Office of the Holy Spirit

A Little Background

One of the reasons I have been so quiet recently is because I have been teaching a Masters level course at The Ecumenical Institute (EI) of St. Mary’s Seminary and University here in Baltimore. It was the first course in the history sequence which started from the time of the New Testament and went up to the Reformation—a span of some 1500 years and 12 million square miles in just a couple of months… While it’s wrapping up now, it was a fun class with a wonderful set of engaged students from a variety of backgrounds split between Roman Catholics, a few mainliners, and several nondenominational folks. In addition to teaching the main historical content of the course, I also offered a 1-credit spirituality component (as EI courses sometimes do).

Rather than trying to follow course content too closely, I decided to have this small group of students take some time with three spiritual practices fundamental to the age that we were studying. First, we spent several weeks doing Evagrian/Desert Father-style breath prayers taken from the Scriptures, especially the psalms. Then we spent several weeks exploring lectio divina. Naturally, I encouraged them to start with the psalms rather than have them tackle a larger book–and because of the prominence of the Psalms in-period. For our third section, I knew I wanted to do something relating to the Books of Hours.

There are all sorts of compelling reasons to focus on the Books of Hours. We had been working with psalms in the earlier parts of the semester—why not experience the psalms in their liturgical context? While not the only devotion used in the period, the Books of Hours were the central devotional locus for the literate laity. Also, Baltimore is the site of the splendid Walters Art Museum, home to one of the greatest collections of Books of Hours in the entire world. Furthermore, I could select something from the scope of the tradition that non-Roman Catholic students could embrace without theological reservations—and this was a live issue as none of the students in the spirituality portion were Roman Catholic. I finally settled on a relatively obscure choice, the Office of the Holy Spirit.

Hours and Offices: A Distinction

As you may know, late medieval books of hours have a fairly standard set of main contents. I’ve talked about these before. There are two chief sets Offices, the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Office of the Dead, that generally follow the outlines of full-on monastic Offices but are shorter and much less variable. These Offices include psalms.

Then, there are several briefer Hours that may or may not appear: Hours of the Passion, Hours of the Holy Trinity, Hours of the Holy Spirit, and a variety of hours for specific saints (John the Baptist, Catherine, etc.). Largely speaking, these tend to consist of a Gospel canticle antiphon, a hymn or hymn portion, a versicle & response, and a collect. Note: no psalms. That’s because these were usually prayed as tack-ons to the end of the main offices. Since you’d already prayed some psalms, more were not necessary.

Thus, if a set of thematic prayers contains one or more psalms we refer to it as an “Office;” if it didn’t, we refer to it as an “Hour.” (And let me note that—like many conventions—this is a modern scholarly convention that you may or may not find in manuscripts of the period.)

The Office of the Holy Spirit

While Hours of the Holy Spirit are not terribly uncommon in the surviving corpus of Books of Hours, the Office of the Holy Spirit is not common at all. Indeed, as far as I know (so take that with a big grain of salt!), the Office of the Holy Spirit did not make the jump into the age of printing. So, I had kind of an issue. The Office of the BVM was out on content-grounds; didn’t want to make my Protestants do Marian devotions without their consent. The Office of the Dead could be interpreted as being on the line too given Reformation concerns, but it also isn’t a full office—it only contains Matins, Lauds, and Vespers. The Hours and attendant Office of the Passion tend to be quite anti-Semitic, and I didn’t have time or opportunity to edit those to make them suitable for modern prayer. However—everybody can get behind the Holy Spirit!

Fortunately, there is a well-written copy of the Office of the Holy Spirit in one of the manuscripts here in the Walters. Walters Ms. W.86 was written in Arras, France, sometime between 1275 and 1300. It’s not a terribly pretty book especially as far as these books go, but it is legible. Much of the material is either biblical or is drawn from standard liturgical materials for Pentecost, so I adapted standard English materials as needed and translated what I didn’t find. I put it all into contemporary English so, at the current time, these Offices are only present in a “Rite II” format.

