by Joanne McPortland
"What does this have to do with Mary, and her “Little Office”? It turns out that, from the Middle Ages on, it was the custom in many places to add a second, shorter set of prayers, readings, and psalms focused on the story of salvation as seen through Our Lady. The practice is said to have begun with the Benedictines of Monte Cassino in Italy, and soon spread to other communities, especially among women religious. When Pope Pius V standardized the prayers of the Church as part of the Council of Trent’s reforms, he mandated that a version of the Little Office of Our Lady be prayed by all clergy and religious on Saturdays, the day associated with Mary.
But the laity have always been called to sanctify the daily-ness of life by praying, too—and have found their way through Mary. The rosary, with its original 150 Hail Marys, was a means for lay people, who were often illiterate, to pray the Psalter—the cycle of 150 biblical psalms that formed the basis for the earliest Divine Office. The Angelus prayers, said in the fields and on the streets to the sound of the same church bells that called religious communities to Sext, None, and Vespers, fostered that same blessing of the day and its work. And during the Middle Ages, those of the laity who could read—royalty, the wealthy—commissioned Books of Hours for their own prayerful use, many centering on the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. Richly illustrated with miniatures, decorated capitals, and gold leaf, these “illuminated” manuscripts contributed powerfully to the devotion to Our Lady that marked the age."