In a letter from the year 384, Saint Jerome wrote the following:
“The Apostle indeed admonishes us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and with the Saints their very sleep should be a prayer. Nevertheless, we must set aside stated hours for the duty of praying. Then, should any occupation keep us away from it, the hour itself will remind us of that duty. As such prayer times everyone knows of the third, sixth and ninth hours, the morning and the evening hours. Nor should you ever take nourishment without beginning to do so with a prayer. Likewise, you should not leave the table without discharging your duty of thanks to the Creator. In the night, too, one should rise from his couch two or three times and therewith recall what he has learned by heart from the Scriptures [during the daytime]. On leaving his abode he should arm himself with prayer. Also, he should say a prayer upon his return before he seats himself again. After that only is the life entitled to its nourishment and the body to its rest. Before every action, at the beginning of every undertaking, let the hand make the sign of the cross” (Letter XXII, 37).
Saint Jerome is speaking here for the early church and for monasticism in general. The two ideas emphasized are that one should strive to pray at all times as well as adhere to a regular structure of prayer at appointed times. He numbers in all six common prayer periods: morning, evening, nighttime, as well as prayer at the third, sixth, and ninth hours (Terce, Sext, None). Our ancestors in the faith began counting hours at sunrise, about 6am.
In the Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the early 6th century, we hear of eight prayer periods: Matins or Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. Since the time of Saint Benedict’s Rule, there generally has been understood to be eight canonical hours in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. We presume, though, that Saint Benedict took over the number from an existing tradition familiar to him. Perhaps centers of Church life and monasticism already existing in Rome, Milan, Naples, and Lerins in Gaul (modern-day France) influenced him in taking on the same number of prayer periods.
In Saint Benedict’s plan of distributing the 150 Psalms over a one-week period, the eight canonical hours afforded the basic structure on which to assign the Psalms. Besides the Psalms, of course, the Liturgy of the Hours in Saint Benedict’s time included readings from other Scripture texts and commentaries as well as hymns, antiphons, and verses that were not necessarily direct Scripture quotations. These elements still comprise the Liturgy of the Hours of the Church in our own time.
Sometimes at Christ in the Desert we are asked why we don’t use the four-volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours published for use by Catholics and used by many religious as well. We explain that the four-volume set is actually an “abbreviation” of the complete monastic office that traditionally distributes the 150 psalms over one week with repetitions of some psalms each and every day (i.e., Psalms 3, 94, 66, 50, 148-150, 4, 90, and 133).
The published Roman version distributes the Psalms over a four-week cycle and leaves out sections of some psalms. Consequently the offices during the course of the day are sometimes significantly shorter. As autonomous Religious Orders in the Church (we Benedictines are actually a Confederation of Congregations), we are allowed to do the fuller Office and hopefully one day we can have a better printed and bound version once the revisions are complete. It took the Church many centuries to finalize the Antiphonale Monasticum in use by most Benedictines for the Divine Office until Vatican II, so I presume it will still be some years until we can print a complete set of books for use at the Monastery or by friends using a one-week schema or distribution of the Psalter basically as found in the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Let us now consider each of the traditional Canonical Hours of the Divine Office in the order that they are normally prayed, beginning with Vigils.