Thursday, December 3, 2009

On the Liturgy of the Hours as the Prayer of the Whole People of God

Scene: Room 106, Mundelein.  Characters: me, another lay woman, ten priests.

Most discussions in that class were lively, but this was one of the most memorable.  One classmate was presenting his research so far on his paper topic: The Liturgy of the Hours as the Prayer of the Whole People of God, with the idea that the postconciliar reforms of the breviary succeeded in their aim of making the Liturgy of the Hours more accessible to the laity.

Surprise was expressed at this opinion, and a discussion began as to reasons why the Liturgy of the Hours (hereafter LOH) was not being comunally celebrated in most parishes.  This continued for some time until it was questioned whether the issues brought up were related to the structural reform of the breviary (they weren't), and not to other factors that would be just as applicable to the 1964 breviary.  Slowly, as these objections had been being raised and digested, something had begun to stew in the back of my mind.  When I spoke, even I wasn't yet sure of the problem I was trying to communicate.

"The LOH is the prayer of the whole people of God, because it's a communal action of the whole Church, and the prayers contained are on behalf of all the people, okay fine.  But the fact that priests and religious are canonically bound to pray the Office*, and most laity are not, has got to mean something, has got to be reflected in its character (if not its theology).  Right?  I mean, if it's the prayer of the whole people of God, then it's mine every bit as much as it is yours; but most of you have been living and practically breathing the Office, in all its hours, every day for years; its rhythms have been internalized and it's become an essential part of your spiritual life.  When I pray the Office, it's nice, and familiar, and liturgical, but that's about it."

Fr Dana chimed in with what almost seemed like surprise in his assent:  "When I tell my parishioners about the LOH, I usually say, 'This is the prayer that every priest and religious says every day - and you can say it, too!'"   The general opinion was more or less agreement that, while we have no issue with Pope Paul VI's theological formulation that the LOH is "the prayer of the whole people of God" (Laudis Canticum, 1), this idea was somewhat at odds with our lived experience.

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to attend sung Vespers at the Shrine of Christ the King.  I, who am quite comfortable with the Traditional Latin Mass (to the point where I positively prefer it), was saddened and disappointed to find that I could not unite my heart to the liturgical action.  In fact, if I recall correctly, I prayed through all the psalms at my own pace, napped, then looked over them again when I woke up, and simply left when Vespers was over.

Even in the Ordinary Form, I realized, the celebration of Lauds and Vespers in common has little ritual attached (unlike the Mass and sacraments); it's mostly just a matter of chanting (or saying) the right words at the right time, and occasionally sitting or standing.  It's a lovely prayer to make, but it doesn't feel like my personal prayer (and we seemed to establish in class that the LOH is meant to be both personal prayer and the prayer of the Church).

So it was with great anticipation that I was finally able to sit down and read this classmate's completed paper last night.  He traced the history and development of the LOH, showing that it began as a Christian extension of the Temple services, the whole community gathered together at fixed hours to recite psalms and hymns of praise, then evolved to two forms: the cathedral office and the monastic office.  The cathedral office was textually simple (one psalm for Lauds, and one for Vespers - the same two every day) but had great ritual (candles, incense, processions); the monastic office was structured so as to facilitate reciting the entire psalter.  Over time, the more complex monastic office came to have primacy, and priestly travel, coupled with a overall attention given to interior piety, contributed to the clericalization of the Office: it was effectively, though not officially, the priest's private prayer.  When the Second Vatican Council called for reform of the Divine Office, the faithful were explicitly mentioned, and communal celebrations of the LOH were encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium 84, 87, 100, etc).

I've had to oversimplify this greatly.  My apologies.

The paper was very illuminating, and I enjoyed reading it.  But it did little to satisfy my initial unease (after all, even before I understood the theology or history of the LOH as the prayer of the whole people of God, I didn't doubt it).  I know we can't base theology upon experience.  But the experiences of a group of well-formed person are something against which one might test a theology, to a certain extent...

