Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Learn the Office 1.5 - What changes and what doesn't in the Office

The last of the preliminaries I want to cover before we get down to the hours themselves and their components, is about the distinction the fixed parts of the Office, and those that change with week, season and/or feast.

In this post I want to provide a bit of an overview of each of these cycles which you can refer back to as we go through the Office in more detail.


The Benedictine Office contains several different cycles which affects what you should say in it, encompassing:
  • the eight 'hours' said through each day and night;
  • the cycle of psalms and other prayers that change with the day of the week
  • the annual liturgical cycle, which is based around the week of the liturgical year, including movable feasts whose date depends on the date of Easter each year; and 
  • feasts attached to fixed dates in each month of the calendar year.

The hours 

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The eight hours

As noted previously, the Benedictine Office is made up of eight separate sets of prayers called 'hours', although in reality they are mostly much shorter than that to say.

They are called the hours because they mark the turn of them.

In St Benedict's time, the day was divided into twelve even hours of daylight  - so an 'hour' was shorter in winter and longer in summer.

The hours mostly just the Roman name of the hour.  So Prime means first, for the first hour of the day; Terce, means the third hour; Sext the sixth; and None the ninth.

The table below summarises when each hour is ideally said.  Note that while it is good to aim to say those hours that you say at around the correct time, it isn't absolutely essential.  Just make sure you say whichever hours you say in the correct order.

Hour of the Office
Indicative time of day said
Matins (not in Diurnal)
In darkness, very early morning
First light/dawn
Before starting work
Sunset/early evening
Before bed

Note that while professed religious (monks and nuns) are generally obliged to say all of the hours each day, laypeople are simply encouraged to say whatever hours of the Office they can.  Before Vatican II many monasteries encouraged their Oblates to say Prime and Compline; these days many suggest Lauds and Vespers.

The fixed elements of the hours

Each of the hours has some fixed elements.

The extreme case of this is Compline, where all of the texts used are the same each day; only the Marion antiphon and prayer at the end varying with the seasons.

Some fixed elements are common to most or all of the hours - the opening and closing prayers for example.

Many of these fixed elements, though, are particular to the individual hours, and help give each of them a distinctive flavour.

At Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Compline, for example, the hymns are the same each day at that particular hour, and include references to the time of day when the hour is said.

Lauds and Vespers both include New Testament Canticles, the Benedictus and Magnificat respectively.

Matins and Lauds both contain psalms appropriate to the hour that are said every day of the week.

Day of the week

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Aside from Compline, all of these hours include some elements that change over the course of the week.

Terce, Sext and None have a threefold form, with different stanzas of Psalm 118 being used at each hour on Sunday and Monday, and then repeats the first nine of the Gradual psalms on Tuesday to Saturday each week.

The remaining hours - Matins, Lauds, Prime and Vespers - each have unique sets of psalms, as well as some other elements, such as hymns for each day of the week for most of the year.

The liturgical week and seasons

The Office is closely linked to the Mass, and this is particularly reflected in the Office as it is said on Sunday.

St Benedict makes it clear in his Rule that the liturgical week starts with Sunday.  And Sundays in the liturgy have specific texts attached to them, appropriate to the changing liturgical seasons.

In the Office as it has evolved over time, the links between the Mass and the Office are made clear by use of the same collect most of the time, and by antiphons at Lauds and Vespers of Sunday that normally refer to the Gospel of the day (in the Extraordinary Form calendar).

Some of the other standard parts of the Office, such as the hymns at Lauds and Vespers, also change to reflect the liturgical season or day.

Feasts fixed by calendar date

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The final cycle that affects the Office is that of feasts fixed to particular calendar dates - feasts or other special days that always occur on a particular date, such as Christmas Day, and feasts of individual saints.

The Monastic Diurnal provides a listing of those in the 1962 General Calendar by month in the front section.  Each monastery, diocese, country or region has its own special feasts that you will need to add to this yourself though.

Using an Ordo

In theory you can use the table of movable feasts that appears in the front of the Monastic Diurnal to work out which season and week of the liturgical year you are in, and so what collect and other texts you need to use.

And you can use the calendar to track what feasts of saints are reflected in the Office.

In practice though, the interactions between movable days and calendar date feasts can get quite complex.

The best approach is therefore to use an 'Ordo' for the Office, that helps keep you keep track of what you should be doing.

Ordos normally tell you about the things that differ, on a particular day, to the standard 'ferial', or everyday Office.

Some monasteries put out their own Ordos for the use of their Oblates.

Alternatively you can use the 'default Ordo', which follows the General Calendar for the Benedictine Order provided on the Saints Will Arise, and just add in any feasts that apply to your particular monastery or location.


For more details on the rules around when the hours are properly said, go here.

And you can find the next part of this series, on prayers before saying the Office here.

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