From all eternity the Godhead was praised with ineffable praise by the Trinity—the three divine Persons. The angels from the first moment of the creation sang God’s praises. Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus, Sabaoth. Plena est omnis terra gloria ejus (Isaias vi. 3).
Cardinal Bona writes that Adam and Eve blessed and praised God, their Creator. For God created the first human beings, and “created in them the knowledge of the Spirit of God that they might praise the name which He has sanctified and glory in His wondrous acts” (Ecclesiasticus xvii. 6-8), Every page of the Old Testament tells how the chosen race worshipped God. We read of the sacrifices of Cain, Abel, Enoch, Noe; of the familiar intercourse which the great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob had with God. Recorded, too, are the solemn songs and prayers of Moses thanking God for His guidance in the freedom from the slavery of Egypt (Exodus xv.). David, under God’s inspiration, composed those noble songs of praise, the Psalms, and organised choirs for their rendering. He sings “Evening and morning and at noon I will speak and declare and He shall hear my voice” (Psalm 54, v. 18); “I rose at midnight to give praise to Thee” (Psalm 118, v. 162); “Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee” (Psalm 118, v. 164).
The Prophet Daniel, a captive in Babylon, prayed thrice daily, his face turned to Jerusalem. The Israelites, captives in Babylon with Nehemias, “rose up and read in the book of the Law of the Lord their God, four times in the day, and four times they confessed and adored the Lord their God” (II. Esdras ix. 3). Hence, the Jewish day, made up as it was with sacrifices, libations, oblations, purifications, and public and private prayer, was a day of prayer. In these public meetings they sang God’s praises, sang of His glory and of His mercy. Sometimes they spoke with loving familiarity, sometimes they prayed on bended knee, sometimes they stood and pleaded with outstretched hands, pouring out the prayers inspired by God Himself.
In the New Law our Saviour is the model of prayer, the true adorer of His Father. He alone can worthily adore and praise because He alone has the necessary perfection. Night and day He set example to His followers. He warned them to watch and pray; He taught them how to pray; He gave them a form of prayer; He prayed in life and at death. His apostles, trained in the practices of the synagogue, were perfected by the example and the exhortations of Christ. This teaching and example are shown in effect when the assembled apostles were “at the third hour of the day” praying (Acts ii. 15); when about the sixth hour Peter went to pray (Acts x. 9). In the Acts of Apostles we see how Peter and John went at the ninth hour to the temple to pray. St. Paul in prison sang God’s praises at midnight, and he insists on his converts singing in their assembly psalms and hymns (Ephes. v. 19; Col. Iii. 16; I. Cor. xiv. 26).
What form did the public prayers, which we may call the divine office, take in the time of the Apostles?
It is impossible to say. But it is certain 10 that there were public prayers, 20 that they were offered up daily in certain determined places and at fixed hours, 30 that these public prayers consisted principally of the Psalms, hymns, canticles, extracts from Sacred Scripture, the Lord’s Prayer, and probably the Creed, 40 that these public prayers varied in duration according to the will of the bishop or master who presided. “The weekly commemoration of Christ’s resurrection, the yearly recurrence of the memory of the great facts of Christ’s life, the daily sanctification of the hours of the day, each led the Christian to draw upon the hours of the Psalter, and when, gradually, fixed hours for daily prayer passed beyond the home circle and with groups of ascetics entered the public churches, it was from the Psalter that the songs of praise were drawn, and from the Psalms were added a series of canticles, taken from the books of the Old and the New Testaments, and thus, long ages before any stereotyped arrangement of the Psalms existed, assigning particular Psalms to particular days or hours, the Psalms were feeding the piety of the faithful and teaching men to pray” (The New Psalter—Burton and Myers). In this matter of public prayer, it is hard for us to realise the “bookless” condition of the early Christians and their difficulties. It was twenty-five years after the Ascension before the first books of the New Testament were written, and many years must have elapsed before their wide diffusion; hence, in their bookless and guideless condition the early Christians were advised to use the Psalms in their new devotional life (Ephes. v. 19; Col. iii. 16; St. James, v. 13).
The first clear evidence of a division of the Psalter for use in the Western Church is found in the work of St. Benedict (480-543). He had spent his youth near Rome, and keeping his eye on the Roman usage he assigned the Psalms to the various canonical hours and to different days of the week. The antiphons he drew from existing sources, and of course the canonical hours were already in existence. In his arrangement, the whole Psalter was read weekly, and the whole Bible, with suitable patristic selections, was read every year. He also arranged the Sunday, Festal and Ferial offices. For the recitation of the offices of a saint’s day, St. Benedict arranged that the Matins shall have the same form as a Sunday office—i.e., three nocturns, twelve lessons and responsories, but the psalms, antiphons and lessons are proper to each saint. This arrangement interrupted the weekly recitation of the whole psalter, and caused great difficulty in later times; for when the feasts increased in number the ferial psalter fell almost into complete disuse.
