St Benedict's Liturgical Code: Is there a 'magical' number of hours in the Office? (Feb 19/June 20/Oct 20))

Hours of Marguerite D'Orleans

Caput XVI: Qualiter divina opera per diem agantur

UT ait propheta: Septies in die laudem dixi tibi. Qui septenarius sacratus numerus a nobis sic implebitur, si Matutino, Primae, Tertiae, Sextae, Nonae, Vesperae, Completoriique tempore nostrae servitutis officia persolvamus; quia de his diurnis horis dixit: Septies in die laudem dixi tibi. Nam de nocturnis Vigiliis idem ipse propheta ait: Media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi. Ergo his temporibus referamus laudes Creatori nostro super judicia justitiae suae, id est, Matutinis, Prima, Tertia, Sexta, Nona, Vespera, Completorio;et nocte surgamus ad confitendum ei.

Chapter 16 – How the Work of God is to be performed in the day-time

The prophet saith: Seven times a day have I given praise to thee. We shall observe this sacred number of seven, if we fulfil the duties of our service in the Hours of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; for it was of these Day Hours that he said: Seven times a day have I given praise to thee. But of the Night Office the same prophet saith: At midnight I rose to give praise to thee. At these times, therefore, let us render praise to our Creator for the judgements of his justice: that is, at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; and let us rise in the night to praise him.


The Scriptural rationale for the number of hours
Chapter 16 turns, seemingly somewhat belatedly, to the rationale for the Office in terms of the number of hours to be said and why they are to be said.

The modern view is that there is no 'magical' number of hours or psalms. St Benedict, however, seems to suggest otherwise, claiming Scriptural authority for the number of hours to be said each day.  Should we take him seriously?

It is true of course that his seven hours a day schema did not in fact have a long tradition behind it. The oldest of the hours, dating back in rudimentary form a least to the first century, are almost certainly Lauds, Terce, Sext, None and Vespers (thus dawn, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon and dusk), together with the night Office at least on Sundays. Prime, however, probably dates only from the fifth century, imported from the East by John Cassian; Compline can be traced back only so far as the fourth century.

Still, one could argue that this process of evolution reflects providential guidance to bring the Office into line with the Scriptural injunction cited here; certainly this schema took hold and stood the test of time until the liturgical revolution of Vatican II.

What is the purpose of the Office?
In the end, one’s view on the importance of the number of hours in the Office depends on one’s view of its purpose. There are two competing positions: one stresses the role of the Office in personal sanctification, as an aid to fulfilling the New Testament injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’; the other stresses the Office’s ecclesial dimension as sacrifice of praise on behalf of all creation, a work of intercession for the salvation of the world.

St Benedict, I would suggest, actually attempts to balance both objectives.

The Prologue to the Rule makes it clear that the first goal of the monk, as for us all, must be to reach heaven. It is clear that St Benedict does envisage the Office as an aid to this, perhaps why the section on the Night and Dawn Offices flow on directly from the chapter on humility without any fresh introduction. Implicitly, I think the message is that the monk learns humility and obedience by praying at the set times (including that early rise into the darkness) and following the rubrical prescriptions laid down.

In this chapter though, we are provided with some further rationales for the Office.

First, the very alignment of the day hours with the times of the civil day points to the idea of the sanctification of the monks’ day by interspersing his work with ‘frequent prayer’ (RB 4).

Secondly, the symbolism of the number seven in the verse St Benedict cites suggests fullness or perfection (the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven sacraments, etc), and can be interpreted as a reference to the New Testament injunction to ceaseless prayer.  Nonetheless, throughout the Rule, though, St Benedict sets out a fairly clear delineation between times of communal prayer, times of work and times for study.  He does not seem to advocate, as some do, that work become our liturgy!  Rather, St Benedict urges us to pray before working (Prologue), and demands that the monk treat his tools as if they were altar vessels: all of our lives, in other words, should be our offering, but that does not make times of work times of prayer.

More fundamentally, St Benedict connects the Office here not just to the process of growing in humility and charity of the earlier, spiritual instruction chapters, but also to the duty of praising our Creator and his righteous laws. It is unsurprising then, that the monastic Office has traditionally been held to be a participation in the priestly prayer of the whole Church particularly appropriate to those he calls as his special workmen, acting on behalf of the rest of us.

In recent centuries, clerics and religious only were deputed to say the Office in order to protect its integrity. Today the laity too, have the opportunity of participating in the Office as part of the official liturgical prayer of the Church; the distinction is that monks are bound to say all of the Office (in the form set out in the constitutions of their monastery), while the laity say what they can without any formal obligation to do so. What an awesome privilege!

And for the next part in this series, click here.

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