The structure of the liturgy
"Seven times a day I praise you", says Psalm 118(119), and the Liturgy of the Hours follows this pattern.
For details of each hour, look at the links on the left.
Lauds (Morning Prayer) is intended to sanctify the morning. It prepares us for the day, and its prayers and intercessions reflect this. The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours says “This Hour, recited as the light of a new day dawns, recalls the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, the true light, enlightening every man” (§38). This does not mean that when it is summer you have to recite Lauds at 4.30am, at sunrise, and thus wreck your sleep and your entire day. Morning Prayer is for when your day begins, so that you are properly prepared for that day.
Conversely, Vespers (Evening Prayer) is “celebrated in the evening, when the day is drawing to a close” (§39). As St Basil the Great says, it is for giving thanks for what has been given us during the day, or the things we have done well during it. Again, the psalms, prayers and intercessions reflect this.
The Office of Readings originated in monastic communities and was celebrated before Lauds, very early in the morning while it was still dark. Modern reforms have humanized it and made it suitable for any time of day when we are undistracted and able to meditate more deeply on the mysteries of salvation (§55). You can read more about its history here. As its name implies, the Office of Readings has two long readings in it: one from Scripture and one from the Fathers of the Church.
Terce (mid-morning), Sext (midday) and None (afternoon) are known collectively as the "Little Hours" (or, more respectably, as the Daytime Hours). They are quite short, and intended for use during breaks at work (§75). Of course, some people don’t have three suitable breaks, and when one picks just ont Little Hour to recite during the course of the day, the Liturgy gives it the neutral name Prayer during the Day. Just pick whichever of the three Little Hours seems to correspond best to the time of day, and recite that (§77).
Compline (Night Prayer) is designed to be said last thing at night, before going to bed, or even in bed (§84). It is short and simple. Indeed, it can be made even shorter and simpler by using Compline for Sunday night on every night of the week - in which case it can be learnt by heart and recited from memory.
Times of day
Some web sites give specific times as which the various Hours must be recited. There are no such times. The General Instruction on the Divine Office takes very great care not to specify any. Of course there is nothing to stop you deciding to recite a particular Hour at the same time each day if you want to, but that is entirely up to you. There is nothing magical about the clock.
The office of Prime
There used to be one more office, Prime, which came between Lauds and Terce. It was abolished in the reforms of 1970.
The manner of its introduction was this: around the year 382, in one of the monasteries near Bethlehem, a problem arose, because after the night offices (which corresponded to the more modern Matins and Lauds), the monks could retire to rest. The lazier ones then stayed in bed until nine in the morning (the hour of Terce) instead of getting up to do their manual work or spiritual reading. The short office of Prime, inserted a couple of hours before Terce, solved the problem, by calling them together to pray before they went out to their tasks.
After the major reforms of 1970, some additional revisions were made to the Liturgy of the Hours in 1985. Many English editions of the Liturgy do not yet include these revisions, because it would be so expensive to reprint the books; but the second Latin edition does. The following are the main changes, as summarised in the decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship dated 7 April 1985:
- The New Vulgate translation of the Bible, formally adopted in 1979, replaces the previous translation of the biblical texts in the long and short readings of the Liturgy.
- Certain texts in the old translation are omitted from the new one, or have a different meaning in the new translation. These have been replaced as necessary.
- The psalm texts have similarly been revised according to the New Vulgate.
- The responsories in the Office of Readings have been revised according to the New Vulgate, except where strong reasons exist for leaving them unchanged (long tradition, established music, liturgical significance).
- Many new antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat have been added for Sundays and feast days, taken from the appropriate Gospels.
- The psalms are numbered according to both the Greek (Septuagint) and Hebrew numbering.
We are using this second Latin edition as the basis of everything that we do.