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I am new to the Catholic faith and new to being a Benedictine oblate. And coming from a completely non-Catholic background means there is so much I do not know. My biggest problem is finding Catholic sources that thoroughly explain topics systematically.
Having come from the Calvinist — Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity, I became used to vast amounts of well-organized materials that are remarkably effective in teaching every tiny part as well as the big picture to people who knew nothing about a particular subject.
As I began to look for quality Catholic reference materials I discovered that many modern Catholic materials — at least to me — are more confusing and less complete than materials written before Vatican II. Of course, there are excellent, high quality modern materials. The Catechism and Compendium come easily to mind in that category.
A 1920 book is a great example of a wonderful pre-Vatican II resource that helped me understand the history of the Breviary [pronounced BRE-vuh-re] and the structure of the divine office (the Oblate Spring web site has an example of the divine office). The book is the 1920 "The Divine Office -- A Study of the Roman Breviary," by By Rev. E.J. Quigley.
The well organized and highly effective Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in Chicago, Illinois, USA, have the book in a beautifully formatted online version.
The fine folks over at Project Gutenberg also have the book online in one file so I will use the Project Gutenberg version for text searches. The book is also available at Amazon.
Here is an excerpt from the 1920 "The Divine Office -- A Study of the Roman Breviary":
PART I.End of Quote
THE DIVINE OFFICE CHAPTER I.
IDEA OF THE BREVIARY.
Etymology. — The word, Breviary, comes from an old Latin word, Breviarium, an abridgment, a compendium. The name was given to the Divine Office, because it is an abridgment or abstract made from holy scripture, the writings of the Fathers, the lives of the Saints. The word had various meanings assigned to it by early Christian writers, but the title, Breviary, as it is employed to-day—that is, a book containing the entire canonical office—appears to date from the eleventh century. Probably it was first used in this sense to denote the abridgment made by Pope Saint Gregory VII. (1013-1085), about the year 1080.
Definition. — The Breviary may be defined as "the collection of vocal prayers established by the Church, which must be recited daily by persons deputed for that purpose."
Explanation of the Definition. — "Prayers," this word includes not only the prayers properly so called, but also, the whole matter of the divine office. "Vocal," the Church orders the vocal recitation, the pronunciation of each word. "Established by the Church," to distinguish the official prayers of obligation from those which the faithful may choose according to their taste. "Which must be recited," for the recitation is strictly obligatory. "Daily," the Church has fixed these prayers for every day of the year, and even for certain hours of the day. "By persons deputed for that purpose," therefore, persons in holy orders recite these prayers not in their own name, but as representatives of the universal Church.
Different Names for the Breviary. — This book which is, with us, commonly called the Breviary, has borne and still bears different names, amongst both Latins and Greeks.
Amongst the Latins, the recitation of the Breviary was called the Office (officium), that is, the duty, the function, the office; because it is, par excellence, the duty, function and office of persons consecrated to God. This is the oldest and most universal name for the Breviary and its recitation. It was called, too, the Divine Office (officium divinum), because it has God for its principal object and is recited by persons consecrated to God. It is called the ecclesiastical office (officium ecclesiasticum), because it was instituted by the Church. Other names were, Opus Dei; Agenda; Pensum servitutis; Horae; Horae Canonicae.
Which books were employed in olden times in reciting the Office?
Before the eleventh century the prayers of the Divine Office were not all contained in one book, as they are now in the Breviary, which is an abridgment or compendium of several books. The recitation of the Office required the Psaltery, the Lectionary, the Book of Homilies, the Legendary, the Antiphonarium, the Hymnal, the Book of Collects, the Martyrology, the Rubrics. The Psaltery contained the psalms; the Lectionary (thirteenth century) contained the lessons of the first and second nocturn; the Book of Homilies, the homilies of the Fathers; the Legendary (before the thirteenth century), the lives of the saints read on their feast days. The Hymnal contained hymns; the Book of Collects, prayers, collects and chapters; the Martyrology contained the names with brief lives of the martyrs; the Rubrics, the rules to be followed in the recitation of the Office. To-day, we have traces of this ancient custom in our different choir books, the Psalter, the Gradual, the Antiphonarium. There were not standard editions of these old books, and great diversities of use and text were in existence.
