What is the Liturgy of the Hours?

Everyone has a manner and way in which they like to pray. Some people read the Bible and reflect on the passage, others use a Rosary or other prayer aid and move through traditional prayers. The official prayer of the catholic church– alongside the Eucharist (aka Mass)– is the Liturgy of the Hours, traditionally known as the Divine Office or Breviary. The Liturgy of the Hours is composed of psalms and canticles, readings and hymns that mark hours through-out the day. All ordained and religious people must pray the major hours (Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer) and Night Prayer and laity are encouraged to pray the same. Some religious orders pray all seven canonical hours and even wake up in early hours of the morning to do so.

The Liturgy of the Hours has been with the church for centuries but it has developed over time. The prayers initially started in monasteries through-out Europe and were used in conjunction with rules that defined the structure of the day for members of religious orders. The Benedictines under the rules of Saint Benedict were particularly influential in their development because of their own proliferation through-out Europe in the middle ages. Because these holy men dedicated themselves to God and often a life of prayer on behalf of their patrons and community, these prayers became known as opus dei (the work of God). As the prayers became more elaborate and different forms were taking shape within different monasteries and orders, the need for a single reference for the prayers became obvious and the Roman Breviary was established in no small measure from inspiration by the Holy Spirit. The Liturgy of the Hours has undergone significant changes and revisions since the middle ages, but the substances of the prayers being based on hours of the day, the recitation of psalms and canticles and the requirement that all religious pray the offices themselves, remains intact.

Prayer during certain periods of the day is not unique to Christianity. In fact, the church draws inspiration from the Biblical fact that Jesus as a Jew prayed at certain times during the day, as did the Apostles during and after Christ’s physical presence here on Earth. The psalms in Judaeo-Christian culture play a central role in these prayers. In both traditions, the entirety of the book of psalms is recited on a monthly basis via a rotating four-week psalter. The church therefore traces the roots of the Liturgy of the Hours, as a continual prayer rising before God all of the way back to Christ Himself and the Apostles and even way before that. In this sense the Liturgy of the Hours, as the official prayer of the church, is also the oldest form of Christian prayer that the church holds within her deposit of faith.

“The purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify the day and all human activity.” – Apostolic Constitution, Canticum Laudis.

The concept behind the Liturgy of the Hours is actually mind blowing. The psalms, composed hundreds of years before Jesus walked the Earth, speak of the coming of the Messiah and the Lamb of God and of the unending hymn of praise that rises before God. The Psalmist (the person who wrote the psalm) is actually so bold in many occasions of speak for God, and on behalf of the entire human race, the Israeli nation and all of creation in the world. And since Christ entered into the world, God entered into time, physical time– the time that we talk about God existing outside of because God has no beginning and no end. And since that moment that God entered time the church, with the choirs of angels in heaven, have continually sung a hymn of praise that sanctifies the time which God has entered into. This is because God became man and existed in time, He touched and sanctified time by His mere presence within it, we are therefore required as a church to join the whole catholic church (heavenly and temporal) in the eternal hymn of praise because time itself is sacred.

Four-volume ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ books. (https://www.osvnews.com)

As each second, minute, hour and day unfolds in time– as we move forward since the time that God has entered and sanctified said time– the church is praying the Liturgy of the Hours and praising, honouring and glorifying the second, minute, hour and day that God has made holy because of His coming as man. And when you pray the Liturgy of the Hours, no matter where you are, you are joining the church here on earth with people all around the world praying the same psalms, the same hymns, the same readings and the same canticles— and not just that but you are joining all of the angels in heaven and the Saints and all who have gone before us in the catholic faith in the eternal hymn of praise that never ceases. Together with the Eucharist it is the breath of the church, always honouring God, acknowledging the sanctification of each moment of time that unfolds in the universe and continuing the eternal hymn of praise.

The entirety of the Liturgy of the Hours is from the Bible– from the opening prayers, to the Our Father– with the exception of the second reading in the Office of the Readings which comes from a historical text and the hymns (which are more like poems with Biblical phrases) and the daily intercessions in Morning and Evening Prayer. This gives a level of Christian legitimacy for the Liturgy of the Hours that puts it on equal footing with the Mass as a prayer before God. Together, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass can become a powerful tool for living liturgically. The catholic church exists within time, and we mark this sanctified time through-out the year with solemnities, feasts and general seasons. This is why we cannot simply have a Mass where the theme is the Transfiguration if we are not celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord (which occurs on August 6). Remember that time is holy, and the church lives within time and acknowledges the sanctification of time by having a liturgical calendar that reflects this unfolding of time. The Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist (together making up the Mass) and the Liturgy of the Hours all exist firmly within the liturgical calendar of the church. When you pray the Offices, especially the Major Hours, you will naturally reflect and ponder the mysteries of each solemnity, feast and season of the church because they are affixed to the prayers, antiphons, psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is incredibly powerful and makes living liturgically a simple act of praying the Hours on your own or with your family.

I am going to be writing more on the Liturgy of the Hours but for now, if you are interested in bringing the Liturgy of the Hours into your own prayer life you can search for the “Liturgy of the Hours” or “Christian Prayer” (for a one-volume edition) and find it online without any issue. There are also many websites that offer the Hours online which is good if you can pray from your computer/phone without being distracted. You can also comment here or send me an email if you have any questions or would like help getting started.

Father,
your Son became like us
when he revealed himself in our nature:
help us to become more like him,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Featured image by Olivia Snow on Unsplash.

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