod quisque volebat, convertebatur" (Sap. xvi. 20, 21).

The best method of reciting the psalms is to identify ourselves as completely as possible with the sentiments they express — that is, in the oft-quoted words of St. Augustine: "Si orat psalmus, orate; et si gemit, gemite; et si gratulatur, gaudete; et si sperat, sperate et si timet, timete; omnia enim quae hic conscripta sunt, speculum nostrum sunt" (Enarrat. in psalm xxx, sermo iii). Let our souls be like a boat proudly riding on the waves, gently tossed hither and thither by the rhythmic motion of the waves; let us allow ourselves to be carried away by the sweet and powerful stream of the divine song. Or, to vary the metaphor, let each psalm, or even each verse, be to us what the waves are to a skillful swimmer — far from wearing out his energy in a vain endeavor to master the flood, such a one allows himself to be in turn lifted and lowered by the waves, and so, easily drifting, he reaches his goal. As verse succeeds verse, our souls are lifted up to God, in transports of adoration and love, and again they are lowered into the depths of self-knowledge and sincere humility which are born of genuine introspection. Yet all the time, without strain, and almost spontaneously, we shall feel ourselves being, as it were, taken out to sea — the sea of God's greatness, or that ocean with which St. Augustine compares the holy Scriptures in a line of matchless beauty: "Mira profunditas eloquionem tuorum, quorum ecce ante nos superficies blandiens parvulis; sed mira profunditas, Deus meus, mira profunditas! Horror est intendere in eam; horror honoris, et tremor amoris" (Confess. xii. c. xiv.).

However, if our psalmody is to produce in us these most desirable results, it must be, in the first instance, intelligent — psallite sapienter! Such understanding can only spring from study and attention. The psalms have a literal meaning, as well as a mystical and allegorical one. Some of the Fathers have indulged in allegorical explanations almost to the exclusion of their obvious meaning. In St. Augustine's beautiful Enarrationes there are many such explanations. Above all we should guard ourselves against overindulgence in the accommodated interpretation of the sacred text, which too often does violence to the inspired Word of God. A certain preacher, eager to excite his hearers' devotion to the Sacred Heart, chose for his text these words of psalm lxiii: "Accedet hotino ad cor altum et exaltabitur Deus," applying cor altum to the divine Heart, whereas in reality the deep heart here spoken of is the heart of the sinner. Then there is this verse of psalm xvii: "Cum Sancto sanctus eris, et cum viro innocente innocens eris et cum perverso perverteris." It is a verse dear to missioners and retreat preachers, who quote it to show the effects, upon our conduct, of the company we keep. Unfortunately for them, the text signifies only that God is good in His dealings with the just, and stern with the wicked. There is but little profit to be obtained from these fantastic adaptations which are sometimes almost an insult to the sacred text. On the other hand there is no need to strain ourselves unduly in an endeavor to catch the meaning of each single verse as it, so to speak, flits past us: "Non scrupulosius singula dicta psalmistae attribuantur Christo, vel Ecclesiae, sine animae fideli; sed paulo generalius res rebus potius attribuantur," says the learned and holy Thomasi.

If we would say our Office with due dispositions, so as to derive from it as much spiritual profit as possible, we should not fail to make a previous preparation — if not a lengthy one, then at least an intense one: "Before prayer prepare thy soul, and be not as a man that tempteth God" (Eccl. xviii. 23). We prepare ourselves most effectively by a devout recital of the prayer: Aperi Domine, by which we renounce and reject beforehand all vain and idle thoughts, whilst we, at the same time, unite our prayer with the prayer and praise which the Son of God offered to His heavenly Father during the days — and nights — of His mortal life.

It is likewise most helpful to have some definite intention for each hour of the Divine Office — to pray for some grace that we need — or to offer our Office for some person for whom we wish to pray; without, however, forgetting, that the Office is a truly Catholic and universal prayer, which we offer to God in behalf of the whole Church and even of all mankind.

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

See also:

The Divine Office: Introductory

The Divine Office: Formation

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

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