The Divine Office is a fracturing of the original Christian all-night vigil which would culminate in the singing of the Divine Praises (laudes) at dawn and the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the risen Sun would meet the Risen Son. The Hours separated and, as readers of St. Augustine's Confessions will remember, the implementation was somewhat arbitrary imitation of the practices of Alexandria according to local taste (Saint Ambrose evidently preferred a lone cantor to sing psalms in recto tono rather than ornate melodies of whatever practices preceded the Canonical Office).
Practical needs of discipline in monastic life generated the first Hour of the Office. Saint John Cassian purported that Prime, which he called "Mattins" (literally the "morning hour", as separate from the vigil we call Mattins and its accompanying Lauds), came about in his own monastery at Bethlehem:
"But you must know that this Mattins, which is now very generally observed in Western countries, was appointed as a canonical office in our own day, and also in our own monastery, where our Lord Jesus Christ was born of a Virgin and deigned to submit to growth in infancy as man, and where by His Grace He supported our own infancy, still tender in religion, and, as it were, fed with milk. For up till that time we find that when this office of Mattins (which is generally celebrated after a short interval after the Psalms and prayers of Nocturns in the monasteries of Gaul) was finished, together with the daily vigils, the remaining hours were assigned by our Elders to bodily refreshment. But when some rather carelessly abused this indulgence and prolonged their time for sleep too long, as they were not obliged by the requirements of any service to leave their cells or rise from their beds till the third hour" (Cassian, Twelve Institutes Bk III.IV).In his Rule, Saint Benedict laid out a schema of psalms for his monks to follow according to the day, a schema which effectively reworked the Roman psalter of his time according to his own perceived needs. In Chapter 8 he asks that three psalms be said at Prime each day from Monday until the Lord's day, psalms 1, 2, and 6 and then three successive psalms each day; on Sunday the psalms at Prime were the four 15-line fragments of psalm 118.
|Chapter Room of Poblet Monastery|
Prime and Compline, unlike the other Major and Minor Hours, are "chapter" hours, not properly part of the cathedral or collegiate public liturgy. Their original purpose was to occupy monks' down time, but as the rites of the Church matured, they took on their own character and importance in the monastic and collegiate life. Both were sung "in chapter", that is, in a separate room attached to the collegiate or monastic church, but separate from it. Mass would never be offered in this room. Instead, the avowed clerics would sing either Prime or Compline, review business of the day, listen to spiritual reading, admit any violations of their Rule or constitutions, and administer punishment.
Among the Eastern Churches, the practice of reading sacred texts in the Office subsided, leaving only prophesies for major feasts in the Byzantine rite. The Roman rite, however, retained a full structure of readings at Mattins and offered the Martyrology at the Office of Prime. As an Hora Minor, Prime does not change drastically with the days or seasons, but if the Martyrology is read, it reads of the saints whose feasts will be recalled by the Church the following day. On December 24 comes the only day in the Roman rite wherein Prime is celebrated with great ceremony. Prime is sung as normal until the Martyrology, when a priest in purple cope flanked by two acolytes reads the foretelling of the Incarnation:
"In the year 5199th from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, in the year 2957th from the flood, in the year 2015th from the birth of Abraham, in the year 1510th from the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses, in the year 1032th from the anointing of David as King, in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel, in the 194th Olympiad, in the 752nd from the foundation of the city of Rome, in the 42nd year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus, in the 6th age of the world, while the whole earth was at peace, Jesus Christ, Himself Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father, being pleased to hallow the world by His most gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and when nine months were passed after His conception, (all kneel down) was born of the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem of Juda made Man, Our Lord Jesus Christ was born according to the flesh."A full singing of this Office can be viewed here.
After the psalms in Prime, the choir sing a series of intercessory prayers, the celebrant and the choir make Confessions in alternation, the celebrant recites a stationary collect that Our Lord might protect those present this day from the danger of sin, they read the Martyrology, and then follows another series of prayers in praise of Our lady and the Saints. These prayers are of early medieval Gallican origin. Prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the communities of England had their own preces based entirely on verses of psaltery, admitting no other text. These prayers, which one can read more about in The Psalms and Medieval English Literature: from Conversion to the Reformation, were replaced with more responsorial prayers akin to the ones in the pre-Conciliar breviaries.
As far as the psalms themselves, Sunday Prime before S Pius V was longer than any major Hour, save Mattins. Psalms 21-25, 53, 117, and the first two fragments of 118 were sung, followed by the Athanasian Creed, the Martyrology, and the aforementioned prayers. For the rest of the week, Prime was short. The 1568 reforms, cognizant of the new obligation of secular clergy to pray the complete Office daily and also aware of the 26 psalms sung at Mattins and Lauds, re-distributed psalms 21-25 and 117 throughout the week while retaining 53 and the first two fragments of 118 daily. The result was coming substantial, but manageable from the standpoint of secular clergy.
Why, then, did Prime become the object of incessant caterwauling by reform minded priests in the late 19th and early 20th century? The Industrial Revolution quickened the pace of life in ways that modern society often overlooks. Throughout medieval times and into the pre-Industrial period, most people in Europe practiced bi-phasic sleep. Liturgically, this meant monks would awake in the middle of the night, sing the Nocturnal Vigil (Mattins and Lauds), return to sleep, and observe the rest of the Liturgy in the morning. When that disappeared, clergy still retained the venerable tradition of anticipating Mattins and Lauds after nightfall the prior evening. After both social changes in sleep and 20th century legislation forcing the entire Office to be sung or said within a modern 24 hour day, the morning became front-loaded with psalms. For the parish priest celebrating a 7AM Mass, this was onerous.
As stated elsewhere on this blog, the answers to the problems with the ancient Roman Liturgy could easily have been resolved by reducing clerical obligations and lessening the number of Doubles in the kalendar, but the result was something quite different.
Next we will look at how to pray Prime and its variations in the early half of the 20th century.