As we are still at the beginning of a new year, both secular and liturgical, I will spend this week and next highlighting two specific types of prayer to encourage everyone to deepen their prayer lives. This week, I will explain the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Liturgy of the Hours — also known as the Divine Office or Breviary — is a public liturgical form of prayer that has been practiced throughout the centuries, dating back to the Desert Fathers in the 5th century. The Liturgy is designed to sanctify the entire day. The Church continually offers praise and thanksgiving to God by saying prescribed prayers at specific hours of the day — invitatory psalm (dawn or 3 am), office of readings (anytime), lauds (6 am), terce (9 am), sext (noon), none (3 pm), vespers (6 pm), and compline (9 pm). Given the formulation of the prayers and organization of the hours, it is a unitive form of prayer, since the members of the body of Christ, including those in heaven, engage in the continuous and never-ending practice of worshipping God across time zones and eons of human history. The Catechism tells us that the purpose of this Liturgy is to “‘pray constantly,’ and that it is ‘so devised that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praise of God’” (CCC #1174).
The Liturgy of the Hours has evolved over time, which has enriched the prayer and provided a teaching element. The contents include scripture from both testaments, hymns that may be sung, poems, petitions, and excerpts from writings provided by saints and scholars. Additionally, it is organized to align with the liturgical calendar, so the readings correspond to different seasons and feast days while unfolding the stages of salvation history. By participating in the Liturgy, you are deepening your immersion in the universal life of the Church and her seasonal flow over the centuries.
Our clergy and religious have certain obligations regarding the Liturgy of the Hours and, depending on their office, are required to pray certain hours every day. We, the laity, are highly encouraged to join in this prayer as part of our universal call to holiness and as a participation in the mission of the priesthood given to each of us at our baptism. However, the extent of laypeople’s’ participation may be adjusted “according to their own place in the Church and the circumstances of their lives” (CCC #1175). Even if one cannot pray during all the hours, it is good to make it a regular part of one’s day. For instance, praying the morning prayer when you wake up is an excellent way to set the tone for the day and consecrate it to the Lord. Perhaps you have a consistent lunch break every day during which you can refocus your attention toward heavenly and eternal things. However, there is good reason to strive to participate in as many hours as possible throughout the day. To pause several times a day to read scripture and prayers keeps your mind elevated toward God and helps curb opportunities to sin. In other words, it makes it a little more difficult to do something spiritually harmful when you deliberately have your eyes on your prayer book or Breviary several times a day.
The Breviary is a liturgical book, so just like the liturgical missal on the altar at Mass or the missal of daily readings on your bookshelf, the organization of the prayers can seem complex, requiring the placing of ribbons to keep track of the pages. It can seem intimidating, especially for a layperson, but like anything, with a little bit of practice, navigating the book becomes second nature. You can ask a knowledgeable person to give you a quick lesson and there are many aids available to make praying the Liturgy of the Hours easier. For example, Catholic Book Publishing Corp. publishes a new easy-to-follow guide every year that provides the page numbers for each date. If you prefer not to learn to use the liturgical book at all, there are a few apps you can download that put it all together for you (Laudate and iBreviary are two good options) and all you have to do is click the hour you would like to pray.
Like the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Prayers in Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours is a form of universal public prayer. Not only are Catholics unified over space and time during every Mass, but many also find comfort in the fact that we can all pray the same prayers at the same times with the same intention of praising the one true God. When you pray the Liturgy, you are praying in communion with your parish priest, the deacon in the next state over, the religious sisters in another country, the pope, and all of the angels and saints in heaven. So, when you pray the Liturgy privately in your own home, you still participate publicly with the entire Body of Christ. Nonetheless, the Liturgy of the Hours provides an excellent opportunity for organized group prayer. It is a perfect way for spouses and families to begin or end their day together or for ministries to pray together before meetings or events. Perhaps a group of Catholic co-workers or friends may also gather at a point in the day to collectively offer the Lord praise in the Liturgy.
In the Second Vatican Council document Sacrosanctum Concilium, we find that we are all called to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours, “the laity… are encouraged to recite the divine office either with priests, or among themselves, or even individually” (IV.100). Naturally, my challenge to you for this week is to contemplate how you might incorporate this prayer into your routine, or increase your devotion to it. Each hour actually only takes about 15 to 20 minutes to pray, so finding one hour a day, or even just on Sundays, should not be too difficult for most people to achieve. Setting a reminder alarm on your phone or incorporating it into your routine so you get used to praying at the same time every day may help. Regardless of how you decide to increase your participation in the Liturgy, know that it will sanctify your entire day and, as a result, come with great blessings as it “is truly the voice of the Bride herself addressed to her Bridegroom” (CCC #1174), and a bridegroom will surely not ignore his faithful bride.
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