An Introduction to the Four Volume Breviary

After mastering the one volume Christian Prayeryou may be inclined to go the next step and purchase your own four volume breviary. Once again, praying with these leather-bound books can be daunting for someone who does not have any guidance and so that is why I hope to give you a firm foundation that will make it an easy transition.

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Before I begin, a few items to note:First of all, the USCCB is in the process of translating the Liturgy of the Hours to correspond to the newly translated Roman Missal. It will not be implemented until 2020 at the earliestThis may or may not affect your choice to invest in a new set of breviaries before then.

Secondly, there are two different editions of the four volume set. There is the vinyl cover version in different colors as well as the black leather edition with gold-edged pages.

Third, it is highly recommended to purchase a breviary cover.

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This helps preserve the breviary and keeps it in good shape (besides losing one of my volumes, I have had the same set for over 10 years). An additional bonus to having a breviary cover is the ability to stuff it full of holy cards and supplements to the liturgy of the hours (supplements have texts for new saints).

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This allows you to personalize your breviary and make it into a traveling devotional that is a summary of your spirituality. You can tell a lot about a person by what kind of holy cards they keep in their breviary.

Another reason why you will need holy cards, is to mark certain pages beyond the five ribbons you are given (more on that later). As a note, the best and most durable breviary covers are in Rome. The next time you find yourself in the Eternal City, be sure to stop by the nearest store to the Vatican’s colonnade. As an alternative, you can also check out www.missalcovers.com to order a beautiful customized cover.

Now let us begin. Before we can set the ribbons, we must figure out which volume we are currently in. There are four volumes and they are split up as such:

Volume I contains, “Advent Season, Christmas Season.

Volume II contains, “Lenten Season, Easter Season.

Volume III contains, “Ordinary Time, Weeks 1-17.”

Volume IV contains, “Ordinary Time, Weeks 18-34.”

In order to find out which season and/or which week we are currently in, go to USCCB.org and click on their calendar. Alternatively, you can order your own wall liturgical calendar that says what day/season it is.

We are currently in the Lenten season, so we will take a look at Volume II.

To begin setting the ribbons, open to page 348 in the section called the “Proper of Seasons.” This section of the breviary has all the prayers according to the “seasons” of the Church.

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Besides having special antiphons and prayers for the hours prayed on Sundays throughout the year, it contains the all-important “Office of Readings.” This in itself is worth the price of the books. There are two readings: the first is a reading from Scripture and the second is a reading from the treasury of the Church. This could be from the writings of the Church Fathers, or from any of the Councils of the Church, like the Second Vatican Council. The readings are all based on a particular theme for each day and are full of wisdom. If you don’t have time to pray the full Office of Readings, I suggest at least reading the selected passages from time-to-time.

You will also see that it says, “Fifth Week of Lent” and “Monday, Office of Readings” at the top of the page. Again, this is an important part of the breviary as when you reach the next Sunday, it says which “Psalter” you are currently in:

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You will see that it reads “Psalter, Week I” below “Fifth Sunday of Lent.” This indicates where to put your second ribbon.

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This second ribbon is located in the middle of the breviary and for our purposes is located on page 1102. You will see that it reads, “Monday, Week I” and is where we want to be. If you ever get confused on which “Psalter” you are supposed to be in, go back to the “Proper of Seasons” and the correct Sunday will tell you.

The third ribbon should be located at the current day for “Night Prayer.” Which is much easier to understand, as it only has a single cycle that is repeated each week. For today, it is located on page 1632.

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The fourth ribbon can be placed in the “Proper of Saints,” which contains the special prayers, antiphons and the second reading for the Office of Readings for specific saint days. All you need to know is the calendar date to know where to put the ribbon. Currently there are no saints celebrated until St. Patrick’s Day.

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The beauty of the Proper of Saints lies in the selections for the Office of Readings. Typically it is taken from a writing of the saint or a writing about the saint.

The fifth ribbon can be placed in the back of the breviary called the “Commons.”

IMG_0091This is a section that is used on certain feast days of saints and has special antiphons, Psalms, etc. that correspond to the “type” of saint they are. For example, there is a “Common of Apostles,” “Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and “Common of Martyrs.” This section is optional for saints of a lower rank (memorials), but is often required when on feasts and solemnities. If you ever wonder where to turn, the specific day in the Proper of Saints will give instructions on where to turn. For example, on the solemnity of Saint Joseph, it says to go to the “Common of Holy Men” on page 2128.

