The New “Book of Hours”

(photo: Valerie, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Kevin Young’s new book of poetry is entitled Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014) and it is, as usual, excellent work from perhaps the greatest—or least the best-known—poet of his generation. But what exactly is a “Book of Hours”? Or, rather, what was it? And what has it now become?

Originally, a “Book of Hours” was a very small, hand-held liturgical/devotional text from the medieval times, usually illustrated. The “Hours” referred to were the prayers of The Divine Office or “Liturgy Of The Hours”, prayed eight times a day by the religious (abbots, monks, nuns, canons) and clerics (priests, bishops and deacons): Vigils/Matins (middle of the night), Lauds (dawn), Prime (daytime), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (noon), Nones (mid-afternoon), Vespers (evening), and Compline (night prayer). Umberto Eco used these “Hours” to divide his best-selling The Name of the Rose into chapters. And poets from Rainer Maria Rilke (Book of Hours), to W.H. Auden (Horae Canonicae) to James McMichael (The Lover’s Familiar) have used the structure to great effect.

However, these prayers—composed of Psalms, Sacred Scripture readings, and hymns—were generally quite long (hence the term “Hours”), in Latin only, and meant to be sung (or chanted, hence the term “Gregorian Chant”) together, as a community, in choir. The “Book of Hours”, on the other hand, grew out of the back of the Psalter or Breviary (the book containing all of the above prayers), and was based on the “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary”—called “Little” to distinguish it from the “Greater Office” or the Divine Office. And since the 11th century onwards in the West, with the explosion of the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the laity were permitted and then encouraged by Church officials to pray “The Little Office” (assuming they could read Latin), and to this were added various devotions and gorgeous illustrations that developed into the prayer-book for the laity: The Book of Hours, a picturesque combination of both liturgy and devotional prayers.

However, The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) radically (a) shortened the Divine Office (“Prime is hereby suppressed” reads the declaration), (b) renamed it “The Liturgy of the Hours”, and probably most importantly, (c) put it into the vernacular (or at least en face with Latin). Maybe even more important than all of the above: The Council Fathers made it available to ALL of the laity. And assuming one can figure out the Byzantine ordering of the five multicolored ribbons—and 8,000 pages spread over four volumes—we, too, can “pray the prayer of the Church”.

So there is no longer a need for those beautiful miniature works of calligraphic art, Books of Hours. Alas.

Or is there?

App-makers such as SurgeWorks and Universalis have both created apps for iPhone and Android so that those wishing to pray the Liturgy of the Hours may do so on their smartphone. So the handheld Book of Hours is back! And what makes it particularly attractive is the element of privacy: no one on the subway, bus, or elevator knows you are praying: for all they know you are playing Candy Crush. “When you pray, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” to misquote the Gospel.

Further, this new way of praying one of the most ancient prayers of the Church is subversive—especially in countries like China and North Korea where the free practice of Christianity is officially outlawed. And while what remains of the Catholic faithful bleed to death in their own front yard of Iraq at the hands of ISIS, praying with a smartphone is a smart way to keep alive and stay alive.

And then there is the ease of use: “I hate flipping all these ribbons!” a monsignor once told me, complaining that setting up a Book of Hours takes not only five ribbons, but an entirely separate booklet (called an Ordo, for “Order of Prayer”) just to tell you what page you are on. And what feast day it is. And what color the priest should wear. One of the best features of the SurgeWorks version of the Book of Hours is that it tells you the exact page number where the ribbons should be placed if you are using the hard-copy edition—which makes it easy to switch between praying on your smartphone and then the print edition. And since the Breviary comes in a variety of forms (a single-volume, a four-volume, as well as a large-print edition), the page numbers are given for each.

The Universalis edition of the e-Book of Hours has a nice page-flipping feature that reminds one of the unique FlipBoard app.

Ironically the one thing missing from BOTH of these Apps are illustrations of any kind. The  Universalis app does have a sort of background of a muted illuminated manuscript, but they’re still missing the one thing that handheld Books of Hours were famous for: sumptuous illuminations.

In 2007, Benedict XVI, in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificium, re-allowed the use of all the 1962 pre-Vatican II Liturgical Books, including the two-volume, all-Latin Breviarium Romanum (Roman Breviary, the “old” Divine Office). No one has created an app for it yet, but for those longing for the days of the Latin Mass, the Divine Office IS available online at Also, a sumptuous leather edition is available from the German publisher Nova Et Vetera (

Oddly, the company that makes the definitive American editions (large print, multivolume, etc.) of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Catholic Book Publishing Company, has not yet made an app of their best-selling product.

Much is made about the lack of the success of “enhanced e-books”, but no one seems to have gotten it right yet. Customers don’t want to pay extra for “add-ons” that they don’t want in the first place. Further, most of the things proffered, like author interviews, can be found for free on the internet. However, a lavishly-illustrated Book of Hours, replete with medieval marginalia, ornate incipits and Book of Kells styling might make for the perfect “enhanced” e-book. I’m praying that someone makes it soon.