Canonical hours

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Canonical hours are ancient divisions of time, developed by the Christian Church, serving as increments between the prescribed prayers of the daily round (also called "offices").

Canonical hours also refer to the official set of prayer of the Roman Catholic Church that is known variously as the Liturgy of the Hours (Latin: liturgia horarium), the Divine Office (from the Latin officium divina meaning "divine service" or "divine duty"), and the Opus Dei (meaning in Latin, "Work of God"). A Book of Hours contains such a set of prayers.

The practice grew from the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at set times of the day: for example, in the book of Acts, Peter and John visit the temple for the afternoon prayers (Acts 3:1). Psalm 119:164 states: "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws."

Though this practice is believed to have been passed down through the centuries from the Apostles., it was in 525 that St. Benedict wrote the first official manual for praying the Hours. With the Cluniac reforms of the 11th century there was a new emphasis on liturgy and the canonical hours in the reformed Benedictine priories with the Abbey of Cluny at their head. The Vatican did not issue an official Roman breviary until the 11th century, as part of the reforms that were designed to bring all the variant usages of Christian churches in the West into conformity.

Already well-established by the ninth century, these canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events and three (or four) nightly divisions (called "nocturnes", "watches," or "vigils"). Building on the recitation of psalms and canticles from Scripture, the Church has added (and, at times subtracted) hymns, hagiographical readings, and other prayers.

The practice of observing canonical hours are maintained by many Churches, including the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Anglican communion.

The daily events were:

  • (at dawn) Matins ("MATT'-inz"), or Vigils in many religious communities - called "Orthros" in Eastern Churches
  • (at dawn) Lauds ("lawds") later separate from Matins in the West; aka "Morning Prayer" or "The Praises."
  • (at ~6 AM) Prime (the "first hour")
  • (at ~9 AM) Terce (the "third hour")
  • (at Noon) Sext (the "sixth hour")
  • (at ~3 PM) None (the "ninth hour")
  • (at bedtime) Compline ("COMP'-lin", aka "Night Prayer")

The remainder of this article is divided into three sections: the Catholic usage, the Anglican usage, and the Orthodox usage.


Catholic Usage

Judaism and the Early Church

As is noted above, the canonical hours stemmed from Jewish prayer. In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelite priests to offer sacrifices of animals in the morning and evening (Exodus 29:38-29). Eventually, these sacrifices soon moved from the Tabernacle to the Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem. During the Babylonian Exile, when the Temple was no longer in use, the first synagogues were established, and the services (at fixed hours of the day) of Torah readings, psalms, and hymns began to evolve. This "sacrifice of praise" began to be substituted for the bloody sacrifices of animals.

After the people returned to Judea, the prayer services were incorporated into Temple worship as well. As time passed, the Jews began to be scattered across the Greco-Roman world in what is known as the Diaspora. By the time of the Roman Empire, the Jews (and eventually early Christians) began to follow the Roman system of conducting the business day in scheduling their times for prayer. In Roman cities, the bell in the forum rang the beginning of the business day at about six o'clock in the morning (prime, the "first hour"), noted the day's progress by striking again at about nine o'clock in the morning (terce, the "third hour"), tolled for the lunch break at noon (sext, the "sixth hour"), called the people back to work again at about three o'clock in the afternoon (none, the "ninth hour"), and rang the close of the business day at about six o'clock in the evening (the time for evening prayer).

The first miracle of the apostles, the healing of the crippled man on the temple steps, occurred because Peter and John went to the Temple to pray (Acts 3:1). Also, one of the defining moments of the early Church, the decision to include Gentiles among the community of believers, arose from a vision Peter had while praying at noontime (Acts 10:9-49).

As Christianity began to separate from Judaism, the practice of praying at fixed times continued. The early church was known to pray the Psalms (Acts 4:23-30), which has remained a part of the canonical hours and all Christian prayer since. By 60 AD, the Didache, the first manual for Christians, recommended disciples to pray the Lord's Prayer three times a day; this practice found its way into the canonical hours as well.

By the second and third centuries, such Church Fathers as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian wrote of the practice of Morning and Evening Prayer, and of the prayers at terce, sext, and none. The prayers could be prayed individually or in groups. By the third century, the Desert Fathers (the earliest monks), began to live out St. Paul's command to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) by having one groups of monks pray one fixed-hour prayer while having another group pray the next prayer.

Middle Ages

As the format of unbroken fixed-hour prayer developed in the Christian monastic communities in the East and West, longer prayers soon grew, but the cycle of prayer became the norm in daily life in monasteries. By the fourth century, the characteristics of the canonical hours more or less took their present shape. For secular (non-monastic) clergymen and lay people, the fixed-hour prayers were by necessity much shorter. In many churches and basilicas staffed by monks, the form of the fixed-hour prayers was a hybrid of secular and monastic practice. St. Benedict in his famous Rule modeled his guidelines for the prayers on the customs of the basilicas of Rome. It was he who formulated the concept in Christian prayer of the inseperability of the spiritual life from the physical life. St. Benedict was known to have said "Orare est laborare, laborare est orare" ("To pray is to work, to work is to pray"). Thus, the fixed-hour prayers came to be known as the "Divine Office" (office coming from the Latin word for work). The Benedictines began to call the prayers the Opus Dei or "Work of God."

