A Brief History of the Divine Office at Saint Meinrad Archabbey

Br. Stanley Rother Wagner, OSB

 

The Benedictine monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey have been faithful to the celebration of the Divine Office since the foundation of the monastery on March 21, 1854. Saint Benedict made clear that the liturgical celebration of the Office was to be the center of each monk’s day, anchoring each monk firmly in the scriptures, thus allowing for a privileged encounter with Christ. For Benedict, the Divine Office is where each monk should encounter Christ, both individually as well as in Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church.

Our founding abbot, Abbot Martin Marty, attempted to abandon the Breviarium Monasticum in the mid-1870s, replacing the monastic office with the Roman Breviary. Marty believed it would be better for the monks to pray from the Roman Breviary as they were operating a seminary to train diocesan priests. This unilateral decision roused the ire of several European abbots, and the enterprise was discontinued.

For almost a millennium, the ordained monks and the non-ordained monks rarely prayed together. When they did pray together, it was almost always for a solemn liturgical feast. The monks of Einsiedeln and the subsequent wave of brothers from Germany brought with them a stratified class system that became ingrained in Benedictine monasteries through historical accidents. There were four sub-communities within the entire monastic community: the fathers (priests); the fraters (monks studying to be priests); the lay brothers (those who labored primarily and prayed the Office in English); and the German brothers (also laborers but who prayed the Office in German). 

The next remarkable innovation in Saint Meinrad’s adaptation of the Divine Office came under the abbatial leadership of Abbot Ignatius Esser. Esser spearheaded the introduction of a modified English Office for the lay brothers’ use in the 1930s that led to the publication of the same version for the laity’s use in 1953 under the title Divine Praise. The brothers’ initiative to adopt a modified form of the Divine Office in English anticipated the liturgical renewal on the horizon, a renewal in which the clerics later also took an active part.  

The standard cycle of prayer – or horarium – for most of the community around the 1950s was as follows:

  • 4:00am – Vigils & Lauds
  • 5:00am – Private Masses
  • 6:00am – Prime
  • 7:00am – Terce
  • 7:10am – Conventual Mass
  • 12:00pm – Sext & None
  • 5:00pm – Vespers
  • 7:00pm – Compline

Beginning in 1963, in the midst of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Archabbot Bonaventure Knaebel instituted the “Experimental English Office,” an experimental Office in which certain members of the different “classes” of monks would begin to pray as one community in English, not Latin. Saint Meinrad’s liturgical renewal was to be the means by which the fathers, fraters, and brothers would begin to pray as one community of monks.

The first official Office prayed in English was First Vespers of the Ascension on May 3, 1967.

Fathers Simeon Daly and Columba Kelly were the two monks who initiated the liturgical renewal on the Hill. The “Experimental English Office” combined Columba Kelly’s musical compositions with Simeon Daly’s attention to rubrical formality, resulting in an organic form of liturgical prayer.

In the twenty-first century, Saint Meinrad Archabbey continues to be a haven of liturgy that is imbued with the noble simplicity and unity of expression that characterizes Benedictine liturgical prayer while remaining responsive to the needs of the Church and the world.