Thursday, November 17, 2011

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours

It’s always a good thing to hear that the Holy Father has called for something and then to realize, “Great! We’re already doing that!” Yesterday, in his weekly General Audience, Pope Benedict said:

“I would like to renew my call to everyone to pray the Psalms, to become accustomed to using the Liturgy of the Hours, Lauds, Vespers and Compline.”

For some time now, CCM has sponsored Vespers (Evening Prayer) each Tuesday night at 6:00pm at the church. This is followed by Eucharistic Adoration (with confession available) until 8:30pm, and ends with Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament. If you haven’t come out for this, you should!

Pastoral guidance on prayer

As Pope Benedict is the successor to St. Peter, he is the chief shepherd of the Church. And as such, he is constantly giving pastoral guidance to all of us Christians on how we can better live out our lives in accordance with the Gospel of Christ. In this instance, the Holy Father is echoing the Church’s call to all Christians to pray the Psalms and, specifically, the Liturgy of the Hours.

The life of a Christian necessarily includes regular prayer, but this is an area of our faith lives where many of us struggle. We’ve discussed prayer many times this semester in our Good Cheer sessions, at our Veritas Retreat and in small group sessions. Prayer is one of the foundational building blocks for a life rooted in Christ, but, in different ways, we often fall short of basic expectations: praying at least three times each day.

The early Christians were no different from us in many ways. They had busy lives full of time-consuming activities and obligations. They, however, knew the importance of praying together (in community) and alone. How did they do this? Well, they had two important tools – tools that we, too, possess: they had Jesus’ example and they had the Psalms.

Praying like Jesus

Jesus led and taught by word and deed. The Gospels tell us that he frequently separated himself from the disciples to pray alone. We, too, can deliberately withdraw to pray. Turning off the TV and the computer. Silencing our phone. We can “leave the world” for a few moments to talk and listen to God.

Christ also taught us how to pray. He taught us to pray to our Father “in secret.” He also gave us the beautiful words of the Our Father (i.e. the Lord’s Prayer).

The Psalms, too, were an important part of Christian prayer in the days of Christ and beyond. They are, essentially, a prayer book, expressing the wide range of human emotions in a constant dialogue with God. And they are supposed to be prayed.  

Carrying on the Christian tradition of prayer

Early Christians carried on the ancient Jewish practice of dividing the days into parts and praying at certain intervals each day. Praying at these set times (or, “hours”), the Christians would pray through all 150 psalms within a cycle of daily prayer. Then, they’d start all over. This is the foundation of the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office).

The complete daily cycle of the Liturgy of the Hours contains seven times for prayer in the day and night. Their names, and the normal time that they are prayed are:

-       Office of Readings – any time
-       Lauds (Morning Prayer) – usually sunrise or upon waking
-       Terce (Midmorning Prayer) – traditionally around 10am
-       Sext (Midday Prayer) – traditionally at noon
-       None (Midafternoon Prayer) – traditionally around 3pm
-       Vespers (Evening Prayer) – usually sunset or early evening
-       Compline (Night Prayer) – usually just before going to sleep

In the Liturgy of the Hours, the cycle of the psalms is used. In fact, in imitation of Christ and the early Christians, the psalms comprise the backbone of the Liturgy of the Hours. Some religious brothers and sisters (and even some laypeople) observe all seven “offices” each and every day. Most laypeople who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, however, pray only the three “main” offices: Lauds, Vespers and Compline. And no matter how busy your schedule may be, praying these three offices is very doable.

How to get started

You, too, can pray the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s really not that hard and when you join in, you’re uniting your voice with those of millions around the world who take up the same prayers each day. That’s a powerful reality.

If you’re beginning to take up the Liturgy of the Hours, you might want to start out by praying just one office (Lauds, or Morning Prayer, for example). Try this every day for a couple of weeks, until you get used to the idea of daily, scheduled, prayer. After that, you might add another office (Compline, or Night Prayer). After a couple more weeks, you can find a way to fit in Vespers (Evening Prayer).

In the beginning, you might want to start out by using a website, such as Universalis. Different times and days have different psalms, readings and prayers assigned to them. Universalis provides you with the correct prayers, in the correct order, on the correct days. It makes it easy for you and – best of all – it’s free.

After you become accustomed to praying the offices, you might want to consider purchasing a Breviary (a book containing the Liturgy of the Hours) or even a smart phone app.

For those interested only in praying the three main offices (Lauds, Vespers, and Compline), I’d highly recommend purchasing Shorter Christian Prayer.  You can find it for less than $15.00. It is relatively compact and easy to take with you when you travel, etc. If you get more serious (and want the fuller experience of optional readings, etc.), you might then move on to Christian Prayer.

Some of you, however, might find a smartphone app more useful. In that category, iBreviary is probably the best app available.

However you choose to pray, follow the old Nike slogan and “just do it.” But pay heed to the Pope’s urging and start praying the Psalms. And when you get serious about doing that, remember that there’s no need to re-invent the wheel: you should start praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

Your [Holy] Father says so.