“Then the creator of all things commanded, and said to me: and he that made me, rested in my tabernacle, And he said to me: Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thy inheritance in Israel, and take root in my elect.”
(from Reading 1, Matins of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
- What is the Office?
In short, the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, forms (together with the Holy Eucharist) the full spectrum of the official liturgical prayer of the Church as Church—as the Body of Christ.
The Office developed very early on, and has taken countless forms over the many centuries, in both East and West. Nonetheless, these forms have always shared some key common features:
- Goal: To sanctify each period of the day with divine praises based on the Word of God.
- Content: Based primarily on the Psalms of David and select Canticles from the Old and New Testaments, and enriched over the centuries with the prayers and hymns of the Church.
- Structure: The “hours” (named so because of their generally fixed times, not because it takes an hour to pray them!) follow each other at three-hour intervals, at least in theory. But in the context of different traditions and for a myriad pastoral reasons, this has varied greatly in practice. More on their timing later.
- Nature of Prayer: Whether prayed in the full splendor of a magnificent cathedral, the austere chancel of a monastery, or in your living room alone or with family or friends, the Office is public liturgical prayer by its nature. This is so whether prayed by the Pope, the parish priest, or the poor peasant. This contrasts it with literally any other form of private prayer and devotion rightly encouraged by the Church—the Rosary, the Jesus Prayer, novenas, litanies, akathists, chaplets, or anything else. In short: When I pray my rosary, I pray as Tom. When I pray the Office, I pray as the Church. This fact alone makes the Office more worthy and more powerful than any prayer I could ever offer, short of the Mass. But don’t take my word for it—the great Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori writes (hat-tip to my friend the Modern Medievalist),
“Many private prayers do not equal in value only one prayer of the divine Office, as being offered to God in the name of the whole Church and in his own appointed words. Hence St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi says that, in comparison with the divine Office, all other prayers and devotions are but of little merit and efficacy with God. Let us be convinced, then, that after the holy Sacrifice of the Mass the Church possesses no source, no treasure, so abundant as the Office, from which we may draw such daily streams of grace.”
2. Why Pray the Office?
What, St. Alphonsus didn’t convince you?
The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, says Christ “continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. She does this, not only by celebrating the eucharist, but also in other ways, especially by praying the divine office.” (SC 83, emphasis mine)
The Council Fathers further expressed a strong desire that “the divine office . . . be better and more perfectly prayed in existing circumstances, whether by priests or by other members of the Church” (SC 87, emphasis mine).
Unfortunately, this renewal has not exactly happened on the grassroots level—to put it mildly. Most of us Western Christians have become profoundly unfamiliar with the Office even on the individual level, let alone parish or cathedral celebrations.
(By contrast, the Eastern Churches have generally maintained more of the tradition of public celebration of the Hours. Go to many an Orthodox or Eastern Catholic parish’s website, and chances are you will find at least Orthros [Morning Prayer in the Byzantine rite] celebrated before the Sunday Divine Liturgy.)
Especially for the last 500 years or so in the West, the Office has increasingly become part of the ordained priesthood’s private domain.
It’s time to follow the Church’s own wish and reclaim the Office for all of us as the public prayer of the Body of Christ!
3. What is the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary?
Sometime in the 8th century, the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino started appending additional psalms and hymns to their regular monastic Office in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This (to sum up a crude historical sketch) ended up becoming what we know as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Over the centuries, it gained immense popularity in the Western Church. The Little Hours of the Blessed Virgin were celebrated publicly as liturgy. Rich laypeople would commission scribes to create beautiful illuminated Books of Hours containing the Little Office and other prayers. Even the poor and illiterate who could not afford (or read) books could very easily familiarize themselves with the Little Office, because of its daily repetitive nature and few variable parts. And its focus on the perennially popular devotion to the Ever-Virgin Mother of God made it an instant winner for pious Catholics.
4. The Structure of the Little Office
The structure of the hours of the Little Office may seem intimidating, but I promise you, it’s not—it just takes a bit of getting used to.
Unlike the full Office, there is no flipping between 3-5 different ribbons, or figuring out the current feast day and its rank, etc. The vast majority of the Little Office’s components are literally the same from day to day. Some of them vary slightly with important seasons (Advent, Christmas, Easter). Matins (the vigil hour) is the only hour that has a daily variable part.
In any event, traditionally the hours of the Little Office are:
- Matins (Midnight Vigil) – 12 a.m. or 3 a.m. (or sometime in the middle of the night. I personally pray this around 5:30 a.m., combined with the Rite of First Coffee.)
- Lauds (Dawn/Morning Prayer) – usually immediately following Matins
- Prime (First Hour/Morning Prayer) – 6 a.m.
- Terce (Third Hour/Midmorning Prayer) – 9 a.m.
- Sext (Sixth Hour/Noon Prayer) – 12 noon
- None (Ninth Hour/Midafternoon Prayer) – 3 p.m.
- Vespers (Evening Prayer) – 6 p.m. (or sunset)
- Compline (Night Prayer) – 9 p.m. (or just before retiring)
Note: The structure above represents the form of the Roman Office according to the rubrics of 1960, before the 1970 reforms by Bl. Pope Paul VI.
The above are guidelines that are flexible based on your circumstances. For instance, on a good day, I would:
- Start my day combining Matins, Lauds and Prime. It takes me about 40-45 minutes total, and that’s accounting for a lot of chant. (I estimate the three hours combined would take maybe 20-30 minutes at most, if one just said it without any chant all the way through.)
