“Christian prayer is primarily the prayer of the entire community of mankind joined to Christ Himself.”
– Pope St Paul VI
I have written previously about my attempts at praying the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. Those attempts were not always successful, at least in terms of consistency – sometimes, there would be long periods during which I did pray the Hours, but there were also periods where I did not.
The thing is, during those occasions where the Hours were absent from my daily spiritual routine, I really felt as though something was missing, that there was a spiritual gap just waiting to be filled.
I think the main reason for this is that I really do love Scripture – the Gospels in particular, especially Luke and John; but also the Psalms.
There is something quite extraordinary about the Psalms – they seem to offer something for every occasion and they convey and reflect every movement of the human heart. So often, they give words to the unspoken sighs within my heart. And of course, the Hours are just filled with Psalms.
But there is a further reason why I felt the absence of the Hours. This particular prayer is the official prayer of the Church. As Pope Paul VI wrote in ‘Laudis Canticum’, introducing the revisions to the Divine Office –
“the official prayer of the Church is at the same time the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His Body, addresses to the Father. Thus when the Divine Office is said, our voices re-echo in Christ and His in us.”
And I think it was this sense of union that I was missing.
The same Psalms, Canticles, antiphons are being prayed by the whole Church in every corner of the world. The Holy Father in Rome is praying the exact same prayers as I am praying here in the United Kingdom, or an enclosed Carmelite in Peru, or a parish priest in New York, or an elderly lay woman at home in Australia. This feeling of unity in the praying of the Hours is, for me at least, almost tangible.
As I have noted before now, I began praying the Hours way back in the 1980s – at which point, I really fell in love with it as a form of prayer. St Elizabeth of the Trinity said “the Divine Office is so good – I love it with a passion” – and I can empathise with her sentiment.
Over time, this practice of praying the Hours has led to a familiarity which has long since removed any sense of the intricacies or difficulties which people sometimes experience, at least at the beginning of the praying of the Hours – I am very comfortable with the ribbons and ‘all that jumping about’ between sections of the book itself, as I have sometimes heard it (accurately) described.
So what stops me praying the Hours, during those periods of absence that I mentioned?
I think there have been two reasons.
The first reason is time.
To pray the Hours ‘successfully’ in terms of consistency, one needs to give it the time it needs. It doesn’t need much time – fifteen minutes in the morning and another ten in the evening generally suffices as a basic requirement, if praying Morning and Evening Prayer (also called Lauds and Vespers, respectively). There are more Hours then just these two, of course – but the Church calls these two the “hinges” upon which the entire Office hangs.
The second reason is habit.
It’s really important to commit to praying the Hours, even if just two of them each day. Skipping Morning Prayer one day quickly becomes forgetting it later in the day – and again the next. And so it seems to me that if intending to really pray the Hours, commitment is necessary – that means actively and deliberately setting aside the necessary time to pray it and to pray it well. In other words, we need to form the habit of prayer – for the Divine Office as much as for any other form of prayer, which is something I have written about previously.
Dom Benedict Hardy OSB, prior of Pluscarden Abbey here in Scotland, looked at why we might want to pray the Hours. In an article on the Abbey website, he wrote –
“Why would anyone want to take up saying the Divine Office, especially if already they have a good routine of personal prayer and regular Mass attendance? One of the most central and fundamental of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council is that all the baptised are called to the fullness of the Christian life; to the fullness of holiness. So all the baptised are called to participate fully in the life of the Church. At the heart of the life of the Church, and at the source of her holiness, is her divine worship: the liturgy.. Therefore all the baptised are called to participate fully, consciously and actively in the liturgy. It’s their privilege, their birthright, their dignity.. By participating in the liturgy we exercise our baptismal priesthood; our participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps this reality goes some way toward explaining that sense of unity with the Church which I mentioned above. Dom Benedict touches on this when he goes on to write –
“This prayer of Christ and of his Church is the liturgy. It’s praise of God the Father through Jesus Christ our Priest. It’s also the song of love sung by the Church as Bride for her lover the divine Bridegroom, Christ the Lord.. If the official liturgy of the Church contains all that, then obviously it has a dignity and a value that far surpasses any merely individual prayer. Certainly we have to pray as individuals; certainly our prayer has to be fully personal, authentic, unique to ourselves; but as Catholics we know we do so within a vastly greater reality, the reality of the Mystical Body, of the communion of the Saints, in union with the whole Church both now in heaven and spread throughout the world.”
Recently, I have made a further effort to pray the Hours with consistency and so far, so good. Having retired from work recently, I have much more available time and so a lack of time is not an issue for me. I am working on making the praying of the Hours habit, something I actively intend to do and for which I very deliberately set aside the time.
The next step for me is to add in the Hour of Night Prayer, or Compline. This is the perfect Hour with which to end the day, particularly as Evening Prayer was already some hours beforehand. It’s a shorter Hour, too, so hopefully that will go well.
If you, too, pray the Hours – please leave a comment and let me know what attracts you to it, and what helps or hinders you.