The Divine Office, Little Offices, and Devotion

Book of Hours

As some of you may know (and most probably don’t), for the last several months I’ve been working on a Little Office of the Blessed Sophia, which I hope to have published and available by the start of Advent — God willing. Now if you come from a Catholic background, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a “little office”. If not, you may be wondering, “What the heck is a little office?” Well I’m glad you asked! 😉

The most popular little office is The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which saw a rise in popularity amongst Christian laity in the Middle Ages, and still remains popular to this day. It’s modeled after the Divine Office, but is much shorter and contains less variation. It started off as simply the common office of the Blessed Virgin Mary — that is, the regular set of psalms, readings, and prayers appointed for Marian feast days. It gradually began to be prayed on a daily basis, in addition to the Divine Office, in monasteries to honor holy Mary. At certain points in history was even considered obligatory for clergy, and also because a popular form of Marian devotion for lay people because it was less complicated than the Divine Office.

Allow me to break for a moment and explain the Divine Office, for those who not familiar. The Divine Office has been called the official “prayer of the Church”, with roots in ancient Jewish daily prayers, and early monastic practices. The ancient Jews would pray at certain times of day, as recorded in scripture. This was a practice that the apostles and other early Jewish Christians continued. When the first monastics started retreating to the desert to live a life of solitude and prayer, it is said that they would pray the entire psalter (the 150 Psalms of David) in one day. By the time St. Benedict wrote his monastic rule of life, he offered a schema for praying the psalter in a week. In the Divine Office, the psalms are divided up by day, and into 8 canonical hours, or times of prayer throughout the day: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. Since Matins (the midnight office) and Lauds (the sunrise office) are often counted as one, 7 canonical hours are often spoken of. In addition to the psalter, which forms the most important part of the hours, there are also lessons from scripture and Church Fathers, prayers, hymns, and antiphons. Though each time of prayer is called an hour, this refers more to the time of day the office is said, and not the length of time it takes to pray an office. As time went one, praying the Divine Office became binding upon the clergy, in addition the monastic orders according to their rules and constitutions.

The divine office and canonical hours have taken on different forms in the East and West, and many monastic orders have their own particular rite — but no matter the place or traditions, the focus has always been the same: to sanctify the day by turning to God in prayer. The Divine Office has been the Church’s way to fulfill the teaching of St. Paul: “pray without ceasing.”

To return to The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, this form of devotion offered devout Christians a way of participating in the Church’s daily prayers without requiring a lot of effort to learn the breviary. Unlike the Divine Office, it doesn’t use the entire Book of Psalm, only a small selection which with regular use can be easily memorized. But this isn’t the only little office one can pray, it just happens to be the most popular. The Little Office of the Passion is attributed to St. Francis, who took various scriptures and organized them into unique psalms to be prayed throughout the day. The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception and The Little Office of the Guardian Angel are quite a bit shorter, and rather than utilizing the psalms, a short hymn is recited at each hour. I’ve even offered some little offices here on Gnostic Devotions, for both morning and evening prayers, and my own church has a few different vespers services for public use, as well as an Office of St. Michael for private devotion. Of course, another little office that is often forgotten is the Office of the Dead (the proper office for All Souls’ Day), which consists only of Vespers, Matins, and Lauds — and which inspired the Office we use in the Gnostic Confraternity of All Departed Souls.

Hallowing the hours of the day with periods of prayer is wonderful; but why do it? I could write an entire series of posts on the benefits of praying the psalms regularly, but I’ll save that for the future. We all know that taking small breaks from one’s daily obligations has tremendous benefits for us, mentally and physically. But as Gnostics, seekers of the Light, regular prayer turns us inward and upward toward the Divine, keeping us constantly conscious of the divine spark within, and stilling our minds from the stresses of our day-to-day lives. Through the discipline of regular prayer, we can free our minds to let the Gnosis flow, so to speak. And it is a discipline, it takes practice and effort to form a daily practice and keep oneself accountable enough to stick to it — but that effort also plays an important part in experiencing divine Gnosis. By striving to maintain our practice, even if we don’t necessarily feel like it that day, we exert our will over our bodies so that we can “win the victory over our lower selves!”

