Monday, August 30, 2010

On the Liturgy of the Hours: A Reflection

I have a long and storied history with the Liturgy of the Hours.  Okay, I exaggerate somewhat, but I've been praying the Office with varying degrees of consistency since I was eighteen, so I do have some ground to stand on here.  (Besides, you all know that brevity is not my strong suit!)

I first learned how to pray the breviary by attending Morning Prayer with the guys in the Pre-Theologate (i.e., Minor Seminary) program my freshman year of college, after the guys convinced me that it was open to anyone and I ought to come because Morning Prayer was awesome.  I quickly came to appreciate the beauty of praying the psalms in union with the whole Church, and ended the year by borrowing a spare breviary from my spiritual director.  I prayed Morning and Evening Prayer (Lauds and Vespers) just about every weekday that summer.

When I studied in Austria, we prayed Lauds and Vespers in common (often chanted), which drew between 10 and 50 students, on average.  I quickly realized that my class schedule was set up such that I could easily step away and pray each of the three daytime hours in between, and even while I was traveling, it was with friends who prayed similarly, so I was praying the full Office (5 to 7 hours* each day).

Upon returning to the States, my prayer life shifted again, and I returned to praying Lauds and Vespers on my own daily.  After a year or more, though the Office still held a special place in my heart, it was no longer my bread and butter.  I still went out of my way to pray the principal hours (Lauds and Vespers) on feasts, and sometimes also the Office of Readings (because those readings are generally awesome), but it was indeed going out of my way; it had become something that was not part of my routine.

When I moved home after college, I knew I needed structure, and so I picked up praying at least Lauds every morning.  However, I also decided to place myself ad experimentum in the liturgy, calendar, and spirituality of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, taking advantage of the gap year I anticipated to learn a new (to me) type of prayer more deeply.  After a few months, the divergence between the two calendars became too much, and I put away my breviaries.**

It should come as little surprise, then, that one of the first papers I wrote in graduate school was about this divergence between the calendars, which had caused me so much pain the year before.  (I may be oversensitive, but there's clear disunity within the Roman Rite here, so I stand firm.)  Part of my program here at the Liturgical Institute is that we pray Lauds and Vespers together every weekday, and Mass in common weekly (both daily during the summer).  So, in order to reap more fully the benefits of studying here, I made the obvious decision: to pray with my classmates and our professors and staff members (rather than continuing my previous foray into the EF).  Too, my studies have reminded me that "liturgy" doesn't just mean Mass, nor even Mass and Sacraments, but includes the Divine Office, which is something that I, a layperson, consistently forget...

* * *

I've been traveling a lot lately.  I don't know about you, but when I travel, my prayer life suffers.  Sometimes it's because I lack the privacy I need to pray; sometimes it's because I'm so busy going and going and going that I don't find the time to do more than raise my heart to Our Lord throughout the day.  I know this is good and can be enough, if that's all I have, but it's disorienting at best to return from a trip and have your spiritual life all thrown out of whack (especially if you've been traveling over the weekend of a feast and you feel like you've missed the feast).

This past week, my travels have often involved seminarian friends, some of whom are transitional deacons (i.e., clerics who are canonically obliged to pray the Office).  On such occasions, it's quite common to receive a question like, "Have you prayed Morning Prayer yet?" or sometimes simply "D'you mind if I pray my Office?"  Each time, the gentleman (or -men) in question has prayed the psalms aloud, and I've prayed along by listening  really listening  to his words (to His Word, really).

And I've been struck by the beauty of it all: the radiance of God's Word as revealed in these particular prayers; the universality of uniting my heart in these same Scriptures that are being prayed throughout the world; the brilliant anchor that is the Liturgy of the Hours, keeping the pray-er rooted in God's time, even when his normal routine is shot to pieces.

There are so many reasons to be thankful for the gift of the Divine Office.  Presently, I am thankful for the reminder that, as a single layperson (doubly so as a student), I can take the time to pray at least the five canonical hours of the Office.  Praying the principal hours as I've been doing this past year has borne fruit, I'm sure, but nothing I can clearly see.  I remember clearly how the Office used to be not merely the backbone of my spiritual life but its entire skeleton, and I can see hints of that in some of the clergy around me - and it's beautiful, and I want that.

It's only been a few days yet that I've been praying the full Office, but it has been a wonderful source of stability and consolation.  As Fr Martis often says, the Liturgy shares her treasures with those who sit with her and wait.  I hope and pray that my commitment to pray all the hours for the coming months serves to be vehicle for such revelations.

May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.

*When I refer to an "hour" here, it does not mean that I spent 60 minutes in a chapel; rather, it signifies my completion of a particular set of psalms and prayers.  The Liturgy of the Hours (aka the Divine Office) is prayed from a book called a breviary, and contains the hours of Matins (Office of Readings), Lauds (Morning Prayer), Terce (Midmorning Prayer), Sext (Midday Prayer), None (Midafternoon Prayer), Vespers (Evening Prayer), and Compline (Night Prayer).  Only one of the three midday hours ("little hours") is required for those who have promised to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

**Yes, I did consider purchasing a traddy breviary in English, but I knew I was going to have to put it aside in graduate school, so I decided to wait.


  1. This perfectly expresses why I yearn to buy a set of breviaries and begin praying the Office. When I did on retreat, I felt anchored in the Church, despite the strange translation, and have wanted with all of my heart to make the Office part of my daily prayer since.

  2. Morning prayer in that little chapel in Austria was one of the highlights of being there. I also loved that there was a consistent group of us that went. Also, I am pretty sure that our habit of night prayer together there is what fueled my continued habit of praying night prayer (now as a family). :) *hugs*


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