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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I. A suitable place should be selected. The Psalmist sang "In omni loco dominationis ejus, benedic, anima mea, Domino" (Ps. 102, 22). Our Lord wishes us to pray always; St. Paul says (I. Tim. ii.) that we should pray in every place, and theologians teach that a priest may validly and licitly say his Hours walking in the fields, in his room, or in any suitable place. The most suitable place is the church. For it is a house of prayer (St. Matt. xxi. 43), and the Holy Ghost asks us to go there to pray, "in templo ejus omnes dicent gloriam" (Ps. 28, 9). The Apostles, going to the temple to pray at the sixth and at the ninth hour, show us how suitable is the place holier than the temple—the church. The practice of the saints impresses on us the suitability of the church for the Church's official prayer. In the life of every modern saint we find recommended and practised the saying of the Hours at the altar. Perhaps, the example which is best known to missionary priests, is the example of the Cure d'Ars, who in the early days of his priestly life always said his Breviary kneeling in the sanctuary. His parishioners liked from time to time to slip into the church to watch him. "Often," says an eye-witness, "he paused while praying, his looks fixed on the Tabernacle, with eyes in which were painted so lively a faith that one might suppose our Lord was visible to his gaze. Later, his church being continually filled with an attentive crowd following his least movements, he took pains to avoid everything that might excite their admiration. Yet still, he might be frequently found, after a long day passed in the sacred tribunal, reciting his Hours on his knees, either in the sacristy or in a corner of the choir, a few steps from the altar; so strong was the attraction that drew him to unite his prayer to that of our Lord, so great was the love and respect inspired by the presence and infinite majesty of his Divine Master" (Life of Cure d'Ars, by Monnin).

Every priest must feel that the church benches, or the sanctuary, with their silence, their every part awakening and reminding the soul that this is the house of God, this is the gate of Heaven, are places most suitable for prayer and are great aids to fervent prayer. The thought of the presence of Christ with His adoring angels, to whose songs of praise the priest should unite himself, should help wonderfully in the devout recitation of the Hours. St. Alphonsus recommends that priests saying the Breviary should say it before a crucifix or before a statue or picture of the Blessed Virgin, so that gazing from time to time on these holy objects may foster or renew pious thoughts.

II. A great aid to pious recitation of the Hours is to take up a respectful position. The Office is a prayer, an elevation of the soul to God, and should be treated as such; and as everyone knows, the union of soul and body is such that in vocal prayer both are employed. If the body take up a lazy or unbecoming position in prayer, it is an insult to God to Whom prayer is offered, and is a certain source of distraction and faulty prayer. Habit does much in this matter, and where a priest labours to correct an inclination to take up a too comfortable position in saying his Hours, he is striving to pray well.

Priests, young and old, say writers on this point, should be vigilant in this aid to fervent prayer. The well-known words of St. Teresa recommending a comfortable attitude in prayer do not clash with this doctrine. In the Selva, St. Alphonsus writes: "It is related that while two religious recited Matins a devil appeared, caused an intolerable stench, and through mockery said, 'To the prayer which you offer such incense is suited'–ad talem orationem tale debetur incensum."

Which attitude is the best? Seeing the examples of the saints, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis de Sales, St. John de la Salle, the Cure d'Ars, and of many other saintly men, the best attitude in reciting the Hours is kneeling. Other saints accustomed themselves to recite their Hours standing, with head uncovered. Others followed, in private recitation, all the positions—sitting, kneeling, standing—required in choir. The practice is said to aid in banishing distractions, and contributes greatly to attention and devotion. Of course, in private recitation no one is bound to any of these practices. But they have proved useful to many in practising devout prayer. Everyone is bound to pray with fervour, and a respectful attitude is a big help towards that end.

Slow, deliberate pronunciation is another aid to the fervent saying of the Hours of the Breviary. The lives of saintly men show their practice in this matter. Knowing that they were the ambassadors of the Church in presenting her praise, thanks and wants to God, they read with care and attention. From their slow and deliberate reading of the holy words, their souls drew out the sublime thoughts and sentiments which their lips expressed. In rapid reading, the mind and heart have not time to think well on the meaning of the words and of the sentiments, and hence, no holy thoughts fill the soul, no acts of virtue are elicited, no prayer of petition is offered, no holy resolutions are formed. Indeed, very often—to quote the words of a venerable author—priests seem to say with their lips and to express by their rapid reading, not Deus in adjutorium meum intende, O God, make haste to help me! but Domine ad festinandum me adjuva–"O God, help me to hasten?" Wise old Rodriguez advises readers of spiritual books to observe a hen drinking and to imitate her slow and deliberate sipping, by reading in small quantities, with pauses. Sometimes priests acquire the habit of hurried reading, quite unconsciously, and afterwards labour hard, and in vain, too, to correct it. It is important for beginners in the Breviary to go at a slow pace, as the trot and the gallop are fatal to good and pious recitation. Sometimes priests excuse this hurried reading, as they wish to save time! Why do priests wish to save time? "For study," some may say; but the obligation of the Divine Office precedes all obligations of study, and its devout recitation is of far greater importance to the priest and to the Church than is any other or every other study. Some priests gallop through the Hours, to gain time for other ministerial work, they say. But they forget that the primary work—after the celebration of Mass—and the most important work of a priest, is the great official prayer of the Church. Who amongst priests leads the life of ceaseless toil which the Cure d'Ars led? And we have read how he said his Hours. St. Francis Xavier found time to preach to his many neophytes, to teach them, to baptize them, and yet he did not use the permission given him to shorten his Breviary prayer. He read the whole Office daily and added to it prayers to obtain the grace of better attention and devotion.

