Learning the Benedictine Office: The hours of the Office....**

The names of 'the Work of God'

In the Rule St Benedict instructs his monks: let nothing be preferred to the Work of God.

In the Rule, St Benedict uses almost two dozen different words to refer to it, including 'the praise', 'the hours', the Divine Office, the Divine Work, prayer, psalmody, and our service.

The most famous is the 'Work of God'.

But all of the terms he uses hint at what he understood it to be Office.

The modern form of the Divine Office is most commonly known as the Liturgy of the Hours, and that term can be applied to the Benedictine Office too.  St Benedict sometimes calls it just 'the hours'.

The hours and when they are said

The Benedictine Office is made up of eight separate sets of prayers called 'hours', although in reality they are mostly much shorter than that to say.

The names of the hours are:
  • Matins (the night office or vigils, traditionally said a couple of hours after midnight;
  • Lauds (at first light);
  • Prime (first thing in the morning);
  • Terce (mid-morning);
  • Sext (midday); 
  • None (mid-afternoon);
  • Vespers (sunset); and 
  • Compline (before bed).

They are called the hours because they mark the turn of them - in St Benedict's time, the day was divided into twelve even hours of daylight, so an 'hour' was shorter in winter and longer in summer.  Prime means first, for the first hour of the day; Terce, means the third hour; Sext the sixth; and None the ninth.

The Diurnal doesn't contain Matins, as that is a much longer hour (and really is actually an hour generally).  It is also an hour traditionally more appropriate for monks then laypeople.

While it is good to aim to say those hours that you say at around the correct time, it isn't absolutely essential.  Just make sure you say whichever hours you say in the correct order.

How many of the hours should you aim to say?

Professed religious (monks and nuns) are generally obliged to say all of the hours each day on behalf of the Church.  Laypeople are encouraged to say whatever hours of the Office they can, so just fit in what you can, keeping in mind all of your other obligations and interests.

For most people, Prime (said before work to ask God's blessing on the day) and Compline (to ask God's blessing on the night) will be more than enough, especially at first.

Another good thing to do though, is to attend Sunday Vespers.  If you can't get to Vespers in your area, try following along with one of the monastic podcasts from the Monastery of Norcia in Italy, or Le Barroux in France.

Questions you may have:

1. Do I have to say all of the hours, or any hours in particular?

No - not unless you are a priest or religious, or your monastery's oblate constitutions specify that you should. Laypeople are free to say whichever parts of the Office they choose to (or none) as regularly or irregularly as they like.

2. Do I have to say the hours at a set time?

No. They should be said broadly at the time of the day they are supposed to be, but you can be very flexible in your interpretation of what that means in practice. Some traditional monasteries for example, combine Sext and None, and start Vespers as early as 3.30pm in the afternoon on some days. So while the ideal is to fit your schedule around the Office, most of us have to fit the Office around our external commitments.

3. In order to learn the Office, which hours are the best to start with?

I would recommend Prime and Compline.

4. So what is the order the hours appear in the psalter?
  • Prime, Monday-Saturday, pp1-37
  • Lauds, Sunday-Saturday, pp37-146
  • Prime, Terce, Sext and None of Sunday, pp146-162
  • Terce, Sext, None of Monday, pp162-183
  • Terce, Sext, None for Tuesday-Saturday, pp183-203
  • Vespers, Sunday- Saturday, pp203-256
  • Compline, p256-269.

***Text Revised 13.8.16


gerrit blydorp said...

Thank you, Terra, I find your observations to be excellent and very helpful. I am using the MD since Christmas, saying Lauds, Prime, Sext, Vespers and Compline.

I appreciate your insights and enjoy reading your blogs each day.

From Connecticut,USA, Benedicamus Domino.

Gerrit Blydorp, Niantic, CT.

expat said...


I have a question:

Why is Prime come before Lauds in the Psalter when that isn't the first hour of the day?

Terra said...

Expat - It has never seemed particularly logical to me either!

