November 22, 2010

What Is the Daily Office? (Part I)

Editor's Note: The liturgy of the Daily Office can, at first, seem confusing, especially to anyone coming from less formally structured worship traditions. Today, we begin a brief series about this prayer tradition, written by longtime Virtual Abbey member, the Reverend Joshua W. Hale (@expatminister). You're invited to post questions about the Daily Office in the comments section here or chat us via Twitter or Facebook.

The Daily Office is one of the oldest forms of prayer in the Christian tradition. Simply put, it’s a daily liturgy of prayer and praise. You may have encountered it under other names, including the Divine Office, the Divine Hours, the Liturgy of the Hours (LOTH), or Daily Prayer.

The term “office,” as used here, is from the Latin word opus, which means “work.” So, just as our English word “liturgy” is from the Greek word for “work of the people,” the phrase “Daily Office” indicates that we are to undertake the work of praising God—the Holy and Blessed Trinity—daily.

In keeping with Jewish tradition, the early Church followed the example of the Psalmist, “Seven times a day I will praise you” (119: ) and prayed before dawn (Lauds), at the first hour of the morning (Prime), mid-morning (Terce), at noon (Sext), mid-afternoon (None), at sunset (Vespers), before sleeping (Compline), and once in the middle of the night (Vigils). Monastic communities continued praying in this fashion.

By the 6th century, the monastic form evolved into a complex liturgy in which the Psalms changed every office. According to the Rule of St Benedict, all 150 psalms were to be prayed over the course of the week!

As we’ll discuss next time, other elements (canticles, prayers, litanies, etc.) made the Daily Office quite complex: so another, simpler form began to establish itself: the Cathedral Office.

The Cathedral Office featured psalms that were the same from week-to-week, with a cleaner liturgical trajectory. Among the many adaptations, the most familiar might be the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer. Back in the 16th century, Thomas Cranmer consolidated all the hours of the Cathedral Office into Morning Prayer and Evensong, which the Anglican tradition continues to follow.

Want to learn more?

+ The Order of Saint Luke provides good instructions with forms for each hour.

+ The Society of Archbishop Justus provides online access to versions of the Book of Common Prayer from throughout the Anglican Communion.

+ Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary is an excellent everyday edition of the Divine Office.

So, what do you want to know about the Daily Office?

Image: Breviary of Bridgettine use, Belgium, 15th c.


Dan Webster said...

Pray without ceasing, says St. Paul. Thanks for beginning this series on the Diving Office. A minor observance; the day starts with what you call 'Vigils' and ends with Compline. Originally it was called Matins, said or sung at 3am or so, but some communities now call it Vigils. The Trappists (Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance) of which Thomas Merton, OCSO, was a professed brother, gather daily for Vigils.

expatminister said...

Pray without ceasing, indeed! You're right to note that over the past 1500 years there are plenty of variations to the observance of the Office: for instance, in some communities, Matins has been a middle-of-the-night service, while for others, it's a just-before-dawn one.

And as you point out, in Judaism, the day begins at sundown, so starting the "day" with Compline or Vigils is a continuation of that tradition.

Thanks for your insights, Dan!

Sam said...

This former Pentecostal turned United Church of Christ is enjoying reading about the Daily Office. I really appreciate the expansive language of my UCC congregation and have had trouble finding that in most Daily Office.

Any recommendations for expansive language, progressive theology Daily Office options?