by Br. Martin Dally OSB
It is not uncommon for individuals to ask what breviary or prayer book we use for our daily liturgical prayer. We do not use a specific breviary. Rather, the office we pray at St. Gregory’s is one of our own making, following the guidelines of the Benedictine Thesaurus (a guide book of various ways a given Benedictine community may use to develop their own particular Daily Office). The system we use is a modern adaptation of the office as set forth in St. Benedict’s Rule.
Since so many who ask about our Daily Office are searching for a prayer book to enrich their prayer life, and since our Daily Offices are too time consuming for most people outside of a monastic context, I wish to offer some thoughts and recommendations on various office books that are available.
My first recommendation is perhaps an obvious one: The Book of Common Prayer. In the Daily Offices one will find a system of daily prayer that will include the principal forms of prayer (adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, offering, intercession, and petition), readings from Scripture, and a sharing in the worship of the Church at large (even if one is praying the office alone). The Daily Office lectionary offers one of the finest overviews of the Bible offered anywhere. The BCP (Book of Common Prayer) Daily Offices are an excellent place to begin (and to continue) using a structured round of prayer and listening to scripture. (In one way or another, all of the prayer books I will mention do this as well.)
For those who wish a more monastic flavor for their daily prayer, yet wish to have a form similar to the BCP offices, there is A Monastic Breviary from the Order of the Holy Cross, and The St. Helena Breviary from the Order of St. Helena. Both books offer a pattern similar to that of the BCP, with some variations that reflect their monastic context, mainly in their emphasis on the Psalms. Both breviaries offer a two week cycle of psalmody distributed throughout their four daily offices (matins, diurnum, vespers, compline). In The St. Helena Breviary, there are two other options offered for the psalmody: that of the BCP Daily Office lectionary, and the traditional monthly cycle of psalms developed by Cranmer. Of the two breviaries, The St. Helena Breviary is the more recent adaptation (2006) and is therefore more up to date concerning inclusive language. Holy Cross’ A Monastic Breviary is a product of the mid 70s, so its language is that of the BCP. Both books use the Daily Office lectionary from the BCP. The main offices of matins and vespers in each breviary will take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes each, so if one cannot commit to such blocks of time on a daily basis, I would recommend a shorter, simpler office book. Otherwise, these are both worthwhile books to consider.
From the Community of St. Mary, Eastern Province, comes The Monastic Diurnal Revised. This is a contemporary revision of Canon Winfred Douglas’1932 Monastic Diurnal, using the resources of the current Book Of Common Prayer. It is a daily office made up of Matins, two Little Hours for the weekdays (one for weekends), Vespers, and Compline.
The office of Matins is made up of elements from the two monastic offices of Matins and Lauds, with its psalmody on a monthly cycle. Vespers and the Little Hours follow the traditional structure of the monastic office, and their psalmody is based on a weekly cycle. The psalms are from the Prayer Book, and are pointed for singing at Vespers and the Little Hours. The scripture readings are from the Revised Standard Version, adapted with modern pronouns, rather than “Thee” and “Thou.” (The NRSV was not yet available at the time of this revision).
The Monastic Diurnal Revised is a two volume set, with the second volume containing the offices for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. For a more traditional set of daily offices, this set is quite user-friendly, and I highly recommend it for traditionalists and progressives alike.
Another prayer book from a monastic context is Celebrating Common Prayer. This is a version of the Daily Office used by the Anglican Franciscans in England. While borrowing much from the American BCP (it uses the BCP translation of the Psalms, for example), its structure is different than the BCP Daily Office. In fact, one should say ‘structures’, for it provides more than one way to pray the office, ranging from the highly involved to the bare minimum. It is therefore one of the most adaptable of office books available. There is much that is attractive here. I am particularly taken with the idea of assigning each day of the week with a seasonal theme (for example, Sunday is Easter, Monday is Pentecost, Tuesday is Advent…), using appropriate psalms, canticles, and prayers for each. If one is attracted to creativity in a Daily Office, I would recommend this book very highly.
