Lesson Eight: Nocturns -- The Foundation of Matins

Matins is the "parent office" in the Breviary.  It is the longest and most complex.  On high feasts, it can take well over an hour to recite well and with devotion -- longer if chanted.  The Breviary makes liberal use of rubrical devices to shorten the Matins office from cognate Western Uses other than the Roman.  Yet, at base, Matins is structurally fairly simple.  Every Matins office, regardless of length, is built around a group of Psalms and lessons called a "Nocturn."

Matins can either consist of one Nocturn or three.  When Matins is "of one Nocturn," the group consist of nine Psalms and three lessons.

When Matins is "of three Nocturns," each Nocturn is three Psalms followed by three lessons.

First, we will look at the structure of the Nocturn under both circumstances.  Then, the issue of where to look in the Breviary for the various parts of the Nocturn will be dealt with.


Matins of One Nocturn

Matins of one Nocturn consists of nine Psalms said together, followed by three lessons.
 

The Psalms

As with Lauds and Vespers, each Psalm has a proper antiphon and is always followed by the Gloria Patri.  Thus, the Psalm grouping in one Nocturn is said as follows:

        Ant. 1
        Psalm 1
        Gloria Patri
        Ant. 1
        ------
        Ant. 2
        Psalm 2
        Gloria Patri
        Ant. 2

And so forth, through each of the nine Psalms.  Of course, the antiphons are said by half or in full depending on the rite of the Office, as has been previously discussed.  In Eastertide, all nine Psalms are said under one antiphon, thus:

        Ant. 1
        Psalm 1
        Gloria Patri
        ------
        Psalm 2
        Gloria Patri
        etc. through all 9 Psalms
        ------
        Psalm 9
        Gloria Patri
        Ant. 1

An easy way to see a typical nine-Psalm group for one Nocturn is to look at Matins of Monday in the weekly Psalter, ignoring the divisions of "I Nocturn," etc.

The Psalm group is always ended with a versicle and response.  To see the versicle and response for Matins of Monday, look to p. B42.  Several different choices are given, of which the most often said is, "On Ferias through the Year."  (When Matins is of one Nocturn, the versicles and responses given after the third and sixth Psalm are simply ignored).  

 

Interstitial Prayers

Following the versicle and response after the nine Psalms is said oneOur Father (of which only "Our Father" and "And lead us not, etc." are said aloud) and the appropriate Absolution found on pp. A16-18.

The Lessons

Following the group of nine Psalms and the interstitial prayers are said three lessons.

Just as virtually every Psalm in the Breviary is said with an antiphon, almost every lesson at Matins is said in this form:

        "Pray, Lord, give me thy blessing."
        Benediction (pp. A16-18)
        Lesson
        V. "But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us."
        R. "Thanks be to God."
        Responsory (also called a "respond")

Occasionally, such as in the Office of the Dead or during the Great Triduum, the Breviary will explicitly direct that no Benedictions be said, nor the "But thou, O Lord, etc."  As a general rule, however, the foregoing is the standard structure for reciting the three lessons following the nine Psalms when Matins is of one Nocturn.


Visual Representation of One Nocturn

                Psalms

                Ant. 1
                Psalm 1
                Gloria Patri
                Ant. 1
                ------
                Ant. 2
                Psalm 2
                Gloria Patri
                Ant. 2
                ------
                etc.
                ------
                Ant. 9
                Psalm 9
                Gloria Patri
                Ant. 9
                ------
                Versicle and Response

                Interstices

                Our Father
                ------
                Absolution

                Lessons

                "Pray, Lord"
                Benediction for lesson i
                Lesson i
                "But thou"
                "Thanks be to God."
                Responsory 1
                ------
                "Pray, Lord"
                Benediction for lesson ii
                Lesson ii
                "But thou"
                "Thanks be to God."
                Responsory 2
                ------
                "Pray, Lord"
                Benediction for lesson iii
                Lesson iii
                "But thou"
                "Thanks be to God."
                Responsory 3 (on feasts, replace with Te Deum
        
        (See p. A16 of the Breviary for a restatement of the above which may be helpful).


Matins of Three Nocturns

On higher ranked feasts and all Sundays, Matins is "of three Nocturns."  In such a case, each Nocturn consists of a group of three Psalms said together, followed by three lessons.

At the end of each group of Psalms is said the versicle and response, followed by an Our Father, the Absolution, and then the group of three lessons, each preceded by a Benediction and followed by a Responsory.