The LOH is the prayer of the whole people of God.  Okay, we've got that.  But clergy and religious are bound to pray the Office, whereas for most laity it's (dare I say it?) more like a devotional activity.  Doesn't that suggest that clergy and religious have a different relationship to the LOH than do the lay faithful?  Then shouldn't it be possible to say that, in some sense, this prayer is more properly theirs?  We tested out a theory in class that, though it's the priest who prays the Office, because he prays for the whole Church, it is then the prayer of the whole Church; that, however, led us down a messy path wherein the laity don't need to participate in prayer because the priest is doing it on their behalf...

I don't really have a conclusion, but I do have one suggestion (even this, however, leaves me uneasy): As we are all different parts of the Body of Christ, as we each participate in His work in a different way, so does the depth of our connection to the LOH change according to our relationship to it.  Consider analogously the vision of heaven that depicts each person as a cup: each cup is filled to the brim, but the cups are of differing sizes (and no one cares about the size of their cup, because each is completely full).  In this way, it would be possible to preserve the juridically experienced idea that the Divine Office belongs with a certain fullness to those clergy and religious who are bound to its recitation without diminishing its value for and proper-ness to the lay faithful.

Maybe I'm just grasping at straws here.  But sometimes, that's all we can do.  In the meantime, I'm off to go pray Vespers, for regardless of the deeper theology, it is good for my soul to proclaim the greatness of the Lord...

*Divine Office = Liturgy of the Hours


  1. RE how many lay people pray the Liturgy of the Hours:

    Magnificat magazine has fairly substantial "Prayers for the Morning" and "Prayers for the Evening" for each day. They are not the Liturgy of the Hours but they are certainly inspired by the LOH.

    The English edition of Magnificat has about 230,000 readers a month. So, at least a good number of those Catholics are saying morning prayers and evening prayers each day that are at least in the spirit of the LOH.

  2. I've tried the LOH different times over the years and I've found that there is too much there if that makes any sense. Maybe if I said it daily for a long time the psalms would become very familiar, but at this point its like I don't have time to reflect on anything.

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  4. You are so smart, and such a good writer. I love and hate reading what you right, love because it is fascinating and interesting, hate because it causes quite the inferiority complex in me. Ha!

    Here's my understanding as regards the Liturgy of the Hours:

    I had never heard this division between the monastic and and the cathedral liturgy. That is fascinating. It does seem to conflict somewhat with the history I had heard. I would like to study it more to see where the genuine place of the cathedral liturgy is in the history of the LoH.

    But the basic history agrees with what I know. It is a direct ancestor of Hebrew worship. It is a means of sanctifying the day. It is a "sacrifice of praise."

    As I understand it, breviaries were very rare prior to the Jesuits. I recall a story of St. Francis having one. The story may be apocryphal. Regardless, the earliest obligation of clerics to chant the liturgy seems to have been an obligation that was only binding so long as they had access to a Church where the liturgy was being chanted.

    The character of the liturgy as a sung event has been maintained even until the 1961 Breviary. The singing, on the other hand, was not maintained, though it was officially required that every Church have sung vespers well into the twentieth century, and sung vespers remained quite common in Europe. Nevertheless, we can recall Belloc's surprise when he followed a village into the Church to discover that they all were going there to sing vespers! Attendance at vespers was probably pretty rare.

    My take on the LoH is this: it is the liturgy of the Church in that it is a public act of the Church. Ideally, then, it is one at which the whole assembly assists. Because, however, of real world circumstances, it has been permitted that certain people be allowed to offer it on behalf of the whole people of God. This is where the Breviary comes in and where it becomes an obligation (officium). Priests especially, after all, have an obligation to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people.

    I think non-clerics singing it as part a liturgical action clearly participate in it like they do in Mass. On the other hand, I think non-clerics who say it on there own nevertheless participate in it, although they do not participate in the office per se, just the liturgy (this is why a lay person can pray any approved edition of the liturgy of the hours, but a cleric cannot fulfill his obligation except by certain editions).

    As far as the distinction between the liturgy being an office for clerics and a votive prayer for non-clerics, I think it is basically the same as daily Mass. Although daily Mass can become a devotional experience, it is, nonethless, a participation in the Church's liturgy.

    If the majority of lay experience of the LoH was in solemn sung services, I don't think we would have any problem thinking of it in an analogous way to how we think of assisting at daily Mass.

  5. links for hearing hymns that are in the catholic christian prayer liturgy of the hours


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