HOURS, CANONICAL, certain portions of the day set apart by rule (canon) of the church for prayer and devotion. The Jewish custom of praying three times a day, i.e. at the third, sixth and ninth hours, was perpetuated in the early Christian Church (Acts ii. 15, iii. 1, x. 9), and to these were added midnight (when Paul and Silas sang in prison), and the beginning of day and of night. Ambrose, Augustine and Hilary commended the example of the psalmist who gave praise “seven times a day” (Ps. cxix. 164). The seventh (Compline, Completorium) was added by Benedict. These hours were adopted especially in the monasteries as a part of the canonical life, and spread thence to the cathedral and collegiate chapters.
Since the 6th century the number and order of the hours have been fixed thus: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline.
Matins theoretically belongs to midnight, but in Italy it is said about 7 or 8 a.m. and in France often on the preceding evening in accordance with the statement “evening and morning were one day.” At matins is said the Venite (Ps. xcv.) and a hymn, followed by a Nocturna or night-watch (on Sundays three) which consists of twelve psalms. After the nocturna comes a lesson divided into three parts, one biblical and two patristic, and finally the Te Deum.
Lauds is proper to sunrise, but is mostly grouped with matins. It consists of four psalms, a canticle, psalms 148-150, a hymn, the Benedictus (Luke i. 68-79) and prayers.
Prime (6 a.m.), Terce (9 a.m.), Sext (noon) and None (3 p.m.) are called the Little Day Hours, are often said together, and are alike in character, consisting of a hymn and some sections of Ps. cxix., followed by a prayer. On Sundays the Athanasian Creed is said at prime.
Vespers or Evensong consists of five varying psalms, a hymn, the Magnificat (Luke i. 46-55) and prayers. It belongs theoretically to sunset.
Compline, technically 9 p.m., but usually combined with vespers, is a prayer for protection during the darkness. It consists of the general confession, four fixed psalms, a hymn, the Nunc dimittis (Luke ii. 29-32), prayers and a Commemoration of the Virgin.
The term “canonical hours” is also used of the time during which English marriages may be solemnized without special licence, i.e. between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.