Divine Office – Divinum Officium

The Divine Office

A Study of the Roman Breviary

Part II.—Rules From Moral and Ascetic Theology for the Recitation of the Breviary.

Chapter II. Some Rules Of Ascetic Theology For The Pious Recitation Of The Breviary.

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Preparation is necessary before beginning every prayer, for the Holy Ghost says, "Before prayer prepare thy soul, and be not as a man that tempteth God" (Ecclesias. 18. 23). This preparation necessary before other prayers is above all necessary before the recitation of the Divine Office, which is the greatest of all prayers. Two kinds of preparation are necessary, the remote and the proximate.

The remote preparation demands the removal of all obstacles which impede prayer, and the greatest of all prayers, the Church's official prayer. The chief or capital obstacles which impede or prevent a pious recitation of the Breviary are: sin, the passions, the absorbing thoughts of creatures and the ignorance of the Divine Office. And the means to remove these obstacles are to purify the conscience, science, to mortify the passions, to guard the sense and to have an intelligent knowledge of the duty and requirements of a proper fulfilment of the daily task of the saying of the Canonical Hours.

The first means is to purify the conscience from sin, for sin hinders prayer. But what effect has sin on the recitation of the Office? The Office is a prayer, an elevation of the soul to God, and as all writers on ascetics teach, sin is a chain that binds us to earth; it is, says St. Francis, as birdlime which impedes the soul in its flight upwards. Prayer is a conversation with God, but a soul loving sin cannot converse with God; "Peccatores Deus non audit" (St. John, ix. 31). Prayer is an intimate union with God, but a soul resting in sin can have no intimate union with God; there can be no intimate union between light and darkness, between sanctity and sin, between good and evil; in a word, between Christ and Belial. Quae participatio, quae societas lucis ad tenebras? Quae conventio Christi el Belial?

The second means of procuring fervent prayer is the mortification of the passions. It is not enough to secure fervour in prayer that our souls should be free from sin; we must struggle to master our passions. This point is important—for a soul upset by its passions, anger, pride, etc., cannot with fervour recite the Hours, for it cannot converse with God, it cannot elevate itself to God, it can have no true union with God. It cannot converse with God, for God will not converse with an unmortified soul for three reasons. First, He will not speak if there be no one to listen, for the Holy Ghost tells us "Where there is no hearing, pour not out words" (Eccli. xxxii. 6). God wishes a soul in converse with Him to be calm and still, for God is not in the earthquake (3 Kings, xix. ii.). Again, even if God speaks to an unmortified soul, it cannot hear Him as the passions fix its attention on worldly matters. And even when such a soul tries to listen and to understand, the passions surging and warring drown all sound and sense of holy things. For, "the animal man perceiveth not these things that are of the spirit of God, for it is foolishness to him and he cannot understand, because it is spiritually examined" (I. Cor. ii. 14). The human soul cannot truly unite itself to God if the passions are not conquered, because by their very nature they are opposed to God and hence inspire estrangement from, and disgust for, holy things.

Thirdly, the senses must be guarded. Our five senses can impede the recitation of the Office because they present to our souls images of the things which occupy them, and they can draw our will towards the pleasures which correspond with these objects. It is necessary for the worthy, attentive and devout saying of the Office that each sense be guarded. The sense of sight should be guarded from gazing at objects at hand, persons, books, landscape, etc. The sense of hearing should be guarded in flying from the company of evil speakers, calumniators, detractors, those who speak of worldly affairs or who give evil counsel. It is necessary, too, to guard the tongue from evil speech. "I have set a guard to my mouth, when the sinner stood against me" (Psalm 38, 2); and it is well to guard against too frequent or too long conversations, which fill the soul with thoughts disturbing to a prayerful disposition. The sense of touch should likewise be guarded, for St. Thomas says that the sense of touch is the maintenance of the other senses (1 P. q. 76, a. 75). And when the foundations of a house commence to fall asunder, the walls, the frame and the roof totter and fall. So it is with the senses; when the sense of touch is disturbed the other senses quickly complete the ruin.

What knowledge is needed for the valid and for the licit recitation of the Hours? Must the person know the meaning of the words read? No such knowledge is necessary, for God hears the prayer of the ignorant and illiterate and of the babes. To the chief priests and scribes, who hearing the children crying out the Saviour's praise in the temple, Christ said "Yea, have you not read 'Out of the mouths of infants and sucklings thou hast perfected praise'" (St. Matth. xxi. 15-16), St. Augustine defended from the sneers of the learned, those who prayed to God in rude and barbarous words, or words which they did not understand. "Noverint non esse vocem ad aures Dei nisi animi affectum" (De Catech. Rud. C.I.). The Church has bound religious, both men and women, to say the Office in choir, even though they may not understand Latin. Nevertheless, it is highly desirable that those who understand Latin should understand what they read daily in the Breviary. God, the Church, the practice of the saints, our own intelligence, our spiritual advantage, demand that every priest should read with knowledge so that with more certainty he may read attentively and devoutly.

