Divine Office – Divinum Officium

The Divine Office

A Study of the Roman Breviary

Part II.—Rules From Moral and Ascetic Theology for the Recitation of the Breviary.

Chapter I. Moral And Ascetic Theology.

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The valid recitation of the Divine Office requires that the priest should have in his mind an intention of praying, for the Divine Office is a true and real prayer, not a mere vocal exercise. Hence, a priest reading his office as a mere study or as a means of remembering the words of the psalms does not validly recite his office (St. Alph., n. 176). Now, what sort of intention is best and what sort of intention is necessary? An actual, explicit intention which states expressly when the Breviary is opened, "I intend to pray," is the best intention. The devout recital of the prayer "Aperi Domine" expresses well the best form of the actual, explicit intentions of those reciting the office. But such an express, actual intention is not necessary; a virtual intention, which finds expression in the opening of the Breviary to recite the office, suffices. The mere opening of the book, the finding out of the office, the arrangement of the book markers, are ample evidence of the existence of a virtual intention quite sufficient for the valid recitation of the office. St. Alphonsus writes, "Imo puto semper adesse exercite, intentionem actualem implendi officium" (n. 176). This question of intention gives great trouble to the timid and scrupulous, whose doubts and difficulties seem hard to solve. The common sense and common practice in everyday affairs seem to desert some people when they prepare to read the canonical hours. For, who has not seen the nervous, pious, anxious cleric, stupidly labouring to acquire even a sufficient intention before beginning his hours?

Attention in reading the hours is a much more discussed and much more difficult mental effort. It means the application of the mind to the thing in which we are engaged. When we listen to a conversation or when we write a letter the mind is fixed and attentive to the matter spoken or written. Intention is an act of the will; attention is an act of the understanding.

Attention may be either external or internal. External attention is attention of such a kind that it excludes every exterior action physically incompatible with the recitation of the office—e.g., to write or type a letter, to listen attentively to those conversing, are acts incompatible with the simultaneous recitation of the office. But walking, poking a fire, looking for the lessons, whilst reciting from memory all the time, are not incompatible with the external attention required in office recital; because such acts do not require mental effort which could count as a serious disturbing element. However, in this matter of external attention no rule can be formulated for all Breviary readers; for what may lightly disturb and distract one reader may have no effect on another, and yet may seriously disturb the recitation of another (St. Alph., n. 176). External attention is necessary for the valid recitation of the office.

Internal attention is application or advertence of the mind. Is such internal attention, such deliberate application or mental advertence necessary for the valid recitation of the office?

There are two opinions on this matter, two replies to the question. According to one opinion, and this is the more common and the more probable one, internal attention is required for the valid recitation of the Hours. 1. Because the Divine Office is a prayer, but there can be no true or real prayer without internal attention, for prayer is defined as an elevation of the soul to God, but if there be no internal attention, there is no elevation of the soul to God, and no prayer. 2. Our Lord complained of those who had external attention at prayer, but lacked internal attention or advertence, "This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (St. Matt. xv.). 3. The Church appears to demand internal attention at prayer, for although she has not given any positive precept dealing with this kind of attention, she does the same thing when she commands that the recitation of the Divine Office take the form of prayer for God's honour, and this recitation of words cannot be true prayer without internal attention. 4. The Council of Trent seems to exact this attention when it wishes that the Divine Office be said reverently, distinctly and devoutly, reverenter, distincte, devote. 5. If no internal attention be required in reciting the Hours, it is difficult to see how voluntary distractions are forbidden by Divine Law.

This is the opinion held by Cajetan (1496-1534), Sa (1530-1596), Azor (1539-1603), Sanchez (1550-1610), Roncaglai (1677-1737), Concina (1687-1756), and St. Alphonsus, the great Doctor of prayer (1696-1787).

According to the other opinion, external attention suffices always and ever to satisfy substantially the obligation of reading the office and for the avoidance of mortal sin which invalid recitation entails. For,

(1) To pray is to speak to God, to trust in Him, to manifest to Him the wishes and wants of the soul; but this can be done by a person who has voluntary distractions of mind, just as a man can read to his king an address, setting forth the thanks and requests of his subjects, although the reader's mind is far from dwelling on the words or the meaning of the sentences before his eyes. But he is careful to read all the words in a clear, intelligible manner. Now the theologians who maintain this opinion say that, a fortiori, this method of reading the Hours should be valid; for, in the reading the priest acts principally in the name of the Church, as her minister, and offers up prayers to God in her name, and they say that the irreverence of the servant does not render the prayer of the Church unpleasing to Him,

(2) He who makes a vow, and resolves to do a certain act, fulfils his vow, even when fulfilling it he acts with voluntary distractions; so, a pari, with the recitation of the office,

(3) The administration of the sacraments—even the administration of Extreme Unction, the form of which is a prayer—with full voluntary distractions is valid; so, too, should be the recital of Breviary prayers.

