Liturgy of the Hours: a Catholic, ancient form of prayer that used to intimidate the heck out of me.
I walked into our campus’ chapel once to find our priests and FOCUS missionaries praying morning prayer, one of the parts of Liturgy of the Hours. I optimistically tried to follow along, until I soon discovered that there was simply too much page flipping, too much standing up and sitting down, and too many confusing say-this-thing-but-not-that-thing-but-sometimes-this-thing parts. I made sure to avoid that specific time slot in the chapel in the future.
Until I realized that LITURGY OF THE HOURS IS AWESOME!!
But first, what even is it? I had no clue.
THE Daily Prayer of the Church
Liturgy of the Hours goes by many names: Divine Office, Breviary, Flippy Book (I may be the only one who uses this last one, though). As the USCCB states, it is “the daily prayer of the Church, marking the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayer.” The five “hours” during which you offer praise to God in this prayer are (1) Office of Readings, (2) Morning Prayer or “Lauds,” (3) Daytime Prayer (divided into specific parts of the daytime), (4) Evening Prayer or “Vespers,” and (5) Night Prayer or “Compline.”
The Divine Office traces its roots back to the early Church (more info.) Although the practice of marking the day with prayer has been engrained in our faith throughout all of salvation history. The prayers usually come in a Breviary, a thick book with many ribbons that mark specific hours or seasons in the Liturgical Year. They focus heavily on the Psalms, but include parts from all over the Bible and particularly the Gospel.
In reflecting on these verses, we have the opportunity to hear the Spirit’s voice, to realize that God crafted these words knowing that we, specifically, would read them. And, fun fact: like the Mass readings, the readings we reflect on change each day and week. Any Catholic reading the Divine Office that day is reflecting on the same unique piece of God’s inspired Word.
Even the title “the daily prayer of the Church” points to its significance. I would think the Rosary or the Mass would earn that title (though the Mass is the source and summit of our faith, so I think it wins in the end). But no it’s the Breviary!
But anyways, fun fact #2, priests don’t actually have to celebrate Mass every day. But they DO have to pray the hours of the Divine Office. Every single day. Ask your nearest priest, he can prove it!
All this to say, Liturgy of the Hours rocks. It’s such a beautiful aspect of our faith. For centuries, priests and religious have poured their intercession into our Church family through this form of prayer. For lay people today, and especially us as young Catholics, it can serve as a powerful reminder of the Lord who constantly surrounds our daily life.
The Fruits of Divine Office
Unity. I think this one of the greatest things to be earned from incorporating Divine Office into our daily routines. I’m writing this from a coffee shop in Nicaragua, where I will be spending the next two months of my summer. New foods, new languages, and new experiences make me nervous about staying connected to my Church community. The Eucharist and the Divine Office keep me sane and ease these fears.
I can reflect on the prayers each day and know that my Catholic brothers and sisters are reading these same words. My chaplains back home, my parish priest, the awesome Dominican Sisters in Nashville (who sing the words of Divine Office), and the priest down the street at the local Church here are all praying with me. And even my friends and family members who also use this form of prayer. Friends, strangers, all of us are reflecting on this same devotional.
Where to Start:
So you want to give this whole shindig a try? First of all, know that you don’t have to pray the Divine Office if it’s not for you (unless you’re a priest, sorry). And if you decide you do like it, you don’t have to do all the prayers (unless you’re a priest, sorry again). And you don’t have to the hours at that actual time, although it’s preferred.
The Flippy Book is confusing, so I’d recommend praying with your priest or a well-versed friend at first. They can help you set the ribbons and explain what you need to know to get off the ground.
A far less intimidating way to start is with an app version. I personally love iBreviary, but there are many awesome alternatives. They present the prayers for that specific day, as the format can change based on the season, whether or not it’s a feast day, etc.
Furthermore, Compline (night prayer) is probably the most accessible and the best place to start. Unlike the other hours, it repeats on a weekly cycle (the others rotate on a 4 week cycle). This means that every Monday, Tuesday, etc. you pray the same prayer specific to that day. It’s much simpler and includes less flipping. Then from there you can learn more about the other hours, especially morning and evening prayers, which are both particularly common.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to mess up. I may get completely off and start doing the wrong prayers for this whole 2 months, but hey, prayer is prayer. Already I’ve seen the Lord speak life through His words in these prayers. And, perhaps more significantly, I’ve found myself better able to think of Him. It’s so easy in our busy world to put Him off, to reserve Him only for that one hour on Sundays. But by marking each day–and even each part of our day–as a blessing from Him, His presence becomes second nature.
So, if you ever are to mozy on into a morning prayer party, be not afraid!! You can do this! Join the ranks of awesome nuns and priests and saints and monks and lay people and conquer the Flippy Book.
I believe in you. And know that I’ll offer my Liturgy of the Hours prayers for you.