We value our time, complain that we don’t have enough of it, and marvel at the swiftness of its passing. So it makes sense to dedicate the hours of morning, noon, evening, and night to our Creator, to give our work, play, rest, and sleep to the One who understands their purpose and destiny best.
If you already make a daily morning offering or commit yourself to God’s protection before you go to sleep, you’re engaging in a tradition that came from the older tradition of liturgical Morning and Night Prayer. To anyone who lives in friendship with God, it’s natural to praise, thank, repent, petition, and tell him of our grief and sufferings. The Liturgy of the Hours takes these types of prayer to a higher level. It sanctifies time and consecrates the phases of our days.
Divine Office. Liturgy of the Hours. Matins. Lauds. Vespers. Evening Prayer. Breviary. You may have come across these words and wondered what they mean. What are these prayers? Where did they come from? Why might I want to use these prayers, and how would I get started?
WHAT IS IT?
The word liturgy comes from the Greek leitourgia, which means “a public duty or service.” The Liturgy of the Hours is “part two” of the official, public worship of the Catholic Church (“part one” being the Mass). Liturgy differs from private devotions, such as the rosary, novenas, litanies, chaplets, and conversations with God.
The Liturgy of the Hours—or Divine Office—is a repeating cycle of psalms, biblical canticles, Scripture readings, intercessions, hymns, and other prayers. Some elements change with the seasons and feasts of the Church calendar. The book containing the Liturgy of the Hours is the breviary.
These prayers are arranged in seven daily sets, or “Hours.” (See boxed material on next page.) Don’t let the term Hours scare you. It refers to how the prayers mark and sanctify the various times, or hours, of the day. The typical liturgical “Hour” takes maybe 10 minutes to recite—longer if you do it with a group, chant it, or take your time meditating on the prayers.
Seven breaks for prayer each day, even short ones, may sound like too much for most of us. It’s mainly in monasteries that all seven liturgical Hours are prayed. Priests typically pray five. Most laypeople focus on one, two, or three: Morning, Evening, and Night prayer.
As part of the Church’s public worship, the Liturgy of the Hours is ideally prayed in group settings. Some parishes offer Evening Prayer on Sundays or Morning Prayer after weekday Mass. Outside of these times, parish priests, deacons, and laypeople pray the Hours privately.
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL?
1. It unites us to the Church universal.
As we greet a new day, a symphony of prayer rises from cathedrals, mission chapels, city apartments, seminaries, mass transit vehicles, and homes. This melody of praise, sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, travels like a torch passed around the globe.
When we pray these daily psalms and readings, we’re united with believers around the world. There’s something powerful and satisfying about using the same words and forms used by millions of believers. Praying the Hours connects us to the communion of saints. The faithful on earth, saints in training, are joined in a unique way as we pray the psalms and canticles appointed to each day.
2. It’s liturgical.
The Liturgy of the Hours is liturgy. Along with the Mass, it’s the official public worship of the Church. When we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, we exercise the common priesthood of the faithful, which we possess through Baptism.
Since Vatican II, laypeople are delegated to offer the Hours as liturgy. Unlike clergy and religious, we’re not obligated to do so. We’re merely given the opportunity. And it’s an opportunity too good to miss.
3. It’s scriptural.
Making the Liturgy of the Hours part of your day combines prayer and Scripture—you're both reading and praying the Bible, using the word of God to praise, thank, and petition him. If you say only Morning and Evening Prayer, you’ll become familiar with about 80 psalms, several dozen Old and New Testament canticles, and 50-some short readings from the epistles. Should you tackle the Office of Readings/Matins, with its daily passages of Scripture, you’ll go over significant parts of many Old Testament books, arranged to map out the plan of salvation through the liturgical year.
The psalms, all divinely inspired, are truly the Lord’s prayers! They teach us how to praise, thank, repent, petition, and complain to God about suffering and injustice. We pray in the words that God gave us. By praying the psalms each day, we gradually absorb their language and attitude.
4. It flows from and into the Mass.
The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324). Sunday Mass should be the spiritual highlight of our week; daily Mass, when possible, the highlight of our days. The rest of our prayer should flow into and out of the Mass. There’s no better way to make that happen than the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Mass has been called a precious jewel and the Liturgy of the Hours its golden setting. It’s easy to see why. The Liturgy of the Hours follows the Church calendar, observing its seasons, solemnities, and feasts. Praying the Hours keeps us aware of what the Church commemorates or celebrates each day throughout the year and reminds us of the Church seasons.
Our daily experience of the Hours provides a pattern of prayer with enough variety to prevent boredom. It extends and amplifies each Mass we attend with psalms, antiphons, and readings that complement it.
5. It’s the prayer of Jesus.
David Letterman’s Top Ten Lists start with number 10 and become progressively wittier. If I were to list the Top Reasons to Pray the Liturgy of the Hours, it would be difficult to put the reasons in order of importance, except for number one: in the psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours, you’ll meet Jesus. You’ll pray with him and in him. Jesus will pray with you and in you. Christ is present in the Liturgy of the Hours because this prayer is scriptural, liturgical, and united to the Mass.
Daria Sockey is a writer, mother of seven, and experienced homeschooler. This text is taken from her book The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours (Franciscan Media).
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