I wanted my students to have the full experience of a Book of Hours, though, so I brought in some pretty pictures from another Walters manuscript: Walters Ms. W.196.  This is a book with some fantastic images painted in Bruges, Belgium around 1470. Unfortunately, some of the images were cut out of the manuscript, including those for Lauds and Prime of the Holy Spirit and also the Matins of the Blessed Virgin (which would have depicted the Holy Spirit descending on Mary at the Annunciation). As a result, I borrowed a picture from before the Penitential Psalms of David praying for Lauds, and recycled the image from Nones for Prime.

The Site

The site offers the traditional eight-hour sequence of the Office of the Holy Spirit. It is an alternative cycle to the usual Daily Office. Or, of course, the internal hours can be used to supplement a prayer book office if that is your desire. The site structure is very basic: there is a home page which links to the hours and an About page; each of the hours is on its own page and has a link at the bottom back to the home.

I’ll be interested to hear about your experience of this site. I’m trying out some new graphical elements (as you’ll see). The primary purpose was to, again, give the students a feel of what the Books of Hours were like and the kinds of visual cues they used. Books of Hours generally tended to be small-format books so I intentionally designed it to give that kind of feel for tablet/phablet/phone sized screens. A secondary ulterior motive was to explore some new ways of doing image layout and font.

Ok—that’s enough talking; here is the site itself:

The Office of the Holy Spirit home page

6 thoughts on “Office of the Holy Spirit

  1. Derek Olsen Post author

    Brian notes that it did actually make it into print and, furthermore, into print in English! Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s easily available… The Rev. T. T. Carter, one of the English clergy of the mid to late 19th century who gave birth to the Anglo-Catholic tradition published an edition of The Short Office of the Holy Ghost in 1868 with additional printings in 1908 and 1910. There is a costly copy available on eBay, but I’ve not found it in Google Books or yet.

  2. Bob Solon Jr

    Derek – Very interesting! Is a facsimile of the Walters manuscript online, or where you able to inspect the real thing? BTW, I confess the typeface and formatting really makes it difficult – for me – to read and thus pray this Office. Perhaps keeping everything else the same but breaking it into sense lines might help? Also, having the antiphons printed out in full only at the end of the canticle or psalm, etc., may be correct translationally, but I suggest you do it the other way, i.e., the full antiphon text at the beginning of each text, with the incipit at the end.

  3. Derek Olsen Post author

    Thanks, Elizabeth!

    Bob, The links to the manuscripts are in the body of the piece. However, the new theme that I’ve selected doesn’t make them stand out sufficiently from the body text. I’m still working on tweaking that. In the meantime there here ( and here (

    Again, the font and formatting were intentional. This is the way books of hours were designed–without sense line breaks to save space on small-format pages.

    As far as the antiphons go, this is the way that they are supposed to be. In the medieval office, an incipit was all you did at the start. Essentially, its function was to let you know what mode the psalm was going to be sung in, and then the antiphon proper was sung at the end, after the psalm. It was only done the way we’re used to (a full antiphon at the beginning and end) for a Double office or higher. And, indeed, that’s one of the reasons it was called a double–the antiphons were doubled. (The other, of course, is that it had double vespers, both a first and a second.)

  4. Derek Olsen Post author

    Elizabeth, That’s a great resource! What he has there is the Hours of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t have the psalms and also the Hours have a simplified structure. There the introductory material and the antiphon and verse & response are all the same. In the Office these are variable. So—if y’all compare what’s at that link on pp. 156ff with what’s on the site, you’ll see a perfect illustration of the various differences between the Office and Hours formats.

  5. George

    I would have many things to say about this. First, I am wondering of the late apparition of the devotions to the Holy Spirit. Most anaphoræ are addressed to the Father; some to the Son; no anaphora to the Holy Spirit. In the Roman rite, even the Pentecost orations are addressed to the Father (but in the Mozarabic they are addressed to the Spirit). Both the Veni creator hymn, the Veni sequence, as well as the Armenian prayer to the Holy Spirit are rather late. In the Byzantine rite, where devotional offices also exist like in the Roman, the office of the Holy Spirit is very recent.

    The antiphon collection to the Holy Spirit is poor. For my Bréviaire paroissial et familial, I have chosen one antiphon composed by Ste Hildegard of Bingen.

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