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The Canonical Hours


Preparation for the Divine Office’
Focus your eyes on one place in front of you to the best of your ability and as your human frailty allows. Wandering eyes are most harmful to the mind’s stability. To elicit humility, therefore, form a mental picture of the Lord as if he were lying in the manger in front of you. To feel compunction visualise him suspended on the Cross. Grieve and be thankful because of the nails, the thorns, the spittle and the gaping wound at his side.
[Stephen of Sawley, Mirror for Novices, ch. 3, p. 91].

The monks’ time was structured around eight services (Offices), known as the Canonical Hours, which they celebrated in their choir in the church. At harvest time, however, these were recited as the monks worked in the fields. Following the words of Psalm 119: 164 ‘Seven times a day have I given praise to thee’, and Psalm 119: 162 ‘At midnight I rose to give thanks to Thee’, there were seven daytime Hours [Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None(s), Vespers and Compline] and a night office known as Vigils (although this was generally celebrated at around 2 am rather than midnight.)

As the monastic day was determined by the rising and setting of the sun, the exact time of each Office varied over the course of the year. Whereas Prime was celebrated at c. 8 am in winter, it took place at c. 4 am in summer.

Each Office was led by the priest of the week (the hebdomadary) and began with the Lord’s Prayer, which was followed by hymns (sung from the hymnal), psalms (from the psalter) and canticles or chants (from the antiphoner). The time of Vigils was standardised from 1429 and the sacrist was to give the signal for this Hour at 2 am every morning, regardless of the time of year; however, Vigils was at 1 am on Sundays and feast days since the liturgy was longer on these days.

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