For (1) the Holy Ghost warns us to sing wisely, Psallite sapienter (Ps. 46.8); (2) that priests may sing wisely, may say the daily Office piously is the reason and end of liturgical studies of the psalms and of the Breviary in theological colleges; (3) the saints who wrote so piously and so learnedly on the psalms and on psalmody are for ever impressing this matter of intelligent recitation. St. Augustine wrote, "Et quare dicta sunt, nisi ut sciantur? Quare sonuerunt nisi ut audiantur? Quare audita sunt nisi ut intelligantur" (Tract xxxi. in Joan). Again, commenting on psalm 146, he writes, "David teaches that we sing wisely; let us not seek the mere sound for the ear, but a light for the soul." St. Thomas Aquinas commenting on "For I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is without fruit" (I. Cor. xiv. 14) wrote "Constat quod plus lucratur qui orat. Nam, ille qui intelligit reficitur quantum ad intellectum et quantum ad affectum; sed mens ejus qui non intelligit est sine fructu refectionis." And (4) our own intellect tells us that the Breviary should be read intelligently and devoutly. One of the ends of the Church in imposing the Divine Office as an obligation is, that by honouring the holy mysteries, or the holy memories of the saints, we may raise our hearts and souls to God, as St. Paul wishes us, "May the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of one mind towards one another according to Jesus Christ, that with one mind and one mouth you may glorify God" (Rom. xv. 5-6), an effect that cannot be produced by the recital of words which are not understood. It is almost impossible to avoid very grave distractions and to sustain attention if there be not a good knowledge of the matter and form of the Hours recited.

It seems irrational that, priests should spend daily more than an hour reading words that they understand not at all, or very imperfectly; and that the beautiful and sublime thought and language of the book of psalms, which are admired by all educated men, should be, to those who read them every day for years, nothing but a tinkling cymbal, vox et praeterea nihil. This is often the case even with priests who practise piously and methodically mental prayer. And yet nowhere are such beautiful acts of faith and confidence in God's power expressed as in the Psalms (e.g., 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 16, 19, 25, 27, 30, 34, 43, 54, 55, 56, etc.); no more sublime expressions of praise exist than in the Psalms 8, 9, 17, 18, 20, 21, etc. Time spent in studying the history of the Breviary, the structure and the growth of the contents of each Hour, the meanings of the prayers and hymns, is time well spent.


First. It is necessary to foresee from the reading of the Ordo what is to be said, and to mark all the psalms, lessons, responses, antiphons and prayers. By this practice, St. Bonaventure says, all is recited and recited in order. Libri et alia necessaria ad officium praeparantur et legenda studiose ante praevisa, quando et quomodo sint dicenda dicuntur (Intit. Novit, p. I., c. 4). Unless this matter be arranged before the prayer, Aperi is begun, a priest is certain to suffer from distractions, to run the risk of violating the rubrics and to lose some of the spiritual profit which arises from preparation. This point of preparation is attended to by all thoughtful priests and it was ever the practice of the great students and lovers of liturgy.

Second. It is necessary to recollect ourselves. This is simply to draw off from profane thoughts the mind and the heart, and to apply them to the sublime work of conversing with God, which we do in the Divine Office. This recollecting of our wandering thoughts before prayer is impressed on us by Holy Scripture, by the example of the saints, and by our own common sense. Holy Scripture warns us "Before prayer prepare thy soul and be not as a man that tempteth God" (Ecclus. 18. 23). And as typical of the preparation made by saintly priests, the example of St. Charles Borromeo may be mentioned. The saint always spent a quarter of an hour in preparatory prayer before beginning the Church's official prayer. The Venerable John D'Avila made the same practice general amongst his disciples. This holy man narrates, how one day he met a priest of the Society of Jesus, who asked him to recite the Hours with him, and that before beginning their prayer the Jesuit fell on his knees, saying, "There are some who speak of saying the Office as if it were a trifle. Come, they say, let us say our Hours together, and so immediately begin. This is showing very little appreciation for so holy a duty, for it well merits a few moments at least of recollection" (Bacquez). Our own common sense tells us not to rush heedlessly to begin any important work. To converse with God is a work of sublime importance which needs preparation, so that it may be done attentively.

Third. We must invoke God's aid by prayer. No prayer is more suitable than the prayer given as a preparatory prayer in the Breviary, "Aperi, Domine, os meum ... Open Thou, O Lord, my mouth to bless Thy holy name; cleanse my heart from vain, evil and wandering thoughts; enlighten my understanding, inflame my will, that so I may worthily, attentively and devoutly recite this Office and deserve to be heard in the presence of Thy Divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. O Lord, in union with that divine intention wherewith Thou whilst here on earth didst Thyself praise God, I offer these Hours to Thee."

