Breviary 101: The Basics

A How-To Guide for the Divine Office

» Posted by on May 30, 2013 in the breviary: how to | 0 comments

Breviary 101: The Basics

It seems as if one of the major hurdles in consistently and faithfully praying the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours); lies in the sometimes overwhelming confusion and frustration of navigating through the Breviary—the written book or books (more on this later) where this is contained. At first glance one observes pages flipping and ribbons flying, responses in union in utter bewilderment. Upon opening and exploring this book one can be confronted with a mass of pages that can be intimidating. Unfortunately, I have found that the instructions included in the Breviary on how to embark upon these most beautiful prayers of the Church, is confusing in itself. What I hope to accomplish here is to unravel some of the unnecessary apprehension. I promise, promise, promise you, that the Breviary is not as complicated as it seems. With practice and a willingness to persevere, it will all fall into place and make complete sense. I will try and keep this as succinct as possible, with only the most necessary information. As you become more familiar with the basic structure, more can be added with little or no problem. Meaning feast days, memorials, solemnities, etc., as these require a diversion from the usual order. And order is the operative word here. The Breviary is ordered, so once the order is understood it becomes very accessible to all.

The Breviary is available in a four volume selection which follows the liturgical year and contains all seven hours of prayer (now these prayers don’t take an hour—they are called as such to delineate the times of the day), or a shorter one volume book called Christian Prayer. The book of Christian Prayer contains Morning, Evening and Night Prayer. It also has a shorter abbreviated section of Daytime Prayer and the Office of Readings. And since this was mentioned, I will list out the different Hours—

The Office of Readings (Matins)

Morning Prayer (Lauds)

Mid- Morning Prayer (Terce)

Midday Prayer (Sext)

Mid-Afternoon Prayer (None)

Evening Prayer (Vespers)

Night Prayer (Compline)

Most of the Hours are self-explanatory as to when they are to be prayed, except the Office of Readings (Matins). Matins traditionally was prayed at midnight, but now it can be prayed at any time. It is the longest of all the Hours, and contained in its entirety only in the four volume Breviary.

As I wish to keep this only to the essential, with as little commentary as possible, I will now address the practical application of how to navigate through the Breviary;

First let us look at the actual compilation of this book.

I am going to mainly refer to the one volume book of Christian Prayer. However everything said can be transferred to the four volume version. One would only need to find the volume relating to the liturgical season we are in.

Opening up your breviary begin to explore its contents. You will find a table of contents—starting with the first pages encompassing some abridged information from the General Instructions of the Liturgy of the Hours, principle celebrations of the liturgical year, general principles and the celebration of the Hours. Then the book is divided into Propers of Seasons, The Ordinary, Psalter, Proper of Saints, Commons, Office of the Dead, hymns, etc. Now don’t let all this information deter you, I have found that praying the Divine Office is experiential. The more you pray, the more comfortable you will become with your breviary.

What I suggest to the neophyte is to purchase an Ordo. This is a small yearly printed book which lays out a day to day calendar of pages which tell you where to go for the psalter, propers and/or commons. These are very inexpensive and available for purchase online or in a Catholic bookstore. Using ribbons or bookmarks are helpful in setting up the pages beforehand, instead of panicking and franticly looking for your place.

The Divine Office follows a four week cycle for Morning and Evening Prayer and the Office of Readings, and a one week cycle for Daytime and Night Prayer. Meaning it rotates through the cycle, and then begins again. The Divine Office is composed of mainly psalms and canticles, so you will almost always use the Psalter. The Psalter, interestingly, is in the middle of the book, so right here you see your breviary is not recited from front to back. It is not a novel. In fact you will remain exclusively in the Psalter during Ordinary week days, without a special Saint, memorial, or Solemnity. (Sundays are partially contained in the Proper of Seasons, unless special celebration, then fully contained.)

Either Morning Prayer or the Office of Readings (flexible timing), will be your first prayer of the day. This moves us right into the Ordinary.

