The Liturgy of the Hours: Blessed Prayer of the Body of Christ—A Primer Br.

Francis de Sales Johnston, OP Student Brother, Dominican House of Studies August, 2007
The collection of psalms found in Scripture, composed as it was under divine inspiration, has, from the very beginnings of the Church, shown a wonderful power of fostering devotion among Christians as they offer to God a continuous sacrifice of praise, the harvest of lips blessing his name. Following a custom already established in the Old Law, the psalms have played a conspicuous part in the sacred liturgy itself, and in the divine office. Thus was born what Basil calls the voice of the Church, that singing of psalms, which is the daughter of that hymn of praise . . . which goes up unceasingly before the throne of God and of the Lamb, and which teaches those especially charged with the duty of divine worship, as Athanasius says, the way to praise God, and the fitting words in which to bless him.1

The Liturgy of the Hours is a special form of prayer with deep roots in the twomillennium history of the Christian faith. It is the official prayer of the Catholic Church. The text consists primarily of the Psalms organized according to a particular pattern so as to cover the main portions of each day with prayer. As an introductory idea to this topic, consider the repeating refrain of Psalm 136: “for his steadfast love endures for ever.” This is being said of God. The God who created the universe is the same God who saved His people from slavery, brought them out of Egypt and gave them a land of their own. Through everything, His love never wavers. It is constant, enduring, steady, rock solid. When we pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day, we are imitating this steadfastness of God. Just as His love is constant and neverending, so too our prayer, which is a response to His love for us, has an ongoing and steady character. This article will be in two parts. In the first, I will discuss a few general points about all forms of prayer that apply in an important way to the Liturgy of the Hours. In the second, I will discuss reasons why the Liturgy of the Hours, in particular, is of great and unique value to the entire Church and to all Christians as individuals. This will provide, hopefully, a deeper understanding of the Liturgy of the Hours so that we can appreciate it more, and boost our motivation to take up the Liturgy of the Hours as our own. I. The Liturgy of the Hours is a form of prayer. And so everything that can be said of prayer generally, applies to the Liturgy of the Hours. Here are a few reminders of some general points about prayer. They help provide a larger spiritual context for our prayer that is always relevant. The necessity of grace. All prayer is a response to a relationship initiated by God Himself. By our own powers, mere creatures that we are, we do not have the ability to establish real communication with God. The chasm between the finite realm of creation and the infinite realm of the living God cannot be traversed by any creature on his own steam. Genuine interchange between man and God requires a divine act. And so this means that whenever we pray, in order that our prayer might be an act that truly reaches and touches God Himself, the grace of God must be present and active within us. We 1