- Pray Terce right after I get into the office (no pun intended) around 9 a.m., and before I start my workday in earnest. It takes no more than 4-5 minutes.
- Pray Sext during my lunch break.
- Pray None either right after Sext (if I know I’ll have a busy afternoon), at its proper time in the midafternoon (around 3-4 p.m.), or stopping by at the Adoration Chapel for a few minutes around 6 p.m. on my way home from work.
- Pray Vespers at home right after putting the kids to bed.
- Pray Compline immediately before retiring, so it’s the last thing I do before getting in bed.
That’s on a good day, not (alas) every day. More often than not, I’m negligent and let the cares of this world make me put off one or more of the hours. But I try.
5. Why I love the Little Office: A few points
- It is liturgical prayer, as noted above. Those who pray the Office are “not only fulfilling a duty of the Church, but also are sharing in the greatest honor of Christ’s spouse, for by offering these praises to God they are standing before God’s throne in the name of the Church their Mother.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 85)
- Unlike its “big brother” the 1960 (and pre-1960) complete Roman Office, it is very well suited to a busy lay family life due to the shorter hours and the many invariable parts, while still keeping intact the structure and spirit of the Roman Office.
- It contains psalms in their entirety (unlike the modern Liturgy of the Hours), and has elevated language more faithful to the Latin than the Liturgy of the Hours’ current English translation. (The International Commission for English in the Liturgy is currently working on re-translating the LOTH to better accord with the Latin original—a very promising project, but one that will likely take many more years to come to fruition.)
- It is compatible with regular worship in both the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinary Form. Yes, its rubrics and structure are aligned with the EF, but its content is generally not dependent on the Roman sanctoral calendar, so there is no discrepancy between your Sunday Mass and your Office if you attend the Pauline Mass or the Ordinariate. (There is one minor exception to this: the Ordinary Form suppressed the season of Septuagesima, the pre-Lenten preparation period starting with the Third Sunday before Lent through Ash Wednesday. The Little Office’s “Lent” rubrics really begin with Septuagesima, not celebrated in the Novus Ordo. But this can easily be worked around.)
- It is the best primer in ecclesiastical Latin! Both available hard-copy editions are English-Latin, side-by-side. And it includes such important parts of our Catholic heritage as the invitatory psalm Venite (Psalm 94 ), the Benedictus (Canticle of Zechariah), the Magnificat (the Canticle of Mary), the Nunc dimittis (Canticle of Simeon), and the Sub tuum praesidium—one of the oldest Marian prayers in Christian history. You can easily start all in English and work your way up to more and more Latin.
- It allows you to immerse yourself fully in the mystery of God’s wondrous incarnation of the Virgin Mary. You meet the Ever-Virgin Mother of God prefigured in the Psalms and throughout Scripture; you rejoice with her in her earthly life; she shines forth triumphant, “terrible as an army set in array,” having “destroyed all heresies throughout the world.”
- It is the best weapon in the spiritual fight for purity. Yes, our Blessed Mother is a “Virgin tender and mild”—but she is also the fierce Queen of Heaven, higher than the Angelic Host, and an impenetrable fortress against the world, the flesh, and the devil. That’s why, in certain hours of the Little Office, we ask her to “grant me strength against thine enemies.” In my personal experience, there is nothing that drives out impure or lustful thoughts and impulses more effectively than the habit of regularly praying the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. (Note the emphases; it has to be cultivated. It takes perseverance. It’s not magic.)
- It is cheap (as little as $19.95 if you want the book) or free (if you’re OK with praying from your phone/device—more below on how)! Compare that to $140 (or so) for a 4-volume modern Liturgy of the Hours, or $350+ for a complete 1960 English-Latin Roman Breviary!
This list is non-exhaustive.
6. A few tips on how to begin
First, unless you are a priest, deacon or religious, and canonically obligated to pray the entire Office, you can say as much or as little of it as you want or are able.
Especially if you have little or no experience with similar forms of structured prayer, take it easy and add one or two hours at a time to your routine. See how it goes!
Which hours are best to add first?
According to Sacrosanctum Concilium, “By the venerable tradition of the universal Church, Lauds as morning prayer and Vespers as evening prayer are the two hinges on which the daily office turns; hence they are to be considered as the chief hours and are to be celebrated as such.” (SC 89/a, emphasis mine)
Alternatively, you may find that Compline (Night Prayer before bed) is the shortest and easiest to learn. You could start with that, and work your way up gradually to Lauds and/or Vespers, and beyond.
Most importantly, saying only one of the hours is always better than saying none of them!
7. How to get it
For the book version, you have two choices:
- Angelus Press – $19.95 (this is what I use)
- Pros: Cheapest; includes the Office of the Dead
- Cons: A few typos here and there; no ribbon; no Gregorian chant notation; relatively cheap cover and binding quality
- Baronius Press – $29.95
- Pros: Better cover and binding quality; ribbon; includes Gregorian chant notation for some parts
- Cons: No Office of the Dead; more expensive
You can also pray it online for free (and/or familiarize yourself with it before deciding to sink money into a hard-copy book). Visit the Divinum Officium Project, click/tap on PC or Mobile as appropriate, select “Rubrics 1960” (should be default) and “Parvum B.M.V.” and click/tap on the Hour you want to pray. Voila!
If you’ve gotten this far… Wow! Thanks for reading! I hope you found the above useful, and I hope you will join me (and the Church) in honoring the Mother of God, our own Mother, more fully by praying her Little Office!