Of Breviaries and Apps: Language, Learning and Prayer

My Twitter handle captures two of the most important elements of my life. @educationpriest: learning, and relationship with God. These two never seem, to me, to be in competition but to blend, each informing the other. Thinking theologically about education has given me a way of viewing the business of schools that I, and others, have found helpful. Thinking in educational terms about the church and seeing the structural life of the church from an educational management perspective is also helpful, I am told, to others. However, it is the missional problem of our time that needs most thought and reflection and most occupies my mind. Our failure to evangelise, to communicate the gospel, particularly to the young, and the decline of the church. I have a series of posts planned that will address this problem in four key areas for further investigation:

1 Mindfulness for Mission: there is no God-shaped hole

2 Learning for Mission: it’s all about memory

3 Seriousness for Mission: the easier we make it the less attractive it is

4 Morality for Mission: why people think the church is immoral

This current post is a sort of pre-post, as is another which will be a review of what I suggest is the book everyone in education should read (no, it’s not Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, that has been batted into second position …).

When people come to me to talk about their prayer lives one of the things I try and encourage is stability. Whatever, method, technique or tradition of prayer they are enthusiastic about, don’t just give it weeks or months but years, many years. Stability in prayer is pretty essential. Praying the psalms and reading scripture daily is fundamental to a developed prayer life and the best organised way of doing that is some form of the daily office. There is no such thing as the perfect Office, or the perfect Office book. In fact, a bible, is really quite sufficient, although my bookshelves would suggest otherwise.

When I was 14 my grandmother, who always wanted a priest in the family – and had been giving me statues of Our Lady and other saints for my birthday and Christmas presents for my whole life – gave me the money to buy the three volumes of the Divine Office, the breviary. I have prayed that form of the Office for almost the whole of my life: except for praying a form of the ASB Office when I was at Theological College, and for two years in the late 90’s I prayed the Prayer Book Office with the 1922 lectionary.

Over the last five years or so a lot of my educational reading has been about memory as the fundamental – in fact the only – unit of learning and of repetition as vital for progress. The Christian life of discipleship is also, a process of learning, of imprinting memories deep within us. With their monthly (four weekly) cycles of reading the psalms the Prayer Book and the Breviary are I suggest the best available forms of the Office. Anything longer than a four-week cycle makes the repetition too distant. I also wonder if anything more than a one-year cycle of readings is too long, hence my trial of the one-year 1922 lectionary. Psalmody also requires, in my view, sufficient quantity at one sitting to be able to really sink into its rhythms and let go of the stuff our minds are usually churning with.

Although I am far from being a linguist – I have never learnt any language, other than English, well enough to hold a real conversation in it. I have always been fascinated by language. When I do my daily practice of lectio (which I wrote about here) I often use other languages. Languages help me to pay detailed attention to a text, to read slowly. Depending on the language that can be very slowly. Hebrew and Greek being, of course the first point of call. I would always recommend reading poetry in its original language, Rilke comes alive in German in a way that he never does in ponderous English versions.

This summer I attended an intensive two week Latin course (read about it here). Often during the two weeks I or other students would talk about our ‘brains hurting’. This seems to be a particular feature of language learning, which is interesting in itself.

Despite my preference for stability I’ve been experimenting with the form of the Office for most of this year, mainly in order to practice my Latin, but also as I have thought about learning and, finally, as I have related to a network of women who live as solitaries and commit themselves to praying the psalter in its entirety each week (read more on that here).

So, as an experiment (and one which is now over) I adopted the psalter of the Roman Office prior to Vatican 2, which distributes the psalms over a week. I stuck with the modern calendar, readings and lectionaries but used a variety of books and apps.

The Dominican Breviary (2 volumes) and the Grail Breviary Psalter were my starting points. Both are now out of print but can be found second hand. I love the Grail psalms and, having prayed them for thirty or more years, know them better than any other translation. Both of these books arrange the Grail psalms according to the old breviary with antiphons and Old Testament canticles. They were published in the 1960’s during the transition to English. The Dominican Breviary came after the suppression of Prime and those psalms are in an appendix. The burden of praying this many psalms didn’t feel particularly difficult. The weekly repetition very quickly becomes familiar, knowing which day psalms occur on. The least satisfying part was Compline, I prefer to pray this by heart and having different psalms every night made this impossible.

