Editor’s note: Catholic devotions: why do they matter, what are they made of, what are they are not. In a strong and prescriptive phrase in his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote “we ought to praise not only the building and adornment of churches, but also the images and veneration of them according to what they represent.” He seemed to press the point even further, writing “we should show our esteem for the relics of the saints by venerating them and praying to the saints. We should praise visits to Station Churches, pilgrimages, indulgences, jubilees, crusade insults, and the lighting of candles in churches.” For some, these devotions are the spiritual life-blood of the believing Church; for others they may seem simplistic or quaint. But in the spirit of our founder, we, too, seek to explore and understand the powerful role of devotions in the Church today.
“Singing the psalmody refreshes and invigorates the mind for contemplation. It stores thoughts and images which renders the recollection of God constant and fruitful.”
- St. Basil the Great
Jesus called his disciples to “pray always and not lose heart” (Lk 18:1). A few decades later, the apostle Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). It seems that all her members were called to make their whole day an offering of prayer from the very beginning of the life of the Church. Yet at the same time, the unspoken, nagging question accompanying such a tall task is quite plainly: how are we to realize this invitation to “pray without ceasing”?
I hate to spoil the suspense and reveal the answer so early in the plot, but the answer that the early desert fathers and mothers offered the Church was the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. Even today, praying the Liturgy of the Hours is a rather common and popular devotion, not to mention that the daily life of prayer of all monasteries in the East and West revolves around this ancient practice.
So, what is this devotion? Simply put, it is praying the psalms. But it’s much more that that. We can read the psalms and perhaps meditate on the psalms. Like any other book of the Bible, we can read it and move on to the next one, perhaps not returning to it again for a while. The Liturgy of the Hours goes far beyond this, however.
From the very beginning, Christian prayer was almost synonymous with the prayer of the Jewish people, as the first Christians were Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews. It is not clear from historical records how many of these prayers the early Christians adopted in the first century, but what is clear is that they adopted the concept of praying the psalms at different times of the day (the Hours) (c.f., Acts 3:1; 10:9,30). The Psalms were particularly important to them because they were the prayers that Jesus would have known by heart and prayed every day. Also, they weren’t just “any prayers”, as they were found in Sacred Scripture, which made them divinely inspired. The early Church desired to imitate their master by praying the way he did – and also came to realize that all the longings of our heart, our deepest desires and fears, all the problems, joys and struggles are found in the psalms.
So, what better way to appropriate the psalms than to pray them every day? How else to engrave them upon our hearts if not by knowing them by heart? Think of your favourite music band and a song that you really, really like. If you hear it enough times, you’ll learn the words, and the words will keep coming back to you wherever you go, whether you like it or not! It is the same with the psalms. Having become familiar with them through frequent repetition, they become second nature to us. Key passages that really speak to us would often surface and be on our mind. In moments of trouble, psalms of trust would come to us. In other words, we would pray without ceasing. The words of the psalmist would ever be on our lips. In one of his letters, St. Basil the Great writes that “singing the psalmody refreshes and invigorates the mind for contemplation. It stores thoughts and images which renders the recollection of God constant and fruitful.”
But it is perhaps the communal aspect of the praying of the Hours that is the most beautiful. Since we’re all praying the same prayers, all who are praying them are united in a special way. Not only are we united with those that pray the psalms, but those who pray the Hours also pray for the whole world. Because it is a liturgy, it has the very important element that it is the world at prayer before God. The one praying the psalms brings with him all his earthly concerns and struggles (so nicely expressed by the psalmist in the psalms) – along with the concerns and struggles of the world – and offers them to God in prayer. It is no longer “my” prayer, but “our” prayer. I’ve now brought my brothers and sisters to God.
And vice versa, God enters the areas of our lives that aren’t necessarily prayer the more we pray the Hours. Our work becomes “hallowed”, our studies become “hallowed”, and similarly our family time. This rhythmic prayer of offering to God our thanksgiving, praise, fears and annoyances in the form of the psalms, helps us part the veil of the sacred in all of our activities. There is no longer any separation between “prayer time”, “work time” and “study time”. After we’ve entered this rhythm of praying the Hours, “God time” starts to engulf all those other loose fragments so that this false dichotomy of sacred and vulgar that we’ve built up slowly disintegrates. After all, isn’t this exactly what a devotion is? It is devoting ourselves, all of who we are and what touches our lives, to God.
How to pray the Hours? As far as research shows, St. Basil was the first to institute the seven prayer hours, which later became known as the seven offices of the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’. Since then it has undergone a number of transformations, making the Hours more “user friendly”. Today we can buy the Roman Breviary and follow the Hours within our own schedules, for those of us who don’t live within monastery walls.
The current Roman Breviary has significantly departed from St. Basil’s or St. Benedict’s models. Initially in St. Basil’s communities and in Benedictine monasteries, all the 150 Psalms were prayed within one week. Today, if you were to pray all the Hours of the Roman Breviary, you would cover all the psalms in four weeks. This, however, makes it more feasible for us non-monastics, but it also means that it will take us much more time to become more familiar with these beautiful prayers.
In order not to get discouraged by taking upon ourselves too much initially, for those who would like to try the Hours, I would recommend starting with the two Hours most commonly prayed: Morning and Evening Prayer. Eventually one may add more if time and energy permits. You can access an online version of the Liturgy of the Hours here, as well.