Intro Truths
Scripture Saints
Culture Worship

Liturgy of the Hours

The Liturgy of the Hours is a set of prayers, consisting of Psalms, hymns and scripture readings, that are sung by members of monastic orders and other religious congregations at specified times every day. They originated in the Jewish custom of reciting prayers at certain hours of the day, based on exhortations in scripture to praise God "seven times a day" (and once at night: Matins), and have been part of the Church's public worship from ancient times.

There are a number of ways to refer to the Liturgy of the Hours, and there are variations in the way they are prayed depending on liturgical rites and traditions. Other names for the Liturgy of the Hours are the Divine Office, the Work of God, the Divine Services (in the Eastern rites) or the Canonical Hours.

Celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours is an obligation undertaken by priests and deacons as well as by many traditional religious orders. Most monasteries require that their members chant some or all of the hours together at specific times "in choir". The celebration of the Liturgical hours in choir formed the basis for Gregorian Chant and laid the foundation for much of the Church's musical tradition.

The Liturgy of the Hours most familiar in the Western Church are those traditions descended from the Benedictine monasteries, but the services are part of the traditional liturgy of the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, as well as the Anglican and Lutheran Protestant traditions.

Naming of the Canonical Hours

The terms and traditions described here are based on the traditional (pre-Vatican II) liturgy.

The naming of the canonical hours is easy to understand if you remember that in ancient times the hour of sunrise was Prime, the first hour, and corresponded approximately to 6 A.M. The third hour after sunrise (our 9 a.m.) was Terce. Our noon was Sext, the sixth hour, and our afternoon (3 p.m.) was None, the ninth hour. Links to a Gregorian chant audio of the major hours of Lauds, Vespers, and Matins, have been provided.

  • Lauds — Dawn
  • Prime — (6 AM) First Hour
  • Terce — (9 AM) Third Hour
  • Sext — (Noon) Sixth Hour
  • None — (3 PM) Ninth Hour
  • Vespers — Evening Prayer (view youtube.com/watch?v=J9ob2azowO4)
  • Compline — (9 PM) Final Prayer
  • Matins — (Midnight) Night Office (view youtube.com/watch?v=skNu8zmF0jg)

There are five minor hours, mostly during they day, whose prayers consist of three psalms and a short scriptural passage. The three major hours, which involve more prayers, longer scripture readings, and lessons ranging from saint stories to theology, are concentrated in the morning and evening hours. The nighttime office of Matins is often called the "readings" office because it consists more of lessons than prayers.

Lauds, meaning praise, is the major hour of the morning, and is often combined with Prime, and said upon rising. Likewise Vespers, the major hour of the evening, is often combined with Compline, and said before retiring. Major hours consist of passages from scripture, poems, hymns, intercessions, and additional prayers as well as longer psalms. The Propers of the Saints are also prayed during the major hours on the appropriate feast days.

Prayer Books for the Divine Office

Psalters were books including the complete set of Psalms from the Bible, that formed the foundation of the Divine office. There are 150 Psalms and in most religious communities, all 150 would be recited every week. This meant over 21 psalms a day; approximately three prayers per canonical hour. Many monks used a string of 50 beads organized in groups of ten to mark off psalms sung each week, and these beaded rings, originally representing psalms, evolved into the Rosary during the Middle Ages.

A Breviary is a liturgical book including not only Psalms but also the scripture passages, spiritual lessons, hymns, saint stories, and antiphons needed to chant the Divine Office, The first Breviary was approved for the Franciscan order in 1280, and the Roman Breviary is now one of the official liturgical books that defines the Roman Rite. There is some variation in usage among religious orders, however, and many traditional order use older Breviaries approved specifically for their order.

The Horologion, a term meaning 'Book of Hours' serves as the primary liturgical for canonical hours in the Eastern Church. However, it only contains the fixed portion of the daily services. The Canonical Hours of the Eastern rites are more varied and complex than the Latin rite so several more books are needed to complete the cycle of scripture reading and other lessons.

The Octoechos, a term meaning 'Eight Tones', is a liturgical book that contains a cycle of eight weeks, one for each of the eight church modes of the Byzantine musical system.

Most religious orders prayed the Divine Office daily, either together or privately. In addition many priests, Oblates, and Tertiaries prayed modified or reduced versions of the Liturgical hours. The following prayer books were simplified versions of the Divine Office that were popular with pious laymen during the Middle Ages. They were often illuminated with beautiful illustrations and were prized possessions of wealthy laymen.

  • Book of Hours — Christian devotional book popular in the Middle Ages, adapted from the Divine Office. There was no standard form, but most consisted of a selection of Psalms and Prayers, Gospel readings, a Litany of the Saints, a calendar of feast days, and the Office of the Dead.
  • Little Office of the Blessed Virgin — Consists of psalms, lessons, and hymns in honor of the Blessed Virgin, arranged in seven hours like the Breviary office, but much shorter.

Gregorian Chant

Gregorian chant is an organized repertoire of plain chant used in Catholic liturgies, both in Canonical Hours and Mass. It includes Prayers, Psalms, and hymns, often chanted antiphonally (call and response). Gregorian Chant began as plainchant but is repertoire expanded to include organum and simple polyphony. It is usually sung a cappella but can be accompanied by Organ.