The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary: An Old Prayer for the New Millennium
Some years ago, I decided to pray the Great Office (also called The Liturgy of the Hours or The Divine Office). I took one look at the fat colorful volumes with lots of ribbons and a hefty price tag and took a pass. And, psychologically, I thought something called “the Office” sounded too much like work. Major disincentive. I suppose part of it is the spiritual slacker in me. I mean, I understand why Jesus was troubled by the apostles falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemani. But I understand better why they fell asleep. Not long after passing on the Great Office, I encountered the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Little Office interested me because it was smaller and much less complicated than the Great Office. I really did want to pray more and have some kind of structure, but admittedly, I didn’t want to pray that much (I know it sounds awful). It is a testament to the tenacity of our God that he looks for us even in our laziness.
So what is the Little Office?
The Little Office evolved out of the structure of the Great Office. Both are liturgical prayers of the Church. They are structured in a nearly identical way. The prayer hours are divided between Major Hours (Matins, Lauds, and Vespers), Minor Hours (Prime, Terce, Sext, None) and Compline (evening prayer). The practice of praying at various hours probably descended from our Jewish ancestors’ custom of praying throughout the day and night. Biblical references, especially in the Psalms, indicate the practice of setting aside appointed times to pray. “Seven times a day I praise you…” Ps 119:164. The early Christians continued this practice, and eventually a formally arranged Great Office came into use.
While the Little Office uses the same structure as the Great Office, its origins, fittingly, are shrouded in holy mystery. It may have been composed by St. John Damascene in the eighth century, and appears to have been prayed regularly by the Benedictine monks at Monte Cassino. It grew in practice and popularity among the monasteries and clergy of Europe during the medieval era. Eventually it came to be prayed by literate lay people and used to special effect during the persecution of Catholics in sixteenth century England. As such, it is older than the Rosary, but as a Marian devotion it has taken a back seat to the beads.
Why should we pray the Little Office?
The real question is why shouldn’t we? The diversity of the Church is reflected in the diversity of our devotions. Praying the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary is an excellent way of uniting our daily prayer with that of the universal Church while maintaining a devotion to the Mother of God. The Little Office combines the structure of the Great Office with the meditative repetitions of the Rosary. Each Hour, like each decade of the Rosary, calls to mind events in the life of Jesus as witnessed by Mary. Adhering to the structure and repetition of the Office, we are free to contemplate the central mysteries of our faith. Simply put, like music or incense, it gets into you. And when it does it transforms you. The structure—whether you pray three, five, or seven Hours—will anchor your day and be a bedrock against the blows of daily life. I have often found that the Psalms and antiphons come back to me throughout my day. Whenever I am stuck in traffic, struggling in a difficult relationship, or just in a foul mood scowling at the world, words of the Little Office rise up in me, next to the anger or impatience or selfishness, and offer me a different path. A life giving path. It seems to me the seven Hours of prayer act as a spiritual counterweight to the seven deadly sins. What’s not to love?
How do we pray the Little Office?
Just do it. The Little Office is very easy to learn and pray. It only changes during the seasons of Advent and Christmas. The changes are minimal and related only to the season. Current editions are clearly arranged and a beginner can become familiar within a few minutes. Do not worry about getting it right. There is no such thing. When we offer prayer and devotion to God, He takes whatever we give and makes it perfect. So just follow along in the book and you will be fine.
- Use an actual book. Most editions (Baronius Press, Angelus Press, Catholic Way) will fit into a pocket and, unlike an App, will not lead to distraction from your device.
- Start with the Minor Hours. Simply set aside time in the morning and evening to pray Prime and/or Terce and Compline. This will help you get into a routine and a rhythm.
- Choose times that work for you. The Minor Hours take no more than ten minutes to pray. While there may be set times for those obligated to pray the Little Office, as a devotion you can simply use those times as an optional guide.
- Plan phone calls, emails, and meetings around your prayer schedule. Not everyone can do this, and certainly not all the time. But if you make these times a priority, it is miraculous to see how life flows around your prayer like a river around a rock.