Next I moved to Latin or Latin-English books. Here choices had to be made. The Office was traditionally prayed using the psalter of the Vulgate Bible, but in 1945 Pope Pius XII published a revised psalter, know as the Pian psalter. It never really gained popularity, monastic communities continued to use the Vulgate and no musical editions were published using it. Traditionalist Roman Catholic priests use the Vulgate. However, I own a set of three volume Latin-English breviaries, (The Divine Office, St John’s Press, Collegeville, 1963) which I found very helpful, I also have a pocket version of the Breviary Psalter which I could use alongside Universalis (see below) for modern readings etc in Latin. Even with my little Latin the Pian psalter is much more Italianate and smoother than the Vulgate. But it is good to pray with the Vulgate knowing that St Augustine prayed these same texts (although see the Wiki article on Latin psalters for caution, Augustine actually quotes from a particular, African version).

Happily, there are also app versions of the Latin Office. Here are my thoughts, and current conclusions on praying from these different versions:

Breviarium Romanum, 2 volumes, 1962 version

Available new here in a handsome printing this presents the Office, with Vulgate psalms, according to the rubrics just published in 1962. This means the Scriptural and Patristic texts are extremely limited. Using this version without another lectionary would mean a rather poor diet in the long-term.

The Divine Office in Latin and English, Collegeville, 1963

I really like this edition and ‘as new’ second hand copies are available. The rubrics are all in English which makes it easy to use. There are commentaries and headings on the psalms (based on texts by Pius Parsch) which are very helpful. The psalm text is, however, the Pian psalter.

Breviarium Meum (app)

A fabulous app, this gives many options for calendars and the choice of either the Pian or Vulgate psalms. The parallel translation into English is based on the Vulgate which makes that much easier to use.

Liturgia Horarum (current Roman Office) 4 volumes, 1982

The current standard form of the Office, an earlier version had only a one-year cycle of Magnificat and Benedictus texts, this edition has a three year cycle for Sundays.

Universalis (app)

Again, a superb app. The parallel Latin-English translations are helpful, especially the recent addition of literal translations and notes on the Latin hymns. The other translations are the current authorised English version which means they are not much use for learning Latin, the intercessions and collects are particularly far from being literal

Lauds and Vespers, tr Peter Stravinska, Press, Scepter Publishers, 2002 (now only available second-hand)

Is the book needed for literal translations of the Latin, although Thee-Thou forms are used, and because the hymns are metric translations (many by Cardinal Newman), they are very good, but not literal. The texts are partial with not much sanctoral material and no commons provided – it is a ‘per annum’ volume. However, when I get stuck with the Latin this is a very useful book indeed.

In terms of learning Latin, Latin only versions do seem to make me work harder, it is very easy when the English is provided to look at that and, therefore, not do the necessary grammar work needed to translate for myself.


It has been a joy to compare notes with other Anglican clergy who pray the Office in Latin in some of these different forms. There is quite a group of us. I am encouraged by this. The Catholic movement of the nineteenth century was founded on much scholarship and many of the Anglo-Catholic priests of the early years and the slum parishes prayed the Office in Latin, or supplemented the Prayer Book Office with Latin at the Little Hours. This is an important part of our Anglican heritage and a connection with our predecessors in the Catholic movement as we seek renewal for Catholic parishes and communities.

As regular readers of this blog know I love to sing the Office. This is probably the main reason I have returned to Liturgia Horarum and in the next post will write about the music I am using to do that. My little project to get my Latin to a good standard will take at least two more years (Intermediate and Advanced Summer Schools at Ealing Abbey and God – and others – willing, in 2019 and 2020). But I am settled on Liturgia Horarum. Although I am slightly modifying it by using the Mid-day psalms as a second nocturn at Vigils, and using the old pre-1910 distribution of Psalm 119 over a day at the Little hours. This gives daily repetition of a psalm that has a very good, usually straightforward in the neo-Vulgate version, vocabulary for practising my grammar. As the Hours that I occasionally have to miss because of work or other things (I don’t do catch up as long as I have prayed one day-time Hour) it also means it is only the next day before I pray that psalm.



      1. Oh absolutely. I don’t think the design and layout have changed in the 12 or so years since I first stumbled across it, but I love the options for the different historical versions of the office, the fact that its free and easily portable – waking up early Sunday morning on holiday and saying full monastic matins (partly in Latin, partly in English) while watching the sun rise (and then going back to sleep) would not have been possible without! But I will have a look at the other options you mention.


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