As the Divine Office grew more important in the life of the Church, the rituals became more elaborate. Soon, praying the Office began to require various books, such as a Psalter for the psalms, a lectionary to find the assigned Scripture reading for the day, a Bible to proclaim the reading, a hymnal for singing, etc. As parishes grew in the Middle Ages away from cathedrals and basilicas, a more concise way of arranging the hours was needed. So, a sort of list developed called the breviary, which gave the format of the daily office and the texts to be used. The spread of breviaries eventually reached Rome, where Pope Innocent III extended its use to the Roman Curia. The Franciscans sought a one-volume breviary for its friars to use during travels, so the order adopted the Breviarium Curiae, but substituting the Gallican (French) Psalter for the Roman. The Franciscans gradually spread this breviary throughout Europe. Pope Nicholas III would then adopt the widely-used Franciscan breviary to be the breviary used in Rome. By the 14th century, the breviary contained the entire text of the canonical hours.

Council of Trent

The Council of Trent (begun in 1545) made the Roman Breviary the universal liturgical book for the Divine Office throughout the Catholic Church. It reaffirmed the obligation of clergy and religious to pray the entire Office daily in the name of the Church. Further revisions of the breviary (along with the missal) were left to the pope because the council ran short of time to complete the reform of the Breviary.

Further reforms before the Second Vatican Council

Further periodic revisions of the Tridentine Breviary were made by the popes in the following years, the first one made by St. Pius V in 1568. Other editions were published by Popes Sixtus V, Clement VIII, Urban VIII, Clement XI, and others. A major revision of the breviary was published in 1911 during the papacy of St. Pius X. He restored the practice of praying all 150 psalms weekly, and much redundancy was eliminated from the Divine Office. Pope Pius XII also began reforming the breviary, allowing the use of a new translation of the Psalms to be used and established a special commission to study the breviary's revision. In 1955, all the Catholic bishops were questioned about the breviary's reform, and Pope John XXIII issued regulations for its revision in 1960. This paved the way for the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Catholic usage in the Roman Rite following the Second Vatican Council

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church's Roman Rite simplified the observance of the canonical hours and sought to make them more accessible to the laity, hoping to restore their character as the prayer of the entire Church. The office of Prime was abolished, and the character of Matins changed so that it could be used at any time of the day as an office of Scriptural and hagiographical readings. Furthermore, the period over which the entire Psalter is recited has been expanded from one week to four. Clergy are still required by canon law to pray the entire Liturgy of the Hours each day, and the practice among religious communities of praying the canonical hours varies according to their rules and constitutions. The Second Vatican Council also exhorted the Christian laity to take up the practice, and as a result, many lay people have begun reciting portions of the Liturgy of the Hours. The council also encouraged the original practice of praying the Hours in groups; before, the canonical hours were often said individually by secular clergy.

Formerly referred to popularly as "The Divine Office", and published in four volumes according to the meteorological seasons "Spring", "Summer", "Fall", and "Winter", the Church in the United States, as in most other countries, now publishes the related liturgical books under the title "The Liturgy of the Hours", and issues them in four volumes according to the liturgical season: "Advent and Christmas", "Lent and Easter", "Ordinary Time Vol. I (Weeks 1-17)", "Ordinary Time Vol. II (Weeks 18-34)." In Great Britain and Ireland it is published in three volumes under the title "The Divine Office" divided thus: "Advent, Christmas and Ordinary Time Weeks 1 to 9", "Lent and Easter", "Ordinary Time weeks 6 to 34". An abridged one-volume edition, "Christian Prayer" (USA) or "Daily Prayer" (UK & Ireland) is also published for those who wish not to purchase all four volumes.

Current Catholic usage focuses on two major hours and from three to five minor hours:

  • Invitatory (not an hour properly called, but the introduction to the first hour said on the current day, whatever it be the Office of Readings or Morning Prayer).
  • Morning prayer (Lauds)
  • Evening prayer (Vespers)
  • the Office of Readings (formerly Matins)
  • Daytime prayer, which can be one or all of
    • Midmorning prayer (Terce)
    • Midday prayer (Sext)
    • Midafternoon prayer (None)
  • Night Prayer (Compline)

The major hours

The major hours consist of Morning (or Lauds) and Evening Prayer (or Vespers). The character of Morning Prayer is that of praise; of Evening Prayer, that of thanksgiving. Both follow the same format:

  • a hymn, composed by the Church
  • two psalms, or one long psalm divided into two parts, and a scriptural canticle (taken from the Old Testament in the morning and the New Testament in the evening)
  • a short passage from scripture
  • a responsory, typically a verse of scripture, but sometimes liturgical poetry
  • a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke: the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus) for morning prayer, and the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat) for evening prayer
  • intercessions, composed by the Church
  • the Lord's Prayer
  • the concluding prayer, composed by the Church
  • a blessing given by the priest or deacon leading Morning or Evening Prayer, or in the absence of clergy and in individual recitation, a short conclusion

