Many modern Catholics’ familiarity with the Liturgy of the Hours begins and ends with a ditty about an ineffective Matins bell and a dozing friar named Jacques.
But due to the encouragement of recent popes, the advent of new technology and the personal witness of Catholic bloggers and writers, the faithful have begun to waken to the timeless beauty of the liturgical prayer.
"Outside of the Mass, there is no greater way to pray than the Liturgy of the Hours," says Daria Sockey, whose book The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours is winning brand-new converts to an age-old method of prayer.
"The Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, is a marvelous form of liturgical prayer," continues Sockey. "It is a ‘sacrifice of praise’ that we pray in union with millions of others around the world, across all the time zones. No wonder Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have recommended the Liturgy of the Hours as the prayer of ‘the whole people of God.’"
The Liturgy of the Hours is comprised of a repeating cycle of prayers grouped in seven sets — or "hours" — with daily Psalms and readings following the calendar of the universal Church. Each set of prayers is designed to be prayed during a specific segment of the day: morning, mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon, evening and night, with the seventh "hour" a "floating hour" that may be prayed at any time.
In November 2011, Pope Benedict XVI told the faithful at a general audience: "I would … like to renew to you all the invitation to pray with the Psalms, even becoming accustomed to using the Liturgy of the Hours of the Church, lauds in the morning, vespers in the evening and Compline before retiring. Our relationship with God cannot but be enriched with greater joy and trust in the daily journey towards him."
Sockey likens the Liturgy of the Hours to a "flaming torch of prayer being passed around the globe," joining praying Catholics to their fellow believers worldwide.
Although clergy and religious have long recognized the transcendence of the Divine Office, its pre-eminence as a method of prayer may come as a surprise to today’s laity.
Comments Sockey, "As ‘part two’ of the official, public worship of the Catholic Church — ‘part one’ being the Mass — it is in a category of prayer different from private devotions."
In fact, before daily Mass became customary, the Divine Office was the daily liturgy of the faithful.
"In the early Middle Ages, the bells that called priests and monks to prayer also drew in the laity from village and field," Sockey explains. "They would gather to listen as lauds or vespers were chanted."
The Horae Sanctae Crucis, from a medieval Book of Hours, linked the seven liturgical hours to scenes from Christ’s passion. The poem helped the faithful to remember the names and timing of the hours:
At Matins bound, at Prime reviled,
Condemned to death at Terce,
Nailed to the Cross at Sext.
At None His blessed Side they pierce,
They take Him down at Vesper-tide.
In the grave at Compline lay,
Who thenceforth bids His Church observe
These sevenfold hours alway.
This was, of course, well before mobile apps such as iBreviary.com, DivineOffice.org and Universalis.com made it unnecessary to set down one’s farm implements and trudge to the neighborhood monastery in order to pray.
"Apps that help Catholics pray the Divine Office are gaining popularity because Catholics want to grow stronger in their faith," says Tom Lelyo, founder of CatholicApps.com. "The Liturgy of the Hours is the ideal vehicle for this because it helps Catholics to pray more often, know Scripture better, live the liturgical year and enter into the public worship of the Church. It’s a perfect response to Sacrosanctum Concilium, in which the bishops encouraged more lay participation in the liturgy."
With all the benefits to be culled from praying the Divine Office, one might assume that each of its "hours" requires a substantial commitment of time, if not a full 60 minutes.
"Don’t let the term ‘hours’ scare you," assures Sockey. "The typical liturgical hour takes about 10 minutes to recite, and many who pray the Divine Office focus on no more than two or three hours daily."
According to Sockey, the early Christian practice of praying at set times of the day was carried over from the Jewish tradition of thrice-daily prayer. The custom of fixed-time prayer has endured.
"Many Catholics are familiar with the practice of praying certain prayers at certain hours of the day: the Angelus at 6am, noon and 6pm; and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at the 3pm ‘Hour of Mercy,’" observes Jeffrey Pinyan.
Pinyan, a catechist, author and blogger at the CatholicCrossReference.com, has been praying the Divine Office since 2005, when his sister gave him a one-volume Liturgy of the Hours.
"While the Liturgy of the Hours does not demand such a regimen, it does allow the praying Christian to grow in many disciplines, both spiritual and practical. And for those who struggle with organization, it is heartening to know that setting aside scheduled time for prayer can lead to better time management in secular matters."
But how does a busy layperson find 30, 20 or even 10 minutes daily in which to pray the liturgical hours?
"The key is to start small," advises Sockey. "Examine your daily routine and see which times of day present openings for a short prayer break. If you already like to get up before the rest of the family to savor some peace and quiet, then Morning Prayer should work. If you normally find time to breathe a bit either just before or just after dinner, then Evening Prayer is for you. If you get a decent lunch break at work, try Midday Prayer. Add one liturgical hour at a time and form a firm habit before adding another one. If you’re not sure which to try first, then follow the advice of the Church, which particularly recommends Morning and Evening Prayer to laymen. Or go with my personal recommendation to beginners, which is to start with Night Prayer, the easiest hour to do."
Sockey, a longtime devotee of the Liturgy of the Hours, is well-equipped to advise the faithful on such matters.
A few years before writing The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours, Sockey launched Coffee and Canticles, a "fan blog" devoted to the Liturgy of the Hours, where ordinary Catholics can go to share their enthusiasm and get questions answered. Readers responded with gusto, and Sockey soon found herself fielding questions on every conceivable aspect of the Divine Office.
"Liturgical prayer is beautiful, but complex," admits Sockey. "There is a lot of terminology associated with it that may confuse people. What are lauds and vespers? What are canticles? And what is a Breviary?"
"Consequently, some people have been too timid to try liturgical prayer at all. Then there are those who have picked up a Breviary — a small, hand-held book of the hours — and tried to use it, but gave up because they were afraid they weren’t ‘doing it right,’" says Sockey. "Some people may have attended the odd vespers or lauds service at church and wondered what that was all about. Others may have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours for a while, but need a little inspiration to help them appreciate this treasure once more.
"My book is meant for ordinary lay Catholics like them."
Celeste Behe writes from
The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours can be found at EWTN's Religious Catalogue