The Canonical Hours


The Church lives in time and with time.  This truth is brought out beautifully in the canonical hours.  They provide a perfect way to consecrate the whole day to God and make it holy.  The admonition of our Lord, that we are to pray and not grow weary, is thus perfectly fulfilled.  For every part of the day the Church has drawn up a special prayer-form, an hour, as it is called, that corresponds to the particular need of that time of the day.  The day is like a journey through an arid desert, but every three hours we come upon an oasis that offers us the waters of grace and the cool refreshing shade of heavenly assistance.  Spiritually we may revive ourselves at the canonical hours of prayer.

In order to understand what these divisions of the day are supposed to mean, it would be well to take a brief but thorough look into the history of their development.  In the early centuries of the Church, in addition to the celebration of Mass, it was customary to hold a so-called vigil, which was a prayer service in three parts, on the night before a feast day.  From this vigil service developed three of our canonical hours: Vespers, Matins, Lauds, inasmuch as the first was prayed the preceding evening, and the last was held in the early hours of the morning.  This was the arrangement already in the days of Hippolytus (†236) and these were the first “hours.”  In the Roman office the threefold division of Matins was re-introduced even after the vigil service had split into Vespers, Matins, and Lauds, and the divisions came to be known as nightwatches or nocturns.

Corresponding to the three nocturns of Matins there are three daytime hours, Terce, Sext, and None.  This makes three nocturns or nightwatches, three day hours, morning prayer (Lauds) and evening prayer (Vespers).  The whole day is thereby sanctified in its principal divisions.  There are and always have been Christians who actually pray these “hours” at their corresponding times.

The two remaining hours were added later, under the influence of monasticism.  The monks prayed Matins during the night and said Lauds (morning prayer) in the early dawn, then went back to bed.  When they rose later to begin the day’s work, they felt the need for some common service to consecrate their labours to the Lord.  Thus they developed Prime, a sort of second morning prayer.  Vespers (evening prayer) were said in late afternoon, and then at bedtime there were devotions in the sleeping quarters (lessons, chapter of faults, abbot’s blessing), which developed into Compline, a sort of second night prayer.  With the addition of Compline, the development of the canonical hours came to an end.

Today, then, we have three night hours, three day hours, two morning prayers, and two evening prayers—ten hours.  Eight of them sanctify successive three-hour intervals of the day, and in the Roman breviary each of the hours has something of a threefold division, so that actually there is a special prayer aligned to each individual hour of the day.  Vespers and Lauds are based upon fivefold divisions; as morning and evening prayers, they are to introduce and conclude and be a crown upon the day’s activity in the pursuit of holiness.

The next point is how to make these canonical hours practical for personal, spiritual progress.  The breviary ought to be a principal guide for my spiritual outlook and a means to sanctify my entire day’s activity.  This calls for the fullest possible application of the scheme of the hours of Divine Office.  The hours can best be appreciated by exploring them one by one, in an effort to determine what is the characteristic sentiment and theme of each, and as far as possible, how certain ones of them reflect various mysteries of the story of salvation.

The theme of a canonical hour is that special thought or motivation to prayer that arises from the needs of that time of day: it is the hour’s prayer intention.  The background from the story of salvation is the mystery or event which bears upon the hour and should enter into the prayer intention while the hour is being prayed; it should be an illustration for the text of the prayer, to channel and intensify the spirit of devotion (eg., Terce—descent of the Holy Ghost).


This analysis can be summarized in the following table :


Second Coming


Praise: spiritual resurrection

Resurrection of our Lord


Preparation for the day’s work


Come, Holy Ghost

Descent of the Holy Ghost


Lead us not into temptation (sin)

Christ on the Cross



Last things



Last Supper



Protection for the night

Heavenly banquet

Our Lord in Gethsemane

Many a busy soul will complain that this division and approach to the hours is difficult to carry out.  I grant that a person certainly need not hold to it slavishly.  but one should make the effort to say at least the morning hours in the morning and the evening hours at night.  Above all, we will want to be on guard against the attitude of considering the breviary as non-essential, a duty imposed or a pious frill to fill in the gaps of a working day, something that can be slithered in during the extra minutes here and there.

The Divine Office must regain its place of honour and importance in the Church.  There is a great deal of benefit already in a proper outlook on the matter.  Regard the breviary as the prayer framework into which fit all the efforts of a day’s prayer and work.

Apart from legislation, then, it is evident that an entire day’s Office must not be said in one sitting.  The benefit of the prayers increases to the degree that we separate them as we pray.  The ideal is and remains: whenever possible, pray each hour separately.  The breviary is supposed to make the day holy, be our companion along the day’s journey, and be a source of strength and healing for us at every station along the way.  This goal can be realized only if we pray the hours separately and at their proper time.

by Dr. Pius Parsch