The structure of the Liturgy
Two aspects of the Liturgy of the Hours were established very early on:
the praying of the Psalms, and the consecration of every hour to God.
Taking this literally meant that prayer of some kind was offered every
three hours, day and night, and confined the full implementation of such a
liturgy to hermits, enthusiasts, and dedicated religious orders.
At times, their achievements seem to us to be more heroic than spiritual,
and this is certainly what we would feel if we went through all 150 psalms
every week, or even every day (but that may say more about us than about
the people who did this). Human frailty, too, demanded that one sleep more
than two and a half hours at a stretch, and so, in various reforms and
adjustments through the ages, the schedule has been made rather more human
- though even today some of the stricter contemplative orders stay close to
the original ideal.
The last batch of reforms, completed in 1970 and revised in 1985, has made
the Liturgy of the Hours usable not only by priests and religious but also by
lay people who have a living to earn and a life to lead. Here is the basic
- Also known as Morning Prayer. It is meant to be said first thing in the
morning. There is a hymn, two psalms (or bits of psalms if they are long),
an Old Testament canticle (basically a psalm that happens not to be in the
Book of Psalms), a short reading, and prayers of intercession. In public celebration,
it is possible for Mass to follow straight on from this Hour.
- The Little Hours
- These are also known as Prayer through the Day: Terce (the third hour in
Roman reckoning, or mid-morning), Sext (the sixth hour: noon), and None (pronounced
to rhyme with "moan", this is the ninth hour, or mid-afternoon). These hours
are short, so as not to be too much of an interruption, but because they still
are an interruption, most lay people won't want to bother with them.
We will, however, add them to this site eventually.
- Also known as Evening Prayer or Evensong. This Hour takes us from the bustle
of the day to the calm of evening. There is a hymn, two psalms, a New Testament
canticle (usually a hymn from St Paul or a song of triumph from the Apocalypse),
a short reading, and prayers of intercession.
Sundays and important feasts are considered to start the night before (like
the Jewish Sabbath) and have so-called "First Vespers" on that night: you
don't need to worry about this refinement because it is built into this site.
- Also known as Night Prayer, and sometimes combined into the public celebration
of Vespers. It is the last prayer of the day, and sums up all that went before,
as we examine our consciences and offer the actions of the day to God.
- The Office of Readings
- This is a splendid innovation of the latest reforms. Unlike the other Hours,
it can be said at any time of day at all, whenever time and
energy and circumstances allow you to pray and meditate. Moreover, it contains
more substantial material for meditation, in the form of a solid Bible reading
of a chapter or so (we only give you the references so that you can use your
favourite translation, and we also have a link, where possible, to an online
version). Then comes the glory of the whole Liturgy - a second reading, which
is not biblical but is taken from the earliest centuries of the Church, or
from old homilies whose very authors have been forgotten, or from the writings
or biographies of the saints. It is an immense task to fill this site with
second readings, and will take a year or more... so please be patient.
- The Invitatory Psalm
- The Invitatory Psalm acts as a kind of introduction to the entire Divine
Office for the day. When you say it therefore depends on which hour you recite
first. If you start with Lauds, say it at the beginning of Lauds; if you start
with the Office of Readings (which, you will recall, can be recited at any
time of the day), then say the invitatory psalm at the beginning of the Office
of Readings. If all that you recite in the day is Vespers, then say the invitatory
psalm at the beginning of Vespers. This site lets you view versions of Lauds
and the Office of Readings both with and without the invitatory psalm.
- What has happened to Matins?
- Matins was originally the office of Vigils, prayer offered in the middle
of the night, but understandable human weakness moved it to the early morning;
nevertheless, it retained its character of a night prayer, even being subdivided
into between one and three parts called "nocturns". This office was the longest
one of the day, containing between nine and eighteen psalms, plus readings
from the Old and New Testaments and from the Fathers. While such an office
is reasonably suited to religious orders, who can order their day round their
prayer, it is less well adapted to people who are living in the world, for
whom first thing in the morning may not necessarily be the best time to study
and meditate in depth. Accordingly, the latest reforms have transformed Matins
into the Office of Readings and removed its specifically nocturnal character.
It has, instead, the most meditative psalms and those that narrate the course
of salvation history; and it can be said at any hour of the day or night.
- What has happened to Prime?
- It has been abolished. It was, in any case, a relatively recent innovation,
being introduced after the other hours had already been established. 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 and sending them out to their tasks.