Rorate Caeli

Iam lucis orto sidere: Prime, The Immortal Hour

The following quasi-elegiac prose in honor of the Divine Office hour of PRIME, the hour that was killed but refused to die, is so beautiful that we had to republish it here in its entirety:

“Let the hour of Prime be suppressed”. So decreed the bishops gathered in Rome in the winter of 1963, at the dead time of the year. Of the 2,147 prelates who voted to suppress, not some local abuse or the apocryphal Acta of an obscure saint, but one of the 8 hours of the divine office, did any, I wonder, feel some slight misgivings?

Like our Lord Jesus Christ, Prime was born in Bethlehem. Perhaps that is why the devil pursues it with a special hatred. St John Cassian tells us that it was the elders of his first monastery who instituted it, to prevent sleepy monks who had got through the long night-office from staying in bed until Terce. “This canonical office was first instituted in our monastery and in our time”, he writes. The learned think that this would have happened around the year of our Lord 380. The Church was still emerging from the long Arian nightmare, and already Prime was sung. It survived the fall of the empire in the West. St Benedict takes its existence for granted when he comes to distribute the psalter for the opus Dei. In the Roman basilicas it marked each day the beginning of the recitation of Psalm 118, the loving praise of the law of God; which, is, St Thomas tells us, a praise by appropriation of the eternal Son.

Matins is the hour of the dead of night. Those who sing the divine office of Matins stand like sentinels on the walls of the Church, repelling the diabolical incursions. Lauds is the hour of vanquished darkness and the return of dawn; it is the hour of victory and relief. Yet the thin shadows are still seen in Lauds, though fleeing; nor has man yet forgotten the passivity and endurance of the night, nor resumed his proper place as master of the world.

Prime is the first hour of true day. The sun now holds the heavens, undisputed. He has made all things new. Man also is himself again, ready to choose and act, not only to endure. It is that first hour, so a mediaeval writer tells us, when the Householder first goes out to call who will to labour for the Penny, the one thing needful, the image of the King.

For well over a thousand years, no one knows how long, the Church has sung the Athanasian Creed at Prime. Perhaps that it is another reason why the devil hates it. This creed is said now only once a year, on the Sunday of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, and then only by a few. One tiny foothold in the sacred liturgy, like Pelayo in his cave when all Spain was lost, waiting for the Reconquista to begin…

If you have ever, good Christian reader, as I have, heard the bells ring for Prime, and walked to church some bright Septembral morning, seen the sheep grazing and the distant ocean tranquil, then maybe you too will have perceived that there are, as in nature so in grace, things unchangeable; you also may have glimpsed something of the iota unum, and the non praevalebunt. Or maybe you will do and understand these things some centuries hence. For Prime is the hour that would not die.

"Thomas Cordatus" for the ExLaodicea blog