“It is the prayer not only of the clergy, but of the whole people of God”
– Pope Paul, Apostolic Constitution promulgating the Divine Office
Recently, I have noticed what seems to be a growing trend on a number of sites I follow, and particularly amongst those who post on Twitter. There appears to be a growing number of lay people praying the Divine Office, otherwise known as the Liturgy of the Hours. I keep seeing little snippets of Scripture which I recognise as coming from the hours of that day, or posts with tags such as ‘lauds’ or ‘compline’.
Initially, this began with some of the Priests and Religious whose tweets I read, but it has now expanded out to the general population. Of course, for some while now, many parishes have developed the salutary habit of encouraging the people to pray the Divine Office in Church before morning Mass. And this is good – the Divine Office is very beautiful and provides an exquisite format and clear routine for prayer, and greatly helps to encourage consistency and perseverance in prayer. Further, it will certainly have removed some of the mystique about the Office and how to pray it.
The Divine Office is the official prayer of the Church and it has roots which date back beyond the creation of the Church, going all the way back to the prayers of the Jewish community, prayed at regular intervals during the day and focusing particularly on the Psalms – the same Psalms prayed by the Lord, His Mother and His Apostles. As the early Church formed and began to take shape, monastic communities began to develop and they continued this habit of praying at ‘hours’ during the day – and night. Indeed, this is what is being referred to when the Gospels refer to ‘the third hour’ or ‘the sixth hour’.
Some changes and additions were gradually made, and the Liturgy of the Hours slowly took shape. Thanks to certain Saints and various Popes, the Liturgy of the Hours grew in popularity and spread throughout the Church. At the Second Vatican Council, the Liturgy of the Hours was fully revised so that it became easier to use and so that it was much clearer that it was intended not only for the clergy, but for all the faithful.
On the feast of All Saints in 1970, Pope Paul issued an Apostolic Constitution which promulgated the Divine Office. He described it as being ‘a kind of necessary complement to the Sacrifice of the Eucharist.. at definite times and places extending this worship into the different hours of daily life’. And that is precisely the purpose of the Divine Office – the sanctification of the whole day.
Pope Paul went on to note the development of the book containing the Hours, which is called the Breviary. This is the book you may see Priests or Religious carrying, with ribbons marking sections of it. Priests and Religious are obliged to pray the Divine Office every day, but Pope Paul noted very explicitly that ‘it is the prayer not only of the Clergy, but of the whole people of God’.
Along with this, a ‘General Instruction On The Liturgy Of The Hours’ was published which gave instructions on exactly how to pray the Divine Office, and the reasons for doing so. It is a beautiful and enlightening document and it will help anyone who wants to pray in this way.
The two major ‘Hours’ of the Divine Office are Morning Prayer (‘lauds’) and Evening Prayer (‘vespers’). These two are eloquently described as the ‘hinges’ of the Office. There are also the longer ‘Office of Readings’ and several shorter Hours during the day, and then a final Hour called ‘compline’ or Night Prayer.
Taking Morning Prayer as an example, the broad theme is one of the praise of God. The Hour begins with an invitation to praise God, followed by a Psalm which is repeated each day; a hymn follows this; and then there are three Psalms or Canticles, each with an antiphon repeated at the beginning and end; and then a reading from the New Testament. After this, a canticle called the ‘Benedictus’ is prayed (with an antiphon). Prayers of intercession are then offered, along with the Our Father, and then a concluding prayer.
The general format is much the same for Evening Prayer, although there are different Canticles. The Psalms which are prayed follow a four week cycle, with specific Psalms and prayers for particular days, occasions and feasts. Morning Prayer is perhaps the longest Hour prayed by most people, and tends to take about fifteen minutes to pray.
The Breviary itself comes in several versions. For those who wish to pray for the full Divine Office (including the Office of Readings), there is a 4-volume set (or 3-volume, depending on where in the world you are) which contains everything – this is the version used mainly by those bound to pray the Office.
There is also a volume called ‘Daily Prayer’ (in the UK) or ‘Christian Prayer’ (in the USA); this contains the full Office apart from the Office of Readings, which are given only for major feast days. It also contains the minor Hours and Night Prayer. For most lay people, this is probably the volume to be recommended and which will offer all that is needed.
A further volume, called ‘Morning and Evening Prayer’ contains the two major Hours but not the minor Hours, while there is also a condensed volume called ‘Shorter Morning And Evening Prayer’.
All of these volumes come with ribbons to allow the reader to keep track of where they should be and to move between the daily parts and those sections which are repeated often, as well as the specific prayers taken from the Calendar or from the ‘Proper’ sections for a particular solemnity, feast, memoria or occasion.
Although there are now various online websites and even ‘apps’ which offer the Divine Office each day, my personal preference is to use the Breviary itself. Although it sometimes has a reputation for being complicated, this isn’t really the case and practice, as they say, makes perfect. There are many online tutorials showing how to use the Breviary, but perhaps the best way is to pray along with someone else who knows what to do. This is how I learned. If you are not sure and have a particular question, it might be that the best person to ask is your Parish Priest.
So now you now the basics of ‘what’ the Divine Office is, the real question is – ‘why’ would you pray it?
Perhaps the first response to this question is a very obvious one – we pray it because the Church recommends it to us, and because centuries of experience have proven the fruitfulness of doing so. It gives the entire Church a single voice upon the earth, that voice rising to heaven like incense before the Throne of God. It sanctifies our day by calling us to prayer at regular times and in doing this, we fulfil the commandment to ‘pray without ceasing’.
The Liturgy of the Hours is very much focussed on Scripture, and so this helps fulfil our need to become familiar with the Bible, in which we come to know the Lord, for He reveals Himself there and speaks to us in the stillness of the heart.
It is – as noted above – the official prayer of the Church; so on any particular day, you will be praying the same prayers as your Parish Priest, the local enclosed Nuns, the Bishops of your country, all who are bound by Religious vows, a great and increasing number of the lay faithful, and the Holy Father in Rome. This united global prayer means that we are contributing something of ourselves into that great Treasury of Prayer being offered daily by the Church throughout the world. We are taking our place as part of the Mystical Body in a very real way. Pope Paul wrote that in doing this, we are echoing the praise of the Saints in Heaven.
Finally, the Divine Office is ancient and very beautiful indeed. I first prayed the Divine Office in the early 1980s – I fell instantly in love with it and I have loved it ever since; there is something timeless and mystical about the Psalms, which seem to lift the soul to Heaven itself.
If you have read this far and perhaps found your appetite ‘whetted’ for more, why not go and have a look and try it for yourself. You might just love it.