today’s American culture contains many elements that are in tension with Christian faith. turning anew each day our faces toward the Lord. and second. death. Jesus said pray always. welcoming His grace into our lives. has many benefits that accrue to it specifically because it is the official liturgy of the Church. And so every time we pray. A witness to ourselves and to the world. and His plan for us present and real—first. The Liturgy of the Hours. our entire day becomes transformed and sanctified by prayer. to ignore or even deny the transcendent.3 The Liturgy of the Hours is a response to this mandate given to us by Jesus. Through the events of His passion. almost like an old fairy tale that we don’t really believe but still like to keep around for nostalgic reasons. our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed the world. that we can pray as Christians. All prayer involves receptiveness to and cooperation with grace. in our own hearts and minds. we engage in an awesome act that remembers the Holy Cross. whether in private or in a group setting. of heaven. And His sacrifice made possible the reestablishment of a personal relationship between God and man that had become impossible due to sin. The realm of God. Our challenge as people of faith in this complex world is to keep the reality of God. we must not forget the big picture. we are applying the salvation won by Christ. rather. There is a tendency. given at baptism. It is something done by those who believe. But this particular gift. giving it its direction and purpose. And for this. The Cross conquered sin and death so that we could become adopted sons and daughters of God our Father. active power given us by God. because it is only due to the graces unleashed by the Cross that we can pray as members of the Body of Christ. Following are some of the benefits which are unique to praying the Liturgy of the Hours. and resurrection. the presence of the Holy Spirit living and dwelling within us.cannot pray without grace. It is a reminder to ourselves and the world around us that life is not only about what we can see and touch. II. In prayer. as the prayer of the Church. Although we can pray in other ways 2 . is a living. we are feeding our faith with spiritual food that helps it grow. There is a divine providence holding creation in existence. Even though America (especially as compared to Europe) is still considered a fairly religious land. Faith is not like a lump of gold implanted in our bodies.2 An opportunity to exercise faith. But part of this reality is that this plan includes our free cooperation. can seem far distant as we go about our busy lives. with our many comforts and distractions. Because it is organized so that our prayer is dispersed at regular intervals over the course of each day. One important way to do this is by praying often. of life beyond death. When we engage in prayer. Our Lord enjoined us to pray always. is a direct result of the Cross of Christ. is a testimony to the reality of God and His dominion over creation. inert and inactive until it is time to retrieve it and cash it in at the pearly gates. Faith. and it needs to be nurtured by our reason and will. A remembrance of the Cross. in the conscience of our culture which is always in need of transformation. Prayer is an act of faith. His love for us. Every act of prayer. and guiding our life to its ultimate home. Regular prayer builds a God-receptive place firmly into the center of our lives. but involves great realities that transcend the here and now. It is because we have the tremendous gift of the Holy Spirit within us.

Because the liturgy is the official prayer of the universal Church it has a special relationship to its source. in Christ we are given a “new heart. making us more and more perfect—more and more holy (for as Catholics.throughout the day. but wants us to become genuinely a new creation—radiant with the love of Christ within us). The Church. it is very significant to realize that we are participating in the prayer of the Church. There are various ways that this new heart is continually formed within us. Through the sacrificial death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. we are initially given a new spiritual heart at baptism. God takes this new heart of ours and with our cooperation constantly forms and shapes it throughout our lives. united in prayer with Christians both in the past and around the world. is a mystical body whose various members. performing acts of charity. As a loving father. Writing the New Covenant on our hearts. And so. beginning with the very first disciples of Jesus. when we pray the liturgy. when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours we are not simply praying as a private individual. are united together in the same faith. then. And so. Christians have gathered together at regular times of the day to pray certain Psalms according to an organized plan. and through this covenant. we are inserted formally into the great stream of prayer that is the continuing liturgy of the entire Church. The source and summit—the font and pinnacle—of all liturgy (and indeed all spiritual life) is the holy sacrifice of the Mass. For. and prayer. There is a very poignant image in the Old Testament whereby God encapsulates and points ahead to what He will do in the future for His people by making a New Covenant with them: He will write the law “upon their hearts. It is possible now for our lives to be transformed from within in a way that was not possible under the Old Covenant. through liturgical prayer. we understand that God does not merely want to save us in a minimal fashion. the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts enabling us to live according to the new law of grace. St’s. as a whole. The prayer of the Church leaps the boundaries of time and space. This basic structure of communal prayer is essentially what we still do today in the Liturgy of the Hours. Jerome. Liturgical prayer fits into this divine plan as one of the ways 3 . we serve as instruments used by God to distribute the graces unleashed by the Mass out to the whole world. We are also united by liturgical prayer with the entire company of saints who have gone before us. When we pray the Liturgy of the Hours. These include receiving the sacraments. enabling us to act while still here on earth already in an eternal-looking mode. Monica. from the time of Christ on. we become temporarily unrestricted by the ordinary limits of space and time.”5 This looks ahead to what would be done in Christ. Benedictines refer to this idea as sanctifying time. At each office of the liturgy we are spiritually joined to the many souls all over the world offering the same prayers on the same day. and Augustine would recognize our prayers. An extension of the Mass. though unique. The prayer of the Church. is a way of cooperating with God in spreading the infinite treasure of the spiritual goods of the Mass out into the world of the time and space that we live in through the course of the day.4 All the grace that comes into the world through the liturgy has its origin in the Eucharistic sacrifice. the New Covenant has been enacted. But this is not the end of the story. Because of this universal character. the Liturgy of the Hours has built into it this trait of covering the breadth of the day with prayer. In other words. The Liturgy of the Hours. Every act of liturgical prayer takes the powerful graces of each day’s Mass and extends it out over the span of the day.” In God’s plan.

