Continuing my series comparing the major variants of the Roman and Benedictine Offices, I want to look now at the day hours of Prime to None. These day hours are key to the differences in the varying spiritualities implicit in the forms of the Divine Office.
The first major issue I want to look at is the number of 'hours' to be said each day, which goes to the underlying philosophy of the Divine Office in general. The second dimension over which the hours vary is their length. But the third, and perhaps the most important, difference between the various versions of the Office is the nature of the psalms assigned to these hours.
The first major difference is of course in the number of hours.
Traditionally of course, there are four 'little hours': Prime (at first light); Terce (mid-morning); Sext (midday); and None (mid-afternoon). Terce, Sext and None have the most ancient origin - there are references to praying at these times in the New Testament itself , as well as in early Christian documents such as Didache.
Prime was a rather later addition, with origins probably in the late fourth century. One storyline is that it was added to prevent monks from going back to bed after Lauds. That may be true. But there are deeper, more important reasons, as we shall see, going to the very nature of the Divine Office.
Laus perennis (continuous praise)
There have long been competing positions on the idea of the Office as a means of fulfilling the Scriptural injunction to 'pray ceaselessly'.
One idea is to take the idea of praying ceaselessly literally, as some of the Desert Fathers did, praying the Office even as they wove baskets or did other tasks. At the height of the middle ages, in some medieval monasteries the monks worked in shifts over the day and night in order to ensure that liturgy was always being said. Perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is another variant on this idea.
At the other extreme, some (including some prominent modern Benedictines, hence the rhetoric in the 1979 Thesaurus for the Order, and the decision to abolish Prime by many modern Benedictine Congregations, even those retaining a one week psalter) argue that it is possible to make our work and relaxation a continual prayer, so that work becomes liturgy. In this theory, it doesn't really matter how often one gets together at all for formal prayer - hence the decision to abolish Prime in the Roman Office mandated in Sacrosanctum Concilium in Vatican II, and the subsequent decision in the 1971 Office (without any Vatican II mandate whatsoever) to say only one of Terce, Sext or None each day.
The Western Tradition
St Benedict and the mainstream Western tradition, I would argue, strikes a healthy balance between these two extremes.
First, St Benedict, following the direction set by St Martin of Tours, does not anywhere in his Rule pretend that work and liturgy are the same thing, and that we can therefore abandon one for the other. Rather, he insists on a sharp differentiation between the two, instructing that the chapel not be used for any other purposes. Secondly, St Benedict talks about the Divine Office as the monk's service, their 'sacred service', the 'Work of God'. Liturgy, in this view, is performed not just for our own improvement, not just as a spur to contemplation, but as a duty we owe to God. As such, it is not something that can be shirked: put nothing before the work of God, he instructs his monks.
Secondly, the traditional ordering of the hours recognises that it is only too easy for us to become caught up in our own work, and forget about God entirely. Spacing the hours at regular times through the day serves as a practical psychological tool to keep God top of mind and keep an appropriate balance in our lives (there are good reasons why even in secular life we have historically at least mimicked this pattern with breakfast, morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea breaks!) .
Most importantly though, is the rationale for seven day hours in particular. St Benedict justifies the number of hours in his schema with a quote from Psalm 118: 'seven times a day will I praise you', and 'At midnight I rose to give you praise'. Seven, as St Benedict points out in his Rule, is a sacred number, symbolising fullness or completeness. St Augustine, for example, gave long expositions on its significance in terms of the number of petitions in the Lord's Prayer, in the Beatitudes (with a little creative interpretation) and so forth. The bottom line was that by praying seven times a day, monks could indeed claim to be fulfilling the injunction to 'pray ceaselessly' without the need for interestingly creative rationalisations such as 'quality over quantity' or 'work is liturgy' for abandoning the Office.
The length and content of the little hours
The Benedictine, pre-1911 Roman Office and Pius X Office all featured these four key hours of the day. Nonetheless, the character of these hours is quite different in each of these forms of the Office.
In the oldest form of the Roman Office, these four hours were the essentially same every day, and centred on the saying of the longest of the psalms, Psalm 118, an extended meditation on the importance of keeping the law. Prime also included Psalm 117 on Sunday and Psalm 53 the rest of the week.
Prime in the Benedictine Office
St Benedict made significant changes to all of these hours in his schema. St Benedict first cut the length of these hours more or less by half. On Sunday, he shifted Psalm 117 to Lauds, and cut the number of verses of Psalm 118 in half. Sunday Prime in the pre-1911 Office consisted of 68 verses in total: in the Benedictine Office it is only 32 verses of psalm.
The remaining verses of Psalm 118 are said, in the traditional Benedictine Office, on Sunday and Monday Terce to None, with each hour consisting of 24 verses instead of the Roman 48.
St Benedict also gave Prime during the week much more substantive content, fitting with its character as preparation for the day's work. Instead of a repeated psalm each day, he allocated psalms 1-2 and 6-19 to the hour, all of which contain important catechetical content.
The post-Tridentine version of Prime made a move in this direction by adding one of Psalms 21-25 to each day's roster, but at a cost of further lengthening the hour. On average, the pre-1911 Prime averaged 58 verses of psalms a day; by contrast the Benedictine Office averages only 40.
Terce to Sext
St Benedict's biggest change to the Roman Office though, was to dump Psalm 118 out of the weekday Office, and instead have his monks say the first nine of the Gradual, or Psalms of Ascent, at Terce to None. These psalms are very short, so that Benedictine Terce to None average only around 22 verses each (compared to the old Roman 48). They are easily memorized and so could be said in the fields or workplace if necessary, as St Benedict specifically allows.
Like Psalm 118, their repetition serves to constantly reinforce fairly straight forward messages, about the necessary virtues to be cultivated in the course of our daily life. But they also set down a key challenge: it is not enough to merely keep the commandments, St Benedict seems to be telling us; we must also work to ascend the spiritual ladder towards heaven.
The Pius X reforms
The driving concern of the reforms to the Roman Breviary made under Pope St Pius X was length: making the breviary more 'doable' to priests overloaded with pastoral pressures. As a result, it made a conscious effort to shorten the day hours substantially. The end result is that the 1960 hours of Prime to None average around 30 verses of psalm each on weekdays (but with some variation over the week, and a much longer Office on Sundays).
The approachability of these hours however suffered drastically, in my view, from the decision to reallocate the psalms of Matins to the day hours. The old Roman (and Benedictine) Office featured the repetition of familiar verses with relatively straightforward messages during the day; the new day hours required those who say the Office to grapple with psalms full of difficult concepts and ideas. Instead of being a gentle prod to keep the priest or religious on track during the day, they confront the person praying the Office with the cursing psalms and other difficult to grapple concepts.
In short, the Pius X reforms completely destroyed the character of the Little Hours.
And the reforms ultimately provoked a reaction, in the form of simply cutting all those difficult passages out of the psalter altogether, and all but abolishing the little hours, in the 1971 Liturgy of the Hours....