Praying the Liturgy of the Hours
The scenes are plentiful in movies, especially after 9/11 and the proliferation of the depiction of Muslims in movies. The loud “call to prayer” streams forth from the loudspeakers of a mosque and the devout Muslims stop what they are doing and begin their prescribed prayers. It has become a hallmark of Islam, especially the knowledge of Islam in the mainstream culture. But predating this is the tradition of Christians and Jews praying at prescribed times, dropping their work to pray at certain times of the days. This tradition is kept alive in the Catholic Church in what is called the “Liturgy of the Hours”.
The Liturgy of the Hours is the official prayer of the church. Vowed religious and ordained priests and deacons are required to pray it. It has been said, and probably correctly, that there is not a minute in the day when the Liturgy of the Hours is not being prayed somewhere around the world. But what makes up the Liturgy of the Hours? Who is required to pray it? Who is encouraged to pray it? Why should I pray it? How do I get started praying it? These are all excellent questions that we’ll look at and once we’ve answered these questions you’ll be able to hopefully begin, or continue with more knowledge, to pray this official prayer of the church.
The Liturgy of the Hours is centered around the Psalms. The practice of praying the psalms as part of the daily prescribed prayers is a long standing tradition within Judaism and is something that Jesus himself would have done. The Liturgy of the Hours is organized in a four-week cycle and at the end of those four weeks, if one prays all the different parts of the Liturgy of the Hours (called Hours) one will have prayed all 150 psalms.
Each psalm comprises one prayer, except where the psalm is too long and then it is broken into smaller segments. Most hours contains three of these prayers, either an entire psalm or a segment of a psalm except Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. In these two hours one of the prayers is not a psalm but rather a psalm-like passage from elsewhere in scripture. These passages come from the prophets and from the Pauline letters but still read very poetically like a psalm.
But these three prayers make of the heart of each of the hours. Each hour than adds its own little thing onto this heart of the Hour. Morning and Evening Prayer add a reading from scripture that is on a 4 week cycle followed by either the Magnificat in the evening or the Canticle of Zechariah in the morning. Following this in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are intentions followed by an Our Father and a concluding prayer and blessing. The other prayers to be said at certain times have a short reading from scripture after the three main prayers and then a closing prayer and blessing. The longest of the Hours is called the Office of Readings. This Hour does not have an assigned time to pray it but rather can be prayed at anytime of the day. After the main three prayers it has a rather long scripture reading. These scripture readings are on a one year cycle and often will be continuous scripture over the course of a week or so. Essentially, Tuesday’s reading will start off right where Monday’s ended and so forth. Then after this longer reading from scripture is another longer reading which usually comes from the writings of the Church Fathers or other saints. Occasionally it is from church documents. On saints feast days this reading is often a writing associated with that particular saint.
The shortest of the Hours is Night Prayer. Night prayer is on a one week rotating basis and has either one or two psalm prayers before a canticle and final prayer.
If that all sounds really complicated, don’t worry. It seems complicated but it is easy to learn. Especially since there is a free App that will show you how to do it! But more on that later. Before that- who is required to pray it. Put shortly, every vowed religious and ordained deacon and priest. But they are all required to pray it a little differently. Priests and most religious are required to pray the following- Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. There are some monastic communities that require more, including some in the middle of the night. Permanent deacons in the United States are required to pray Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. But! Everybody is encourage to pray it. It is the official prayer of the church and so it is open to everybody to pray it! And everybody should pray it in some way.
The reason that everybody should pray it is that it is the perfect way to pray for the church around the world. Because it focuses on the psalms we end up praying the entire psalms and as a wise priest once said to me- “there isn’t a human emotion that isn’t in the psalms”. No matter what emotion we may be feeling at the time there is a psalm expressing that sam emotion. And if the psalm you are praying doesn’t match the emotion you are feeling right then, it certainly does match the emotion that somebody in the world, somebody in the church is feeling and you can offer that prayer on their behalf. This is one reason that priests and religious pray the psalms, because they pray it for the church, on behalf of the church, on behalf of the people of God who are experiencing that emotion. But this task is not only for priests and religious it is for the entire people of God- and so please do it! Pray for the church, pray for her people by praying the same prayers that Jesus Christ prayed- the psalms.
So, how does one get started praying the Liturgy of the Hours. I would say the same way anybody begins to pray in general- slowly. Don’t try to immediately pray all the different Hours. It will get overwhelming quickly. Start slowly. Maybe with just Night Prayer. Then maybe add in Morning and Evening Prayer after a couple weeks. Do these three prayers for a few months until it becomes an ingrained habit. Then add in the Office of Readings and do these for a few more months before finishing by adding in Midday Prayer. And you can do it for free! There is an App for your smartphone called iBreviary that can be downloaded and then every day you simply refresh the prayers and it has all the hours available. In addition, it has all the prayers of the Mass and other prayers and the readings of the day. Many priests and religious use their smartphones for the Liturgy of the Hours, especially when they are traveling, so don’t feel weird about using your phone.
But if you find yourself really committing yourself to praying them you may want to purchase the actual book. You can buy a one volume book that has Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer that is very good. But for all the Hours you’ll have to get the four volume set. The full set can run a couple hundred dollars, even used. But here’s a hint- ask a priest if they know of any available. Oftentimes there is a set having belonged to a deceased priest that hasn’t been passed on yet. That one question can save you a couple hundred dollars, and so it’s certainly worth asking!
For which page to flip to when in the actual breviary I highly suggest calling your local parish or a religious you may know and simply ask them to give you a lesson! Most will happily do it knowing that you’ll be praying the Hours. Many parishes or convents will even often public recitations of the various Hours at different times. Inquire about these and join in and somebody will happily show you where to flip to and will (hopefully) patiently show you how to do it until you get the hang of it yourself!
Looking at it from starting at the first step the Liturgy of the Hours may seem daunting or seem like something only monks do. But it’s been prayed by many people, not just religious and priests, for centuries and is the official prayer of the church! So what are you waiting for? Get going praying the Hours!