First, the Night Office, sometimes called Matins or Vigils. At Christ in the Desert we always call it Vigils. The term “matutini,” from which the word Matins is derived, really means morning, so is more technically applied to the Office as the sun is rising, though the term Lauds is mostly commonly used for the Office at daybreak. Perhaps the term “Matins” is better left unused because of potential confusion. In any case the Office at night, before dawn, is a very ancient monastic prayer time, probably going back to Apostolic times, with the goal of breaking up the night and sanctifying those hours, at least in private, and eventually in common, especially in monastic communities.
In the Acts of the Apostles 16:25, we find the following: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” Early Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria (+215 A.D.), Tertullian of Carthage (+220 A.D.) and Hippolytus of Rome (+238 A.D.) all make mention of the nighttime prayers. Hippolytus refers to two times of prayer for Christians, at midnight and at first rooster-crow, around 3:00 am. The earliest nighttime offices would most likely have been prayed in the home, but eventually held in the church building, which seems to have been the case by 400 A.D..
The earliest Christian monks were likewise aware of the custom of nighttime prayers and carried out this duty every day. The monks of Saint Pachomius’ (+ 346 A.D.) monastery initially seem to have performed the prayers of night in private, but gradually, and certainly by the time of Saint Basil (+379 A.D.), prayers at night were a community exercise. That was Saint Benedict’s understanding of Vigils or Night Prayer as well. This custom has carried on to the present in the stricter observance monasteries of various Orders. After Vatican II, the night office came to be called “The Office of Readings,” and could be prayed at any time of the day. The concession seems appropriate for aging or very active communities that cannot easily rise in the night for the traditional time of pre-dawn Vigil. How “good and pleasant it is,” though, if a community can actually pray the full Vigil at the more classical hour, well before Dawn.
The content of the night vigil for monks has always consisted mostly of psalms, some lessons from Scripture or the patristic tradition and Collects, but the whole idea of an Office of Readings is a bit foreign to the ancient monastic ritual, which traditionally places more emphasis on the psalmody, usually 12 in number, as well a set or Nocturn of Old Testament canticles of a psalm-like structure, on Sundays and Solemnities. That is not to diminish the importance of the other Scripture readings or the patristic commentaries assigned to the Office, nor the amount of time they would take up in the Vigil, but still the prominent place in the service should be given to the psalms and canticles in a monastic office that follows a more classic structure.
Perhaps more fittingly the Office at night should be called the “Office of Psalmody,” but better still, the “Office of Vigils,” implying as the word does, watching for the dawn. So important is the place of the psalms at this and all the offices that Saint Benedict’s Rule says that if the brethren accidentally wake up late, which he highly frowns upon, the lessons and responses would be dropped, but not the psalms (RB 11.12-13, “How Vigils Should be Done on Sundays”). “But if they should–God forbid! (quod absit)–happen to rise late, then some of the readings or responses should be shortened. All precautions should be taken that this does not happen.” Part of the point of this is that Lauds should begin at daybreak. But if the brethren carry on with the usual length of the Vigil Office when they over-sleep, they cannot begin the morning prayer–Lauds–at daybreak.
Many Coptic monks today as of old may chant or recite the entire Psalter in a day! “We lukewarm monks,” as Saint Benedict wryly refers to his followers, should be able to accomplish that in a week.
The idea of praying at night either in private or in public pre-dates monasticism in the Church, but the early monks took up the custom with fervor. The Night Vigil came to be considered a very characteristic monastic practice, not to be neglected, or placed at some other hour of the day. The only exception, as previously noted, and still the custom on Mount Athos in Greece, for example, the stronghold of Greek Orthodox monasticism, is to begin great feasts with a Night Vigil starting at sundown the evening before and extending it all through the night until the next morning’s break of day, usually celebrating the Eucharist at the end of the all-night Vigil, as it is called. On Mount Athos the monks ordinarily begin this vigil around 8:00 P.M, and conclude around 7 or 8 A.M the next morning.