The canonical hours can be traced back to the set times of Jewish prayer. The priests offered sacrifices every morning and evening. Set service times in the synagogues began during the Babylonian Exile. During the Diaspora, these service times followed the ringing of bells in Roman cities. At the first hour, the forum bell tolled the beginning of business. At the third hour, the forum bell tolled the morning’s progress. At the sixth hour, the forum bell tolled for lunch break. At the ninth hour, the forum bell tolled to return to work. At sunset, the forum bell tolled the end of business. In Acts 3.1, we read, “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.” The early church continued this practice and after a few centuries, the practice entered the monasteries where it developed into a standardized system. But this was the universal practice in the early church well before the development of monasticism.
Benedict of Nursia, known for his “Rule of Saint Benedict,” divided the Psalms into a schedule to be recited over the course of the week. The Benedictines called this Opus Dei, the “Work of God.” In Latin, opus “work” + facere “do” = officium “performance of a task.” So, these daily prayers became known as the Divine Office.
The hours by their Latin names:
- Nocturns or Matins before daybreak
- Lauds at daybreak, often joined with Matins
- Prime about 6am
- Terce at 9am
- Sext at 12pm
- None at 3pm
- Vespers at evening
- Compline at bedtime
By the time of the English Reformation, the three mid-day hours (Terce, Sext, and None) had fallen out of public use. So the Prayer Book of 1549 condensed the other five hours into Morning and Evening Prayer:
- Matins, Lauds and Prime became Matins or Morning Prayer
- Vespers and Compline became Evensong or Evening Prayer
Within the last century, some offices have been restored. In an appendix to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, an optional Prime (for use outside of Morning Prayer) and Compline were included. In many service books there are now four offices:
- Matins and Lauds condensed into Morning Prayer
- Terce, Sext, and None condensed into Prayer During the Day
- Vespers or Evening Prayer
- Compline or Night Prayer
These are the offices that I try to observe each day as my discipline of prayer.