Praying the Liturgy of the Hours

Blog Published: May 17, 2007
By Sister Julie

I had a question from Jackie that I thought I’d respond to in a post:

I was wondering if you could explain Liturgy of the Hours, Matins, praying the Office? (I hope I have these names right). I see references to these prayers, and am not sure what they are. Where can you find these prayers? Is there a tradition about who prays them and when?

The Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called The Divine Office or the Breviary, is the public prayer of the Church to praise God and sanctify the day. The Liturgy of the Hours is made up of specific prayers said at various times (“hours”) during the day and night. The chanting of psalms makes up a major portion of each of hours of prayer. What is cool about the Liturgy of the Hours (as with the Eucharist) is that the whole Church is praying the same basic form, so it has this deeply universal character to it. Plus, there is a wonderful rhythm of repetition (the Liturgy of the Hours is based on a four-week cycle) which helps one to deepen one’s encounter with God and God’s Word.

The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours explains the origin of the Liturgy of the Hours and its importance:

1. Public and common prayer by the people of God is rightly considered to be among the primary duties of the Church. From the very beginning those who were baptized “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the community, to the breaking of the bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). The Acts of the Apostles give frequent testimony to the fact that the Christian community prayed with one accord. [See Acts 1:14, 4:24, 12:5 and 12. See also Eph 5:19-21.]

The witness of the early Church teaches us that individual Christians devoted themselves to prayer at fixed times. Then, in different places, it soon became the established practice to assign special times for common prayer, for example, the last hour of the day when evening draws on and the lamp is lighted, or the first hour when night draws to a close with the rising of the sun.

In the course of time other hours came to be sanctified by prayer in common. These were seen by the Fathers as foreshadowed in the Acts of the Apostles. There we read of the disciples gathered together at the third hour. [See Acts 2:1-15.] The prince of the apostles “went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour” (10:9); “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour” (3:1); “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (16:25).

2. Such prayer in common gradually took the form of a set cycle of hours. This liturgy of the hours or divine office, enriched by readings, is principally a prayer of praise and petition. Indeed, it is the prayer of the Church with Christ and to Christ.

(To read the General Instruction, click here.)

Because the Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the Church, all members of the Church are encouraged to pray it either in common with others or by themselves. Ordained ministers are required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Some religious communities are required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours as part of their constitutions or rule of life; however all religious are highly encouraged to make this prayer part of their daily life. Parishes, families and individuals are also encouraged to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

The complete Liturgy of the Hours (with prayers, readings, instructions, hymns, feast days, etc.) is found in a 4 volume set.

Many people use Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours which can be considered a short version (1 volume) of the 4 volume set.

There are also different companion books that you can use with the two above books such as the Carmelites’ People’s Companion to the Breviary (two volume set). You can also find the Liturgy of the Hours online, for example, at eBreviary which offers Liturgy of the Hours prayers in Adobe Acrobat formats for prayer groups or for personal use.

So what exactly does the the Liturgy of Hours consist of? (Note: Latin words in parentheses are the traditional name for that particular hour.)

Morning Prayer (Lauds)
Prayer During the Day – Before Noon (Terce)
Prayer During the Day – Midday (Sext)
Prayer During the Day – Afternoon (None)
Evening Prayer (Vespers)
Night Prayer (Compline)
Office of Readings (Matins)

The structure for each prayer is similar. For Morning Prayer the basic structure is as follows:

The beginning of the hour or Introduction to Daily Office

Antiphon 1, Psalm, Glory Be, repeat Antiphon (Psalm Prayer optional)
Antiphon 2, Canticle, Glory Be, repeat Antiphon (Psalm Prayer optional)
Antiphon 3, Psalm, Glory Be, repeat Antiphon (Psalm Prayer optional)

Scripture Reading (may be followed by a period of silence or short homily)
Short Responsory
Gospel Canticle with Antiphon
Our Father
Concluding Prayer and Blessing

Well, I’m sure that’s more info than you ever wanted, but I do love the Liturgy of the Hours and so get carried away. I’ve written about the Liturgy of the Hours in a few posts (type in “Liturgy of the Hours” in the search widget on my sidebar).

Archived Comments

Tom May 17, 2007 at 8:04 pm

Thanks for writting on the liturgy of the hours. One little correction. Matins is the first hour. It comes before dawn and morning prayer.

You might look into its roots in Judaism and the times for prayer in the temple. Also, though few Catholic outside monasteries still pay attention to the hours for prayer, most Muslims do. They pray at work, at school, wherever they are.

Br. Dominic-Michael OHS May 17, 2007 at 9:20 pm

“Seven times a day will I praise Thee / because of Thy righteous judgements”

At Mattins bound, at Prime reviled,
Condemned to death at Terce,
Nailed to the Cross at Sext, at None
His blessed side they pierce:
They take Him down at Vesper-tide,
in grave at Compline lay,
Who thenceforth bids His Church observe
her sevenfold Hours alway.