The Ordinary is your friend. It is a great help in explaining the structure of the Hours. In it you will find the Invitatory Psalm. The Invitatory is exactly what its etymology infers. It is an invitation to praise the Lord and encounter Him in prayer. The Invitatory is said first before Morning Prayer or Office of Readings. It is preceded by an antiphon (a short verse that opens and closes the psalms and canticles. It is directly related to that which you are praying). You will find the antiphon at the beginning of Morning Prayer for that day.

So for a little interaction—you would place a ribbon (or bookmark), on the first page of Morning Prayer, then another on the page with the Invitatory. Going through the Ordinary, it will also have the concluding Gospel Canticles (there are three one for Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer). Another ribbon placement. You will also find the Doxology. This is said directly after every psalm and canticle (*except one—more later on this) The doxology is similar to the “Glory Be”, but not the same. I cannot encourage you enough to read the Ordinary. It is located right before the Psalter, and is not long.

So now you have begun to pray Morning Prayer. After the Invitatory, it is customary to sing a Hymn (remember make a joyful noise unto the Lord). Most Breviaries will suggest a hymn for the Hour and contain a hymnal, but any appropriate hymn may be sung. Then three psalms or canticles are prayed with the pattern laid out in your Breviary—antiphon, psalm or canticle, Doxology, possible psalm prayer (you will see it if there is one), repeat antiphon. The Psalmody (this particular portion of the prayer) is followed by a short related Scriptural Reading, then the Responsory, and then the Gospel Canticle (remember it is in the Ordinary—bookmark it). The Gospel Canticle also repeats the pattern—antiphon, canticle, Doxology, repeat antiphon. Following the Gospel Canticle are the Intercessions (similar to Mass), the Lord’s Prayer, the Concluding Prayer, and the Dismissal (in Ordinary again, with more specific instructions—like the inclusion of either a Priest or Deacon at prayer).

Evening Prayer follows the same pattern, less the Invitatory. Where a deviation might come in is, as mentioned, if on that particular day, there is a Saint specifically memorialized (Proper of Saints), or a Saint without his/her own recognition (the Commons—meaning a generalization of the saint, for example—martyrs, virgins, pastors, etc.), or solemnity, feast day, etc. Then after the Psalmody your Ordo would have directed you to conclude the Prayer on these pages, with specific readings and prayers relating to this. Again, you would have already placed a ribbon or bookmark there.

And just so you don’t get thrown off and confused—there is no Evening Prayer listed for Saturday. It is Sunday Evening Prayer I (the Vigil), and Sunday is Evening Prayer II.

After this Night Prayer is as simple as can be. You only would need one ribbon to mark out where the prayer is, and follow the previous pattern. Night Prayer also includes an examination of conscience, then continues in suit with only one or two psalms. There are no Intercessions and the conclusion is different (in Ordinary). There is also no variance according to season or date. It merely follows a simple daily cycle through the week. Night prayer is concluded with a an antiphon or song to our Blessed Mother.

Now you have Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer. These three are the main Hours prescribed by the Church. In fact Morning and Evening Prayer are known as the Hinge Hours.

After this if so desired you may want to add Daytime Prayer and The Office of Readings (personal favorite of mine). As previously mentioned the one volume Christian Prayer does not contain these Hours in their entirety. To fully appreciate their wealth I would suggest using the internet to pray them, or purchase the four volume selection. They too follow a similar pattern to that which has been already shown.

I assure you praying the Hours is simpler than it has been to write this piece. Just don’t give up. It is helpful and encouraged to pray with others as this is Liturgy, therefore prayer in common. Others will be willing to help you if you get stuck. Look through your Breviary. Become familiar with the set up but don’t become overwhelmed. Always remember there was a first time for everyone. No one was born knowing how to navigate this.

And to address when the Doxology is not prayed; it is when the Canticle of Daniel is. This is because the Canticle ends with a hymn of high praise to God, similar to the Doxology.

This is just a basic outline of the Breviary. There are many other nuances to consider. To be sung or chanted (preferred method), different dividing up of parts, meaning who says what when praying with others. All this will be easier to acclimate to now that you have your Breviary in hand, and know how to navigate through it. Most important—this is PRAYER. It doesn’t matter how efficient and knowledgeable you are concerning the Liturgy of the Hours, if you are not PRAYING it. It is not just a bunch of words.

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