Now. Self-centered as we all tend to be. and before becoming a Dominican. Others were quieter. embracing them as our own. An opportunity to practice humility. (Nor do I mean to suggest it is necessary for someone to offer spontaneous vocal prayer if he does not wish to. because no particular individual sticks out. the members of the group are united in their common stance of being receptive to a higher source. the natural tendency will be that only certain people’s concerns (usually the same people) will be made explicit. Thus. In liturgical prayer. it is good to pray spontaneously from the heart using our own words. After I became Catholic (I am a convert from mainstream Protestantism). Liturgical prayer counteracts this.6 Now.”7 Young children are extremely open to the influence of others. Part of our prayer time included spontaneous vocal prayer. if this is the only sort of prayer that we offer when we pray as a group. to receive the many graces that we need. But to pray the words of another. liturgical prayer. Whenever we pray we should do so in a humble way. So. they are equal in this way. God can use His Word as we pray to write the New Covenant more deeply in us. we would lack something important that liturgical prayer which our Father in heaven heals our hearts and transforms them from hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. I participated in a prayer group of young adult lay Catholics who met on Friday nights to pray. if the entirety of our prayer life were to consist only of private prayer originating from within ourselves. we can develop a habit such that our prayer becomes yet another area of life which is self-enclosed. We might consider that as we pray the Liturgy of the Hours. certain individuals tended to have more to say than others. He gradually inscribes into us more of His holy character and life. and I do not mean to discourage this practice. when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours in a group setting everyone participates equally. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is a great exercise of humility. concerned only with our own little world. it is good to pray with others in a spontaneous way. liturgical prayer is a way to escape the narrowness of our own interior world. Another way to capture this benefit of liturgical prayer is to call to mind the spiritual openness and smallness of young children. I noticed that during this portion of our prayer time. he said. The result was that when it was time for spontaneous intercessions. is a deeply egalitarian form of prayer 4 . And because the words being prayed come from the Church. our group prayer tended to be dominated by the concerns of the same few people. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger described one of the positive effects of liturgy as a rediscovery of true childhood. allowing the prayer of the Church to give us an expanded spiritual vision that we would doubtless never develop if left only to our own personal resources. as an eager child. requires humility. No single person’s thoughts will be predominate. It is not much of a challenge to our selfabsorption to pray our own words exclusively. In contrast to this. and by this remind ourselves that we are all children at the feet of our heavenly Father— open. All are praying the same words. especially in that it uses mostly Sacred Scripture which is the Word of God. When we take on the prayer of the Church as our own we receive it as from our mother. they come to us from the outside. we enter into a childlike “openness to a greatness still to come. An enhancement of the experience of unity in prayer. The words do not originate within ourselves.) However. However. we should do this often. most especially their parents. rarely offering spontaneous prayer when there was opportunity to do so.

