“Let the hour of Prime be suppressed”. So decreed the bishops gathered in Rome in the winter of 1963, at the dead time of the year. Of the 2,147 prelates who voted to suppress, not some local abuse or the apocryphal Acta of an obscure saint, but one of the 8 hours of the divine office, did any, I wonder, feel some slight misgivings?

Like our Lord Jesus Christ, Prime was born in Bethlehem. Perhaps that is why the devil pursues it with a special hatred. St John Cassian tells us that it was the elders of his first monastery who instituted it, to prevent sleepy monks who had got through the long night-office from staying in bed until Terce. “This canonical office was first instituted in our monastery and in our time”, he writes. The learned think that this would have happened around the year of our Lord 380. The Church was still emerging from the long Arian nightmare, and already Prime was sung. It survived the fall of the empire in the West. St Benedict takes its existence for granted when he comes to distribute the psalter for the opus Dei. In the Roman basilicas it marked each day the beginning of the recitation of Psalm 118, the loving praise of the law of God; which, is, St Thomas tells us, a praise by appropriation of the eternal Son.

Matins is the hour of the dead of night. Those who sing the divine office of Matins stand like sentinels on the walls of the Church, repelling the diabolical incursions. Lauds is the hour of vanquished darkness and the return of dawn; it is the hour of victory and relief. Yet the thin shadows are still seen in Lauds, though fleeing; nor has man yet forgotten the passivity and endurance of the night, nor resumed his proper place as master of the world.

Prime is the first hour of true day. The sun now holds the heavens, undisputed. He has made all things new. Man also is himself again, ready to choose and act, not only to endure. It is that first hour, so a mediaeval writer tells us, when the Householder first goes out to call who will to labour for the Penny, the one thing needful, the image of the King.

For well over a thousand years, no one knows how long, the Church has sung the Athanasian Creed at Prime. Perhaps that it is another reason why the devil hates it. This creed is said now only once a year, on the Sunday of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, and then only by a few. One tiny foothold in the sacred liturgy, like Pelayo in his cave when all Spain was lost, waiting for the Reconquista to begin…

If you have ever, good Christian reader, as I have, heard the bells ring for Prime, and walked to church some bright Septembral morning, seen the sheep grazing and the distant ocean tranquil, then maybe you too will have perceived that there are, as in nature so in grace, things unchangeable; you also may have glimpsed something of the iota unum, and the non praevalebunt. Or maybe you will do and understand these things some centuries hence. For Prime is the hour that would not die.

 

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From the last chapter of his Rule:

He that hasteneth on to the perfection of the religious life, hath at hand the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which leadeth a man to the height of perfection. For what page or what utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and the New Testament is not a most exact rule of human life?

 

The prophet Zechariah once had a vision of four successive chariots, each pulled by a pair of horses, emerging between two brazen mountains. The first pair of horses were red, the second black, the third white and the fourth were grey and strong. What does it all mean, he asked the angel?

The angel told him:

These are the four winds of the heaven, which go forth to stand before the Lord of all the earth. That in which were the black horses went forth into the land of the north, and the white went forth after them: and the grisled went forth to the land of the south. And they that were most strong, went out, and sought to go, and to run to and fro through all the earth.

Adapting an exposition of Pope Gregory IX, we can see this as a reference to the four great religious rules in the Church. The earliest is that of St Basil. He is symbolized by the red or chestnut horses, since this is the closest a horse can be to the imperial colour: and his very name means king or emperor. His horses are not said to go to some new location, since Catholic religious life in the East has on the whole not moved far, down the centuries, from those places where it began.

The black horses represent the rule of St Benedict, and in their chariot are the black monks. Starting in Monte Cassino, or Nursia if you prefer, they “went forth into the land of the north,” and filled it with their monasteries.

The white horses stand for the rule of St Augustine. Why do these ‘go forth after’ the black ones, when Augustine lived a hundred years before Benedict? Perhaps because the Orders which have perpetuated his rule in the Church are ones that came later – the Premonstratensians and the Dominicans. These Orders also go forth after, that is, imitate, the Benedictines in being committed to a solemn choral office. The religious of these two Orders wear white, hence the white horses.

The last of the great rules is that of St Francis, symbolised by the strong, grey horses pulling his chariot of grey friars. Why do they go to the land of the south? At first I wondered if this could be a reference to the evangelisation of South America; but the Dominicans were prominent in this as well. Perhaps then it stands for some future great effort of evangelisation of the Muslims, foreshadowed by the early Franciscan martyrs of north Africa, and by St Francis’s own attempt, ultimately successful according to the Fioretti, to convert the sultan of Egypt. May then the strong sons of Francis go forth against the sons of Mahomet and slay them, with the sword not of steel but of the Spirit!