Divisions of the Divine Office. — How is the daily Office divided? The Office is divided into the night Office and the day Office. The night Office is so called because it was originally recited at night. It embraces three nocturns and Lauds. The day Office embraces Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.
Parts or Hours of the Office. — How many parts or hours go to make up the Office? Rome counts seven, and seven only; and this is the number commonly counted by liturgists and theologians. They reckon Matins and Lauds as one hour.
The old writers on liturgy ask the question: "Why has the Church reckoned seven hours only?" Their replies are summarised well by Newman: "In subsequent times the hours of prayer were gradually developed from the three or (with midnight) the four seasons above enumerated to seven, viz.:–by the addition of Prime (the first hour), Vespers (the evening), and Compline (bedtime) according to the words of the Psalm—'Seven times a day do I praise thee, because of thy righteous judgments.' Other pious and instructive reasons existed, or have since been perceived, for this number. It was a memorial of the seven days of creation; it was an honour done to the seven petitions given us by our Lord in His prayer; it was a mode of pleading for the influence of that Spirit, who is revealed to us as sevenfold; on the other hand, it was a preservative against those seven evil spirits which are apt to return to the exorcised soul, more wicked than he who has been driven out of it; and it was a fit remedy of those successive falls which, scripture says, happen to the 'just man' daily." (Tracts for the Times, No. 75. "On the Roman Breviary.")
"Matutina ligat Christum qui crimina purgat, Prima replet sputis. Causam dat Tertia mortis. Sexta cruci nectit. Latus ejus Nona bipertit. Vespera deponit. Tumulo completa reponit. Haec sunt septenis propter quae psallimus horas.""At Matins bound;(Gloss. Cap. I. De Missa)
at Prime reviled;
Condemned to death at Tierce;
Nailed to the Cross at Sext;
at None His blessed Side they pierce.
They take him down at Vesper-tide;
In grave at Compline lay,
Who thenceforth bids His Church observe
The sevenfold hours alway."
Thus, this old author connects the seven hours with the scenes of the Passion. Another author finds in the hours a reminder and a warning that we should devote every stage of our lives to God. For the seven canonical hours, he writes, bear a striking resemblance to the seven ages of man.
Matins, the night office, typifies the pre-natal stage of life. Lauds, the office of dawn, seems to resemble the beginnings of childhood. Prime recalls to him youth. Terce, recited when the sun is high in the heavens shedding brilliant light, symbolises early manhood with its strength and glory. Sext typifies mature age. None, recited when the sun is declining, suggests man in his middle age. Vespers reminds all of decrepit age gliding gently down to the grave. Compline, night prayer said before sleep, should remind us of the great night, death.
Picture is cohdranknmath10.JPG by cohdra and is used subject to license.
 Note: St. Benedict's Rule in Chapter 16 counts the hours differently:
Chapter 16: How the Work of God Is to Be Performed During the Day
"Seven times in the day," says the Prophet, "I have rendered praise to You" (Ps. 118:164).
Now that sacred number of seven will be fulfilled by us if we perform the Offices of our service at the time of the Morning Office, of Prime, of Terce, of Sext, of None, of Vespers and of Compline, since it was of these day Hours that he said, "Seven times in the day I have rendered praise to You" (Ps. 118:164).
For as to the Night Office the same Prophet says, "In the middle of the night I arose to glorify You" (Ps. 118:62). Let us therefore bring our tribute of praise to our Creator "for the judgments of His justice"
at these times: the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext, None,
Vespers and Compline; and in the night let us arise to glorify Him (Ps. 118:164,62).