The minor hours

The daytime hours follow a simpler format:

  • a hymn
  • three short psalms, or, three pieces of longer psalms; in the daytime hours it is usual to begin one part of the longest psalm, psalm 119
  • a very short passage of scripture, followed by a responsorial verse
  • the concluding prayer
  • a short concluding verse (especially when prayed in groups)

The Office of Readings expands on the format of the daytime hours:

  • a hymn
  • one or two long psalms divided into three parts
  • a long passage from scripture, usually arranged so that in any one week, all the readings come from the same text
  • a long hagiographical passage, such as an account of a saint's martyrdom, or a theological treatise commenting on some aspect of the scriptural reading, or a passage from the documents of the Second Vatican Council
  • on nights preceding Sundays and feast days, the office may be expanded to a vigil by inserting three Old Testament canticles and a reading from the gospels
  • the hymn Te Deum (on Sundays, solemnities, and feasts, except in Lent)
  • the concluding prayer
  • a short concluding verse (especially when prayed in groups)

Night prayer has the character of preparing the soul for its passage to eternal life:

  • an examination of conscience
  • a hymn
  • a psalm, or two short psalms, or simply Psalm 91
  • a short reading from scripture
  • the responsory In manus tuas, Domine (Into Your Hands, Lord)
  • the Canticle of Simeon, Nunc dimittis, from the Gospel of Luke, framed by the antiphon Protect us, Lord
  • a concluding prayer
  • a short concluding blessing
  • a hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus

In each office, the psalms and canticle are framed by antiphons, and each concludes with the traditional Catholic doxology.

Liturgical variation

In addition to the basic four-week cycle of praying nearly the entire set of Psalms with each of the canonical hours, the Church also provides an alternate collection of hymns, readings, psalms, canticles and antiphons, for use in marking specific dates on the Roman Calendar, which sets out the order of celebrations for the liturgical year. These alternate selections are found in the 'Proper of Seasons' (selections for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter), and the 'Proper of Saints' (selections for feast days of the Saints). A breviary is generally keyed to help the user navigate these overlays in the liturgy.

Orthodox usage

Orthodox prayer books typically provide prayers to be prayed at these hours:

  • (at dawn) Matins ("MATT'-inz")
  • (at ~6 AM) the "first hour"
  • (at ~9 AM) the "third hour" (remembering the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which happened at this hour)
  • (at Noon) the "sixth hour" (remembering the death of Christ, which happened at this hour)
  • (at ~3 PM) the "ninth hour"
  • (at sunset) Vespers (aka "Evening Prayer")
  • (at bedtime) Compline ("COMP'-lin", aka "Night Prayer") (preparing for death, our final "falling asleep")
  • (at midnight) Midnight prayers (to be prayed if one happens to wake up in the middle of the night and wants to pray)

In cathedrals and monasteries, it is more common to find someone present at the church praying these prayers at each of these hours. In many churches, it is common on Sunday mornings to read the third and sixth hour prayers prior to the Divine Liturgy. Other churches have an entire matins service which precedes the Divine Liturgy. In either case there is usually little or no pause between the end of one and the beginning of the next.

In "liturgical timekeeping", a new day begins with the Vespers service, specifically at the reading or singing of the Prokeimenon during the Vespers service, rather than beginning at midnight.

In addition to these prayers, there are also canons to be prayed in preparation for receiving the Eucharist, and also akathist prayers regarding specific subjects, and which may be addressed directly to God or to a saint, asking that saint to convey the petitions to God. These canons and akathist prayers are inserted at specific points in the prayers of the hours.

Anglican usage (the Book of Common Prayer)

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The Book of Common Prayer constitutes the basis of the liturgy for Anglicans.

In the United States, the 1979 BCP has four offices:

  • Morning Prayer, corresponding to Matins and Lauds
  • Noonday, roughly corresponding to the combination of Terce and Sext
  • Evening Prayer, corresponding to Vespers
  • Order of Worship for the Evening, a prelude to or an abbreviated form of Evening Prayer, also partly taken from a Jewish Lucernaria service
  • Compline

In addition, there is a section of "Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families".

Noonday and Compline are the result of a gradual liturgical revival in the ECUSA beginning about 1913. They were originally part of a supplemental liturgical book called A Book of Offices, published after 1914. Eventually these services were incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer in 1979.

Some Anglo-Catholic groups use the Anglican Breviary, which is an adaptation of the Pre-Vatican II Roman Rite. It contains all eight historic offices in one volume, rather than the traditional four.

Muslim prayers

Muslims still use a modified definition of canonical hours when they pray five times a day. Their prayer (salah) times are Salat al-Fajr, Salat al-Zuhr, Salat al-Asr, Salat al-Maghrib and Salat al-Isha.

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