at some point we find ourselves running out of new things to say. know. This is another way in which the liturgy can draw us out of ourselves. has positive eternal ramifications. we are brought home to live forever in the presence of the Holy Trinity. But when done on a regular basis from day to day.8 A participation in the Cross.9 There are many opportunities to take up the cross and deny ourselves—some are more extraordinary (and usually infrequent). A reminder that our final home is a community. A principle of the Christian spiritual life is that in order to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. When. Revelation 5:11-14 paints a symbolic image of the inherently communal nature of heavenly worship (and not only humans. others more ordinary (and more frequent). it develops in us a habit of generous self-denial. even as we are individually enthralled by the joy of being in the presence of God. take up our cross. it is always a communal endeavor done in union with the whole Church. This is not bad in itself (for God knows our nature). Perhaps this will encourage us to be more eager to live a life of charity for others here now in this life. Even when we pray alone. If we pray regularly and we use only our own private words to pray. Since all liturgy is the prayer of the whole Church (see above). our experience of eternal life will not be solitary. Human beings are made for relationship with other persons. opening up our hearts and minds to a wider experience of the spiritual realm. the nature of liturgical prayer of it’s being given to us from an outside source (the Church) rather than originating from within our own private thoughts. This may seem a small thing. 5 . An expanded language to speak to God. For every time we pick up the Liturgy of the Hours. we must deny ourselves (insofar as our will is opposed to the divine will). This reality will continue in heaven. but the angels as well will all worship God together in a unified chorus of praise!). by God’s grace. and perhaps it is. we deny following what our own will would spontaneously pray at that particular moment in order to choose the prayer of the Church. by God’s grace. we have a whole world of religious thoughts and images to make use of that we would never have conceived of on our own. liturgical prayer is not a solitary act. requires us to temporarily put aside our own particular issues—to place our own personal spiritual movements gently into the background—in order to make room for the prayer of the Church. This helps us to become less self-absorbed in our prayer. and love one another. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours on a regular basis offers a hidden (though not to God) and ordinary way to deny ourselves for the benefit of others. Especially in today’s excessively individualistic American culture it is good to increase our awareness of the communion of saints and to yearn to be one of their members—a family worshipping before the heavenly throne. we will be present as a family of brothers and sisters who are aware of. The inherently communal nature of the Liturgy of the Hours reminds us of the social character of heavenly life—that God’s plan is to shape us into a heavenly family. When our prayer includes the Liturgy of the Hours as well as our own words. and follow Him.and serves well to intensify a local prayer community’s sense of spiritual unity as they pray. but it can be experienced as a limitation to our prayer. First. Every moment that we live in charity for our fellow man. There are at least two ways in which this is the case.

This is an anonymous. God has planted in us a hunger to be involved in matters of real and lasting significance. As human beings. As Christians we are called to participate in the renewal of all things in Christ. we make not our own emotions. We seem to have an 6 . Over time. in addition to the ordinary landscape of our lives. And so also. hidden act of charity—choosing to turn from self for the time being. By praying the Liturgy of the Hours regularly. in the world of God. And in imitation of Him.) How do we embrace a Psalm fully when the emotion being expressed is contrary to what we are personally feeling at that time? Perhaps you are having a great day—the kids told you they loved you this morning and at work you just got a promotion —yet in prayer you encounter words such as. And in this way when there is a contrast between our personal feelings and the words of the liturgy. we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us empathize with those for whom these words genuinely and personally apply. (These may be emotions of joy. we need to be able to step back from our culture from time to time and gaze upon it from a distance. or. makes us less able to determine the best course for a cure. Gaining a healthy distance from our culture.”10 An avenue of participation in the eternally significant. In other words. “Spent and utterly crushed. It is a place within that gives us another set of lenses through which to see things that we otherwise would not see—or would see less accurately.The second way pertains to the emotional discontinuity that we sometimes experience with liturgical prayer. Some of the Psalms have emotional language and seem to be trying to evoke particular emotions. I cry aloud in anguish of heart” (Ps 38)! Here is another opening to practice generous self-denial for the benefit of others. but those of others our priority as we pray. It is possible to be so enmeshed in the particular concerns of our culture that we are unable to see the forest for the trees. And when we pray words expressing anguish and woe we should strive again to temporarily place aside our own disposition at that moment (not deny it. by nature. but simply let it recede from having first place in our attention). and identify spiritually with those for whom those words are very deeply and personally felt. there is always someone in the Body of Christ who can. sadness and suffering. And over time this gives us a greatly expanded perspective from which to view the world and especially our particular culture. we desire to participate in something bigger than ourselves. This hinders our ability to assess the ailments of our culture accurately—and this. and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours. Cardinal Ratzinger put it this way: “Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence. this is a small way in which we participate in the suffering of Christ on the Cross. who suffered in union with all who suffer. neither do we. to do this with the greatest effectiveness. in order to identify with the suffering members of the Body of Christ. It is a spiritual landscape in which we live and move and pray. we have a spiritual realm into which we enter daily that is both similar to and yet also quite different from the immediate issues of our daily life. this is a way in which the liturgy can expand our hearts to have more room for others. Even though we may not always be able to personally identify with the emotion of a particular Psalm (though sometimes we can). Someone is suffering somewhere. He did not distance Himself from those in sorrow and woe. However. in turn. Another way to speak of this is to say that the liturgy helps us gain a healthy spiritual detachment from the world—the sort of detachment which makes us more useful instruments in the hands of God to heal and transform the world.

