Prime is the Church’s second morning prayer, quite different in tone from Lauds. Lauds is the ideal morning prayer, a “resurrection song” of all creation and of the Church. Prime is the morning prayer of a sinful human, a subjective prayer. The basic theme of Prime is dedication of and preparation for the day’s labours and conflicts. This theme runs through the whole hour.
There is no special reference to any chapter in the story of salvation. Thus, the theme of the canonical hour, preparing for the day, assumes the centre of attention, and indeed to such an extent that even on feast days, themes proper to the feast are generally suppressed at Prime. The hymn at Prime enlists all our efforts and abilities in the service of the Lord and arms us against imminent dangers—perfectly in harmony with Prime’s basic theme.
This hour also contains a rather lengthy invariable set of prayers that form the real essence of the morning prayer. After the psalmody (singing of the psalms) comes a conclusion which Prime has in common with the other little hours (Terce, Sext and None): chapter, responsory, versicle, prayer. The chapter “Unto the King eternal…” is an oath of allegiance to him who is sovereign in God’s kingdom. The responsory is a fervent plea for a realization of human weakness. The blind man of Jericho is sitting along the road as Jesus passes by, shouting at the top of his lungs. I am that blind beggar and the Lord is passing by this very day.
The beautiful prayer which follows never changes. It contains all the elements of a good morning prayer: thanks, petition, good intention, preparation for the coming day, and particularly the touching plea to be spared the guilt of sin throughout the day. With this prayer the first part of Prime closes, the so-called “office of the choir”.
Now the monks would go into the chapterhouse for their daily “chapter”, and hold the “office of the chapter”. This comprised four chief points which are still to be found in the second part of Prime.
1. Reading of the martyrology, the official list of members of the Church who have been declared saints. It is a fine psychological touch to place the heroes of the day as models before our eyes at the very moment when the day’s activity officially begins.
2. Distribution of the work and instructions. The abbot would give the monks their daily work assignments. The prayers and verses that follow are leftovers from this ceremony and are full of beautiful references to a good intention for the day.
3. Reading of the chapter: a “chapter” of the rule or a text from Scripture.
4. The blessing of the father of the house (the abbot); as God’s children we receive a paternal blessing before setting out to work. This blessing is given twice in the office: at Prime at the beginning of the day and at Compline at the day’s end. Prime also stands as the hourly prayer for the three hours that follow (six to nine o’ clock). Note the beautiful blessing formula immediately preceding the chapter; it is a concise and striking expression of Prime’s basic theme as preparation for the day’s activity: May the Lord Almighty order our days and our doings in his peace. Amen.
9 o’clock. The Church wants us to pause briefly during our day’s activity and raise our hearts to God; that is the purpose underlying the little hours. They are a chance to catch our breath, an oasis in our desert wanderings. It is important that we do not pray them all at once, but whenever possible we should pray them at the corresponding hour of the day as a renewed consecration of the day’s work. The little hours are short, because the day is for work.
The story of salvation has a role to play in Terce: it was the third hour (9:00) when the Holy Ghost came down upon the young Christian community on Pentecost Sunday (Pentecost Terce begins with the hymn Veni Creator). Quite appropriately , the Church recalls this mystery in the hour of Terce: Terce is thus the “first Confirmation”, a strengthening for the conflicts of the day. Is is a “Come, Holy Ghost” upon the day’s work. The hour’s theme is invocation of the Holy Ghost. The hymns proper to the little hours are a further development of the theme proper to each, and to the corresponding time of day.
12:00 noon. Theme of the hour: The day’s conflict is at its climax, the heat of passion is at its strongest, the powers of hell have greater influence over man, our lower nature seems to have gained mastery. Theme from the story of salvation: the Saviour is hanging on the Cross (12:00 to 3:00); hell is bringing all its forces to bear against him. This scene from Good Friday is the background for Sext; foreground is the battle against sin in us and in the Church. “Lead us not into temptation” is the message of this hour.
3:00 to 6:00. This day of salvation is slowly beginning its decline. Our thoughts are taken up with the end of life. Looking to my future I ask: will I persevere? Perseverance is the hour’s theme. There is no theme from the story of salvation. At the most there is eschatological shading—the last things.
by Dr. Pius Parsch