Symbolism of the Various Hours of the Divine Office

Probably the first symbolic feature of the Divine Office is the number seven. “Seven times a day I have given you praise,” Scripture says (Psalm 118:64). Probably the original idea of the psalmist was to use a perfect number–seven–to focus direct attention on earnest, persevering, unceasing prayer, as opposed to seven specific prayer periods as such in the Jewish tradition. Yet the early Christian monks took the number more literally and John Cassian points out the monks of Bethlehem as meeting together for prayer seven times in the course of the day. But even then the deeper purpose of adhering to the scriptural number of seven was to help the Christian monks focus on the famous injunction already mentioned, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The purpose of each and every prayer time was the praise of the Creator, invisible God yet ever-present, the actual abba of the koinobion, that is, the Father of the holy community.

Having established an objective number of seven offices, early monks were concerned about which prayers should be held at which hours. They came to some general conclusions from the life of our Lord and the Apostles about the prayer periods to be held in the monasteries. Various important monastic legislators recorded the findings regarding the Divine Office and its mystical relationship to Scripture.

Saint Basil the Great (+379 A. D.), for example, says (in the Longer Rules 37, 3-4) that the morning office of Lauds is a reminder to us to dedicate the day’s first ideas of the mind and the first emotions of the heart to God. He says further that we should not occupy ourselves with other cares until we have oriented all our thoughts toward God, as it is written, “I remembered my God…I pondered and my spirit fainted,” (Psalm 76:3).

Nor should we begin our manual labor, says Saint Basil, until we have done as the psalmist says: “It is you whom I invoke, O Lord. In the morning you hear me; in the morning I offer you my prayer, watching and waiting” (Psalm 5:3b). Also, at midmorning the brethren should gather to pray, recounting the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:15). At Noon the brethren pray as well, after the example of the saints, who say in the psalms, “evening, morning and at noon I will cry and lament” (Psalm 54:18).

Saint Basil would also have his monks pray Psalm 90 at this hour, with its reference to the “scourge that lays waste at noon” (v.6), the “noonday devil,” or most commonly in ancient literature called accedia. Saint Benedict and subsequent liturgical tradition place Psalm 90 at Compline.

In the middle of the afternoon, says Saint Basil, the monks should pray as the Apostles did (Acts 3:1) “at the ninth hour,” that is, around three in the afternoon. As day draws to a close, the brethren should give God thanks for all the good they may have done, admitting what they have failed to do, and confess any failings of thought, word or deed. Finally, at Compline, the last prayer of the day in common, monks should pray for “a peaceful night and a happy death.” And furthermore, in imitation of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:25), monks should rise at night, recounting the words of Psalm 118:64: “At midnight I will rise and thank you.”

Saint Basil goes on to say that those who wish to live for the honor and glory of God must not neglect these periods of prayer during the day and night. The fixed hours are a help to facilitate attention on God, hopefully always, but at least at specific hours throughout the day, and finding refreshment for one’s soul.

Another important monastic legislator, John Cassian (+ca. 433 A. D.), has different symbolism for Sext, None, and Vespers. He draws attentions to our Lord’s crucifixion at Noon, which he says we should recall when praying at that hour. Also at the Sixth Hour Saint Peter received the vision that all nations were being called to salvation (Acts 10:9ff). At the Ninth Hour Christ descended into the netherworld to free those in Hades or Sheol, and broke open its gates and called forth the waiting ancestors, from Adam and Eve to John the Baptist, awaiting redemption by Christ. Cornelius the Centurion too received his call at the Ninth Hour, according to Acts 10:1-3. As these hours were consecrated by sacred events, says Cassian, the hours should also be kept by monks. As for the evening hour, the example of the Old Testament Mosaic law should be our model: “Let my prayer arise before you like incense, the raising of my hands like an evening oblation” (Psalm 140:2). The Last Supper also comes to mind for Cassian, the supreme evening sacrifice, as well as Christ lifting up of his hands on the cross on Good Friday, for the salvation of the whole world.

Cassian also cites psalm and other scripture texts to bolster the ideas of prayer at morning, midday, noon, mid-afternoon, nightfall and night. Cassian was especially in favor of the eremitical (hermit) life, since it could more easily be a ceaseless prayer. He said the hermit’s prayer, even when he works, “is the more perfect; for what is done without interruption is better than that which is performed only at intervals; and a voluntary gift is more pleasing than those that are offered under the constraint of a Rule” (Institutes, 3.2).

Another important monastic legislator from around the time of Saint Benedict (+547 A. D.) is Saint Caesarius of Arles, first a monk at the important monastery of Lerins, then a Bishop of Arles and writer of a rule for nuns at Arles, where his sister, Caesaria, was abbess. Saint Caesarius died about 543. In his rule for nuns he refers to the hymns of the various hours as giving expression to the symbolic meaning of the various hours. We’ll look at that aspect of the Office shortly.

The little hour of Sext, says Saint Caesarius, recalls the visitors to Abraham (Genesis 18) at midday. The monks looked upon the three visitors as symbolic of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, which the Arians denied. The heresy of the Arians was also known to Saint Benedict, whose insistence on the regular use of the doxology, Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto (Glory Be to the Father , and the Son, and the Holy Spirit), clearly placed his monks in the non-Arian camp. The Arians denied the equality of Christ with the other Persons of the Trinity.