Monday, February 2, 2009

The Liturgy of the Hours

So, I've been thinking a lot about Lent lately, and the spiritual practices that I'd like to make as goals for that time period. One spiritual practice that I've kept to only off and on through the years is reciting at least part of the the official prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Liturgy of the Hours is an ancient devotion that organizes Scripture, hymns and prayers into units to be prayed at seven specific times of the day. The point is to sanctify ones entire day and work to God, and to remind ourselves at regular intervals what our lives are actually directed towards. Priests and other religious are obliged to pray the Hours every day of their lives as part of their vows. Laity are encouraged to pray the Hours, but of course, this has to be modified to fit into the realistic parameters of ones non-religious vocation. Many monastic communities pray the Hours at the traditional times, one of which is at 3 am; obviously, this is not practical for everyone unless one has a newborn that happens to also wake up at that time. Most people latch onto Lauds and Vespers, otherwise known as Morning and Evening Prayer, two of the major hours of the day. Each installment begins with an opening prayer and hymn, and then launches into the psalter.

I should pause here, right at the point at which my vocabulary starts to look beyond bizarre, to say that it is no small feat to learn how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. There are whole manuals of varying degrees of complexity designed to teach a person how to do this, should they desire to be Type A enough to do so. I am one of those people.

What we learn is that the psalter is a 4-week cycle through the entire book of Psalms. There are antiphons involved - short phrases from other parts of the Bible - repeated at the beginning and end of each Psalm. There are a few additional Scripture readings, intercessory prayers, and a concluding prayer, with antiphons tossed around in there willy-nilly. What makes this complicated is that the readings, prayers and antiphons are designed to complement the Church's liturgical calendar. So, when a day happens to be a Saint's feast day, which happens a lot, well... all hell breaks loose within one's personal copy of the Hours. Saints usually have their own prayers and antiphons, to be used in tandem with the psalter as well as a "Common" devoted to their cause; I won't even go there, just trust me on this one. Real important saints may even have their own set of readings just for their day. This is called the "Proper of Saints" and it has added no small amount of frustration to my daily prayer life. There is also a "Proper of Seasons" for special prayers on Sundays (Sundays are always special solemnities) and other days during the seasons of Advent and Lent. All of this requires repeated flipping to different parts of your book with those handy little ribbons you see hanging out.

You will also notice from the photograph that this baby is 4 volumes. There is a 1 volume version of the Liturgy of the Hours called Christian Prayer. It requires flippage multiplied by *a million* but it does condense Morning and Evening Prayer for the entire year into a single book. Otherwise, the 4 volume set has all of the other hours (The Office of Readings, Daytime Prayer and Night Prayer), plus has things organized in such a way as to reduce flipping to a non-obnoxious minimum. It's obviously more expensive to obtain the 4 volume set, but I think that it is worth it. I bought the volumes one at a time to reduce the expense in a given season. Two of them are for the weeks in Ordinary Time, one volume is for Advent/Christmas season, and the other for Lent/Easter season. I have the set in the photograph, and I like the different colored covers, because I'm superficial that way :) The covers are vinyl. You can also get a leather set, which are obviously pricier. But I hear that they stay open nicely unassisted and are of a much higher quality.

I aim for Morning and Evening Prayer where possible, and the spiritual reading from the Office of Readings. The Office of Readings, traditionally called Matins, is that hard-core middle of the night hour that I mentioned above. Obviously, I don't read it in the middle of the night. Nor have I been able to stick with praying the entire Office of Readings. But it highlights 2 long readings - one from Scripture (I'm doing larger Scripture readings separately, in my new adorable Bible, see previous post :) so I've been reading the second highlighted reading. It's always interesting; it will be a writing from the works of the early Church fathers, or a document from a Church council, or a writing from the featured Saint of the day. Cool stuff.

I find that it takes me 10-15 minutes to pray Morning, and later, Evening Prayer. I'm certain it would take longer if I was more prayerful and actually sung the hymns, but I don't sing. It's just better this way, and God understands. I also have a short attention span, so I do what I can. But I enjoy the challenge that the Liturgy of the Hours poses for me. You need to keep up and know your stuff, but the organized, and seasonally relevant, prayers and readings are very, very worth it, especially when you consider that other believers around the world are doing the exact same readings and prayers. There is a universality to the Hours that I love striving to be a part of.

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