Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
Years ago, when I first received the one-volume Liturgy of the Hours (“The Divine Office”), it came with a card that had a prayer prefaced with the words: “The following prayer may be said before private recitation of the Office.”
At the time, this made no sense to me: why would one have to pray before prayer? The only parallel I could come up with is saying grace twice before meals: a needless redundancy.
However, I missed the mark on this and the Easter season seems as good as time as any to remind (or introduce) a set of prayers meant to be said before and after the Divine Office—but also as a lesson in proper prayer preparation, I think they work for all prayers.
The priest, of course, spends time in mental prayer both before and after Holy Mass for many reasons, one of which is that the Mass is a liturgy. As its name states “The Liturgy of the Hours” is a liturgy (and not a private devotion), too. Thus to enter into it, whether alone or preferably with others, the following ancient prayers were established:
- The Our Father
- The Hail Mary
These two prayers precede all the hours except Compline, and at Matins and Prime (where it has been restored).
- The Apostles’ Creed is added.
The preparatory prayer itself is:
Open my mouth, Lord [here make a small cross on your lips], to bless Your Holy Name; cleanse my heart from all vain, perverse and distracting thoughts: enlighten my understanding, inflame my affections that I may be able to recite this Office worthily, attentively and devoutly, and may deserve to be heard in the presence of Your divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Lord, in union with that divine intention, wherewith You Yourself did praise God while You were on earth, I offer these Hours [this Hour] unto You. Amen.
The entire repertoire of these prayers of preparation takes maybe three minutes.
Now, we all have bad days when it comes to our prayer life. We’re in a rush, we don’t feel well—or worse, one of our children doesn’t feel well—work runs late, or some fender-bender winds up eating up a ton of time, energy and insurance.
These are, of course, simply part of life (unpleasant parts!) but absolutely ineluctable.
And so with prayer: the mind drifts, the stomach grumbles, halfway through you realize you started on the wrong page, the phone rings. Perfect prayer may only be obtained—if it is obtained at all—at Mass, which while it is the ultimate form of prayer, it is also the public sacrifice of the Church. And even there we encounter human error.
We are not, of course, angels adoring God amid the Heavenly Host here. We are sinners trying our best. But often our best efforts at prayer fall short.
To rectify this, the Church instituted a series of prayers to be said as the clerics processed out of choir, or, if the Divine Office was said individually, they were said kneeling (except during Eastertime, when there is no kneeling). While they may be said after each “Hour” of the Divine Office (Matins/Vigils [The Office of Readings], Lauds [Morning Prayer], Prime [Daytime Prayer], Terce [Midmorning Prayer], Sext [Midday Prayer], Nones [Midafternoon Prayer], Vespers [Evening Prayer], Compline [Night Prayer]), Blessed Pope Pius IX said it sufficed that they only be recited once, at the end of the Hours (ideally Compline—night prayer—but given that most of us are not Carthusian monks or Praemonstratensian Canonesses, simply after the last hour we happen recite). The prayer is:
Everlasting praise, honor, power and glory be given by all creatures to the most Holy and undivided Trinity, to the Humanity of our crucified Lord, Jesus Christ, to the fruitful purity of the most blessed and most glorious Mary ever Virgin, and to the company of all the Saints; and may we obtain the remission of all our sins throughout eternity. Amen.
Blessed be the womb of the Virgin Mary, that bore the Son of the Eternal Father.
And Blessed the breasts which nourished Christ Our Lord.
Here, a silent “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” are added. Then:
O most Clement Jesus I give You thanks with my whole heart. Be merciful to me a most unworthy sinner. This worship, which needs to be purified and perfected through Your divine Heart, I offer unto the praise and glory of Your Most Holy Name, and Your Blessed mother, for the salvation of my soul, and the salvation of the Whole Church. Amen.
A wise Trappist Monk once warned me that we must be on guard that “praying doesn’t get in the way of our prayer-life.” I think what he was advising against was making a “god” of prayer: that no matter what else happens our prayers must be said. This flies in the face of the wise advice of that wonderful Doctor of the Church, Saint Francis de Sales, who had to remind workmen that their primary duty was work (and not to sit in church all day), and that the vocational prayer life of a monk is nothing at all like that of a bishop (which he himself was). However, all of us, per St. Francis, are called to “The Devout Life,” and a huge part of that life is indeed prayer. And the prayers I’ve included here—which date back to the Council of Trent—have not only a huge amount of history and tradition behind them, but more importantly, humility and an acknowledgment that prayer is not about us. True, God does not “need” our prayers—but that does not mean He does not rejoice when we pray, and pray well.
A couple of final thoughts: While the Divine Office is not everyone’s favorite prayer it is “the prayer of the Church” — that is, while we may have many good and pious devotions and religious practices, the Liturgy of the Hours is, next to Holy Mass itself, the prayer par excellence. No wonder, then, that the prayers before (and after) the Divine Office were recited for so many centuries (until they were made optional after the Second Vatican Council). Just like a priest who prays before and after Mass, so should we do so before and after the Divine Office.