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Now we are out of ribbons and there is another section that we should mark. Turn back to the where the “Ordinary” and “Invitatory” are located on page 1043.

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The “Ordinary” is the basic “instruction manual” for the Liturgy of the Hours and acts as a reference point if you ever get stuck.

Again, here we see how the common phrase “Say the Black, Do the Red” comes in handy. All the words printed in the color red are your instructions and all the words printed in black are the prayers you actually pray. There are plenty of instructions and options, so read it all very carefully. I again recommend reading through the entire “Ordinary” whenever you get lost.

The “Ordinary” also has prayers that are repeated each day such as the “Magnificat” and “Benedictus.” You pray these at Evening and Morning Prayer and are typically memorized in the monastery. Until you have them memorized, you can always turn to the “Ordinary” to find them.

After you have read the “Ordinary,” you can leave your holy card where it says “Invitatory.” This is composed of an antiphon and Psalm 95 and is typically prayed before Morning Prayer (or the Office of Readings). If you are praying the Invitatory on your own, you will say the correct antiphon once, pray Psalm 95 and then recite the same antiphon at the end. When with others, you will recite the antiphon after every stanza.

Once you have all of the ribbons in place, you can start praying every day and go through it one page at a time. If you ever get lost or confused, go to the “Ordinary” and it will tell you what to do.

If you don’t know where to set your ribbons, you can alternatively go to divineoffice.org and they have the page numbers provided for you.

At first it can be quite confusing, but after several weeks of praying it goes much smoother. After several years of praying, it is like riding a bike. If you have any trouble, I am more than happy to help.

Praying in this manner, while more difficult than opening up an app, is very beneficial. In an age where everything is available at the touch of our finger, it is healthy to learn the “art” of praying the divine office.




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  • Jack

    In my experience, it doesn’t matter how many ribbons are bound into an Office Book; the Melkite English Horologion has seven.

    You still need several holy cards, a few old envelopes, and a well placed finger or two.

  • Faithful

    There are different translations of the new breviary which unfortunately had many strange things introduced with a changed structure. One obvious example is the replacement of ancient Gregorian hymns (which could have been left in translation) with protestant hymns and tunes (if sung). There is a US translation and UK English translation of the new Divine Office. There is also a 1962 Latin- English version following the age old tradition of the Church. There is an interesting website that compares all the versions through out the centuries http://divinumofficium.com/cgi-bin/horas/officium. .

  • Ross Twele

    Volume II has a unique reason for wanting a seventh ribbon: the hymns that open the various hours are printed in distinct collections for Lent and Easter (more in keeping with the season than the default hymns in the Ordinary), each placed at the beginning of the Lent or Easter section of the Proper of Seasons.

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  • Aloysius Gonzaga

    What is the best English translation available? Is there a version used by those in the British Isles that is different from the rather casual-sounding version used in North America?

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  • Jim Warner

    Phillip, I’ve been wondering this for a while now: What is the difference between the four volume Liturgy of the Hours and the single volume? If the single volume has all the prayers you need to pray the hours of the entire liturgical year, then what else is in the four volume set, and why does it quadruple the volume of text?

    • Philip Kosloski

      The biggest difference between the one-volume and the four-volume is the “Office of Readings.” The one-volume does not have the daily readings from the lives of the saints or Church documents. The Office of Readings is the first hour of the day, but the one-volume omits that hour entirely since most lay people don’t have enough time to pray it and are more concerned about Morning and Evening Prayer.

      The Office of Readings have some fairly substantial readings each day, so when you see them you understand how it can turn a one-volume into a four-volume.

      So in reality, the one-volume is an “incomplete” version of the Liturgy of the Hours. It doesn’t have everything. It just has the “basics” for lay people to incorporate “some” of the Divine Office into your schedule.

      • Jim Warner

        That makes sense, thank you! This makes me all the more interested in learning about the reform of the Roman Breviary after the council. Considering that the Office of Readings developed out of Matins… was Matins in the Extraordinary Form still such a large canonical hour? Hmm – things to look into.