The Liturgy of the Hours
In an imaginative style so characteristic of one of the 20th Century's greatest authors, J.R.R. Tolkien begins The Silmarillion with his own re-telling of the creation story in mythological terms. In it, God "sings" the world into existence. The divine note resonates throughout the cosmos giving it form and eventually calling on creation itself to join in the song. Gradually, the melody increases in complexity and texture as other voices join in, creating a rich and vibrant harmony that stills the seas of chaos.1
"Christ ... introduced into the world of our exile that hymn of praise which is sung in the heavenly places throughout all ages."2 In light of this citation from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours casts our participation in the prayer of the Hours as a participation in the dynamic of self-giving love and total receptivity in the heart of the Trinity.
The image hints at a rich theology that undergirds this "official" prayer of the Church. But this theological foundation is often enough left unexplored. Unfortunately, the introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours for those in formation for the priesthood or religious life often comes solely in the form of an external obligation. Because the promise to pray the Hours comes with ordination or religious profession, the prayer is reduced to a "task" to be learned and an expectation to be observed.
The revision of the prayer of the Hours following the Second Vatican Council was a monumental task, but one that has born much fruit in a renewed appreciation of the ancient beauty and modern relevance of the prayer. Now more than ever Catholics, both individually and in community, are turning to the wisdom of the Liturgy of the Hours as a support for their own spiritual growth and as a means of situating their own prayer experience within that of the larger Church.
The following are thematic reflections which highlight some of the theological and spiritual moorings which, taken together, situate the Liturgy of the Hours within the whole context of the life and prayer of the Church. Whether one has been praying the Hours for many decades or is encountering it for the first time, understanding the internal logic of the prayer and its theological foundations can foster an appreciation of the power, beauty, and formative influence of the Church's Liturgy. Indeed, alongside the celebration of the Eucharist, personal prayer, and a life of active discipleship, the Liturgy of the Hours constitutes an integral component of the spiritual life.
The Litury of the Hours as Trinitarian Prayer
Let us return briefly to J.R.R. Tolkien's image of the divine hymn. It is a powerful metaphor for the outpouring and return of divine love, one that the Council Fathers pick up and apply to Christ. Christ introduces us to the hymn and enables us to respond to its inviting melody. In taking up Christ's celestial hymn as our own, we enter into the cooperative dynamic of the Trinity itself. The Father is the origin of the hymn, pouring himself out in the creation of the world and all it holds. But creation turns away from the Father's outpoured love and is unable to respond to the Father's initiative. In Christ, the only Son of God, the Father finds the full reception of his love and its complete return. As our Mediator and Priest, Christ presents to the Father a hymn of praise "in the name of all and for the good of all,"3 the full and perfect echo of the divine hymn.
Again and again, the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours highlights the intimate bond between the prayer of Christ and our prayer of the Liturgy. Ultimately, this unity of prayer is a work of the Holy Spirit, poured forth in love from the Father and the Son in order to conform us into Christ's body. With imperceptible groaning, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding for us and unifying our prayer into a single hymn. Because of the work of the Spirit joining us to Christ and our prayer to his, the riches of the Head flow to the members, and our voices can join with his in loving response to our heavenly Father.
Whether prayed in common or in the quiet of one's room, the Liturgy of the Hours is first and foremost Trinitarian prayer. It is liturgy in the truest sense, in that the prayer itself flows from the life and love of the Trinity and invites our response-the pouring out of ourselves in prayer for the Church and for the world. As we turn ourselves to the work of praying for the world, we mirror the generative love of our Creator. The hymn that echoes throughout the cosmos before the foundation of the world now returns to the Father as a hymn of praise and thanksgiving. It is a hymn that echoes in the Church, never ceasing to be fruitful as it unites the many into one resonant voice.
The sanctification of time
A second theological foundation of the Liturgy of the Hours is that it accomplishes a sanctification of time. It begins with the understanding that all time is Christ's time. This is, after all, the first affirmation of the Easter Vigil: "All time belongs to Christ, and all the ages! To Him be glory and power for all the ages!"4
Since the event of Jesus' saving Paschal Mystery, Christians do not comprehend the passage of days, seasons, and years as the world does, but rather as moments charged with the grandeur of God and bathed in the light of the Resurrection. Christians observe time in the light of the Easter Mystery because Christ entered into our human history, redeemed it, and set it on a path, which leads ultimately to fulfillment and consummation in God.
