Notes on Praying the Divine Office

Note: This post was updated in May 2024 to add a few words on Christian Prayer and Word on Fire’s monthly Liturgy of the Hours booklets

A few years ago I took an interest in beginning to pray the Divine Office to help bolster my prayer life. My goal was to add some structure to my prayers, so going through set prayers at regular intervals seemed like a good choice, but I quickly found that there are a lot of different options out there for learning how to say the Office in terms of websites, apps, and books, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. I’ve tried several of these, and though I’m still certainly no expert I thought I’d share my experience to offer a starting-point and make things easier for anyone interested in saying the Office themselves. I’m assuming that you know basically what the Office is but will start with a few important points you need to know. Then, I’ll go over some resources for actually praying the Office.

First, a few short notes. Typically, you’ll see the name “Divine Office” used to refer specifically to the pre-Vatican II form of the Office, while the newer form is more often called the “Liturgy of the Hours.” I like the newer name because it’s more descriptive, but I’ll follow the convention of using it only to refer to the newer form for simplicity.

The structure and concept of both the Office and the LotH are similar, and though I have a slight preference for the Office I like both and have found both very beneficial. The most important consideration here is which liturgical calendar you’re going to use. If you attend a Novus Ordo parish, you’ll probably want to use the LotH because it follows the new calendar. If you attend an FSSP, ICKSP, or SSPX parish you’ll probably want to use the Office because it follows the 1962 calendar, just as the associated Missal does. The large majority of feast days are the same between the two, but the names of each season and the dates of a handful of feasts are different, just enough that it’s certainly more convenient to use the Office/Liturgy that matches your parish. That’s especially true if you attend or watch livestreams of daily Masses, since the differing feasts are more noticeable than at Sunday liturgies. Finally, keep in mind when reading about different versions of the Office that the LotH uses different names for the Hours, though people aren’t totally consistent about this:

  • Matins = Office of Readings
  • Lauds = Morning Prayer
  • Prime = Not said in the LotH
  • Terce = Mid-morning Prayer
  • Sext = Midday Prayer
  • None = Afternoon Prayer
  • Vespers = Evening Prayer
  • Compline = Night Prayer

The times for these aren’t exact so if you’re a layman you needn’t worry about this too much. My schedule loosely follows the traditional schedule, which as I understand says Matins at midnight (following Psalm 118, or 119 in Protestant numbering, “I rose at midnight to give praise to thee”), Lauds at dawn, Prime at 6:00 AM, and the rest at three hour intervals, with Compline being said before bedtime (for a total of seven daytime hours, following that same Psalm, “Seven times a day I have given praise to thee”). I generally say Prime when I wake up, the rest at the traditional times. Currently I say Matins and Lauds only occasionally.

I should also point out that some religious orders have their own versions of the Ofice, so if you often attend Mass or pray with a group of religious keep that in mind.

If this sounds like a lot of work and time, keep in mind two things. One is that the LotH is a bit shorter than the Office, not only in that it’s missing Prime but because each individual Hour is shorter. Also, you are not obliged as a layman to pray all of the Hours.

If you’re interested primarily in adding some substance and structure to your prayer life but want something simpler than the Office, I recommend starting with Shorter Christian Prayer. This popular book, published by the Catholic Book Publishing Corp., includes only morning and evening prayer and is based on the Liturgy of the Hours. The readings are seasonal but don’t include feast days, so there’s less of the variability that tends to intimidate newcomers. Since it only includes two Hours it’s also small and easy to carry around. Some Catholics will have to pinch their nose at the Novus Ordo flavour of a few of the prayer requests and hymn selections (it includes “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” by Martin Luther), but overall is a fine choice and worked well for me as an introduction to this kind of structured prayer. There’s another median step towards the full LotH in the book Christian Prayer, which is, as you may guess, is longer than Shorter Christian Prayer but still fits into one volume about the size of a Sunday Missal and is shorter than the full LotH.

Another great choice for both newcomers and experienced LotH users who want an app is Universalis. It costs $10 for the full version but is absolutely worth it. It handles choosing the correct readings and prayers automatically, offers multiple language options (including side-by-side, e.g. for both English and Latin), two Psalm translations (Grail and Jerusalem), and reminders for each Hour you choose - a small thing, but helpful when you’re first getting into the habit of praying the Liturgy. I used it for a couple years and would probably still be using it I didn’t have the Roman Breviary (about which more shortly), even if it does use the new calendar.