Just speculating really, but perhaps it is because Monday Prime, which is the starting point in the psalter section, starts with Psalm 1 (and Prime continues with psalms 1-20 less a few used at other hours), so seems a logical place to start, a bit of a remant of the pre-Benedictine running cursus of psalms (ie start with psalm 1 and keep going in numerical order)? Or because the shortcuts for Prime are easier to see and thus apply elsewhere in the context of one of the simpler hours?

CountrySteve said...

Hi, sorry to bother you, but what was the traditional times for the Hours to be said as according to St. Benedict? may the Holy Virgin protect!

Kate Edwards said...

Steve - Lauds at first light/dawn; Vespers at twilight. Prime an hour after dawn, terce mid-morning, sext mid-day, none mid-afternoon.

But if you read the relevant sections of the Benedictine Rule you will see that St Benedict was quite flexible about when the hours were said, adjusting for season and workload, fasting days etc. The only one he seems to have felt strongly about was Lauds at first light/down.

And pretty much all monasteries, trad or otherwise, do adjust times and combine hours for reasons of convenience.

Unknown said...

I'm just getting used to my.Monastic diurnal and wouldn't be completely lost without it. Was wondering if prime is first as that is how it's set up in the book.

Kate Edwards said...

Unknown - No, although it is first in the book, as this page makes clear, the order the day hours are said and the times they are roughly said is Lauds (first light), Prime (an hour after dawn), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (midday), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (sunset) and Compline (before bed).

But I strongly starting with just Prime and Compline.

Andrew Tillcock said...

Thanks Kate I don't know why my name didn't show up but,anyway I've been reading all the hours of the monastic diurnal. Now that you've cleared up the order of things why do some of the hours not get there own pages and others go through the throughout the week listing?

Kate Edwards said...

Glad to help - not quite sure what you mean about not getting there own page though, so let me know if I'm not really answering your question!

There are basically three categories of hours in terms of their psalms:

1. Those whose psalms are the same everyday or for several days of the week so only need to be in the Diurnal once - viz Compline (same every day); Terce to None (same Tuesday to Saturday).
2. Those with some fixed psalms and some changing ones - Matins and Lauds. At Lauds there are two psalms and a canticle that change each day, the rest are fixed, so the Diurnal only gives you the variable ones each day expecting you to go back to the earlier pages for the fixed ones.
3. Hours whose psalms differ each day of the week - Prime and Vespers.

Why did St Benedict chose to repeat some psalms every day or five days a week? Probably made sense to make Terce to None short so they could be memorised and done in the workplace if necessary (the Rule specifically provides for that).

But I suspect the more important reason is that he thought those psalms contained particularly important messages. Terce to None for example covers the foundation of the law (Psalm 118) and the Gradual Psalms, or psalms of ascent which are usually taken to be pilgrim songs meant to inspire to make the spiritual ascent through grace.

Andrew Tillcock said...

Thanks for the advice,If I am correct then is this similar to the divine office that these priests use. Would it be wrong to read prime first as it is firs in our monastic diurnal. Also.I can't help thinking that the book was an.incorrect publishing.

Kate Edwards said...

Andrew - The Diurnal reflects the liturgical prayer used by monks, nuns and oblates of the Benedictine Order. It follows the broad pattern set out in the Rule of St Benedict (chapters 8-18). Most priests (unless they are Benedictines) use either the modern Liturgy of the hours or the older (1962) version of the Roman Breviary. These are similar in as much as they are based around the psalms and include hymns, prayers and hours called by the same names, but the actual psalms and prayers used differ.

In terms of what hour to say first, you can certainly say Prime as your first 'hour' for the day, but if you do, don't say Lauds after it! Lauds is intended to be said at first light, and the psalms set for it reflect the idea of the Resurrection being recalled by the dawn and rising of the sun.

And no, it is not a mistake, virtually all breviaries and Office books use exactly the same ordering of the psalter.

Andrew Tillcock said...

Kate. Thanks for the help. I hive another question,why.does Saturday have no prime.