Even the weekly cycle of Christian life is caught up in this Paschal celebration. Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Dies Domini draws our attention back to the celebration of a "weekly Easter". Everything in the week proceeds from Sunday and returns to it since the celebration of the Lord's Day gives orientation and scope to living Christian discipleship during the week.
The rediscovery of the Liturgy of the Hours by the lay faithful responds to a felt need to sanctify time and reclaim a properly Christian sense of time. The pace of modem life is a tremendous force that impacts on basic understandings of self, family, work, faith, and religious practice. There is a growing divorce between the life of faith and life "in the world." Indeed, such is the pace of life that people need to be reminded to do what ought to come naturally, that is, to "take time" for themselves, for God, and for family and friends. The Liturgy of the Hours and its attention to the consecration of time is one way to counter this prevailing trend and to restore a sense of balance to daily life.
One of the values of this prayer is its power to shape our outlook on daily living, as was summarized most succinctly by an inmate at San Quentin State Penitentiary in California who participated in a course on the Liturgy of the Hours. His observation was straightforward: "Do time or time will do you." In other words, by consecrating time to God, the human person acts as a subject, cooperating with God in the unfolding of redeemed time, rather than being reduced to a mere object, suffering under the burden of a lived time that seems to go nowhere.
Being swept away by the rush of time will inevitably lead to dissatisfaction, alienation, and loneliness. Christians need not resign themselves to becoming so swept away, however. The integration of prayer into one's daily schedule is key! Without this integration, the Christian risks losing a sense of identity in God and the realization of one's need to be drawn into life-giving relationships with others. Consecrating the moments of one's day means turning the day over to the transforming power of the Resurrection. The vehicle of the Liturgy of the Hours prompts the believer to encounter God in the concrete moment so that the love of God in Christ becomes the cord that holds the day together. "Do time or time will do you," is the wisdom which arises out of the hard lesson of prison but which speaks eloquently of the situation of the modem world.
The prayer of the whole church
In allowing the Liturgy of the Hours to enter the daily routine, the Christian joins the hymn of praise and thanksgiving that echoes throughout the Church. This prayer is markedly different from private devotion, for it continually transcends time, space, language, race, or any other distinction. Everywhere in the Church, women and men take up the very same daily prayer. Solemn Sunday Vespers celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is the same evening prayer said by a weary mother and father in the quiet of their home after the children have gone to sleep.
The prayer of the Hours is not the prayer of a few or of a clerical caste within the Church, but the prayer of the Church. A thorough consideration of the history and development of the Liturgy of the Hours is well beyond the scope of this present reflection. It is enough to say that over the course of its complex history, the Liturgy of the Hours moved from the regular liturgical experience of the Christian community to being understood as solely the domain of the clergy.6 The reexamination of that history in the liturgical renewal of this century has led to a reaffirmation of the Liturgy of the Hours as a prayer of the entire People of God, both lay and clerical.
The expression of generous, intercessory prayer embodied in the prayer of the Hours is a work of baptismal grace. It invites Christians of all walks of life to sanctify their daily lives, lifting the world and the needs of all in prayer to the generative love of the Trinity. As a prayer that unites individual men and women of faith into one heart and voice of praise, the Liturgy of the Hours has a communal dimension that is essential. Understood as the prayer of the whole Church, the Hours allows the individual to enter into an intimacy with the whole community of disciples, expressing solidarity in concern for the needs of the Church and the world.
Pope John Paul II, perhaps sensing that the beginning of the Third Millennium is the time for a flowering of the Liturgy of the Hours in the hearts and minds of the Church's members, invites all Catholics in his letter Novo Millenio Ineunte to make their communities thrive with "an all-pervading climate of prayer." This can be accomplished in many ways, but "perhaps it is more thinkable that we usually presume for the average day of a Christian community to combine the many forms of... witness in the world with the celebration of the Eucharist and the recitation of Lauds and Vespers."7 This vision of the Pope is a powerful witness to Christian solidarity as Christians throughout the world take up the same prayer.