(4) In the other opinion it is hard to see how, if voluntary distractions destroy the substance of prayer, involuntary distractions do not produce similar effect, and hence, there can be no prayer if there be distraction of any kind.

This opinion was held by Lugo (1583-1660), Gobat (1600-1679), Sporer (1609-1683), St. Antonnius (1389-1459), and other eminent men. It is quoted by St. Alphonsus, as satis probabilis. Of it, Lehmkuhl writes, "Quae ad substantiam divini officii dicamus satis probabiliter sufficere cum intentione orandi observasse attentionem externam" (II. 635).

What are the divisions or kinds of internal attention?

I. Objectively they are (1) spiritual attention, (2) literal attention, (3) superficial or material attention. Spiritual attention is that advertence of soul which tends towards God, the Term of all prayer, when the soul meditates on the power, wisdom, goodness of God, on the Passion, on the Mother of God, on God's saints. Literal attention is that which strives to lay hold of the meaning of the words said in the office. Superficial attention is that advertence of soul which applies itself to the correct recitation of the words, avoiding errors of pronunciation, mutilation, transposition, etc., etc.

II. Subjectively, virtual attention suffices; habitual is divided into actual and interpretative. Actual attention is that which exists at the moment—e.g., the attention paid by a pupil to a question put by a teacher. Virtual attention is attention which was once actual, but is not such at the time spoken of, but which lives virtually. Habitual is attention which once was actual, which does not remain in act, but which was not retracted. Interpretative attention is that which never existed at all, but which would have existed if the agent had adverted.

Which kind of internal attention is required in the reading of the Office? I. Objectively, material, or superficial attention is necessary, since the Breviary is a vocal prayer, and therefore it is necessary to pronounce distinctly all the words of the day's office and to observe the rubrics. But this suffices; it is not necessary that a priest reciting his Hours should carefully notice each word, it is sufficient to have general and moral attention to recite every part well, and with the intention of praying, "Sed sufficere moralem et generalem qua quis curet bene omnia dicere cum intentione orandi" (St. Alphonsus).

Hence, objectively, neither attention, which is called spiritual, because it is not easy to attain, nor the literal attention, which religious who do not understand Latin strive after, is needed for valid recitation. By this, it is not meant to convey that spiritual attention is not very excellent and very commendable and praiseworthy.

Subjectively, virtual attention suffices; habitual does not suffice, neither does interpretative. Best of all is actual attention, but it is not necessary, because it is not always within the power of mortals.

This want of internal attention is called mental distraction. Theologians distinguish two kinds of distractions, voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary distractions are thoughts which the mind freely and directly embraces to the exclusion of pious thoughts which should occupy it in prayer, of which the office is a high form; or they may be thoughts which arise from previous laziness, thoughtlessness, pre-occupation or some engrossing worldly affair. Involuntary distractions are those which come unbidden and unsought to the mind, are neither placed directly, nor by their causes, by the person at prayer.

Does a person reciting the Hours sin if he have distractions?

If the distractions be involuntary there is no sin. But if the distractions be voluntary there is sin, But, unless the mind be altogether filled with distractions, not thinking of God, of prayer, of the words or of the meaning, and unless the distractions are fully voluntary and reflective during a notable part of the office, there is no mortal sin. Hence, St. Alphonsus, the great Doctor of Prayer, wrote, "ut dicatur aliquis officio non satisfacere, non solum requiritur ut voluntarie se distrahat, sed etiam ut plene advertat se distrahi, nam alias iste, licet sponte se divertat non tamen sponte se divertit a recitatione" (St. Alphonsus, n. 177). Therefore, before a person accuse himself of not satisfying the precept of recitation, on account of inattention or distractions, he must be able to affirm positively (1)that he was wilfully distracted, (2)he must have noticed not only his distraction and mental occupation by vain thoughts, but he must have noticed also that he was distracted in his recitation; (3)he must be able to state positively that the intention, resolution or desire to recite piously, which he made at the beginning of his prayer, was revoked with full advertence and that it did not exist either actually or virtually during the time of distraction in his recitation. Seldom, indeed, are these conditions fulfilled, and seldom are there gravely sinful distractions.

This subject of attention in prayer, in the official prayer of the Church, is important. Long and learned disputes about its nature and requirements occupied great thinkers in times long gone by. To-day theologians argue on different sides; and anxiety, serious, painful and life-long, reigns in the souls of many who struggle to recite the office, digne, attente ac devote.


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