Divine Office / Little Office of the BVM / Liturgical Spirituality / Western Spirituality

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Liturgical Spirituality for Our Time

What is the Divine Office?

The Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours (or “breviary” from the book containing the contents of the offices) 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 as the collective, public prayer of the people of God developed very early on and, as its focus on the Psalms shows, has roots in ancient Judaism before the advent of Christianity. It 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.
  • Nature of Prayer: Whether prayed in the full splendor of a magnificent cathedral, the austere chancel of a monastery, or in a living room or backyard, alone or with family or friends, the Office is public liturgical prayer by its nature. This is so whether prayed by Pope, priest, or peasant. This contrasts it with any other form of private prayer and devotion encouraged by the Church—the Rosary, the Jesus Prayer, novenas, litanies, akathists, chaplets, or anything else. This fact alone makes the Office more worthy and more powerful than any prayer anyone could ever offer, short of the Mass. As St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori wrote:

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.

The Divine Office and Popular Participation: Unrealized Hopes

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council’s Constitution on the Sacred LiturgySacrosanctum 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).

Likewise, the 1983 Code of Canon Law’s Can. 1174 §2 states: “Other members of the Christian faithful [i.e. other than religious and those in holy orders who are under obligation], according to circumstances, are also earnestly invited to participate in the liturgy of the hours as an action of the Church.”

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, and participation by the faithful in them.

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 is 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.

In my opinion, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a millennium-old liturgical tradition that was once a staple of lay liturgical participation and parochial celebration, can once again be a bridge toward a future of this revitalization of popular liturgical piety.

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary: A Very Brief Historical Sketch

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 ended up becoming what we know as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Over the centuries, Our Lady’s Office gained immense popularity in the Western Church. Its hours were celebrated as public 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 Mother of God made it an instant winner for pious Catholics.

The Structure of the Little Office

Traditionally, the hours of the Little Office mirror those of the Divine Office in the Roman rite:

  • Matins (Midnight Vigil) – 12 a.m. or 3 a.m., or sometime before dawn (may also be “anticipated” the evening before)
  • 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)

Which of these hours are best to add first when starting a personal or family prayer rule?

According to the council fathers at Vatican II, “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.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 89/a, emphasis mine)

Alternatively, many may opt for Prime (“first hour,” a form of morning prayer significantly shorter than Lauds) and Compline (Night Prayer before bed), as the shortest and easiest to learn. 

In any event, an initial prayer rule may always be expanded later as the opportunity presents itself.

A Lay and Parochial Office for Our Time?

There are several reasons the Little Office suggests itself upon consideration as an ideal “on-ramp” for both individuals, groups of faithful, and even entire parishes and church communities toward a fuller liturgical spirituality.

Unlike the full Divine Office, the Little Office does not involve complicated 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 the same from day to day. Some of them vary slightly with important seasons (Advent, Christmas, Easter). Matins (the vigil hour, traditionally said in the middle of the night, before the break of dawn, or “anticipated” the night before) is the only hour that has a daily variable part.

This repetitiveness can serve as a very powerful way to immerse people, including young children, into liturgical celebration, teaching them psalms, scripture, chant tones, etc.

The experience of those churches that use the Byzantine rite can be very instructive here. Divine offices celebrated in a parish community are often much less variable than either pre- or post-Vatican II forms of the full liturgy of the hours in the Latin church. For instance, the several Vespers psalms in the Byzantine rite are fixed and repeated from day to day, and are separate from the component of variable psalmody that a parish would generally skip and leave to monastics with a lot more time on their hands. In my personal experience attending Byzantine-rite services, even 4- and 5-year-olds will sing entire psalms from memory simply because they are accustomed to it, and because they do not vary from service to service.

There are several other reasons commending the Little Office to our individual, communal and parochial use:

  • 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 the complete canonical Roman Office (whether of the older or the reformed variety), the Little Office is very well suited to a busy lay family life due to the shorter hours and the overwhelmingly invariable parts, promoting immersion while still keeping intact the structure and spirit of the Roman Office.
  • Its repetitive nature allows people to learn its proper chant much more easily than a much broader, constantly changing system of services.
  • It contains psalms and canticles in their entirety (unlike the modern Liturgy of the Hours), and its English translations tend to have dignified language more faithful to the Latin than the Liturgy of the Hours’ current English translation. Although admittedly, this linguistic gap will narrow somewhat once the Liturgy of the Hours Second Edition is released several years from now, the censored psalms and canticles will still remain a problem in the updated translation.
  • It is compatible with regular worship in both the Extraordinary Form, the Ordinary Form, and the Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans. Yes, the rubrics and structure of the traditional Little Office are aligned with the Extraordinary Form, but its content is generally not dependent on the Roman calendar of saints, 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. Consequently, parishes and groups of faithful who worship primarily or even exclusively according to the ordinary form of St. Paul VI can still easily make use of the traditional Little Office without major liturgical disruption or divisiveness.
  • It is an excellent primer in ecclesiastical Latin. 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 [95]), 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. People can easily start all in English and work their way up to more and more Latin. Vernacular could easily be used freely in parochial celebrations as well. Many European Catholic countries, e.g. Hungary, still have a strong tradition of a “folk office,” publicly celebrated by clergy, which uses the structure, form, contents and even chant tones of the traditional Tridentine offices, but in the vernacular. Any hard-and-fast rule that “if it’s from before 1969, it has to be in Latin to count” is a rather arbitrary, artificial and ahistorical controversy upon examination. Here is another example of a (packed) Polish church celebrating a mixed Latin-Polish Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary with clergy and full public liturgical decorum.
  • It allows people to immerse themselves fully in the mystery of God’s incarnation of the Virgin Mary. You meet the 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.”
  • Hard copies of the Little Office are cheap, and much more accessible than full breviaries costing over one- to several hundred dollars apiece. They start at about $20 — and the more expensive Baronius Press version ($30) even contains the complete Gregorian chant for the entire office. (Update: Here is the most affordable place to get the Baronius edition, discounted at $26.95.) For the cost of two sets of the Liturgy of the Hours (or only one single set of the 1960 Roman Breviary), a group or parish could put the Little Office in the hands of 8-10 people, and incentivize the formation of permanent groups of faithful that regularly celebrate these services, individually or together.

I pray that there comes a time when a robust, vigorous liturgical spirituality is normal again for the entire people of God beyond clergy, religious and rare lay aficionados, and I suspect that the intercession of Our Lady, and the more widespread use of her Little Office, may end up playing an important role in such a future.

2 thoughts on “The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Liturgical Spirituality for Our Time

  1. Pingback: Getting Young People (Back) to Church — and Getting Them to Stay | Tom's Digest

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