Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Liturgy of the Hours
It’s early morning, the earth is still dark, and the sun has not yet begun its ascent into the sky. You shift your legs out of bed and your bare feet hit the cold, stone floor. You dress quickly and head over to the chapel, as you do every day. Nods of greeting pass between you and your companions as you each take your places in your stalls, and the chant begins…“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” For those who live in Monasteries, this is a beautiful daily ritual, gathering at set times each day for the communal prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours.
Jesus exhorts us to pray always, and the church, in her wisdom, has provided us with a method that helps us to do just that. The Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office, as it is also called, is the prayer of the entire church and it sanctifies the day of those who pray it. The Christian practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours goes back to the first apostles who continued the Jewish custom of praying at certain times of the day. “Seven times a day, I praise you.” Psalm 118
Today the Liturgy of the Hours consists of six set times of prayer:
-Morning Prayer or Lauds (Latin for praise) in which we dedicate our day to God upon arising. It consists of several Psalms and canticles, a short reading from Scripture, a responsory, a hymn, the Benedictus canticle of Zechariah, intercessions, and the Our Father.
-Evening Prayer or Vespers (Latin for evening) where we offer Thanksgiving at the end of the day, has the same structure as Lauds, except it has Mary’s Magnificat instead of the Benedictus.
-Compline (Latin for complete) or Night Prayer, is a short, simple prayer said before retiring for the night.
In addition, prayer can be offered at intervals throughout the day-
-Terce (Latin for 3rd hour since it is approximately three hours since sunrise) at midmorning
-Sext (Latin for 6th hour) at noon
-None (pronounced like “bone”, Latin for ninth hour) in midafternoon
Together, these mid-day prayers are known as the Little Hours or Daytime Hours, and are intended to break up the day. The seventh hour, Prime, which came between Lauds and Terce, was abolished in 1970.
The Office of Readings (formerly part of Matins which would be prayed at 2 or 3 AM) can be prayed at any time during the day and it consists of two long readings, one from Scripture and the other from our Church Fathers.
Upon the reception of Holy Orders, praying the Liturgy of the Hours becomes a canonical requirement for all deacons, priests and bishops. Although it is not required for the lay faithful, it can be a powerful addition to our daily prayer, a few quiet minutes, at set times each day when the rest of the church is praying as well, in which we can join our deepest longings and needs with those of the Christian world, and send our prayers to heaven in one, unified prayer of the church.
One of the beautiful aspects of praying the Liturgy of the Hours is that the psalms we pray each day don’t necessarily match our own moods and feelings at that moment, so it draws us into a wider view of God’s world, instead of allowing us to simply focus on our own personal worries and concerns. Our prayer truly is a prayer for the entire church. According to Fr. Stephanos, OSB, a monk at Prince of Peace Abbey in California, “You end up praying God’s Word about himself, and praying God’s Word for the world and yourself.”
Author and poet Kathleen Norris, spent a great deal of time living at St. John’s Benedictine Monastery in Minnesota and she wrote about her time there in her book “The Cloister Walk.” She has this to say about her experience of the Liturgy of the Hours…“Gradually, my perspective on time had changed. In our culture, time can seem like an enemy: it chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease…Liturgical time is essentially poetic time, oriented toward process rather than productivity, willing to wait attentively in stillness rather than always pushing to ‘get the job done’…every day you recite the psalms and you listen, as powerful biblical images, stories and poems are allowed to flow freely, to wash over you.”
If you have never prayed the Liturgy of the Hours before, and would like to begin, a few simple resources can be found. The book “Shorter Christian Prayer” can be purchased at local Catholic bookstores and online. It includes the cycle of Lauds and Vespers. For those who have internet access, a wonderful website to visit is the Universalis Site. Here you can find an easy to use Liturgy of the Hours that is updated daily. If you’d like to get a taste of the Liturgy of the Hours in a communal setting, many parishes offer morning and/or evening prayer.
And as the monks close out their day, they acknowledge that every moment was a gift and a favor from the Lord and they realize that they must rely on Him alone, and they pray, “God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me. Amen.” And they silently walk back to their cells to rest in the goodness of the Lord.
(Chapel image is from New Mellaray Abbey, Iowa)