Andrew Tillcock said...

I found Saturday prime an so forth but if you could she'd some light on to why its that way and th others are not.

Kate Edwards said...

Andrew - Really not quite sure what you mean by that.

Can I suggest that you read further through this series. Here is the link for all of the parts:http://saintsshallarise.blogspot.com.au/p/learning-office.html

You might find it particularly helpful to look at the 'cheat sheets' I've done that give the page numbers for each day of the week. Here is the one for Sunday:http://saintsshallarise.blogspot.com.au/2010/08/quick-reference-cards-for-daily-office.html

And the instructions on saying Prime:http://saintsshallarise.blogspot.com.au/2009/04/learning-office-part-vii-prime.html

Andrew Tillcock said...

Hello,Kate.I.guess what is confusing is that some of the day's.have there own price.lauds Terce and others happen straight throughout the week section?'

Kate Edwards said...

Andrew - Again I'm not sure what you are getting at. ?Price?

In terms of the rationale for the design of the particular hours, we can only speculate, since St Benedict provided very little direct commentary on the design of his Office in his Rule. But it has survived the test of time, viz 1600 years of use!

Saying the Office requires a bit of investment in time and effort to learn it upfront. It is the formal liturgical prayer of the Church, and so needs to be said with due care; getting it wrong is like the priest making a mistake at Mass.

But the Diurnal itself has instructions; the card it comes with provides some help; and if you work through my series and read the notes on each hour, you should be able to say it with confidence.

A good way of getting started might be to use your book to follow along as the monks of Le Barroux sing it in Latin: http://barrouxchant.com/

Andrew Tillcock said...

Ok sounds good,I didn't get a card with Mr monastic diurnal but it is the same as the one used and described on this forum. As I notice in the monastic diurnal prime comes first is it ok to pray it in that order with prime first then lauds.

Kate Edwards said...

Andrew - No, it is not ok to pray Prime before Lauds.

The hours have a proper order and it goes Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sect, None, Vespers, Compline.

Each of them are designed to be said at particular times of day and the hymns and psalms allocated to them reflect this.

Perhaps you could email me and we can chat further offline if you need more help: australiaincognita@gmail.com

Grand Return said...

I just bought a Benedictine monastic diurnal. This blog, that I happened to see, was very useful for me to start the Hours.
One doubt, if you could clarify?
Why only the Sunday Prime is given after the Laudes Psalter?
Why Prime section is placed before the Laudes, although Laudes hour comes before Prime hour?
Well, thanks a lot for this blog that is designed to help us to pray well.
May Our Lady recompense you!!!
Rajeev Zacharia

Kate Edwards said...

Dear Rajeev,

I think the reason is that it is trying to follow the order of the psalms numbers as far as possible - Prime comes first because it includes Psalms 1-19, but Sunday Prime is later and sits with Sunday and monday Terce to None because they use Psalm 118.

Hope that helps!



brother j said...

I am anxiously awaiting the MD I ordered from Clear Creek. Thank God I found this blog. I was wondering if there is a companion Matins book to go with the MD?

Thank you for your response.

pax et bonum,
Jeff, ofs

Kate Edwards said...

Jeff - No, I am afraid there is no companion Matins book, but if you take a look at my Benedictine matins blog, you will find a series providing some options and guiding you through the available resources on that hour: http://learnbenoffice3.blogspot.com.au/2017/03/learning-matins.html

However, unless you are very familiar with the (traditional form of the) Office, I would focus on the Diurnal first, and start with the two simplest hours, Prime (morning) and Compline (evening) - the traditional Office has a steep learning curve associated with it!

Grand Return said...

I saw one MATINS according to the Benedictine ritual By Clear Creek Abbey

Kate Edwards said...

It contains the psalms and texts for everyday matins, but not the readings or texts for feasts. You can find a fuller listing of resources that are around for Matins on the resources page of the blog, but I'm in the process of preparing some book reviews highlighting what they do and don't contain and will most on the Benedictine matins blog over the next few weeks.