The Liturgy of the Hours as priestly prayer
The great vision of the book of Revelation describes the Church as "a kingdom of priests for our God."8 It is certainly interesting to note that the reflection undertaken by the Council Fathers in the Constitution on the Liturgy regarding the exercise of this priestly office is situated completely within the section on the Liturgy of the Hours.9 Christ continues His priestly work in the Church, primarily through the celebration of the Eucharist and the prayer of the Hours. Here the voice of the Bride addresses her Bridegroom, lifting up a ceaseless prayer of praise and supplication for the needs of all.
Priestly prayer is intercessory prayer, a generous prayer for the Church and for the world. Often the complaint is heard from those who regularly pray the Hours that it "fails to speak to them" or "has little to do with their personal experience." Though this may be experientially true, these observations miss the point of the priestly nature of the prayer. In raising this hymn to God, the one praying joins his or her own voice to the voice of the whole Church, and in so doing, gives voice to the voiceless. To enter into priestly prayer means setting aside personal dispositions and lifting up any number of "nameless" persons and situations to the love of the Trinity. The Liturgy of the Hours is a prayer of generosity in that the one praying looks beyond himself or herself to the needs of the whole body.
Those who take up such priestly prayer present themselves to the Lord as "microcosms" of the whole world. The baptized faithful are priests of God in the world, and so approach God as such. Our participation in the Liturgy of the Hours is an offering of our very selves as we lift up the world in prayer. Understanding this, Fr. Ron Rolheiser proposes the following prayer as preparation for taking up the prayer of the Hours:
Lord God, I stand before you as a microcosm of the earth itself, to give it voice. See in my openness, the world's openness, in my infidelity, the world's infidelity; in my sincerity, the world's sincerity, in my hypocrisy, the world's hypocrisy; in my generosity, the world's generosity, in my selfishness, the world's selfishness; in my attentiveness, the world's attentiveness, in my distraction, the world's distraction; in my desire to praise you, the world's desire to praise you, and in my self-preoccupation, the world's forgetfulness of you. For I am of the earth, a piece of earth, and the earth opens or closes to you through my body, my soul, and my voice. I am your priest on earth.9
There is much richness waiting to be discovered in the Liturgy of the Hours. The focus of these few reflections has been to nurture an approach to the Liturgy of the Hours that has little to do with external obligation or vow, but rather one that enters into the experience of liturgical prayer as a participation in the very life and work of the Trinity. The invitation to join the celestial hymn is given by the One who sounded the first sweeping note. It is the hymn of the Bride, the Church, in praise of her Lord and Bridegroom. It is a hymn of selfless love poured out from the heart of the Trinity and prompting a joyous response from the children of God. It is a hymn that once created the world and oneall the more glorious with our voices addedthat continually recreates the world according to the song of redemption.
1 Cf. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
2 Sacrosanctum Concilium #83.
3 General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, #3.
4 This affirmation is found in the prayer for the preparation of the Easter Candle from the Easter Vigil.
5 For a full treatment of the historical development of the Liturgy of the Hours, see Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1986). Of particular interest is chapter eleven, wherein Taft compares the Monastic and Cathedral Offices and suggests a basic outline for the ancient structure.
6 Pope John Paul II, Novo Millenio Ineunte, #34. The Pope goes on to specifically mention lay groups in parishes and other communities who are driving the rediscovery of the Liturgy of the Hours as a prayer of the whole Church.
7 Cf. Rev. 5:9ff.
8 See Sacrosanctum Concilium #83 -101.
9 Ron Rolheiser, "Priestly PrayerPrayer for the World" in Catholic San Francisco, March 28, 2003.
Reverend Stephen J. Lopes is a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, California, where he has given numerous workshops on the Liturgy of the Hours. He also teaches liturgical spirituality at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University. Currently, Fr. Lopes is working on a doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Gregorian University. This is his first article in HPR.
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