The Book of Hours and the Little Office of Our Lady
From the archives of the website WesternOrthodoxy.com.
The Christian Church, following both Jewish tradition and Roman secular practice, established rules or canons for recital of certain prayers and devotions at specific times of the day. These formed the Canonical Hours in which daily liturgy or Divine Office of the Church was celebrated. As the Psalmist cried, “Seven times a day do I praise thee b/c of thy righteous judgments.” [Psalms 119:164]
In medieval times, devout laymen followed the example of the professed religious (i.e. monks and nuns). The lay people wished to have their prayer books and to follow, in their own way, the Church’s program of daily devotion. The Books of Hours, though originating in the Church’s liturgy, were the first commonly popular prayer books used by men and women who lived secular lives.
“The world can be likened to books written by the hand of the Lord.” The Saxon-born monk Hugh, Prior of the Augustinian monastery of Saint-Victor in Paris wrote this in 1133. His statement is an arresting reminder of the gulf that divides our scientific, technological age from the religiously oriented world of the Middle Ages. Books then possessed a mystique which had little to do with personal expression. Books were valued because they revealed the purposes of God and enabled man to know and worship the Creator. Books of Hours were thus, in a sense, the original self-help books - a genre that remains huge today.
The most important books were those in which Christ’s saving work, His redemption of mankind, was remembered and honored in the liturgy of the Church. In both the Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire and the Catholic Church of Latin Christendom, this liturgy was ceaselessly celebrated, in accordance with the texts in the Missal and the Breviary. The missal contains the texts necessary for the celebration of the Mass. The Breviary and the Divine Office (Divinum Officium or “godly work”), hymns, prayers, and other texts were sung by monks and nuns in choir at the Canonical Hours. They were also read daily, under the breath, by all ordained deacons and priests.
The Hours were made up of seven services. The night Hours of Matins and Lauds (usually taken together) were recited between midnight and dawn. These were followed at approximately 3 hour intervals during the day by the Hours of Prime, Tierce, Sext, and None, and the evening Hours of Vespers and Compline.
The Divine Office of the day takes an hour or two to read through privately. For the monastic community who sing the Office every day of the year, it takes much longer. The composition of the Breviary has changed little since the 11th century, when it was last expanded at the request of the Cistercians and other reformed Orders. First comes a calendar, essential for making sure that the right devotions are performed on each day in the year. The calendar is necessary because the content of each service varies according to the season, the day of the week, the Saint’s days and other feasts, both fixed and movable The Ordinary, with which the Breviary proper begins, sets out the constant elements of each Hour, with certain seasonal variations. The Ordinary is mainly a list of instructions and has been called “a prompter’s script.” Next follows the Psalter containing the psalms, canticles, and hymns to be used for every Hour for every day of the week. The Proper of Time which follows contains the Office (i.e. the text) of the various prayers to be recited on each day of the liturgical year; the Proper of the Saints contains the texts for the major Saint’s days; and the Common of the Saints contains the texts for categories of Saints (e.g., apostles, martyrs, confessors) and such as do not have an individual office.
The Breviary - despite the suggestion in its title of brevity - contains the whole text of the Divine Office, with the Psalter forming an essential constituent. It also contains a number of additional prayers and devotions to be recited in choir at regular times. These were introduced by St. Benedit of Aniane, (c. 750-821), reformer of the French monasteries and counselor to Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. Among these devotional accretions is a short service in honor of the Virgin Mary, which first appeared in the 10th century. Its recitation was made obligatory in the Benedectine monastery of Monte Casino in central Italy at an early date, but the widespread popularity in clerical circles of this extra devotion to the Virgin has been attributed to the piety of St. Ulric (d. 973) Bishop of Augsburg and of Berenger, Bishop of Verdun (d. 962). Urban II ( 1108-99) gave Papal approval by ordering the service to be recited by clerics for the success of the First Crusade.
The devotional practice of reciting this “Little Office of Our Lady” spread from the religious orders to the clergy, and from the clergy to the laity. What had started as an accretion to the Breviary became the favorite prayer book of lay people everywhere. Until the 13th century the Little Office of Our Lady was usually attached, as a kind of appendix, to the Psalter, the only prayer book normally used by lay people. During the 13th century it became detached, like fruit falling off a tree, and became a separate prayer book: The Book of Hours.
The fact that the Little Office of Our Lady was, from the first, concentrated on the Virgin Mary is of great significance. With no martyrdom or miracles associated with her during her lifetime, she became, through the mystery of the Incarnation, the central figure in an unprecedented devotion in which many of the deepest emotions of men and women were involved. It was to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, that they turned most often. Through the intensity and multiplicity of her following she became the most popular expression of faith and devotion in the Middle Ages. She was the mother-substitute of all, the new Eve, the intercessor with God. Mary was more powerful than the Saints and less awful than God. As His mother she has peculiar influence with Christ; and her position between man and his Maker, as the Middle Ages pictured it, is exactly expressed by St. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux (1090-1153) when he said that Christ desires us to have everything through Mary.
Frank M. Lewis
at Walnut Creek, CA
May 2, 1984, revised April 5, 2000.
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