Also coming from the Church of England is the latest offering of the Daily Office called Common Worship: Daily Prayer. This is a fascinating office book, and like Celebrating Common Prayer (from which it has borrowed material), offers a variety of structures for keeping a Daily Office. So it, too, is highly adaptable according to one’s circumstances. I personally find its translation of the Psalms very nice indeed. A Daily Office lectionary is printed in a separate book, but there would be no difficulty in using the American BCP lectionary while using this book for everything else. I must say that the quality of this book took me by surprise, since much in the past that has come from the Church of England has been disappointing. So once again, this is a highly adaptable prayer book with much to recommend it.
Coming from, of all things, the Mennonite tradition, is Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayerbook. This is a wonderful and easy to use prayer book, providing a four week cycle of morning and evening prayer. Cleverly, each week has a theme assigned to it, with that week’s office somehow a reflection of its theme. Week One’s theme is the Lord’s Prayer, Week Two is the Beatitudes, Week Three is the Parables, Week Four is Signs and Wonders. Volume two follows the liturgical seasons of Advent through Pentecost. Each office follows a pattern of praising, listening, and responding. This is a very charming (in the best sense of the word) prayer book, and I recommend it for those who require simplicity in their prayer structure.
For those who yearn for a more Benedictine inspired prayer book, there is Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary. This office book follows and adapts the office as set down in the Rule of St. Benedict. It is adaptable, for one can keep all seven of the traditional monastic offices, or one can pray however many one is inclined to pray. This office book is the closest book available to the offices prayed here at St. Gregory’s Abbey. For example, the psalmody is on a weekly cycle, and uses the same psalms at lauds and vespers that we use (following the Rule of St. Benedict). Because it is designed for use by those who do not live in a monastery, and since it follows a weekly cycle, not all of the psalms are used. This is because most people do not have the time to pray 12 different psalms daily for the office of vigils alone. The psalms used are a moderately inclusive language version of the Grail Psalms, and the scriptures are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). This is the office book I use whenever I’m out of the monastery. Again, for anyone who wishes to pray an office that is close to the traditional Benedictine monastic office, this is the one to get.
The Roman Catholic Liturgy Of The Hours is a rich source of material for daily prayer, whether one uses the complete four volume set, or the condensed version called Christian Prayer, or the appropriately titled Shorter Christian Prayer. These are the result of Vatican II’s revision of the liturgy, and are an attempt to make the daily office available and useful to more people.
The Hours are arranged as a five-fold office consisting of the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. These five offices can be increased to the traditional seven by adding Midmorning Prayer and Midafternoon Prayer. The psalmody is set up on a monthly cycle and the structure of the Hours is an adaptation of the traditional divine office designed to be more user-friendly for more people. The volume Christian Prayer contains only the so-called day hours, that is, it leaves out the Office of Readings. Shorter Christian Prayer has only Morning and Evening Prayer, plus Night Prayer.
There is much to appreciate in the Hours. The arrangement of the Psalms is well done. I especially like the way the Psalms and Canticles seem to comment on or answer each other in Morning Prayer, and the use of New Testament canticles in Evening Prayer’s psalmody is a nice touch. What comes through in the Hours is a more positive attitude toward contemporary society, a stronger sense of wanting to heal human culture, rather than condemn or reject it.
Yet there is much that can be frustrating about the Hours as well. Unavoidably, the revision is a product of its time. Being the Roman Catholic Church’s first official attempt to put the liturgy in the vernacular, the English is clumsy and awkward, especially in the prayers. And there is a total lack of inclusive language that many will find jarring and distracting. In all fairness, this lack is the result of timing, the revision having been done before inclusive language became an issue. And sadly, the current Roman Catholic authorities have taken several steps backward from the issue of inclusive language in English.