May we strive to incorporate some portion of this great prayer of the Church as a regular feature of our daily walk with God as we pray humbly in response to the loving gift of His saving grace. help extend the graces of the Mass out through the day. in something of infinite and eternal dimensions. We certainly should pray in other ways. To be sure I am not misunderstood. 7 . be united with the all the members of the Church across the bounds of space and time. we have a form of prayer by which we can pray always. share in the Cross of Christ. heartfelt. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that one of the things the liturgy does is to give us a “liberation from finitude. expand the language we use to talk to God. practice humble self-giving. remind ourselves that heaven is the life of a family. For with the Liturgy of the Hours. And he wants to know that he is on that path even now. it has eternal consequences. participate in the eternally significant act of Christ’s salvation and sanctification of all mankind. we participate in something much bigger than ourselves—indeed. It is intimately united to the self-sacrificial gift of Christ offered in love. All these benefits. are available to us as gifts from our loving Father when we embrace the Liturgy of the Hours. grow in healthy detachment from our worldly culture. personal prayer. we can be confident in faith that indeed He does so. Man has a hidden. I want to emphasize that it is most definitely not bad to pray in ways other than using the Liturgy of the Hours. participates in a special way in the salvation and sanctification of the world. deepen our unity with others with whom we pray. and. and more. God invites our small prayers to have a role in Christ’s act of salvation. yet dimly discernable vocation to some great thing. For even though we are usually not aware of how God uses our prayers for the good of others (which helps us grow in humility). But I do want to suggest that our payer is lacking something of great value if we do not pray at all using the liturgy of the Church. welcome God’s writing the New Covenant more deeply on our hearts. begun even now. and this includes using our own words in a manner totally transparent and sincere before the Lord in spontaneous. Christian prayer enters into the redemption of the world won by Christ on the Cross. How can this be satisfied? By participating in the liturgy—the prayer of the Church—we are stepping into a realm of truly eternal significance. especially.intuition that a life that is not involved in things of great and enduring importance is beneath the true dignity of the human person.”11 And so through the liturgy. What could have more significance than this? The Liturgy of the Hours. by its close attachment to the sacrifice of the Mass and by its status as the prayer of the Church.

14. Rom 12:12. 3 Lk 18:1. Col 4:2. no.1 Saint Pius X. (Ignatius Press. 6 Lk 18:9-14. 21. 1Thes 5:17. 11 Ibid. 1975). apostolic constitution Divino afflatu. August 21 Proper of Saints (Memorial for Pius X. 9 Mk 8:34 10 Ratzinger. no. cf. . 8 CCC. 4 CCC. IV (Catholic Book Publishing. in The Liturgy of the Hours. 2 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). 30. 2000). 7 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Pope). 5 Jer 31:31-34. 2573. 2587.. The Spirit of the Liturgy. Ezek 36:26-7. 1324. no. cf.

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