Sometimes the reading of the Hours is hurried for a motive less praiseworthy than the motives of study or of priestly work. Producitur somnus, producitur mensa, produncuntur confabulationes, lusus, nugae nugarum; solius supremae Magestratis, cultus summa qua potest celeritate deproperatur (Kugler, De Spiritu Eccles.), "On this, God complained one day to St. Bridget, saying that some priests lose so much time every day in conversing with friends on worldly affairs; and afterwards, in conversing with Him, while they recite the Office, they are so hurried that they dishonour Him more than they glorify Him" (St. Alphonsus, Selva). In the hurried reading of the Office, time, a few minutes perhaps, is gained, but what is lost? Does the loss of all the lights and graces and blessings of the Office compensate for the time gained? It is important that all who read the Breviary hurriedly, or who may be tempted to acquire the habit, should weigh well the words read therein (Friday's Vespers) "Labor labiorum ipsorum operiet eos; cadent super eos carbones" (Ps. 139). "The labour of their lips shall overwhelm them; burning coals shall fall upon them."

To acquire this important habit, the practice of reading at a slow pace the words of the Breviary, authors suggest several little hints. One is, never to start reading the Hours unless there be ample time for finishing the Hour or Hours intended to be then and there read. The practice of squeezing the small Hours into scraps of time (e.g., in the intervals between hearing confessions in the confessional, at a session) is fatal to careful and pious reading. Another hint is, to read everything, every word (e.g., Pater Noster, Ave, Credo), and to repeat nothing from memory, because the printed words meeting the eyes and the spoken words reaching the ears help to fix the attention and there is less risk of their passing unnoticed. This was the practice of St. Charles Borromeo. St. Philip Neri never recited from memory even in saying the small Hours. St. Vincent de Paul always spent a great time in saying his Breviary. His intense fervour was helped by his careful reading of every word, and this practice of keeping his eyes fixed steadily on the printed matter of the book he recommended to his congregation of priests. Some holy priests maintained that they could recite from memory with greater fervour than from the reading of the pages of the Breviary; but the practice is not one for the many. Another hint to help pious recitation is to earnestly wish to say the Office worthily, attentively and devoutly. This wish must bring up before the mind the thought of how displeasing to God and how great is the daily loss—not to speak of a lifetime's loss-to the soul of a priest who prays carelessly, tepidly and mechanically. But in spite of all precautions, it may be noticed during the recitation of the Hours that, without our own fault, the words are said too quickly. It is advised, then, to pause and to say mentally what the Venerable Boudon was wont to say to his soul in similar circumstances: "To punish and mortify thee, I will go more slowly; I will devote to my office to-day a longer time" (Bacquez).

IV. To prevent distractions and to banish them are no easy matters. It is impossible to avoid all distractions. Involuntary distractions do not hinder merit; still it is important that an effort be made to diminish and repress the quality of such disturbing elements in prayer.

First of all, we can never totally avoid all distractions, nor can we entirely and completely remove them when they enter our souls. The human soul cannot pray for any notable time without distraction. The greatest saints knew this well. St. Augustine wrote, "Vult se tenere ut stet, et quodammodo fugit a se nec invenit cancellos quibus se includat" (in Psalm 95). St. Thomas wrote "Vix unum Pater noster potest homo dicere quin mens ad alia fertur." The author of the Imitation of Christ wrote, "For I confess truly that I am accustomed to be very much distracted. For oftentimes I am not there where I am bodily standing or sitting, but am rather there where my thoughts carry me" (Bk. iii. c. 48). The same writer wrote, "And I, a wretch and the vilest of men.... I can hardly spend one half hour as I ought." St. Teresa wrote, "I am not less distracted than you are during Office, and try to think that it arises from weakness of head. Do not fear to think so, too. Does not our Lord know, that when we perform this duty we would wish to do it with the greatest possible attention?"

After reading these words we can understand how prayer offered up with involuntary distractions is true, holy prayer. St. Thomas tells us "Dicendum quod in spiritu et veritate orat, qui ex instinctu spiritus ad orandum accedit, etiamsi ex aliqua infirmitate mens postmodum evagetur.... Evagatio vero mentis quae fit praeter propositum orationis fructum non tollat" (2.2. q. 83, a. 13).