Having said that, I do think that for those so inclined, the Liturgy Of The Hours can be used in deepening one’s relationship with God if one is faithful in praying them. All it takes is good will.
For those of a more progressive, feminist, or liberal inclination, there is the two volume set of the People’s Companion To The Breviary, originally put out by the Carmelites of Indianapolis. These daily office books are an all-inclusive revision of the offices of Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, and Evening Prayer of the Liturgy Of The Hours. The Psalms and Canticles are an inclusive language adaptation of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (not the NRSV). Rather than providing scripture readings in the offices, readings from non-scriptural sources, both historical and contemporary, are provided for Morning and Evening Prayer. Interestingly, no readings at all are given for Midday Prayer. This allows one to choose readings if one desires, scriptural or non-scriptural. The intercessions are not adaptations from the Liturgy Of The Hours, but are original to these books. These are quite good, and the concluding prayers, while perhaps a bit too wordy, are thought provoking and worthy of reflection. The use of all-inclusive language is quite wonderfully done and is rarely clumsy or jarring. Again, this set of offices will appeal to those of a more progressive inclination.
A relatively new set of offices called The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle has become popular in recent years. This is a three volume set that follows the liturgical year by following the natural seasons (volume 1 is Summertime, volume 2 is Autumn and Winter, volume 3 is Springtime). This set of offices is designed to be used by busy people, and is set up so as to rarely require flipping around within each book.
Four offices are provided: Morning Office, Midday Office, Vespers Office, and Compline. Compared to more traditional offices, these are relatively short in duration. Part of what makes them short is that the complete Psalter is not used, but instead only a judicious and appropriate selection of verses from a given Psalm is used for the office in which it is appointed. Short scripture readings are also provided. The psalms are the Prayer Book psalms, and the lessons are usually from the New Jerusalem Bible.
These are very good books for anyone who is busy but desires to enrich one’s spiritual life by using a daily office. These books would also be a very good place to begin for those who may be interested in starting some form of structured daily prayer. They are user-friendly and nicely printed. Phyllis Tickle has done the Church a great service by making these books available and introducing the custom of praying a daily office to many individuals.
A word of warning. When starting to keep a Daily Office, it may be tempting to think a given office is too complicated or confusing. Let me encourage you to keep at it. It becomes easier over time, for you will learn what’s next as you go through it, and thus it will become a normal part of your life. The main trick is to learn what the structure of an office is.
Finally, it is crucial to be faithful in praying the office. There will be times when you will feel you are not getting anything out of the practice of the Daily Office, or that you are not as focused as you should be. Don’t be too worried about that. There is more going on than meets the eye. Over time you will have found that you have absorbed more than you thought you were. Praying a Daily Office is bound to become routine and at times thoughtless. This is unavoidable. Remain faithful in the practice anyway.
You’ll be thankful that you did.
Sources for prayer books:
Most of the books reviewed are available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Ebay or:
Christian Book Distributors
140 Summit Street
Peabody, MA 01960
The St. Helena Breviary
Common Worship: Daily Prayer
Church Publishing Inc.
445 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10016
A Monastic Breviary
Order of the Holy Cross
P. O. Box 99
West Park, NY 12493
Benedictine Prayer: A Short Breviary
The Liturgical Press
St. John’s Abbey
P. O. Box 7500
Collegeville, MN 56321
The Liturgy Of The Hours
(around $78.00 – $198.00)
Christian Prayer – (around $20.00 – $30.00)
Shorter Christian Prayer – (around $10.00 – $15.00)
The People’s Companion to the Breviary
(around $32.00) Carmel of Reno
1950 La Fond Dr.
Reno, NV 89509-3099
The Monastic Diurnal Revised
(around $42.00 for the complete set, plus shipping)
Community of St. Mary, Eastern Province
242 Cloister Way
Greenwich, NY 12834
The Divine Hours
(around $10.00 – $50.00 per volume)