June 09, 2006

The REAL “Opus Dei”

St. Benedict (who died in A.D. 547) called the daily schedule of official Church prayer at fixed hours “the work of God”— opus Dei in Latin. He also called it the “Divine Office” (“office” in the sense of “duty”).

What is it?

First of all, a striking affirmation!

The Church's “canonical hours of the liturgy” make up a “prayer/worship system” that, beyond the Mass, constitutes the Church’s OFFICIAL AND PUBLIC prayer life. In fact, the Church regards the “hours” as an extension of the “Liturgy of the Word” that makes up the first “half” of the Mass. Because of this the Church obligates deacons, priests, bishops (including the pope) and members of religious orders to offer up daily the canonical hours.

So, in union with the Pope, the Bishops and the priests, the order of obligation and devotion is: (1) the Mass, (2) the Liturgy of the Hours, (3) all other forms of personal, private devotions, prayers, reading, etc.

Many laypersons take up the canonical hours privately. It unites them to the Church’s formal, public mission of both worship offered to God and intercession offered for the world.


Questions I’ve received.

How closely do modern-day monasteries follow the classical forms of worship based on the canonical hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Compline, Vespers, etc.)?

And more specifically— it's been my impression … that the services of the canonical hours are primarily prayer services with closely prescribed orders of worship, such that most of what happens is scripted reading/response.

Therefore, two questions. In general, how much discretion would a monastery's religious leader have over the Scripture readings used in a given service (i.e., do monasteries typically adhere to liturgical calendars prescribed by central authority)? And in which of the daily services— if any— would the presiding priest typically give an original or personally drafted homily or sermon?


Now, some answers.

First of all, a little explanation of the “hours.”

Although the history of the liturgical hours of worship is older than St. Benedict, most of that history since he died has been dominated or at least influenced by his arrangements for monks.

St. Benedict arranged to have his monks gather in church to pray (by singing or reciting) certain Psalms at certain hours of the day. His arrangement provided for all 150 Psalms to be recited within the course of one week. Together with the Psalms, he provided for other “song-type” passages of Scripture to also be prayed. Sections of the singing or recitation would be interrupted by shorter or longer readings by a lector. There would also be responsories, hymns, intercessions.

Certain Psalms, because of what they say, fit certain times of day better than others, so they are deliberately scheduled for those times of day. Other Psalms are just distributed for the sake of distribution.


Here is the schedule of the classical hours together with some of the various names for them throughout history).

2 or 3 A.M., MATINS (also called Vigils or Office of Readings). This is the longest liturgical “hour” of the day.

A shorter or longer break (shorter in summer when the night is shorter, and longer in winter when the night is longer).

Around sunrise, LAUDS (Morning Prayer). Psalms 148, 149 and 150 all begin in Latin with “Lauda” (Praise!). These three psalms always concluded the Psalm section of this hour and are the source of the name “Lauds.”

Shortly after Lauds: PRIME (first hour after sunrise).

Midmorning: TERCE (from the Latin for “third”, since it is roughly three hours after sunrise).

Midday: SEXT (six hours after sunrise; the Latin for “sixth hour” is “hora sexta”). This is followed by a scheduled rest or nap. You would do the same if you had arisen at 2 or 3 A.M. The Spanish word “siesta” comes from the Latin “sexta.”

Midafternoon: NONE— rhymes with “bone”. Comes from “hora nona”— “ninth hour” in Latin. The Latins reckoned the day in rough three-hour shifts; they called the period from midday to midafternoon “nona”— from which English gets “noon.”

Sundown: VESPERS (Evening Prayer). “Vespers” is from the Latin for “evening.”

Bedtime prayers: COMPLINE (Night Prayer). The Latin is “completorium” for this service that completes the hours.


The longest service among those hours is Matins (Vigils or Office of Readings). In St. Benedict’s arrangement it is basically: six Psalms, a long reading from Scripture, a responsory, six more Psalms, another long reading from Scripture, a responsory, a few Scriptural canticles, a reading from the Fathers of the Church, a responsory, a reading of the Gospel, two hymns.

Lauds (Morning Prayer): Several Psalms and canticles, a short reading from Scripture, a responsory, a hymn, the Benedictus canticle, intercessions, Our Father.

Vespers (Evening Prayer) has the same structure as Lauds, except it has the Magnificat instead of the Benedictus.

The other hours (prime, terce, sext, none, compline) are all basically three psalms each, with a few other elements. These hours are usually called “The Little Hours.”


The monastery’s work periods, the meals, the times for solitary prayer and reading are woven in and out of the basic framework of the liturgical hours.


There are not enough Psalms to fill out the one-week structure that St. Benedict arranged. So, he provided that for Wednesday through Saturday, at the hours of prime, terce, sext and none, the monks would repeat at those hours the same Psalms they had used at those hours on Tuesday.

Since the hour of prime really just sort of got tacked on at the end of Lauds, the Vatican (after Vatican II) directed the entire Church to set aside the obligation to pray prime.

Monasteries are free to still arrange to pray all 150 Psalms over the course of one week.