Represented visually, then, when Matins is "of three Nocturns," each Nocturn is structured thus:

                Psalms

                Ant. 1
                Psalm 1
                Gloria Patri
                Ant. 1
                ------
                Ant. 2
                Psalm 2
                Gloria Patri
                Ant. 2
                ------
                Ant. 3
                Psalm 3
                Gloria Patri
                Ant. 3
                ------
                Versicle and Response

                Interstices

                Our Father
                ------
                Absolution

                Lessons

                "Pray, Lord"
                Benediction for lesson i
                Lesson i
                "But thou"
                "Thanks be to God."
                Responsory 1
                ------
                "Pray, Lord"
                Benediction for lesson ii
                Lesson ii
                "But thou"
                "Thanks be to God."
                Responsory 2
                ------
                "Pray, Lord"
                Benediction for lesson iii
                Lesson iii
                "But thou"
                "Thanks be to God."
                Responsory 3 (on feasts, Responsory after lesson ix in III
                Nocturn is Te Deum)

Nocturns II and III simply repeat the above structure with Psalms 4, 5 and 6 and lessons iv, v, and vi for II Nocturn, and Psalms 7, 8 and 9 and lessons vii, viii and ix for III Nocturn.


Where the Elements of a Nocturn Are Found

Unless the Proper of the day (C or E section) gives proper Psalms of its own, or directs the reader to an appropriate Common (such as "All from Common 5"), the Psalms, antiphons, and the versicle and response after each Nocturn are taken from the weekly Psalter.  This rule accounts for the majority of feasts.

The Absolution and Benediction prayers are found on pp. A16-18 of the Breviary.  A quick glance discloses that on A16-17, a set of 3 Absolutions and 9 Benedictions are provided for Matins of three Nocturns.

When Matins is of one Nocturn (i.e., 9 Psalms and 3 lessons), only one Absolution and three Benedictions are needed.  Pages A17-18 give these materials depending on whether the Office is of a saint, of a feria, or whose 3 lessons are Gospel Homilies.  A fuller discussion of this will occur in the lesson on Matins itself.  For now, the reader should simply familiarize himself with the location of these elements.

The lessons of Matins are taken from the Proper of the Season (C section) on feriae, from the Proper of Saints or appropriate Common on high feasts, and from a mix of both on most ordinary feasts.  Again, for now the reader should simply spend time looking through the Breviary and studying the structure of Nocturns.


Practice Nocturns

The simplest way to practice reciting Nocturns is to recite part of the Matins office on Sunday.  The Psalms will come from the weekly Psalter; the Absolutions and Benedictions from A16-18; and the lessons from the current Sunday in the C section (check the Ordo Kalendar to determine the current Sunday).

Begin with the Psalms from I Nocturn of Sunday in the weekly Psalter (B3-4).  Remember to recite each Psalm with its antiphon before and after (since Sunday is semidouble, the antiphon is only said by half before the Psalm), with the Gloria.  After the three Psalms of I Nocturn have been said, recite the versicle and response (B5).

Turn to A16-18.  Recite the Our Father, then the Absolution for I Nocturn on A16.  Say "Pray, Lord, etc." followed by the Benediction for lesson i (A16).  Then recite lesson i for the appropriate Sunday in the Proper of the Season.  After lesson i, say "But thou, etc." followed by the Responsory.  Repeat the process of saying the Benedictions for lessons ii and iii followed by the lessons themselves, and their Responsories.

Repeat the entire process for the II and III Nocturns, in both cases reciting the Psalms from the weekly Psalter and the lessons from the appropriate Proper.  Note, in Matins of three Nocturns (i.e., nine lessons), which Sunday always is, there is no Responsory after lesson ix (the final lesson of the III Nocturn).  Instead, the Te Deum is said as on A19-20.


Concluding Thoughts

The Nocturn, whether 9 Psalms and 3 lessons, or three Nocturns of 3 Psalms and 3 lessons each, is the very foundation of Matins.  The reader must have a comfort level with the structure of both forms, with how Psalms are recited (with their antiphons, and the versicle and response at the end of a group), and with how lessons are recited (with a Benediction before, and Responsory after each).

While continuing to recite Lauds, Vespers and Compline, the reader should try his hand at reciting the appropriate Nocturns for Matins of the day.  On most feasts and all feriae, this is simply accomplished by reciting all 9 Psalms in the weekly Psalter for the particular day, followed by the lessons for the day in the Proper of the Season.  Integrating any lessons from the Proper of the Saints will be dealt with later.

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