RosaryI was recently asked to answer a question about the structure of the rosary, which got me to speaking about the Divine Office, otherwise known as the Liturgy of the Hours, which has led me to want to share some things about this wonderful treasure we have in the Church. We can learn a lot from the Divine Office, particularly about the influence and importance of culture.

The Office is called “the office” because the Latin word for “duty” is officium. So the Divine Office is the Divine Duty which priests and religious are blessed to undertake. The laity, by the way, are highly encouraged to take the time to partake in this blessed and divine duty. It is just this sort of invitation that brought about the structure of the Rosary in fact.

It was very early on that monks would recite the psalms with regularity through praying the Divine Office. In this manner, the individual could mark the various hours of the day by meditating on the poetic words. Those who do pray the Hours know well how the psalms can touch every human emotion and experience. They have within them the rhythm of life, and so it seems fitting to me at least that they should have helped our older brethren in the faith to mete out their days in holy contemplation. So proper was this that eventually recitation of all 150 psalms were part of the daily Office for the monk. Along with this, there were instances when the recitation of the psalms would be mandated by – say – the death of a monk. Perhaps 50 psalms would have to be sung.

Now as the monasteries grew in size and influence, entire communities would rise up with them. Lay brothers would join their ranks and endeavor to participate in the holy prayer in which the monks engaged, though not having the ability to read. Knights of various orders, created during the times of the Crusades, would also take on some of these monastic practices, but they were not themselves able to read either. So for these knights, lay brothers and holy women, the suggestion was that they recite 50 Pater nosters or “Our Fathers.” These good people would do just this, and sometimes more, but to help them keep track of which prayer they were on, some made various tools – a wheel with bumps on it or a string of beads. Thus were the beginnings of the Rosary.

Praying the rosaryThe 15 mysteries of the Rosary (now 20 of course thanks to John Paul the Great) developed because there are 150 psalms in all. 15 decades with 10 Hail Mary’s for each decade equals 150 Hail Mary’s, each representing a psalm recited in solidarity with the good monks. The 10 prayers or decade is just an easy breaking point to keep track of how many you’ve said. The mysteries were added over time, and they would have arrived at the form we’re familiar by the mid to late 15th century. Indeed the Hail Mary itself developed over time. Documentary evidence suggests that the original Hail Mary was just that, the two words “Hail Mary.” St. Albert (d. 1140) recorded the first half of the Hail Mary as we know it. The second half was added some time later.

So the Rosary is sort of a way for the laity to pray the Divine Office, the entirety of the 150 psalms without having to pray all 150 psalms.

But that’s not all. The Divine Office also provides us with a wonderful other tradition, and that is the Do-Re-Mi so widely popularized by “The Sound of Music.”

Here’s the story: a special hymn was written for St. John the Baptist in the 8th century by a deacon named Paolo, who, upon having to sing the exultet on the Easter vigil found himself hoarse. He prayed to St. John and his voice recovered.

Michael York as St. John the Baptist

Michael York as St. John the Baptist

This hymn was so widely enjoyed that it was added to the Divine Office as the antiphon for the psalms of the day celebrating the birth of St. John, which is still celebrated as a solemnity on June 24th. The hymn, because of its length, was divided to make up the antiphons for the Evening Prayer on the night before, the vigil prayer during the night and then the Morning Prayer the day of the solemnity. The Latin of the Evening Prayer, i.e. the beginning of the hymn, reads:

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris mira gestorum famuli tuorum, solve polluti labii reatum, Sancte Iohannes

So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.

Now in the early 11th century a monk named Guido d’Arezzo found that the hymn fit perfectly for his desire to find a system of solimization. That is, he could use the syllables from the hymn, known so well at the time, as a way of teaching the basic scale of C. Thus:

Ut queant luxisUT queant laxis REsonare fibris MIra gestorum FAmuli tuorum, SOlve polluti LAbii reatum, Sancte Iohannes

The UT was changed later to DO to remove a syllable that started with an open vowel sound, and was assumed to refer to Domine “Lord,” though the text is actually addressed to St. John. Also, SI was added later from the Sancte Iohannes for the missing note in the scale, but that too was later changed from SI to our now familiar TI. Some suspect this was because of anti-Catholic sentiments.

Thus we have the DO – RE – MI – FA – SO – LA – TI  as the simple scale, which is still used as a teaching method in many parts of the world. It should be noted, too, that these come from Gregorian Chant which is the musical tradition that provided humanity with a system for writing music. Few realize that Gregorian Chant is the most influential musical tradition in the history of humanity, regardless if you’re Christian or not. With over a thousand years of use, it was also the longest musical tradition. It is just such a shame that so few Catholics are familiar with it at all or – worse – associate with it a “darkened” age. But don’t get me started on that.

I want that book!!

I want that book!!

 This little foray into the history of the Divine Office has refocused my attention on the role of culture in our lives and in the social doctrine. This word “culture” which is thrown about so easily by so many – myself included – comes from a very complex notion of what it means to be a human person. The word comes from the Latin cultus which is the root not just for our word “culture” but also for “cultivate” and “cult.” Cultus could mean “agriculture” but it could also mean “education.” This is most fitting since culture is that wonderful mix between the knowledge of the good, the true and the beautiful (education) and our grounded, everyday life lived in accordance with our proper end (farming is as grounded as one gets). And of course speaking of proper end, we know that our goal in life is to know, love and serve God so that we may be forever happy with Him in heaven. Thus cult, or worship, is another derivative of cultus and so a proper part of culture. In culture, then, we find the nexus point of human existence, the crossroads between the body, the soul, and the spirit. But when do we consider it?

In the social doctrine of the Church, we often overlook the importance of culture. I’ve been, of late, looking over the work of social justice in various areas, and I am saddened in a way to see that so much time was “wasted” in protests over issues which are really rather peripheral. In truth, the greatest threats to society are not nuclear arms or even unjust socio-economic structures. No, the greatest threats come from cultural influences that cheapen the human person. For this is truly the root cause of injustice.

It boggles my mind that so much protesting takes place on Wall Street or at a military base or at a Wal-Mart (of all places), but none takes place at the strip club in my neighborhood or at the pornography shop or at the concert of the musician who sings approvingly of the demeaning of women. In Gaudium et spes culture is a social justice issue mentioned second only after the family. I think we would all do well to remember its importance and then pray from the Divine Office – perhaps to St. John the Baptist’s prophetic voice – for the guidance we need to change our culture for the better.

Here’s to a better future through a healthier culture. Long live Christ the King.


And now enjoy this flash mob… just one inventive way to bring culture back to our lives.