(from the preface of my breviary)

I have a handy little pocket size breviary with the Lesser Hours that I carry with me. It is simplified, and uses Psalm 119 divided up to be repeated several times in a week, except for Compline which uses the traditional Psalms for that Office. The breviary was compiled by our Diocesan Bishop Peter Wilkinson OSG and Fr. Shane Janzen of the ACCC. It suits a working person who has to say the Lesser Hours on the fly so to speak, grabbing a quick ten minutes wherever they can. It also contains miscellaneous prayers for clergy to use in emergencies and if hearing confessions somewhere away from usual.

Praying the Hours gives a whole new perspective to time itself.

Sister Julie May 18, 2007 at 6:13 am

Thanks, Tom … I did a bit more research into Matins, which is now called the Office of Readings (Officium Lectionis) and discovered that it has had a history of being in the morning and in the evening. When the name was switched from Matins (which refers to the morning) to Office of Readings in the 1970 revision, the new name was unlinked from any particular time of day (see Wikipedia). The Office of Readings can be said any time of the day, though traditionally, it is prayed in the morning.

I hadn’t thought about its roots in Judaism, but of course! I’m not as familiar with Islam, but have always been impressed with how they honor the hours of the day.

Peter May 18, 2007 at 10:24 am

Most third order rules with which I am familiar generally ask members to say morning and evening prayer from the Office and recommend night prayer. Deacons also say these hours of the Office. For anyone who would like to give the Office a try without investing in a breviary there are two web sites that post the readings for the hours. Universalis, a British site, has the office every day, but does not yet post all the antiphons. The psalms and readings are given

RedheadedCyclone May 18, 2007 at 11:53 pm

I wanted to add that our word ‘hours’ comes from these prayers (rather than the other way around). For hundreds of years, this was the only way to tell time. Time was kept by which prayer it was closest to. I wonder what it would be like to live in increments of around 2 to 4 hours. I would want to take penicillin with me though.

The Islamic Salah (ritual prayers) are 5 times a day and they are (very basically) from Dawn until sunrise; noon to just after noon; mid-day (before sunset); sunset to dusk; before midnight. Quite similar to your tradition. Muhammad is supposed to have said that if someone prays 5 times a day, it is like washing 5 times a day… you will never become dirty. 

TJ May 19, 2007 at 9:02 am

Morning and Evening Prayer of LOH may be heard at the Praystation Portable site on Also, a wonderful book about one person’s experience with the Liturgy of the Hours is Phyllis Tickle’s The Shaping of a Life. She is Anglican, but has great knowledge of the Roman liturgy.

Lisa May 21, 2007 at 6:05 pm

I love praying the Liturgy of the Hours especially among community.

Macrina May 22, 2007 at 8:44 am

Thanks for writing on the liturgy of the hours, Julie! Also, on the question of the office of readings / Matins / Vigils: you are correct that the reform of the breviary unlinked this from any particular time of day (part of the motivation being that it should rather be done when most of the community were able to be present – and perhaps also awake!). But the monastic communities have generally continued to see it as linked with the night (as part of the whole spirituality of praying at night, keeping vigil and watching for Christ). The Cistercians (at least the Strict observance / Trappists, I’m not so sure about the Common Observance) celebrate it very early in the morning (usually beginning around 3 or 4 a.m.). The Carthusians (and also some other Orders, as noted in the post on enclosed nuns) have it in the middle of the night and then go back to bed. The Benedictines vary and may do either of the above or may also celebrate it not quite so early in the morning but still before Lauds, or else the evening before (around 8 or 9 pm) as a vigil office.

Cheryl Ann February 29, 2008 at 8:38 am

A question to the lay who pray the breviary. As lay persons do not have a fixed time table like cloister nuns have, how do you keep the commitment of praying at least the major hours? I am a university student and lectures vary from one day to an other. For sometime I lived with cloister nuns – and since I decided that it was not my call, I always wished to still pray the divine liturgy. But I find it very difficult…

deerose February 29, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Cheryl, I am an oblate of St. Benedict. We are to try to recite the LOH on a regular basis – maybe 1- 2x per day. Personally, it’s sometimes difficult for me to get into this, not so much because of the timing, but because I prefer to recite the Hours in community. For me, it’s just not the same saying it alone. As we know, “liturgy”, by its very definition, is communal prayer. So your dilemma is understandable. The mainstay of my daily prayer life is centering prayer. Our Benedictines say the most important thing is that you pray every day. Although the Hours and lectio are recommended, it’s not mandatory to do it everyday. But you didn’t really ask about the Benedictines, did you? Sorry for the rambling if it’s of no use.

Now here is what might help you. What our sisters suggest when we pose such queries as the one you did above is to just say the daily psalms from the Hours excluding the other parts of the Office such as the hymns, antiphons, etc. It’s shorter and gets to the heart of the matter. Personally, I’m not a very structured person so I pray at different times per day. I mainly do my centering after lunch (or early evening if I’m at a meeting) and my Hours, spiritual reading, music meditation, etc. in the evening. Good luck!

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