What You Should Know About the Liturgy of the Hours
Christ, the High Priest of the New Covenant, offers worship to His Father and accomplishes our salvation through His Body, the Church, and her liturgy. Since we are corporeal beings, this heavenly reality is made knowable to us by means of the sensible quality of the Church’s liturgy. By virtue of our baptism into Christ’s Body, we share in His priesthood. Thus, we are able to partake in Christ’s priestly activity of offering worship to the Father. We all know that this is how we participate in offering the Mass, but we can also participate in Christ’s worship of the Father through the Liturgy of the Hours (P. Salmon, "Divine Office, Roman," New Catholic Encyclopedia, IV).
The Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Office, is “the public prayer of the Church,” (Pope Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 98) consisting of a series of daily prayers taking place at certain times of the day. While we cannot remain in public prayer continuously, the Divine Office fulfills Our Lord’s exhortation to pray always by dedicating hours throughout the whole course of the day to prayer. The current form of the Liturgy of the Hours consists of the following hours: Matins, or the Office of Readings, can be said at any time of day. Lauds or Morning Prayer is said in the morning. Terce, Sext, and None, also known as Mid-Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, and Mid-Afternoon Prayer, are said at these respective times. Vespers or Evening Prayer is said in the evening. Finally, Compline or Night Prayer is said at night.
Priests and religious are obliged to recite the Divine Office. Indeed, they are appointed by the Church as ministers of the Divine Office, the prayer of worship to God. Because of their role as ministers deputed by the Church, when priests and religious say the Divine Office it is a liturgical prayer. Laymen may also recite the Divine Office, and it is a praiseworthy thing that is encouraged by the Church (SC, 100). However, since an ordinary layman is not deputed as a minister by the Church, when he prays the Divine Office it is not a liturgical act (Salmon, NCE).
The various hours have different structures. However, the Psalms, hymns, scriptural passages, canticles, and theological or hagiographical readings are all parts of the Divine Office.
The History of the Divine Office
In the very first period of the Church’s existence, the Christian community lived side by side with the Jews. In order to prevent the encroachment of Jewish practice, the Church instituted her own separate form of prayer. This prayer was communal prayer said by the local church under the authority of its leader. As time went on, this prayer became more frequent. Morning and evening prayer were prayed regularly and often liturgically by being under the bishop’s authority. Day and night prayers were also sometimes said. The Psalms were permanently incorporated into these daily prayers in the third century.
Monastic communities on the one hand and parishes or cathedrals on the other hand led to two ways of praying the Divine Office. The first complete Divine Office with determined formulas, the whole of the Psalms, and fixed times of recitation was formed by monastic communities. In parishes and cathedrals, a simple Divine Office of Lauds and Vespers was said. By the mid-eighth century the complete Divine Office, as practiced by monastics, was widespread.
Over time, the Divine Office underwent various modifications and additions, such as the Offices of the Blessed Virgin and of the dead. The Divine Office was reformed in the sixteenth century, with Pius V publishing a new Breviary in 1568. Further reforms were carried out in the early and mid twentieth century, and by the Second Vatican Council (Salmon, NCE).
The Liturgy of the Hours and the Spiritual Life
The Liturgy of the Hours is beneficial for the spiritual life in many ways. As noted above, Our Lord admonishes us to pray constantly. While we cannot pray aloud literally without ceasing, the many hours of the Divine Office spread throughout the day and night enable the whole course of our day to be sanctified by regular prayer. By praying at regular and frequent intervals, we must accommodate our daily schedules to our prayer life instead of our prayer life to our schedule. This gives prayer a certain priority of place over profane activities and helps our minds to be oriented towards God as our final end instead of towards worldly things. It also keeps us mindful of the presence of God, quickening our consciences and helping us to see God and His Providence in ordinary things. Of course, the degree to which we accommodate our daily schedules to vocal prayer must depend upon our vocation and state in life. We must not allow time set aside for prayer to detract from our ability to carry out our duties. A parent spending the time and effort to take care of and give attention to his or her family out of love for God is better than that same parent neglecting his family for the sake of being able to spend more time in prayer. That being said, it is beneficial to set aside time for prayer as frequently as is prudent, and the Divine Office can be an excellent way to do this.
Furthermore, the Liturgy of the Hours is beneficial to the spiritual life on account of its content. For example, the entirety of the Psalms is contained in the Liturgy of the Hours over the course of several weeks. Praying the Psalms is particularly valuable. St. Thomas Aquinas says concerning them, “The material is universal, for while the particular books of the Canon of scripture contain special materials, this book has the general material of theology as a whole,” and in it David “treats of every work of God” (Exposition on the Psalms of David, Introduction). St. Thomas goes on to explain that the work of God consists of creation, governance, reparation, and glorification, and that the Psalms treat of all four of these Divine works. With respect to the work of reparation, the Psalms prophesy Christ and describe the effects of grace. St. Thomas says that “All the things that concern faith in the incarnation are so clearly set forth in this work that it almost seems like the Gospel, and not prophecy.” Given that the Psalms contain the whole of theology, praying them provides ample fruit for contemplation, which is essential to the spiritual life.
Another reason that praying the Psalms is particularly valuable is that the very purpose of the Psalms is prayer, or the raising of the mind to God. St. Thomas gives four ways in which the mind is raised to God in prayer, corresponding to the virtues of faith, hope, charity, and justice. All four of these ways are contained in the Psalms. First, the mind is raised to God in awe of His power, corresponding to the virtue of faith. Second, the mind is raised in hope of eternal happiness. Third, the mind is raised in charity towards God’s goodness and holiness, and finally to imitate God’s justice. Devoutly praying the Psalms will foster these virtues in us, and will thereby bring us closer to God.
Therefore, by worshipping the Father through the Divine Office, we sanctify our day with prayer and orient our minds towards God, contemplate the works of God and the Incarnation of Christ, and grow in virtue. Why delay any longer when such profit is ready for the taking?