Fourth. To unite ourselves with Jesus Christ. In the prefatory prayer "Aperi, Domine," we say "Domine, in unione," etc. In Baptism, Christians are united to Jesus, to His life, to His spirit. He is the Head of the Church and we are its members. And this union should be a real, explicit, vivifying union when we fulfil our ministry of social prayer. This union with Christ is sought for by Himself, by the Apostles, by the Church, and is practised ever by God's saints. The words of the prayer should be reduced to action.

1. Christ our model in all things is our model in prayer, and so He teaches us that when we pray we must say "Our Father, Who art in Heaven," that is, to use His very words and sentiments. And this desire of our Lord, that souls should be united to Him in prayer, has often been manifested by Him to His saints. To St. Gertrude He said, "My daughter, behold My Heart; look upon It in future as supplying your own defects. When you would pray, ask It to help you to give My Father the homage you owe Him. I shall be ever ready to second you as soon as you call Me to your aid." St. Bernard, schooled in this practice by the Holy Ghost, knew all its sweetness: "David," he says, "rejoiced of old to have found his heart to pray to his Master and his God–Invenit servus tuus cor tuum ut oraret te oratione hac (II. Kings viii. 27). And I, that I may pray, have found the heart of my King and my Brother, of my sweet Saviour; shall I not then also pray? Yes, certainly, for I am, too, happy, as I have, if not the Heart of Jesus in place of mine, at least have I mine in that of Jesus" (Bacquez, p. 191).

2. St. Paul recommends us to offer our prayers through Jesus Christ. "By him, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise always to God, that is to say, the fruit of lips confessing to His name" (Heb. xiii. 15).

3. The Church wishes this union with Christ and mentions it several times in her prayers, Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum. She expresses her wish in the preparatory prayer, Aperi, Domine; she wishes the words and sentiments of the psalms to be applied to Jesus, the Saviour, whom David typified, and to whom the psalms in great number relate. And in the frequent repetition of the Pater Noster, we speak Christ's sentiments and words.

4. The lives of the saints furnish many examples and precepts of this union with Christ in our prayer. To the examples of St. Gertrude and St. Bernard many others can be added. Several such examples are quoted by Bacquez in his work on the Office.

5. The remembrance of the sublime work of the Office should aid in its fervent recitation. Priests should remember the words of St. Alphonsus: "After the sacrifice of the Mass the Church possesses no treasure so great as the Divine Office." "It is God's Church, the Spouse of Christ, who has done me the honour of choosing me for this great work—me, in preference to a hundred others. She puts into my hand her holy book of heavenly language, and asks me to read its words before God, to unite with the angels and saints in honouring God."

6. To propose some particular intention before the recitation of the Hours begins, and to renew it during the recitation is an excellent means of guarding against distractions and mechanical routine. It sustains during the prayer the fervour with which it was begun. St. Bonaventure said to priests "Give great attention to the signs (i.e., to the directions, about kneeling, standing, sign of cross, etc.), greater attention to the words, and the greatest attention to the (particular) intention."

But what intention ought we to have?

We should have general intentions and particular intentions. We must have the general intentions of the Church, whose ambassadors we are. We must pray that God be known and adored, loved and thanked and praised. We must pray that the Church have freedom, that she may be exalted, that the kingdom of Christ may spread and flourish, that the Pope and clergy of the world may be blessed and guided by God, that holy souls may be confirmed in virtue and that sinners may be converted.

We should have also some particular intentions in reading our Hours. Thus, we may pray to obtain a more lively faith, a greater hope, a more ardent charity, greater meekness and humility, greater patience, detachment from the world, greater fraternal charity, help in keeping vows—in a word, an increase of virtues, especially those in which we may have great wants. Again, a priest may and should beg God to help him and guide him by his light and grace, in doubts, in trouble, in crosses, in his daily work as a priest, in his parish, in his schools, in his college. Particularly and fervently should a priest pray for success in his religious instruction in school, in church, in the pulpit. For St. Augustine tells us that success in this matter depends more on prayer than on preaching (De Doc. Christ., Lib. 4, chap. 15). And at every Hour a priest should pray for a happy death.

Before saying his Hours, a priest may form a special intention of praying for others, his superiors, his parents, his brothers and sisters, his benefactors, his friends, his enemies, for those who have asked for prayers, for some one in sorrow, for some one in sin, for a soul in purgatory. Of course, these prayers benefit the priest who offers them, for as St. Gregory the Great said so well, "Plus enim pro se valere preces suas efficit qui has et pro aliis impendit" (Moral II. 25).


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