St. Benedict’s arrangement of the psalms and his other liturgical regulations spread rapidly, but the Roman secular office never adopted his arrangement of the psalms, nor his inclusion of hymns, until about the year 1145. In some details each office shows its independent history. It is a matter of dispute among liturgists whether Prime and Compline were added to the Roman secular office through the influence of the Benedictines (Baudot, The Roman Breviary, pp. 19-26).
The period following the death of St. Benedict in 543 is a period of which little is known. “We repeat with Dom Baumer (vol. i., pp. 299-300) that the fifth century, at Rome as elsewhere, was a period of great liturgical activity, while the seventh and eighth centuries were, viewed from this point of view, a period of decline” (Baudot, op. cit., p. 53). The labours of St. Benedict probably were continued and perfected by St. Gregory the Great (590-604). His labours are summed up by Dom Baumer (Histoire du Breviare, vol. i., pp. 289, 301-303): “It is he who collected together the prayers and liturgical usages of his predecessors and assigned to each its proper place, and thus the liturgy owes its present form to him. The liturgical chant also bears his name, because through his means it reached its highest state of development. The canonical hours and the formulary of the Mass now in use were also carefully arranged by him.” “The whole history of the Western liturgy supports us in maintaining that these books received from the great Pope or from one of his contemporaries a form which never afterwards underwent any radical or essential alteration.” The Roman office spread quickly through Europe. The enthusiasm of Gregory became rooted in the monasteries, where the monks learned and taught, with knowledge and with zeal, his liturgical reforms. Two important reforms of monastic practice are interesting as showing further progress in the evolution of the Roman Breviary. St. Benedict of Aniane (751-821), the friend and adviser of Louis the Pious, became a reformer of Benedictine rule and practice. His rule aimed at a rigid uniformity, even in detail. And the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle (817) helped him to establish his reforms. As a result of the saint’s exertions the Penitential Psalms and Office of the Dead were made part of the daily monastic office. The Abbey of Cluny, founded in 910, supplied a further reform tending to guard the office from further accretions.
Did Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII. (1073-1086), labour for liturgical reform? Liturgical writers give very different replies. Monsignor Battifol (History of the Roman Breviary, English edition, p. 158) maintains that Gregory made no reform, and that “the Roman office such as we have seen it to be in the times of Charlemagne held its ground at Rome itself, in the customs of the basilicas, without any sensible modification, throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries and even down to the close of the twelfth.” Dom Gueranger holds that Gregory abridged the order of prayers and simplified the liturgy for the use of the Roman curia. It would be difficult at the present time to ascertain accurately the complete form of the office before this revision, but since then it has remained almost identical with what it was at the end of the eleventh century. Dom Baumer agrees with his Benedictine brother that Gregory wrought for liturgical reform. Probably Pope Gregory VII., knowing the decadence which was manifest in liturgical exercises in Rome during the tenth and eleventh centuries, decided to revise the old Roman office which, although it had decayed in Rome, flourished in Germany, France, and other countries. Hence, in his Lenten Synod, 1074, he promulgated the rules he had already drawn up for the Regular Canons of Rome, ordering them to return to the old Roman rite. Thus he may be counted as a reformer, but not as an innovater nor an abridger. But his reform fell on evil days. The great struggle between Church and State about lay investitures had a baneful influence on liturgy, even in Rome itself. The times seemed to call for a modernised (i.e., a shortened) office. The “modernisers” respected the psalter, the curtailment was in the Lectionary. The modernising spirit showed itself in the arrangement and bulk of the office books. The Psalter, Antiphonary, Responsorial, Bible and Book of Homilies were gradually codified. Even then, a very large volume was the result. After a time the chant, which absorbed much space, was removed from the volume, but the resulting volume, noticeably smaller, was not yet small enough. In time, only the opening words of the antiphons, responsories and versicles were printed, and to the volume thus turned out was given the name Breviary. The Curial Breviary was drawn up in this way to make it suitable for persons engaged in outdoor pursuits and journeys. It gradually displaced the choir office in Rome, and Rome’s example was universally followed.
This Curial Breviary was adopted by the Franciscans in their active lives. They changed the text of the Psalter only, Psalterium Romanum, to the more approved text, the Psalterium Gallicanum. The improved Curial Breviary was imposed on the churches of Rome by the Franciscan Pope, Nicholas III. (1277-1280), and henceforth it is called the Roman Breviary. Thus we see that the book used daily by priests got its name in the thirteenth century, although the divine office is almost from Apostolic times.
But liturgy is a progressive study, a progressive practice capable and worthy of perfecting. And the friars strove for the greater perfection and beauty of the new Breviary. They added variety to the unity already achieved and yet did not reach liturgical perfection nor liturgical beauty. They loaded the Breviary by introducing saints’ days with nine lessons, thus avoiding offices of three lessons. And by keeping octave days and days within the octave as feasts of nine lessons, they almost entirely destroyed the weekly recitation of the psalter; and a large portion of the Breviary ceased to be used at all. The Franciscan book became very popular owing to its handy form. Indeed its use was almost universal in the Western Church. But the multiplication of saints’ offices, universal and local, no fixed standard to guide the recital, and the wars of liturgists, made chaos and turmoil.