|A medieval breviary.|
A few of you came early for dinner and joined us in the chapel at 6:00pm for Evening Prayer (Vespers), which is also taken from the Liturgy of the Hours. I hope to be able to offer Vespers every Wednesday in our chapel at 6:00 for those who wish to join us.
So just what is the Liturgy of the Hours, and how easy is it for someone to get started adding this to their prayer life? Let's answer the first part of this question by first recalling just what is meant by "liturgy."
The word "liturgy" itself comes from the Greek word for public work, or work of the people. In ancient Greece it was used to describe the public works that a citizen owed his community (things like ditch digging, road building, that sort of thing). The Greek-speaking Jewish people adopted the word to mean the ritual offering that a Jewish man was obligated to offer each year on behalf of his family. Christians inherited the religious meaning of the word and still use it today to refer to the communal, corporate prayer of the Church.
So liturgy is a public, corporate prayer, even when it is done alone. It differs from personal prayer in that when one prays liturgically one is joined in prayer by the entire Church. Personal prayer is a wonderful thing and absolutely necessary in order to foster a relationship with God. But liturgical prayer is also vitally important, inasmuch as in the liturgy we offer prayers not as individuals, but as a part of the larger Body of Christ, on behalf of the Body of Christ. The liturgy that most Catholics are familiar with is the Mass. But the Liturgy of the Hours is (as the name states) also liturgical prayer.
Other names for the Liturgy of the Hours are Divine Office, Breviary, Psalter, and Christian Prayer. Many times people may use these words interchangeably, but for our purposes we'll use Liturgy of the Hours.
The idea of marking set times (or "hours") of the day with formal prayer is an ancient one, representing the Church's desire to follow Christ's command to "pray without ceasing." The Liturgy of the Hours grew from the monastic tradition of coming together at certain times during the day to pray and to praise God, largely by use of the psalms. Historically, the day was divided into 8 three hour periods. Monks and nuns would start their day by praying at midnight; they would pray again every three hours at 3:00am, 6:00am, 9:00am, noon, 3:00pm, 6:00pm, and finally prayer at 9:00pm before they would get a few hours sleep before rising again at midnight to start the cycle over. Thus the entire day was sanctified by prayer.
From a very early date, lay people desired to imitate the monastics in their habit of prayer, but obviously not every person's schedule allows for the above sort of routine! Traditional prayers such as the Angelus arose around the prayer schedule of the local monastery. When farmers in the field would hear the monastery bells sounding at 6:00am, noon, and 6:00pm to call the monks to prayer, they would bow their heads and recite the Angelus briefly, which is why the Angelus is traditionally prayed at those times.
So who prays the Liturgy of the Hours these days? Is it only for monks and nuns? No. While professed religious are obligated to pray the Liturgy of the Hours each day, secular or diocesan priests are also obligated to pray them (though I believe they are only obligated to pray five of the hours; our priests need their sleep!), and deacons are obligated to pray two Hours. These would be Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (Lauds and Vespers in Latin), which are considered the "hinge" prayers of the liturgy.
Lay people, too, are invited to pray the Hours, as much as they are able, though they are under no obligation to do so. More and more, the faithful laity are picking up the Liturgy of the Hours as a means of increasing their prayer life and consecrating the hours of their day to Christ. Even if you are only able to pray the Hours at morning and evening, it is a wonderful way to begin and end your day by offering it to God.
The Liturgy of the Hours in their current form still consist mainly of the psalms, arranged with other scriptures, and intercessory prayer. Being as it is liturgy, it is important than when one prays the Hours that they do so in the proper way. Unlike personal prayer, you wouldn't just open up your Breviary or Christian Prayer book to a random page and start praying. You could do that, and it might in fact be a wonderful prayer, but it would not be the actual Liturgy of the Hours. Just like you wouldn't make up the prayers at Mass, it is important to pray the actual Hours for that time and that day, in the way that the Church intends. In this way, your prayer is joined in unison with the prayer of the world-wide Church.
So how does one get started? You could purchase the entire four-volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours and start praying all of the hours like the monks and nuns. They only cost $125, which I'm sure is money every college student has laying around at their disposal, right?
Or you could do what I did, which is to purchase the single volume Christian Prayer book, which only costs $30 and has everything you need to pray Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. And let's face it... you aren't going to start your adventure into the Liturgy of the Hours by praying all day long. Starting with just Night Prayer might be a more prudent way to go (it's the shortest). Starting with Morning and Evening prayer is a very common practice, as these are the two most important hours of the day. This single volume has everything you need for that.
But then comes the step of learning how to use the book. There are different different sections for different prayers, and different colored ribbons to mark the different sections. You have to know if it is a saint's feast day or not. And if it is a solemnity, a feast, a memorial, or an optional memorial. Some of the prayers for the hours might be found in the common of martyrs, or the common of holy women, or they might be prayers proper for that day. Is it Advent? Or Easter? Special prayers for the different seasons, too. I can vouch from experience that it takes some time to get used to navigating around the book and learning where you need to be when. Having someone who already knows to show you how is a real help. But once you do learn, it becomes second nature and (somewhat) less of a hassle.
Today, though, there are many resources that were not available to me when I first started praying the Hours. There are many online resources and apps for tablets and smart phones that take all the guess work out of the process.
Two in particular I have found helpful are DivineOffice.org and iBreviary.org. Both are available as apps for your tablet or smart phone. I tend to like the format of DivineOffice better. This is a paid app. I think when I first looked at it, it was $15 to $20, but I happened to purchase it when it was on sale for $4.95. I'm not sure what it is going for now. One really nice thing about the DivineOffice app is that it has the index for the page numbers in the Christian Prayer book. So even if you prefer to pray using the book (I do), you can at least use the app to make sure you are on the right page.
The iBreviary app has the benefit of being free. It also contains the Liturgy of the Hours in many different languages, including English, Spanish, French, and Latin.
The great thing about using either app to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is that they lay it all out for you in sequence, so you don't have to worry about flipping to this section of the book for the psalms, another section for the propers of saints, etc. You just have to scroll and pray from top to bottom. Both also have the option of praying the Hours for free online using their web site, so you don't even need to download the app (a great option for those who don't have a smart phone or tablet device).
Most people I know prefer to pray with a print volume versus a website. And I agree, there is just something about holding a book in your hand (especially a well-worn prayer book) that is satisfying and that feels more pious. But the apps and web pages can be great resources for those travelling on the road, and also for those just starting out. Without investing any money, without having to learn to navigate the unfamiliar divisions of a complex prayer book, you, too, can begin praying the Liturgy of the Hours. It's the official prayer of the Church, employed by nuns, monks, bishops, priests, deacons and lay people for centuries. And you can start joining them in prayer today.