I’m a firm believer in the necessity of having a devotional practice, especially if you’re Gnostic. As Gnostics we are esotericists, and let’s face it: many Gnostics are also practicing magicians. Ritual magic is a powerful way of elevating one’s consciousness to higher levels, and allowing us to experience and unite with our Holy Twin Angel. But often we see magicians driven mad in their practices because they lack a devotional component. They can intone magic words and divine names, draw their circles and pentagrams, experience visions… But without a grounding devotional practice, they can risk not being prepared for their experiences, which can quite literally drive them mad.

Devotional practice keeps us grounded. It is the simple act of worshiping the Divine, without necessarily invoking, or asking for anything — but just communing. Remember that at the core of our being, we are divine. God dwells in us, and us in God. A good devotional practice keeps us mindful of that.

Devotions do not have to be set rituals, although a good ritual can be helpful in getting into a regular practice. Whether using one of the offices I’ve linked to in this post, or simply reciting the Our Father, the Jesus Prayer, Kyrie Eleison: establishing a regular practice to stick to is what is important. The practice can be changed and modified, additions can be made; and when one is comfortable, one can improvise. But the important thing is to do it with a humble and open heart, mind, and spirit. But whatever you do, as the saying goes: Just do it!

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3 Comments

Filed under Gnostic Thoughts

3 responses to “The Divine Office, Little Offices, and Devotion

  1. Andrew

    Hello,

    A few things. First, thank you for the interesting information on devotional practices. I like these things although I am most fond of all of the sheer simplicity of the repeated Jesus Prayer. I hope your church will finally publish this material as well as the Catechism, Prayers and Lectionary, Rosary Prayer Cards, etc. There appear to be so few books for Gnostic devotion available, which doesn’t say anything very positive about the modern self-identifying Gnostics that are supposed to be creating the demand for such books. Too many armchair scholars who live in their heads!

    Second, I really like what I have glanced of the little offices for morning and evening. Although in my opinion the traditional Sign of the Cross in its short form is better than the wordy Gnostic variation. My two cents. You probably have more spiritual experience in this matter.

    Also, I must say I have never been approving of practicing magic. I am suspicious. Magicians lose their minds, if they had not already, because ritual magic is not an advisable thing. Notice that the Jewish Kabbalists were always extremely restrictive about Kabbalah itself, but most of all the rarefied “magic” component of the tradition, such as amulets and future-telling? That’s their Wisdom talking, I think. Ritual magic, even if an instrument of the “elevation of consciousness”, is at best lacking the Holy Spirit and at worst a pact with demons. I am glad to avoid it, and remember that no illumined saint has ever needed it. I do not need such devices to unite with my Twin Angel; it will, God willing, happen after my bodily raiment is done away with.

    Holy Peace

  2. Andrew

    A couple of questions:

    1.) At what times would one recite the Act of Gnosis?

    2.) Would you recommend using the Odes of Solomon as an alternate Gnostic psalter? The Hebrew Psalms present a difficulty in that some of them are obviously of a strongly psychic-level and Jahwistic character, very much of the time.

    Thank you 🙂

    • The Act of Gnosis can really be recited any time of day as a personal devotion. Or do you mean in conjunction with the Divine Office or a little office? In the EG, we recite the Act of Gnosis during Mass (except for Requiems, where we use the Gnostic Credo instead) after the reading of the Gospel.

      It’s funny you mention the Odes of Solomon, because that is the psalter I’m using for the Little Office of the Blessed Sophia. 🙂 The Little Office has all the odes arranged so that they can all be prayed in about 3 days, if each hour is said. They’re beautiful hymns with a distinctly Christian flavor, and I think they’re great for Gnostics to meditate upon. Of course I also like the Psalms of David — I find that despite the demiurgic quality of a few of them, they allow you to explore the full range of human emotions in a prayerful way, which I think can be very cathartic. I’d also recommend the Odes and Repentances from the Pistis Sophia (some of which I’m also including in the Little Office for the penitential seaons). In the Pistis Sophia, there’s usually a commentary from Jesus following each one, along with an interpretation relating to scripture from one of the apostles. So that makes using them as a psalter a little more difficult, but they’re great and obviously very Gnostic!

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