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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Simply Divine Office

The Liturgy of the Hours makes a comeback

by Daria Sockey

This article first appeared in the August 8-14, 2004 edition of National Catholic Register.

breviary Pope John Paul II has a suggestion to enrich the prayer life of the laity. He has spoken about it during many of his Wednesday audiences since March 2002. In his 1998 apostolic letter Dies Domini, he asked that it especially be done on Sunday evening in parishes and homes. He expressed the hope that it be promoted as "the prayer of the whole people of God."

And this hope echoes that of the Second Vatican Council, which more than three decades ago simplified it, largely to make it more accessible to the laity.

What is it?

The Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office.

This collection of psalms, Bible readings and prayers, keyed to liturgical seasons and feasts, has been around in various forms since the earliest days of the Church. Up through the Middle Ages, laymen would regularly gather at the nearest church or monastery to participate in Lauds, Vespers and Compline (now called Morning, Evening and Night Prayer). Over the course of the second Christian millennium, the liturgical hours moved from the public sphere into the domain of the clergy and religious orders.

There are reasons why the Liturgy of the Hours retreated to monsteries and friaries. For one, despite having been streamlined by the Second Vatican Council, the breviary — the book of structured prayers and readings that, together, make up the daily Divine Office — is difficult to learn to navigate on one's own. The instructions are incomplete and seem to assume that one will learn the details by observing and imitating others.

Then, too, while many people are attracted to the liturgical hours in theory, they aren't always willing to invest in a breviary ($30-$40) that they may never figure out how to properly use.

Despite the challenges, increasing numbers are indeed turning back to this ancient prayer today. Witness, for example, the success of Magnificat, the popular monthly journal of liturgical prayer.

So a time of renewed participation in the Divine Office seems to be at hand — and not a moment too soon.

morning prayer

Former Methodist minister Wayne Hepler and his wife, Patti, began saying Evening Prayer shortly after their conversion, and then added the morning and daytime hours to their routine. They found it an ideal way to pray together as husband and wife.

"It's an extension of the Mass, a way to celebrate the paschal mystery throughout each day," Hepler said. "The Church teaches that liturgical prayer is a higher level of prayer than private, spontaneous prayer — and repeating the psalms over the course of weeks and months is a painless way to memorize them. Then they become part of your subconscious, and that aids your private, more spontaneous devotions, as well."

The Heplers' enthusiasm for the daily prayer regimen spread to a support group of Catholic families that was meeting at their home in northwestern Pennsylvania. An earlier plan to build a guesthouse on their property was overtaken by their desire to make communal recitation of the liturgical hours available to both local residents and visitors from afar.

The result was the Saint Thomas More House of Prayer in Cranberry PA. The ski lodge-type structure sits atop a woodland hill. A small staff maintains a chapel, library, kitchen and guest quarters. Along with local residents, the group gathers seven times daily to pray the liturgical hours. They instruct visitors both on how to use their breviary, and on how to enter into the spirit of praying the psalms. Outside retreat groups are allowed to use the facility, but with the requirement that they pray the liturgical hours with the Saint Thomas More community. Other projects of the House of Prayer include a website and a user-friendly book of Sunday Verspers for home and parish use.

The Internet is the vehicle of choice for other individuals who wish to share the treasures of the Divine Office. Bill Ablondi is a New York City computer consultant who learned about the Liturgy of the Hours in 1998. He bought a breviary and, with the help of his pastor, began praying it.

"I understood the richness of these prayers, but realized that the average layperson wouldn't be able to master the complex guides, commons, ribbons, optional vs. mandatory prayers" and so on, Ablondi said. "I asked my pastor if it would be helpful to create an unabridged but simple Internet version for lay prayer groups to print off as needed. He said it would be a great idea."

The website that resulted, Liturgy of the Hours Apostolate, opened for Advent of 1999. Since then, it has made Morning, Daytime, Evening and Night Prayer for each day available to download and print in booklet form. Also, the breviary prayers can be downloaded onto Palm Pilot and pocket-PC devices for private recitation.

Since its inception, more than 2,000 groups have downloaded and printed booklets. Ablondi has not kept track of individuals who pray the hours directly from a computer screen.

Seth Murray of Portland OR is another convert who was attracted to the Liturgy of the Hours. "It made me grow in my understanding of what prayer is," he says. "As a Protestant [I believed that] prayer is something you tell God — as if he needs to be informed of what's going on. But praying with the sacred Scriptures in the Liturgy of the Hours engaged my understanding of what God has to say to me."

Murray also uses more familliar devotions, such as the rosary, but finds that with the Liturgy of the Hours, "I am much less distracted. It keeps me on task."

Wishing to solve the frustration involved in learning to pray the Office, Murray has written an online tutorial, describing precisely how to find one's place in the breviary, which prayers are optional or mandatory, and what gestures (sign of the cross, bowing, standing/sitting) may be used and when. In the near future the tutorial will be published in book form. For now, it's on the Internet at Discovering Prayer.

An extension of the Sunday Eucharist, a way to pray with Scripture, a union with the Church's worldwide sacrifice of praise, an entrance into the way that saints, apostles, and even Jesus himself prayed: The Liturgy of the Hours is all this and more.

The Divine Office may not be the easiest thing in the world to learn, but you'd be hard pressed to elicit any regrets among those who've made the effort. And with the help now available, it may yet reclaim its place as "the prayer of the whole people of God."

Daria Sockey writes from Cincinnati.

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