For the Divine Office, the easiest option is the website Divinum Officium. This site has several options, but for most people the default 1960 rubrics are good. Like Universalis it handles choosing the readings for you, making life easier. When my fiancée and I have prayed Vespers together now-and-then this is what we’ve used. I’ve also used its associated iOS app, Breviarum Meum, which is fine but not as fully-featured as Universalis (e.g., no reminders).

Now, if you want to use a physical volume for the Divine Office, I’m aware of two options. First, though, some tips. Though praying the Office isn’t as difficult as it first appears, it does take some effort. I found the FSSP’s Pocket Guide for the Recitation of the Divine Office helpful, but there are other resources out there as well. Baronius includes a guide with their edition of the Roman Breviary, which is more thorough but less straightforward than the FSSP guide.

I highly recommend starting with Compline, which barely changes day-to-day. Then, add the relatively simple minor hours of Terce, Sext, and None, which change only somewhat depending on the day. Then the moderately more complex Prime, then Lauds and Vespers. Matins can be the capstone.

To say the Divine Office with a book, what you’re looking for is a copy of the Roman Breviary/Breviarum Romanum. You can find old copies online, but most of these will be Latin-only. That’s fine if you speak Latin and perfect if you really want to boost your old-school cred, but not so great for most people.

One such Latin-only option is the Diurnale Romanum, which you can get from the FSSP. I have an old copy; no publication date I can see, but it’s somewhat yellowed and stinky and the table of moveable feasts starts in 1962 and ends in 1997. It includes only the daytime Hours (Lauds-Vespers, so no Compline or Matins) and because it’s not parallel text the whole thing is in one manageable volume. If those are the only Hours you need and you’re comfortable enough with the Office that the minimal Latin instructions aren’t a problem, then this is a solid, affordable choice.

“Hold on,” some of you might be thinking. “How is $96.95 the affordable option?”

Ha, ha, ha…

Yeah, we’ll get to that shortly, but first, this and the next option will direct you to read from the Roman Martyrology at Prime. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice to  have a copy. Mine is from Angelus Press; I’ve seen other editions but don’t know how good they are.

Anyway, if you really want to be hardcore like I am, and you have money to burn like I don’t, you’ll want the full Roman Breviary, of which the only in-print edition I’m aware of is from Baronius Press, which can be yours for a mere $379.95 as of this writing. Is it worth that much?

If you have to ask, the answer is “No.” Use Divinum Officium.

If you can afford it, though, this edition is wonderful. It’s three volumes with parallel text, clear but not hand-holding instructions, nice binding and slipcases, easy navigation (or as easy as the Office can be), and also includes a foreward, introduction, Apostolic Decrees of Popes Benedict XVI and John XXIII, the general rubrics and calendar of feasts, and more. The volumes are substantial but not unwieldy, similar to a daily missal. If you have Baronius’s missal it’s about a half-step up in quality from that. It also includes a guide to praying the Office and thirteen cards/small pamphlets of commonly used prayers, though I haven’t found those very useful. My only complaint is that the Apostolic Decrees didn’t need to be in every volume and add unnecessary weight, but that’s not a big deal.

If you’re wondering, I was only able to procure a copy because my fiancée has it, and she received it as a gift from what I assume must be a very wealthy friend. So go break into that person’s apartment, not mine, because you won’t find anything valuable here.

Well, aside from Baronius’s Roman Breviary.

Finally, since this article was first published, Word on Fire has begun publishing the Liturgy of the Hours in a monthly booklet format. My wife and I received an issue to try out, and it accomplishes its intended purpose of making following the LotH as easy and straightforward as possible. It’s still a bit hefty, but smaller than even Christian Prayer so it’s easy to carry around in a bookbag or purse. There’s no flipping back-and-forth, either, aside from the handful of hymns at the back - everything is just printed and laid out as you read it, similar to Universalis but in a physical format. Note, however, that it’s $9/month, while Universalis is just one payment of $10. Even if you specifically want a physical format, Christian Prayer is under $60 and the full four-volume set of the LotH is close to $160, so buying one of these books will pay for itself in no more than a year and a half, and for those who care about Christian stewardship of the environment, you’ll be killing fewer trees, too.