Prime. —I. THE NAME.—The name Prime (prima hora) belongs with those of Terce, Sext, None, to the short offices recited at the different hours of the day, called by these names among the Romans, that is, prima towards 6 a. m.; tertia, towards 9 a. m.; sexta, towards noon; nona towards 3 p. m. At first Prime was termed matutina (hora), morning hour; later, in order to distinguish it from the nocturnal hours of Matins and Lauds, and to include it among hours of the day, it was called prima. The name is first met with in the Rule of St. Benedict. In the Bangor Antiphonary it is called secunda.
II. ORIGIN.—This short office is one of those whose origin is best known. Cassian, speaking of Prime, says expressly “sciendum …. hanc matutinam canonicam functionem [i.e. Prime] nostro tempore in nostro quoque monasterio primitus institutam” (Instit., III, IV).
As the chronology of Cassian’s works has recently been established fairly accurately, the institution of Prime must be placed towards 382 (see Pargoire, op. cit. below, 288). Apropos of this monastery, of which Cassian speaks as the cradle of Prime, it has now been proved that it was not St. Jerome’s monastery at Bethlehem, but another, perhaps one established beyond the Tower of Ader (or of the Flock) beyond the village of the Shepherds, and consequently beyond the modern Beth-scour; it has been identified either with Deir-er-Raouat (convent of the shepherds) or with Seiar-er-Ganhem (enclosure of the sheep).
We learn further from Cassian the reason that led to the institution of this office. The office of the night, comprising Matins and Lauds, ended then at sunrise, so that Lauds corresponded to the dawn. After the night offices at Bethlehem, as in the other Palestinian monasteries, the monks might retire to rest. As no other office called them together before Terce, those who were lazy seized the opportunity of prolonging their sleep till nine in the morning, instead of applying themselves to manual work or spiritual reading. To end this abuse, it was decided, in the above monastery, to continue the custom of reposing after the night office, but, to prevent an undue prolongation of sleep, the monks were recalled to choir at the hour of Prime, and after the recital of a few psalms they were to work until Terce (Cassian, “Instit.”, III, iv). All this is established by authentic texts. The only difficulty is that some contemporaries of Cassian or even his predecessors, as Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Jerome, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, speak of an office recited at sunrise, and which therefore would seem to be identical with Prime. But it must be noted that they are speaking of Lauds, which in some communities was recited later, and so was identified with the hour but not with the subject matter of Prime.
III. CONTENTS.—The matter composing the new hour was drawn from the office of Lauds; or rather Prime, as an office, was a repetition of part of Lauds, and added nothing to the ensemble of the psalmody, only Psalms i, lxii, and lxxxix, which were formerly part of Lauds, were recited at this hour. Such at least was the original composition of Prime; but the monasteries which gradually adopted it in the East and in the West changed its constitution as they liked. It is impossible to describe here all the variations this office underwent in the different liturgies. We need only remark that one of the most characteristic features of Prime is the recitation of the famous symbol “Quicumque vult salvus esse”, called the Athanasian Creed, which has recently been the subject of much controversy in the Anglican Church. St. Benedict orders to be recited at Prime on Sundays four groups of eight verses of Ps. exviii; on weekdays, three psalms, beginning with the first and continuing to Ps. xix, taking three psalms each day (Ps. ix and xvii being divided into two). In that way Prime is symmetrical, like the other short hours of the day. It resembles these also in composition, the psalmody being accompanied by a hymn, an antiphon, capitulum, versicle, and prayer. In the Roman Liturgy the office of Prime is not composed so symmetrically. Usually it consists of Ps. liii, cxvii, the first four groups of eight verses of Ps. cxviii, and during the week Pss. liii, xxiii, xxv, xxiv, xxii, and xxi. The capitulum and other elements are after the model of the short hours (cf. None).
IV. THE OFFICE OF THE CHAPTER.—So far we have spoken only of the office of Prime properly so called, which ends like the other short hours. It is followed by some prayers which are called the office of the chapter, and are composed in the Roman Liturgy of the reading of the martyrology, of a prayer, “Sancta Maria et omnes sancti”, a prayer concerning work, “Respite in servos tuos… Dirigere et sanctificare”, and a blessing. This addition to Prime is a legacy bequeathed by the monks to the secular clergy. As has been said above, originally after Prime the monks had to betake themselves to manual work or reading. The office therefore ended with a prayer for their work”. et opera manuum nostrarum dirige super nos et opus manuum nostrarum dirige”, and the prayer “Dirigere”. Later the reading of the martyrology, the necrology, the rule, and a prayer for the dead were added (see Baumer-Biron, be. cit., I, 361-62).
In view of its origin and constitution, Prime is to be considered as the prayer of the beginning of the day, whereas Lauds is devoted to recalling with the dawn the memory of Christ’s Resurrection, Prime is the morning hour which consecrates all the work of the day. Its institution has made the liturgical day more regular and symmetrical. Prime, until then without an office, received its psalmody like Terce, Sext, None, Vespers. With Complin and Lauds, the liturgical day reached the sacred septenary, “septies in die laudem dixi tibi”. While for the night office there was the text: “media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi”.