“O Lord, open thou our lips” (some devotional history)

This versicle in a 15th-c French Book of Hours

This versicle in a 15th-c French Book of Hours

Whether you use a traditional BCP or the BAS or Common Worship or (at least at Morning Prayer) Celebrating Common Prayer the Opening Sentences for Morning and Evening Prayer are from Psalm 51:15:

O Lord, open thou our lips.

And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

In many versions of the Office, these versicles are the first thing you pray; in the BCP, they come after the Confession. A quick ecumenical glance Rome-ward sees these as the Opening Sentences for Vigils in Benedictine Daily Prayer as well as of Morning Prayer over at iBreviary.

That so many Anglican versions of the daily office open with these little verses could simply be attributed to our common relationship with the BCP. But to share them with the Roman Catholic Church points to something wider within the western tradition of the Liturgy of the Hours. Indeed, as Blunt says in The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, these — and the versicles that follow — have been in the daily office ‘time immemorial’.

In this case, ‘time immemorial’ seems to have been the fourth century, judging from the evidence discussed in R. Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West. First, let’s keep in mind the fact that the daily office did not originate with the monks and that there was the ‘cathedral office’ alongside and interacting with the monastic traditions. In the eastern church, since at least the time of St Basil the Great (330-379), Matins in the cathedral office began with the whole of this Psalm, the great penitential psalm of King David.

This was also the case in the monastery in Bethlehem where John Cassian (ca. 360 – ca. 435) lived. Cassian is an important figure in the history of monasticism, and we’ll see him more when we turn our minds to “O God, make speed to save us”, although we’ve already met him in one of my brother’s posts in this blog. After time in a monastery in Bethlehem, and then ten years amongst the ‘Desert Fathers‘ of Egypt, Cassian went to Constantinople, then Rome, and finally settled in Marseille where he founded a monastery. There he wrote about his experiences in Egypt and the lives and teachings of the Egyptian monks, adapting them for life in southern France. He is one of the influences upon St Benedict (480-543/7) who recommended Cassian’s Conferences for his monks to read.

In The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, Blunt, in fact, believes that this versicle made its way into Benedict’s Rule specifically because of its use at the start of Matins in the East. This is not impossible, given the influence of eastern asceticism upon the West in the early centuries of the monastic movement.

In Chapter 9, speaking of the ‘Night Office’ (nocturnis horis) St Benedict says:

In winter the office should begin with the verse, ‘Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will show forth your praise’ repeated three times. There should then follow Psalm 3 and the Gloria, then Psalm 95, which should be chanted, preferably with an antiphon. (Trans. Carolinne White, p. 32)

Benedict gives detailed instructions for the divine office in chapters 8-19, closing that section of the Rule with chapter 20:

If we wish to ask a favour of a powerful person, we would not dare to do so except with humility and respect. Is it not all the more important for us to pray to the Lord, the God of all, with the utmost humility and purity of devotion? We must be aware that he will only listen to us if we pray not so much at length but with purity of heart and tears of compunction. And so our prayer should be kept short and simple, unless divine grace inspires us to prolong our prayer. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short, and when a superior gives the signal everybody should stand at the same time. (Trans. Carolinne white, p. 45)

Now, the story of the next 900 years of liturgical history — that is, the Middle Ages — is not of ‘short and simple’ prayer, whether in the cathedral office or the monastic office. The two of them were not hermetically-sealed, of course. Just as the monastic and cathedral offices of matins in the East both began with Psalm 51, which may have influenced Benedict in the West, so in the West, the monks and the secular clergy with the laity were not separated. And, while we have a variety of other ancient monastic rules in the West (St Augustine’s, St Columbanus’, the Rule of the Master, etc.), the Rule of St Benedict became pre-eminent, due to its prominence amongst the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Francia, and thus its sponsorship by the great Carolingian monarchs from Charlemagne (r. 768-814) onwards.

Charlemagne was big fan of regularising things. In the version of his life by Notker the Stammerer, much attention is given to Charlemagne’s desire to have the liturgy sung and chanted properly. He promoted Roman canon law throughout his domains, along with corrected Latin Bibles and the Rule of St Benedict.

