Register SummaryIn his weekly general audience April 4 Pope John Paul continued to encourage Christians, especially the laity, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. He recalled the conviction of the ancient monks that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church's prayer allowed a “special ‘energy’ … to burst forth from the verses of the psalms.” The Pope also said that the arrangement of prayers throughout the day in the Liturgy of the Hours responded to the Lord's command to “pray without ceasing.”
Before embarking on the commentary on the individual psalms and canticles of morning prayer, today we will complete the introductory reflections begun in the last catechesis. We will do this by catching the drift of a deeply cherished aspect of the spiritual tradition: When singing the psalms, a Christian experiences a kind of harmony between the Spirit present in the Scriptures and the Spirit dwelling in him through baptismal grace. Rather than praying in his own words, he echoes those ‘inexpressible groanings’ of which St. Paul speaks (Romans 8:26), by which the Spirit of the Lord moves believers to unite themselves to Jesus' distinctive prayer: ‘Abba, Father!’ (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
The ancient monks were so certain of this truth that they were not concerned to sing the psalms in their own mother tongue; it was enough for them to realize that they were in some way ‘organs’ of the Holy Spirit. They were convinced that their faith would allow a special ‘energy’ of the Holy Spirit to burst forth from the verses of the psalms. The same conviction is evident in the characteristic use of the psalms that was called ‘ejaculatory prayer’ (from the Latin word ‘iaculum,’ that is, dart) to indicate very brief expressions of the psalms that could be ‘thrown,’ almost as fiery barbs — against temptations, for example. John Cassian, a writer who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, mentions that some monks had discovered the extraordinary power of the very brief beginning of Psalm 69: ‘O God, come to my assistance! O Lord, make haste to help me’ — a prayer that from then on acquired the role of entryway to the Liturgy of the Hours (Conlationes, 10,10: CPL 512, 298 ss).
Christ Present in the Church's Praise
Together with the presence of the Holy Spirit, another important element is the priestly action Christ carries out in this prayer, associating the Church his Spouse with himself. In this regard, referring precisely to the Liturgy of the Hours, the Second Vatican Council teaches: ‘The High Priest of the new and eternal Covenant, Jesus Christ … unites to himself all the community of men, and associates himself in raising this divine canticle of praise. Indeed, Christ continues this priestly office through his Church, which praises the Lord incessantly and intercedes for the salvation of the whole world, not only with the celebration of the Eucharist, but also in other ways, especially with the recitation of the Divine Office’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 83).
The Liturgy of the Hours, therefore, also has the character of public prayer, in which the Church is particularly engaged. It is enlightening, then, to rediscover how the Church progressively established this, her specific commitment to prayer, spread throughout the various periods of the day. In order to do this it is necessary to go back to the early times of the apostolic community, when there was still a close link between Christian prayer and what was called ‘legal prayers’ — prescribed, that is, by the Mosaic law — which took place at specific hours of the day in the temple of Jerusalem. From the book of Acts we know that the Apostles ‘devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area’ (2:46), and that they went ‘up to the temple area for the three o'clock hour of prayer’ (3:1). We also know, moreover, that the ‘legal prayers’ par excellence were precisely morning and the evening prayer.
Gradually, Jesus' disciples identified some psalms that were particularly appropriate for specific times of the day, week and year, grasping their profound meaning in relation to the Christian mystery. St. Cyprian is an authoritative witness of this process. In the first half of the third century, he wrote: ‘It is necessary, in fact, to pray at the beginning of the day to celebrate the Lord's resurrection in morning prayer. This corresponds to what the Holy Spirit indicated long ago in the Psalms with these words: ‘You are my king, my Lord, for to you do I pray. O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; you will hear my supplication; in the morning I will come before you and contemplate you’ (Psalms 5:3-4). … When the sun sets and day is over, it is necessary to pray again. In fact, because Christ is the true sun and the true day, by requesting in prayer, at the moment when the sun and the day of the world end, that the light will shine above us again, we call on Christ to return and bring us the grace of eternal light’ (De oratione dominica, 35: PL 39, 655).
Christian tradition did not limit itself to perpetuating the Jewish tradition, but developed new practices that in various ways reflected all the experiences of prayer in the life of Jesus' disciples. In fact, in addition to reciting the Our Father in the morning and evening, Christians freely chose the psalms for celebrating their daily prayer. Throughout history, this process suggested the use of specific psalms for particularly significant times of faith. Among these, in first place there was the vigil prayer, which prepared for Sunday, the Lord's Day, on which the Easter Resurrection was celebrated.
A typically Christian feature was the addition of the Trinitarian doxology to the end of every psalm and canticle: ‘Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.’ In this way, every psalm and canticle is illumined by the fullness of God.
Christian prayer is born, nourished and develops around the paschal mystery of Christ, the faith event par excellence. Thus, in the morning and in the evening, at the rising and the setting of the sun, Easter, the Lord's passage from death to life was commemorated. The symbol of Christ as the ‘light of the world’ appears in the lamp lit during the prayer of Vespers, which for this reason is also called light bearer. The daytime hours recall, in turn, the account of the Lord's Passion, while the mid-morning hour recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Finally, night prayer has an eschatological character, evoking Jesus' recommendation to watch while awaiting his return (Mark 13:35-37).
By arranging their prayer at intervals, Christians responded to the Lord's command to ‘pray without ceasing’ (Luke 18:1; 21:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18), never forgetting that all of life must in some way become a prayer. In this regard, Origen wrote: ‘He prays without ceasing who unites prayer with works and works with prayer’ (On Prayer, XII, 2: PG 11, 452 C).
This panorama taken together constitutes the natural environment for the recitation of the psalms. If they are experienced and lived this way, the Trinitarian doxology that crowns every psalm becomes, for each believer in Christ, a continuous plunging — on the wave of the Spirit and in communion with the whole people of God — into the ocean of life and peace in which he was immersed at baptism, that is, into the mystery of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
(Translation by Zenit and Register)