Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The beautiful gift of the Liturgy of the Hours

We cannot pray "at all times" if we do not pray at specific times

As an Anglican convert to Catholicism, I grew up in the Anglican tradition of hearing Mass on a Sunday morning and then, on a Sunday evening, attending Evensong (Vespers). From a young age, this was the norm for our family, and for many other Anglican families.

I was also extremely fortunate to be introduced, by great Anglican priests such as Fr. Thomas Amoore, Fr. Timothy Stanton, Fr. Nicolas Stebbing, Fr. Peter Lyness, and the late Bishops Simeon Nkoane and David Beetge, to the habit of praying the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) on a daily basis. My first memory thereof dates back as far as when I was still in High School. I was encouraged to go to Confession as regularly as possible and to develop the habit of praying Lauds, Vespers and Compline each day.

The Divine Office follows a tradition that the Church received from the disciples to pray as a community[2] and to pray at certain specific hours during the day.

They were all together in one place… it is only the third hour of the day.[3]
Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour.[4]
Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.[5]
But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.[6]

The Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours consists of:
(Click on each of the links to see the format and content of each hour)

Matins (Office of Readings)
Lauds (Morning Prayer)
Terce, Sext and None (Mid-Morning, Midday, and Afternoon Prayer)
Vespers (Evening Prayer)
Compline (Night Prayer)

This habit of praying the Divine Office has remained with me through the years. It has carried me through those periods when one just does not feel like praying or when one cannot seem to find the words. It has also provided me with a treasure trove of wonderful material for my personal meditation and contemplation, which has enriched my prayer life.

The life of Christ in His Mystical Body also perfects and elevates the personal life of each member of the faithful. Therefore there can be no opposition between the prayer of the Church and the personal prayer of the individual; rather the relationship between them must be strengthened and enlarged by the Divine Office. Mental prayer should draw unfailing nourishment from readings, Psalms, and the other parts of the Liturgy of the Hours.[7]

The Divine Office also served as my only tangible link to the Catholic Church, when I found myself in the army in Namibia for nearly two years. The absence of Catholic priests anywhere near me meant that I was unable to attend Mass or to receive Holy Communion. It therefore gave me great comfort to know that, although I could not receive Holy Communion, by praying the Divine Office each day, I was joining with the rest of the Catholic Church throughout the world, in this daily communal prayer.

The very celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours… expresses the genuine nature of the praying Church, and stands as a wonderful sign of that Church.[8]

I recently realised that I seldom hear Catholic laity make any mention of the Divine Office. This is strange because Anglicans received this wonderful gift of the Divine Office from the Catholic Church. It should therefore be strongest at source.

Deacons, priests and bishops pray the Divine Office on a daily basis. Yet, Pope Paul VI made it quite clear that he believed the Divine Office should be shared with everyone, not just with priests and religious.

The whole life of the faithful, hour by hour during day and night, is a kind of leitourgia or public service, in which the faithful give themselves over to the ministry of love toward God and neighbour, identifying themselves with the action of Christ, who by His life and self-offering sanctified the life of all mankind. The Liturgy of the Hours clearly expresses and effectively strengthens this sublime truth, embodied in the Christian life. For this reason the Liturgy of the Hours is recommended to all the faithful, including those who are not bound by law to their recitation.[9]

The Catholic laity may well want to enquire whether they are being deprived of a wonderful gift that could play a valuable role in their spiritual growth and development.

Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us:

Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment. But we tend to forget him who is our life and our all. This is why the Fathers of the spiritual life in the Deuteronomic and prophetic traditions insist that prayer is a remembrance of God often awakened by the memory of the heart "We must remember God more often than we draw breath." But we cannot pray "at all times" if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it. These are the special times of Christian prayer, both in intensity and duration.[10]

The Tradition of the Church proposes to the faithful certain rhythms of praying intended to nourish continual prayer. Some are daily, such as morning and evening prayer, grace before and after meals, the Liturgy of the Hours.[11]

And what about this from Sacrosanctum Concilium:

Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.[12]

How wonderful would it not be to find Vespers again being celebrated on Sunday evenings as a community? This could be the first step to teaching the laity the wonderful tradition of the Divine Office.

[2]  Acts 1:14, 4: 24, 12: 5, Ephesians 5: 19 - 21
[3]  Acts 2: 1 - 15
[4]  Acts 10: 9
[5]  Acts 3: 1
[6]  Acts 16: 25
[7]  Pope Paul VI, Laudis Canticum, November 1, 1970
[8]  Pope Paul VI, Laudis Canticum, November 1, 1970
[9]  Pope Paul VI, Laudis Canticum, November 1, 1970
[12] Pope Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium n 100, December 4, 1963

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