I still vividly recall entering a religious community in the mid-1980s. A native of Los Angeles and a fairly recent law school graduate, I knew I was stepping into a very different environment. As I settled into this life, I realized that I was doing many of the same things I had been doing before entering this community. I had already become accustomed to daily Mass and Holy Hours. The studies (I was preparing for the priesthood) likewise came naturally to a “professional student” like me. And of course the meals and recreation times were very enjoyably spent with the great guys we had in the community.
The one thing that was markedly different for me was praying the Liturgy of the Hours at set times each day with the other seminarians and religious. I had owned and used a breviary (a prayer book containing the Liturgy of the Hours) before entering seminary, but the regularity and fervor of this prayer of the Church was the most distinctive–and in many ways the most enriching–aspect of my seminary years. This attraction to the Liturgy of the Hours has stayed with me ever since.
Some of you might be asking, “What is the Liturgy of the Hours?” To answer this, we must be clear about what is meant by liturgy. Liturgy literally means a “public work,” and in Christian usage refers to “the participation of the People of God in the work of God” (Catechism, no. 1069). It is the official public prayer of the Church, whereby the Church celebrates and extends the saving work of Christ through space and time. Our Baptisms consecrate all of us to liturgical worship, in communion with the Church throughout the world and in communion with the angels and saints who are sharing in the eternal heavenly liturgy.
Sacred liturgy certainly includes the most holy sacrifice of the Mass, but it also includes celebrations of the other sacraments as well as the Liturgy of the Hours, otherwise known as the “Divine Office.” One of the best-kept secrets of Vatican II is the call that went out to all people–not just priests and religious–to actively participate in the Liturgy of the Hours whenever we can. The Church has revised the Liturgy of the Hours to make it more accessible to all of us. Unlike the Mass, where every reform seemingly becomes a matter of debate and controversy, the Liturgy of the Hours suffers more from neglect than questionable “implementation.”
Surely the Liturgy of the Hours is meant to foster and not compete with personal devotion. “The Liturgy of the Hours, which is like an extension of the Eucharistic celebration, does not exclude but rather in a complementary way calls forth the various devotions of the People of God, especially adoration and worship of the Blessed Sacrament” (Catechism, no. 1178).
Litany of Blessings
In this short blog it is impossible to provide an in-depth explanation of the Liturgy of the Hours. I would, however, like to identify five distinctive benefits of this form of prayer.
Rich biblical tradition. The Liturgy of the Hours, which draws heavily from Jewish liturgical tradition (cf. Catechism, no 1096), is perhaps the most fitting, practical response to the biblical exhortation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Further, one of the defining characteristics of the first Christians was their commitment to communal prayer (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:42). The Acts of the Apostles further specifies that the disciples gathered together at different hours for prayer (cf. Acts 3:1; 10:9; 16:25). This practice has continued throughout the centuries under the guidance of the Church, drawing in each generation upon the contributions of the praying Church, especially the monastic communities.
Sanctify time. How many of us have experienced our day “getting away from us”? The Liturgy of the Hours helps to punctuate the day with prayer and truly make our day’s activities a pleasing offering to God. Whether we pray morning prayer (lauds) or evening prayer (vespers)–what Vatican II calls the central or “hinge” hours–or other hours, we make holy one of our most precious commodities: time. And not only does this prayer connect us with the rhythms of the day, but it also connects us to the liturgical seasons and specific feast days, so that our prayer also reflects the rhythm of the prayer of the Universal Church.
Glory and praise. Unfortunately, for many of us, “glory and praise” merely evokes a musical form of the 1970s–liturgical music’s answer to bellbottoms and polyester! But glory and praise are much more than that–they are a fundamental part of every Christian’s prayer. Every Christian has the earthly vocation to know, love, and serve God. We serve God most fully through uniting ourselves to the public prayer (i.e., liturgy) of the Church. Catechism no. 959, quoting Vatican II, marvelously summarizes this point: “For if we continue to love one another and to join in praising the Most Holy Trinity–all of us who are sons of God and form one family in Christ–we will be faithful to the deepest vocation of the Church.”
Personal conversion. The Catechism also says that the Liturgy of the Hours, among other acts of worship, “revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins” (no. 1437). I have found that the Liturgy of the Hours helps me to maintain a broad, healthy awareness of the needs of the Church throughout the world, as we pray in solidarity with the entire People of God.
Not just any “prayer service.” Oftentimes I’ve been involved with Christian groups that felt the understandable urge to begin their program with some sort of prayer service. I have no doubt that these good faith efforts to put together various Scripture passages, intercessions, prayers, and hymns found favor with God. Yet, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel! The Liturgy of the Hours already has these elements built in. The Church’s rich liturgical tradition provides us with a prayer form that reflects centuries of Christian tradition, but which is also very accessible to today’s Catholic.
Let Us Pray
If you don’t already have a copy of the Liturgy of the Hours, Benedictus Books (www.benedictus.com) has a variety of editions, one of which should be the right one for you. Here in the CUF office, we begin each day with morning prayer using Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours, a one-volume breviary published by the Daughters of St. Paul. Another excellent resource is the monthly publication Magnificat (800-317-6689), which is a remarkably handy volume that incorporates the Mass readings, the Liturgy of the Hours, and other helpful spiritual aids.
The important thing is finding an edition that works best for your situation. Certainly CUF members are welcome to contact the CUF office (800-MY-FAITH) if you have questions concerning how to use a breviary, which may at first seem daunting! Don’t feel like you have to do all the hours. Perhaps you can start with just one hour. I recommend night prayer (compline), which is shorter and easier to learn.
Every family or household has different needs. In my family’s case, our “communal” prayer is the Rosary, in part because it’s easier for our younger children to follow along the beads and look at images of the mysteries. But all Catholic individuals, families, prayer groups, and parishes could benefit from implementing more fully Vatican II’s call to all of us to actively participate in the liturgical life of the Church.
Why not try this month to incorporate the Liturgy of the Hours into your prayer lives? May this gift of 10 or 15 minutes each day, offered in union with the Church, be a sacrifice of praise to the greater glory of God!