Lauds, the Morning Office

The Office prayed at sunrise, in the past called “Matutini,” (from the word for morning time) has always been a part of the monastic tradition. Today we call this office Lauds, meaning praise, to be associated especially with the repetition each day of Psalms 148, 149, 150 at the end of the psalmody, before the short lesson, response, hymn and canticle of the Gospel, the Benedictus are prayed. According to John Cassian, this Office of praising Christ as the new light appears on the horizon, was being prayed around the year 360 in Bethlehem, the place of our Lord’s birth. Like private prayer and nighttime vigils, the idea of a morning office probably extends back much earlier in the Church, but a precise date cannot be assigned to its origin.

Early Christian monks adopted the custom of meeting at daybreak, as well as in the predawn, and associated the office at dawn especially with our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. The psalms most often associated with Lauds include Psalm 66 (“Let your face shed its light upon us”); Psalm 50 (“Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness”) and Psalms 148-150. In the office according to Saint Benedict’s Rule, these five psalms are repeated each day at Lauds.

Other psalms too are linked with Lauds, for example Psalms 5, 35, 42, 56, 62, 63, 64, 87, 89, 117, 142, (Greek Septuagint numbering), all of them with some reference to daybreak, a new day, a new beginning. Each day at Lauds an Old Testament Canticle, also in a poetic, psalm-like structure is used before the Laudate Psalms (that is, Psalms 148, 149, 150).

Like Vespers, the Office of Lauds has a Gospel canticle, the Benedictus, the “Canticle of Zechariah,” from Saint Luke’s Gospel, prayed while standing, as is customary for a text from the Gospels. Similarly, the Magnificat, the “Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” is sung each day at Vespers. These two daily offices–Lauds and Vespers–are often called the pivotal ones of the day, the hinges on which the day turns, and so they are not to be omitted, even if for some reason Vigils or some other Office cannot be prayed on a particular day because of extraordinary circumstances. Like the Sunday Mass obligation, illness is an extraordinary circumstance and obligation is lifted.

Among the laity or active religious, the Offices of Lauds and Vespers are the most commonly celebrated offices, as a remembrance and celebration of God’s creation at the beginning of a new day in the light of the Risen Christ, as the Sun rises in the east, and at the end of the day, as the Sun is setting in the west. The two offices are complementary. Most active congregations limit themselves to Lauds and Vespers offices, often with the addition of one of the little hours–usually at midday perhaps–and perhaps Compline as well.

The Pater Noster, the Our Father, holds a special place toward the end of Lauds, as it does with Vespers. In Saint Benedict’s Rule it is the Abbot alone who chants the Our Father at Lauds and Vespers, with the brethren coming in at the end, “but deliver us from evil.” We might ask, why would the superior be expected to sing the Our Father alone? A sermon by Saint Augustine (49.8) may be the explanation. In that sermon Saint Augustine notes that some people omit the part for forgiveness in the “Our Father,” thinking they are not obligated to it. If the superior recites it, as in the Benedictine custom, then all hear the admonition and are obliged to live in the spirit of interpersonal forgiveness. Perhaps this is where Saint Benedict got the idea, via the Rule of the Master, which pre-dates Saint Benedict’s Rule, but contains a lot of the same material in an expanded form.

In another place (Jo. 26.22) Saint Augustine says that the recitation of the words “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” even forgives lesser sins and prepares the heart to receive the Eucharist. By having the monks recite the last part of the Pater Noster, Saint Benedict seems to imply that the community is entering into a solemn pact or covenant to know and observe all the petitions of the Our Father, especially that of mutual forgiveness, since in community that can be one of the most difficult yet necessary of tasks. In any case, it is the superior who traditionally chants the Our Father at Lauds and Vespers in the Benedictine Office, though many monasteries no longer follow the practice.