This article originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of The Epistle, the monthly newsletter of my St. Paul's, K Street. It was gleaned from more extensive notes for a lecture I gave on the subject some years earlier.
As Anglicans, we inherit a strong Benedictine influence from the medieval English church. When we observe silence in church before Mass, or when we bow at the Gloria patri, we demonstrate the persistence of the Benedictine ethos among 21st-century Anglo-Catholics. But the chief example of our Benedictine inheritance is the ongoing importance of the Daily Office. While it is not practical for those with families or full-time jobs to break for prayer seven or eight times a day, as monks do, the Prayerbook tradition has accommodated the necessities of life in the world by providing a two-fold pattern of morning and evening offices. The latest editions of Anglican Prayerbooks, including our own, have taken a step back towards the monastic tradition by providing additional offices for Noonday and Compline, along with flexible provisions for their use in parishes and homes. A brief look at the origins of the Daily Office might provide useful insights for our lives of common prayer as Anglo-Catholics.
Work. The various names for this daily round of services – Liturgy of the Hours, Daily Office, Divine Office, Opus Dei – all involve work. Liturgy, from the Greek leitourgia, means the work of the people, or a public work. Office means service or duty, and it is cognate with opus, which also means work.
The office is our work in two senses. First, it is work in the sense of a job – it is our job as the Church to serve God daily with our worship and prayers. Second, it is work in the sense of a work of art – a thing of beauty that we create or perform for God and offer to him.
Benedictine monastic life was built around the twin focuses of prayer and work – ora et labora. The desert fathers, in earlier times, had not divided these focuses: A hermit would recite the psalms while weaving baskets to support himself, approaching St. Paul's ideal of "prayer without ceasing." But when monks gathered in communities, the more strenuous demands of agricultural subsistence forced them to divide the day into set periods of work and prayer.
Hours. The offices are all associated with particular times of the day, and their names reflect this. The primary offices, often observed by the laity as well as the clergy and monks, were the morning and evening offices, Matins and Vespers, associated with the rising and setting of the sun. The name Matins comes from Matuta, goddess of the dawn. The name Vespers comes from the Latin for evening, and it is cognate with west, where the sun sets. These offices are sometimes described as successors to the twice-daily offering of incense at the temple: our prayers rise to God as a sweet-smelling offering.
The night office was originally called Vigils. In the earliest times, it was probably observed only on Saturday night/Sunday morning, as an anticipation of the Eucharist that would be celebrated at sunrise. For monks, it became part of the daily round of offices. The monks would rise at midnight to greet the new day with prayer and then return to their beds. (Sleeping through the night uninterrupted was thought to be decadent, and therefore improper for monks.) Vigils was divided into two parts (three on Sundays and feasts) called Nocturns. Each of the two Nocturns consisted of six psalms and a tripartite reading from the Scriptures or the Fathers. The number of psalms at Vigils was said to be set once and for all when an angel visiting the oratory for the office departed after the twelfth psalm: It was decided thereupon that twelve psalms were sufficient for monks as well as for angels.
St. Benedict scheduled the night office a bit later – 2 or 3 AM – so that his monks could rise for Vigils with their night's rest completed. (He thought it was decadent for monks to return to bed after rising.) In many places, Vigils came to be observed so late that it immediately preceded the morning office. Vigils was therefore renamed Matins, and the morning office was renamed Lauds, after the laudate psalms, 148-150, which are recited daily at the morning office. (This switch in the application of the name Matins from the morning office to the night office confuses nearly every non-expert who tries to write about the offices. Otherwise authoritative sources often bungle or bluff their definitions of Matins.)
The three short daytime offices were called simply by the hours when they were observed – Terce, Sext, and None – the third, sixth, and ninth of the twelve daylight hours. These hours were associated in the Gospels with Jesus' crucifixion and in Acts with events in the lives of the apostles.
This made six offices. Psalm 119 refers to prayer seven times a day, so there was a scriptural warrant for one more office. They settled for two additional offices, making a total of eight. The new offices, Prime and Compline, were, in their origins, private prayers of the monks, said in the dormitory rather than the oratory. Prime (the first daylight hour) was said to be invented by an abbot who wanted to keep his monks busy so that they could not return to bed after Lauds. (Early abbots seem to have put sleep deprivation right up there with fasting as a spiritual discipline.) Compline (the "completion" of the day) was the monks' bedtime prayer. Prime and Compline can be seen as parallel in much the same way that Lauds and Vespers are parallel. In the early 20th century, Prime was suppressed, and few in the West do it anymore, though it remains in the East.
By the time of the Reformation, the canons at secular cathedrals would often perform multiple offices in a single sitting. Matins, Lauds, and Prime would be sung together in the morning; Terce, Sext, and None during the day; and Vespers and Compline in the evening. In assembling the first Book of Common Prayer, Archbishop Cranmer carried this another step. He conflated the first three offices into Mattins and the last two into Evensong. The names of these office were later changed to Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, but the older names persist in some places, especially in reference to choral services.
Time. In the Eucharist, we step out of earthly time, into the timelessness of eternity. By contrast, the Liturgy of the Hours is rooted solidly in time. It is a way of sanctifying time, dedicating to God the time he has given us in this world, and channeling his grace into the world.
Psalms. The traditional heart of the office is recitation of the psalter. Benedictines traditionally recite all 150 psalms weekly. Some modern orders recite them bi-weekly, and Anglicans traditionally recite them monthly. At St. Paul's, we follow the schedule of psalms in the Daily Office Lectionary, which provides for the recitation of the entire psalter over a period of seven weeks.
The psalms can be difficult for modern readers. One tremendously helpful resource is a small book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. One of Bonhoeffer's useful suggestions is to recall the traditional connection of the psalms to David.
Another helpful approach is to imagine Christ reciting the psalms with us – to understand them through the his eyes, interpreted in his light, remembering that we are members of his Body. This brings new or added meaning to psalms that otherwise might seem obscure or objectionable. It is particularly helpful when the psalmist proclaims his innocence or his guilt: We are not innocent, but we partake of Christ's innocence, and he bears our guilt. When the psalmist calls for vengeance against an enemy, we must be careful to understand this not as our personal enemy, but as the enemy of God – it might even be ourselves – and to remember that any vengeance or punishment has already been borne by Christ.
The psalms honestly express the entire range of human emotions. The expression of some of these emotions – anger, hatred, exultation in violence – is out of favor, and the psalms that express them are also out of favor in some places. But the psalms can be helpful precisely because they give voice to our emotions. When these emotions are suppressed, reciting the psalms can actually help us to bring them to the surface, where we can acknowledge them and begin to deal with them.
Dialogue. St. Isidore, a seventh-century Bishop of Seville, wrote, "When we pray, we talk to God. And when we read [the Scriptures], God talks to us." In the Daily Office, we hear God's word to us as the Scriptures are read, and we respond to God in prayer. In this way, the Church maintains a perpetual dialogue between heaven and earth.
At any given time, the prayers are always being offered somewhere in the world. When we participate, we pray not as lone individuals, but as members of the Church, praying with the Church, for the Church and for the world.
There was once a Byzantine monastery whose denizens were nicknamed "the sleepless monks." These monks were divided into three shifts, and one shift remained in choir, singing the offices, at all times. This is a big burden for a single monastery, but it is not too big a burden for the whole Church to share.