The Vatican’s official publication of the “Liturgy of the Hours” is a four-volume set with the Psalms basically spread out over the course of four weeks. Since it is spread out over four weeks instead of one, the individual hours (particularly Matins and Lauds) are not as long as St. Benedict had them. Diocesan priests, members of religious orders, all monasteries, deacons, etc. may all legitimately make use of this publication. Religious orders, including those that usually live in monasteries, have some legitimate permission to restructure somewhat their own procedures of the Liturgy of the Hours.


Monasteries adapt the universal liturgical calendar to legitimately approved usages proper to the monastery. For instance, the universal calendar has July 11 as the memorial of St. Benedict. However, Benedictine monks also observe March 21 (as a feast or even a solemnity that supercedes Sunday), since it is the day St. Benedict died.

Monasteries may use the readings the Vatican published for the calendar of the hours, or they may select other Scripture readings. Some religious orders, with legitimate permission, have assembled their own selection of readings into an outright Lectionary.

As for homilies preached during the canonical hours … this may be done … but it practically never is.

The correct places for a homily: after the Gospel during Matins (Vigils); after the short reading at Lauds or Vespers.


It is legitimate to incorporate the hours into the Mass. This is regularly done in many monasteries and even at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

For instance, say a monastery is going to incorporate Lauds into the morning Mass. The priest vests as for Mass. The entrance song is sung. Lauds begins— but just the psalms. Then, the priest offers the Opening Prayer of the Mass, and then the Mass proceeds as normal from there. At communion, instead of the communion song, the Benedictus for Lauds is sung. (The same structure for Vespers with evening Mass, with the Magnificat for Vespers sung at communion.)

One occasion when Vespers is always incorporated into the Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome: the annual Papal Mass for the Opening of the Academic Year.


Final comments about the personal advantage of using the “Liturgy of the Hours.”

It unites you to the official, round-the-world prayer and worship of the pope, all bishops, priests, deacons and religious orders.

The themes expressed in the Psalms and throughout the Liturgy of the Hours don’t necessarily line up with your own concerns and moods and moments. So, if you let it do so, the Liturgy constantly calls you to a bigger picture than your lonely only. It is to be offered up as a sacrifice of praise and a sacrifice of intercession.

It can ground you in the two major movements of EVERYTHING: (1) the worship of God, (2) the world’s salvation (in all matters big and small). You end up praying God’s Word about himself, and praying God’s Word for the world and yourself.

“GLORY TO GOD in the highest … and on earth PEACE TO MEN on whom his goodwill rests!” (That does cover EVERYTHING, folks.)


Anonymous Deacon DW said...

You've done an excellent job of covering the questions. However, for anyone who still wants to know more, I suggest reading the "General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours," which you can find in Volume I of the Liturgy of the Hours pp. 21-98.

It's important to realize that the Liturgy of the Hours is the public prayer of the Church. It is meant to include clergy, religious, and lay people.

My personal experience with the Divine Office has been one in which it has brought me into a greater understanding of the Psalms, and of the prophetic voice within them and within the various canticles of the Old and New Testaments. These ancient prayers fortell the coming of the Christ, and the ultimate destiny of God's children.

By praying this most special prayer of the Church we can insure that the daily rhythm of prayer becomes one with our hearts. It can be a means for us toward unity in these precarious times when the our solidarity is threatened by divisions over many issues. But really that only begins to pierce the surface. The Office has an ability to instruct us that is as deep as the wellsprings of Spirit. Many of the great mystics, both ancient and modern, came to know the Divine Office as the key to receiving the gift of contemplation.

Thanks for the post on this! Have a blessed weekend.

8:50 PM  
Blogger Father Stephanos, O.S.B. said...

You can read the text of the "General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours" at:

9:08 PM  
Blogger Benedictine Oblate said...

Great post Father.

I can recommend another book about praying the Office. It is "The School of Prayer: an Introduction to the Divine Office for all Christians" by John Brook, The Liturgiacl Press, Collegeville , MI.
It is, just as the title indicates, an introduction to the Office, but in addition to direction on the Office, part two includes commentary on the (4-week Psalter) Psalms.


9:10 PM  
Anonymous Big Tom said...

For anyone interested in this form of prayer at all, I also recommend a short read by Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms.

ISBN #: 0814605486

It's only 48 pages and it helps explain why the Psalms and assists in developing your spiritual maturity to the point where you can better appreciate the daily prayer of the church based upon the Psalms.

~Big Tom

8:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am hoping you can help me? I am interested in the Schema of Canticles that were used at the III Nocturn for the Office of Matins/Vigils for Sundays through the Year and in the Commons and Propers (Tridentine Office). The Tridentine Roman Office used Psalms at the III Nocturn . I pray the Office and would like the list of these Canticles to be able to enrich my spiritual life. I am unable to afford reprints of the Benedictine Office that are offered on the Internet; if you might have an old beat-up copy(ies) of the Office Book(s), I would be most thankful to you if you could send it too me? I was in the religious life for many years, so I understand Latin--an English translation is not what I am looking for...

10:30 AM  
Blogger Father Stephanos, O.S.B. said...

My monastery's library is selling some of those as used books. Look into it.

They might also answer some of the specific questions you have.

10:32 AM  

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