BOOK OF CANONICAL HOURS
The first Christians followed the Jewish tradition of praying at fixed times of the day. The prayers for the third, sixth, and ninth hours may have been adopted first in Egypt, where the Jews who converted to Christianity followed the Jewish custom. In the third century, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215) was the first to mention set times for prayers at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, as well as on rising, before retiring, and during the night. In the fourth century, Athanasius of Alexandria confirmed the existence of cathedral vigils that were comprised readings, responsorial psalmody, and prayers and attended by monks as well as laity.
John Cassian, who lived in the monastic centers of Egypt, mentioned that in Egypt there were daily morning and evening prayers (Vespers and Matins). He gave a detailed description of the two daily offices practiced in Scetis by the end of the fourth century. At both offices, 12 psalms were recited followed by two readings, one from the Old Testament and the other from the New Testament. The Gloria Patri was used to conclude the office.
John Cassian wrote: There are some, too, to whom it has seemed good that in the day offices of prayer viz., Tierce, Sext, and Nones, the number of Psalms and prayers should be made to correspond exactly to the number of the hours at which the services are offered up to the Lord. Some have thought fit that six Psalms should be assigned to each service of the day. And so I think it best to set forth the most ancient system of the fathers which is still observed by the servants of God throughout the whole of Egypt, so that your new monastery in its untrained infancy in Christ may be instructed in the most ancient institutions of the earliest fathers.
Palladius wrote in his Historia Lausiaca, “there were four prayers in the Monasteries of Upper Egypt.”
St. Shenute the Archimandrite (fifth century), in his Monastic Precepts, speaks of “those who are the first at church in the morning, in the evening at mid-day and at the requisite hour.”
It is mentioned that St. John Kame “established for [the brethren] canons and holy laws, and set up for them a meeting place where they should meet together in the middle of the night and should sing psalmody and spiritual songs until the light break. And he bade them moreover one and all that they should pray each one apart.”
Yuhanna ibn Abi Zakariyya ibn Sabba‘, in his book the Precious Pearl of the Ecclesiastical Science, mentioned in chapter 35, the time of prayer for the man is seven times per day and night. Ibn Sabba‘ gave the reason for each prayer, such as the Pentecost for the Third Hour. He did not mention the Prayer of the Veil.
Ibn Kabar, in his encyclopedia The Lamp of Darkness for the Explanation of the Service, started by mentioning the prayer of the sunset and the prayer of dawn. For him, the prayer of the matins is established for the following reasons: “On the one hand, it is the time that Adam and Eve dressed by the skin and started to work, on the other hand, this is the time of Resurrection.”
For the third hour, Ibn Kabar also gave two reasons: “On the one hand it is the time of the creation of our father Adam and his entrance to the Paradise, and on the other hand it is also the time when Pilate condemned our Lord.” (He did not mention the Pentecost as Ibn Sabba‘ had). Ibn Kabar used to make the comparison between Jesus Christ (the new Adam) and Adam the first creation, which is not mentioned in other books.
It is hard to follow the development of each part of the Horologion. Some examples are given here.
The Troparion/Doxology of the Prime: Most of the manuscripts used to insert the Doxology Adam “O true light” after the Gospel of the Matins. A manuscript from the ninth century, preserved in the Monastery of St Catherine’s library, contains this doxology. It was established according to the Palestinian tradition of St. Sabas and introduced to the Coptic Church through the Monastery of St. Antony (was in the hands of the Melchite in the ninth century).
The monks of this monastery continued their tradition of praying this hymn. By the beginning of the 12th century, an editor of the Agpia (the Prayer Book of the Seven Canonical Hours), wishing to follow the pattern of the other prayers, made from some parts of the Doxology Adam a kind of troparion (a short hymn of one stanza or series of stanzas).
The Troparion of the Sext: According to Anton Baumstark, the fact that the troparia appear in both the Byzantine rite and in the Coptic rite indicate that they should be dated no later than the fifth or sixth century. But a special attention shows that the Coptic text uses Morphy instead of the actual Greek word icon. It can be assumed that during the iconoclastic controversy, some iconodules intentionally made this change. This troparion is used as the Apolyptikion Hymn on the first Sunday of Lent at the Feast of the Orthodoxy (iconodulic feast), which commemorates the triumph of the right faith over iconoclasm.
It is noteworthy to mention that the troparion of the Sext and the None are a prayer to Jesus. The Prayer to Jesus was a subject of a great debate during the Council of Nicaea. But in the fifth century, it became more accepted; St. Shenute of Atrib used to say, “That those who refuse to direct his prayers to the Son, let his mouth be shut and he is not allowed to pray to the Father.” This prayer confirms the dating proposed by Baumstark, that is, the troparia of the Sext and None are from the fifth and sixth centuries.
The troparion and the Theotokion of the Midnight Office of the Third Nocturne is not found in the actual Horologion. It occurs in a manuscript from the Monastery of St. Pshoi at Wadi al-Natrun preserved in the State University Library of Hamburg:
At all times, guiding them unto Thee. Likewise, also, those yearn for Thee, guard them, O Compassionate One, in order that we may continually sing to Thee and glorify Thee. “Now and always etc.” All generation call thee blessed, O Virgin God-bearer, for the inseparable Jesus Christ was pleased to be in thee. Blessed are we, for thou art a protectress for us day and night, interceding for us, and the arms of our kings are set up through thy prayers. Wherefore, we sing to thee, crying out saying: Hail, thou who art full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
The Prayer of the Veil is a doubling of Complines. It appears first in Ibn Kabar around 1320. The text is in Arabic (a sure sign of its late origin) and is composed of elements from the other hours. It is used only in monasteries.
Manuscripts show that there is more than one version of the Horologion; the main categories are given here without further detail:
- The recitation of the complete Psalter (Book of Psalms); mainly the hermits observe this practice.
- Some of the Coptic manuscripts follow the Byzantine type, which distribute the whole Psalter over the week. This tradition can be found in the Psalter’s edition of Claudios Labib (and reprint by Shaker Basilios).
- The “Cairene use” mentioned in a manuscript (now in Hamburg) from the Monastery of St. Pshoi at Wadi al-Natrun, which goes back to the 13th or 14th century: “according to the custom of the inhabitants of Babylon.” We can therefore expect that this type is the one described by Ibn Kabar.
- The Palestinian Ordo contains a different distribution of the Psalms.
The Catholic editions include that of Raphael Tukhi, who published for the first time the Horologion in 1750, 388 pages in two-column Coptic and Arabic, and another Coptic-Arabic edition that appeared in Cairo in 1930 and was called the “Book of Hours.” The Orthodox editions include a first edition that appeared in Cairo in 1892 and was entitled “The Book of the Seven Prayers.” It was again published in 1900, 1906, and 1907.
In 1975, the Karuz Bookshop prepared a bilingual edition (Coptic and Arabic) that included for the first time several absolutions and troparia by a retroversion from the Arabic text with the help of Ayoub Farag. The English Orthodox editions are published by the Copts in the Diaspora in America, Australia, and Canada.