Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Canonical hours
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Canonical hours

Canonical hours are ancient divisions of time (also called "offices"), developed by the Catholic Church, serving as increments between prayers. The practice grew from the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at set times of the day: for example, in the book of Acts, Peter and John visit the temple for the afternoon prayers. Psalm 119:164 states: "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws."

In 525, St. Benedict wrote the first manual for praying the Hours, and the Vatican wrote the first official breviary in the 11th century.

Already well-established by the ninth century, these canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events and three (or four) nightly divisions (called "nocturnes", "watches," or "vigils"). Building on the recitation of psalms and canticles from Scripture, the Church has added (and, at times subtracted) hymns, hagiographical readings, and other prayers. The practice of observing canonical hours are maintained by many Churches, such as the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communions.

The daily events were:

(at dawn) Matins ("MATT'-inz") called "Orthos" in Eastern Churches

(at dawn) Lauds ("lawds") later separate from Matins; aka "Morning Prayer" or "The Praises."

(at ~6 AM) Prime (the "first hour")

(at ~9 AM) Terce (the "third hour")

(at Noon) Sext (the "sixth hour")

(at ~3 PM) Nones (the "ninth hour")

(at sunset) Vespers (aka "Evensong" or "Evening Prayer")

(at bedtime) Compline ("COMP'-lin", aka "Night Prayer")

The remainder of this article is divided into three sections: the Anglican Usage, the Catholic usage, and the Orthodox usage.

Table of contents
1 Anglican Usage (the Book of Common Prayer)
2 Catholic Usage
3 Orthodox Usage

Anglican Usage (the Book of Common Prayer)

Needs to be filled in!

Catholic Usage

Early Church

Middle Ages

Council of Trent

Further reforms before the Second Vatican Council

Catholic Usage in the Roman Rite following the Second Vatican Council

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church's Roman Rite simplified the observance of the canonical hours and sought to make them more accessible to the laity, hoping to restore their character as the prayer of the entire Church. The office of Prime was abolished, and the character of Matins changed so that it could be used at any time of the day as an office of Scriptural and hagiographical readings. Furthermore, the period over which the entire Psalter is recited has been expanded from one week to four.

Formerly referred to popularly as "The Divine Office", and published in four volumes according to the meteorological seasons "Spring", "Summer", "Fall", and "Winter", the Church now publishes the related liturgical books under the title "The Liturgy of the Hours", and issues them in four volumes according to the liturgical season: "Advent and Christmas", "Lent and Easter", "Ordinary Time Vol. I", "Ordinary Time Vol. II".

Current Catholic usage focuses on two major hours and from three to five minor hours:

The major hours

The major hours consist of Morning and Evening Prayer (or Vespers). The character of Morning Prayer is that of praise; of Evening Prayer, that of thanksgiving. Both follow the same format:

The minor hours

The daytime hours follow a simpler format:

The office of readings expands on the format of the daytime hours:

Night prayer has the character of preparing the soul for its passage to eternal life:

In each office, the psalms and canticle are framed by antiphons, and each concludes with the traditional Catholic doxology.

Liturgical variation

In addition to the basic four-week cycle of prayers for each of the canonical hours, the Church also provides an alternate collection of hymns, readings, psalms, canticles and antiphons, for use in marking specific dates on the Roman Calendar, which sets out the order of celebrations for the liturgical year. These alternate selections are found in the 'Proper of Seasons' (selections for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter), and the 'Proper of Saints' (selections for feast days of the Saints). A breviary is generally keyed to help the user navigate these overlays in the liturgy.

Orthodox Usage

Orthodox prayer books typically provide prayers to be prayed at these hours:

(at dawn) Matins ("MATT'-inz")

(at ~6 AM) the "first hour"

(at ~9 AM) the "third hour" (remembering the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which happened at this hour)

(at Noon) the "sixth hour" (remembering the death of Christ, which happened at this hour)

(at ~3 PM) the "ninth hour"

(at sunset) Vespers (aka "Evening Prayer")

(at bedtime) Compline ("COMP'-lin", aka "Night Prayer") (preparing for death, our final "falling asleep")

(at midnight) Midnight prayers (to be prayed if one happens to wake up in the middle of the night and wants to pray)

In cathedrals and monasteries, it is more common to find someone present at the church praying these prayers at each of these hours. In many churches, it is common on Sunday mornings to read the third and sixth hour prayers prior to the Divine Liturgy. Other churches have an entire matins service which precedes the Divine Liturgy. In either case there is usually little or no pause between the end of one and the beginning of the next.

In "liturgical timekeeping", a new day begins with the Vespers service, specifically at the reading or singing of the Prokeimenon during the Vespers service, rather than beginning at midnight.

In addition to these prayers, there are also canons to prayed in preparation for receiving the Eucharist, and also akathist prayers regarding specific subjects, and which may be addressed directly to God or to a saint, asking that saint to convey the petitions to God. These canons and akathist prayers are inserted at specific points in the prayers of the hours.