Anyway, the Benedictine Rule and the office it promotes interacted with the Cathedral worship. Thus, we get the Roman Breviary — that is, the short version of the office as practised in western Europe, in Latin Christianity — including this element in it for night prayers as in the Benedictine use. In Britain, the Roman Rite was celebrated according to the ‘Use’ of Salisbury — this is called the ‘Sarum Use’ or ‘Sarum Rite’, although the term ‘rite’ is dependent on how you define a rite. This evolved from the 12th to 15th century, and, like the Roman Rite on the Continent, it grew and became complicated because of the many saints days and the like. Even using one of today’s revised breviaries can be a difficult task! You can see this versicle’s appearance here in the modern edition of the 1505 Hereford Breviary (which takes 3 vols), ‘Ad Matutinas de Adventu’.

Although to many of us, it would make sense for Matutinae or Matins to refer to Morning Prayer, it was actually a night office in the Middle Ages. Hence this versicle’s inclusion in Vigils in Benedictine Daily Prayer above as well as at Matins in the Hereford Breviary, since that is how Benedict recommended starting night-time prayers.

It was clear from the 1400s that the Breviary needed to be revised because of how complicated it was. The first to put his hand to the task was Quiñones in the early 1500s, who reduced the Breviary from several volumes to one, available here. This presaged what would happen during the Reformation and ‘Counter-Reformation’ of the sixteenth century.

Alongside the monks and cathedrals were, of course, the ordinary people and the friars. The friars, that is, Franciscans and Dominicans, were already using the Roman office (thus, not that of the Benedictine monks) in simplified form. The laity were mostly illiterate, but wealthy, literate people could afford their own books of prayers for the office, called Books of Hours.

Books of Hours are among the most beautiful books from the Middle Ages. Two out of the 12 chapters of Christopher de Hamel’s excellent 2016 book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts are books of hours. Different sets for different days of the week were ordered around different events or had a different focus. Here we see this versicle in one such manuscript, the extraordinarily lavish and beautiful Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry:

Folio 75r from the Tres riches heures du Duc de Berry, 1485/6

Folio 75r from the Tres riches heures du Duc de Berry, 1485/6

Whenever I examine a Book of Hours, I enjoy seeing these words appearing on the page at the start of certain offices.

And so Cranmer comes in the 1540s and 50s. In 1549, he published the first edition of The Book of Common Prayer in English, although we do have some of his earlier liturgical experiments in Latin. This Prayer Book seeks to stand within the great tradition of the Church’s liturgies down to the 1500s, designed for parish, cathedral, and private use. Paring it down, cutting out aspects ill-suited to a Reformational church, and translating it into English, Cranmer reduced the traditional seven hours (inspired by ‘Seven hours in the day will I praise you’ [Ps. 119:164]) to two, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, to be said in each church and by every English clergyman every day.

And he starts both Morning and Evening Prayer with this versicle — but, in 1549, in the singular, as we see it in the Psalm and as it exists in all the Roman Rite’s liturgical books. In 1552, however, it is modified into the plural, recognising the communal nature of the Daily Office.

So, tonight or tomorrow morning, when you open up your book of prayers or tap the app on your phone and pray, ‘O Lord, open thou our lips / And our mouth shall show forth thy praise’, know that you do not pray it alone. Not only people across the world, but fellow believers stretching back through history, from ordinary folks to bishops to monks to wealthy noblemen, back to St Benedict 1450 years ago, have started their prayers this way.

It is a warm and comforting thought.

~ Matthew ~


3 thoughts on ““O Lord, open thou our lips” (some devotional history)

  1. Fariba says:

    Catching up on older posts 🙂 I tried praying morning and evening prayer last Advent and I enjoyed it. But then I stopped for some reason. It is great to pray with others around the world and throughout history. Passages from the Psalms come to mind throughout the day. It really brings the Scripture to life. I need to start again.


    • MJH says:

      It’s remarkable how easily one can slip out of the habit. I, too, find having an intentional knowledge of a dispersed community of fellow pray-ers helps me maintain the discipline. Perhaps Holy Week is the time to get back into the rhythm of the Liturgy of the Hours? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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