Nevertheless, every effort should be made to avoid and to banish distractions. The ways of doing this are given in all treatises on prayer. Every priest knows them well. There are negative means and positive means. The negative means consist in withdrawing the senses and the powers of the soul from everything disturbing the soul's converse with God; in guarding against any too absorbing interest in worldly affairs, so that the mind is unmanageable and cannot be fixed on sacred things. St. Francis of Assisi, working at a piece of furniture before saying Terce, was, during the saying of that hour disturbed by the thought of his manual work. When he re-entered his cell he took the bit of work and threw it in the fire saying, "I wish to sacrifice to the Lord the thing which hindered my prayer to Him."

The positive means of avoiding and of banishing distractions are given above; they are to read slowly, to read every word, to read in a becoming position, to observe choir directions, to give ample time to each Hour. Another rule given by writers on the pious recitation of the Office, is to pause at certain places in the psalms to renew attention and elicit affections. Some authors recommend such pauses at the end of the invitatory, at the end of each hymn, or after each Gloria. "Study well the Gloria Patri," said St. Francis of Assisi, "for in it you find the substance of the scriptures."

V. To apply the mind to what is read is another help to pious recitation. It seems to be a useless repetition of an obvious fact that to apply the mind to the prayers read, helps to ward off and to drive away distractions. Such a practice is natural for a person of intelligence, and the Church wishes and expects such intelligent and heartfelt prayer. God said to the Jewish priests what applies to the Christian priesthood, too: "And now, O ye priests, this commandment is to you, if you will not hear, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to My name, saith the Lord of Hosts, I will curse your blessings, because you have not laid it to heart" (Mal. ii. 1-2). Christ complained about the Jewish people who honoured Him with their lips, but had their hearts far from Him. And God's great servants realized this fully. St. Paul said, "And he that speaketh by a tongue (the gift of speaking strange tongues) let him pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is without fruit. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit. I will pray also with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, I will sing also with the understanding" (I. Cor. xiv. 13-15). St. Gregory the Great said that true prayer consists not only in the articulation of the words, but also in the attention of the heart; for to obtain the divine graces our good desires have greater efficacy than mere words (Moral, lib. 22. cap. 13). Peter de Blois wrote of the priests of his time, "Labia sunt in canticis et animus in patinis! Their lips are in the psalms, but their heart is in the dishes!" (Selva). "Age quod agis," says the Imitation of Christ.

VI. It is advisable not to dwell on the literary excellence of the Breviary during the recitation of the Office. It is a useful thing that priests should recognise the authorship of the psalms recited, their probable dates, the circumstances of their composition, the sublimity of their thought, the peculiarity of their Hebrew style, the rhythm and poetry of the Hebrews. But the dwelling on these thoughts leads to distractions. Again, some priests, like the clerics of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance times, despise and dislike the Breviary for its alleged barbarous style. These unworthy and foolish sentiments are met with, very rarely. They are opposed to the priestly spirit, which should love and respect the Scripture extracts, God's inspired words. The homilies from the Fathers are well chosen, and suitable for the greatest prayer and for the greatest prayerbook the world has ever known. The hymns are the wonder and study of scholars of every religion. St. Augustine, after his conversion even, felt a repugnance for the holy Scriptures as unequal to Cicero in form. But in his mature age and considered judgment, the saint reversed his judgment; "non habent," he wrote of the Pagan classics, "illae paginae vultum pietatis, lacrymas confessionis spiritum contribulatum cor contritum et humiliatum" (Confess. Bk. 7, c. 21).

VII. To think of Christ's Passion is another aid to good Breviary recitation. We have seen in the theological part of this book (page 4) the seven principal stages of the Passion which correspond with the seven principal parts of the Office. And this devout thought on some scene of the Passion is recommended by all writers on the Divine Office, as an easy and very profitable means and aid to attentive and devout saying of the Hours. It is a means practised by thousands of priests.

St. Bonaventure recommended that at each Hour some thought of the mysteries of the life and death of Christ should be held in mind. Thus, Matins, the night Office, might be offered up in honour of the birth and infancy of Christ; Lauds, in honour of His resurrection; Terce, in honour of the coming of the Holy Ghost; None, in memory of Christ's death; Vespers, in thanksgiving for the Eucharist.

VIII. To remember the presence of God, of our angel guardian, and of the demons, is a practice recommended by writers on recitation of the Office in or out of choir. This thought of the presence of God was one of the aids recommended by St. Benedict to his religious, to aid their devout fulfilment of the great work of reciting their Hours worthily, attentively, and devoutly. Centuries after St. Benedict's death we find St. Bonaventure repeating this advice to his novices. Blessed Peter Faber, S.J., to make his Breviary prayer more fervent, used to picture to himself the presence of his guardian angel at his side recording his pious and holy thoughts, and the demon recording his distractions. "Dearly beloved priest," wrote St. Alphonsus, "when you take the Breviary in your hand, imagine that an angel stands on one side to register your merits in the Book of Life if you say the Office with devotion, and on the other a devil who, if you recite it with distraction, writes your faults in the book of death. With this thought excite yourself to say the Office with the greatest possible devotion. Endeavour, then, not only at the beginning of the Office, but also at the beginning of each psalm, to renew your attention, that you may be able to excite in your heart all the sentiments that you shall read" (Selva).


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