A Tree Planted Near Running Waters
When I was seven years old, my family went on its annual camping trip with a seminarian who was a close friend. On this trip he was going to teach our family how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. So one day we went to sit by a stream on top of a tumble of fallen logs and I dangled my legs above the water while he taught the lesson. I absorbed that day (with a child's osmosis) one of the greatest treasures of my life: Something warmly called the "Song of the Church," a method of praying that eventually awakened in me the call to become a Benedictine nun.
Imagine yourself dangling your legs above a clear mountain stream surrounded by God's bounty and let us delight in some of the wealth of this lesson together.
The Tree Is Planted
The Divine Officethis wealth of psalms and readings woven togethercharacterizes the nature of the Bride, the Church, longing for union with her Bridegroom. The Church loves to cry out in Christ's name: Unity! When we pray together as the People of God, we invoke the gift of unity, the gift of Pentecost, to its fullest degree.
The roots of the Office are discovered in the Jewish tradition's commitment to regular prayer throughout the day and the psalms as the natural expression of this commitment. Jesus, immersed in this tradition, urged His followers "always to pray and not lose heart" (Lk.18:1), and He knew His own life and ministry to be a fulfillment of all prophecy and psalms (cf. Lk. 24:44).
St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians declares, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (3:16). The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours (GILH) adds, "it is the prayer of the Church that makes the whole Church, scattered throughout the world, one in heart and mind" (no. 32). Because of its richness and continuity in Christ, the Divine Office has echoed down through the ages.
Pope Urban VIII captured its timeless spirit when he wrote in Divinum Psalmodia (1631): "The divine psalmody of the Spouse as she consoles herself during the absence of her heavenly Bridegroom ... is the child of those hymns that are constantly sung before the throne of God and the Lamb." The Divine Office is a portal for praise, not aimed at emotional gratification but at self-offering, and imitation of the Lord. It is the song of the Bride and Bridegroom.
The Tree Fed and Watered
For my family, when we were young and experiencing what sometimes felt like chaos after Vatican II, the Office became the anchor. Complemented by our love for the Mass, the Office was both varied and stable enough to satisfy our hunger. "Those taking part in the liturgy of the hours have access to holiness of the richest kind (GILH, no. 14)." The ancient psalms themselves enticed us, often singing their own praises and exhorting us to take them up: "Sing praises to the LORD, 0 you his saints" (Ps. 30:5). Therefore, I grew up with the understanding that here was a treasure trove of words that would burn inside me.
Christ took the psalms into Himself and became their embodiment and their fulfillment. His disciples discovered that Jesus, the "Son of David," "Son of Man," and "Son of God," was the source of all praise to the Father while at the same time Jesus shared our human condition in all its complexities. The psalms clearly depict this connection. The Head bound Himself to the body and became its voice, par excellence: the Word of God, the Psalm of God, rose like incense to the Father. We, Christ's disciplesstruggling, sinful, and redeemedcontinue to pray the psalms with Him, who is their perfect voice; in Him, who is their fulfillment; and through Him, to the Father.
The Tree Grows
The Office had leapt out of the innermost being of the Early Church as a cry of wonder in the Resurrection, but the passing of time mired its attractive freshness. With Vatican II and the revision of the liturgy came not a command but a heartfelt invitation to the laity to reclaim their voice in the song of praise.
Now that the prayer of holy Church has been reformed and entirely revised in keeping with its very ancient tradition and in the light of the needs of our day, it is to be hoped above all that the liturgy of the hours may pervade and penetrate the whole of Christian prayer, giving it life, direction, and expression and effectively nourishing the spiritual life of the People of God (Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution on the Divine Office, Laudis Canticum, no. 8.)
Thus prayed Pope Paul VI. Many lay people today are discovering how true these words ring.
The Office trains me in the work of unity, in attentiveness and openness, and in surrender. "Into thy hand I commit my spirit" (Ps. 31:5). In fidelity to it I put down roots and bear fruit in time. Fidelity teaches me patience. It also teaches me that love is patient and gives me a vision far beyond myself and my frailty. Slowly and naturally (or supernaturally), my communion not only with others but between heaven and earth is realized.
The Tree Bears Fruit
How does one begin to learn this beautiful prayer of the Church? Buy or borrow a copy of Christian Prayer, the most popular version of the Office in print, and try praying it in your family or amidst a group of friends. You can be a good example even if no one will join you yet. My father gave me this stable example by praying it daily even by himself. Sure enough, the rest of the family began to benefit from his harvest and began to join him more often.
At the same time my mother gave us the lovely example of balance. From her I received a sense of familiarity: "I'm going to just sit down and pray the Office for a while." You don't have to be a liturgical genius in order to love the Church's prayer. Practicing with someone who already knows it gets the gift of unity off to a good start.
At home, we learned that having family prayer times worked if the rule was firm but not unbending. We began by praying Compline (also known as Night Prayer) together, gathering around our little shrine in the living room and even trying to sing the Office, which added beauty (or at least creativity). When guests came over, we usually asked them to join us in our night prayers.
In your parish setting, see if you can introduce the Office of Morning or Evening Praise (Lauds and Vespers) into a time slot before or after Mass. Some will join because they see it has intrinsic value; more will join if it's done beautifully, thoughtfully, and with simple hospitality. It can be adapted to other times when people are gathered: The Church encourages us to use it at wakes. It then becomes an ecumenical gesture as well, since non-Catholics can feel comfortable joining in. It can be used during adoration, when making sick calls, or in the classroom. Beware of getting sloppy or competitive; a speaker or a study group could be used to revitalize the focus once in a while.
Go on field trips! Monasteries have been the guardians of the Divine Office from the earliest days of the Church. Spend a day at one, quietly soaking in the earnestness of the monastic life of prayer. My family's regular trips to the monastery nearest us was the fertilizer for my life of prayer. The monastery conveyed to me a longing for a quality of peace and faithfulness that the world rarely tastes.
Use the Divine Office to encourage holy vocations among young people. All vocations will be strengthened by the depth of rooted prayer that the Office supplies. If we want to encourage consecrated vocations we have to ask: What are they going to pray as priests and religious? If youth are already familiar with the Song of the Church, then they will be able to joyfully transfer their personal experience to their new vocational setting.
May the Blessed Mother who, more than any other creature, "[l]et the word of Christ dwell in [her] richly" (Col. 3:16) give us her voice to rise up like incense to the heavens. May she inspire us to sing the praises of God with hearts overflowing with gratitude, trust, and fidelity. By praying this song of undying praise with you, Mary, may we come to your perfect discipleship and make our world vibrant and beautiful to its furthest ends, until the day when Christ is all in all.
Sr. Maria-Walburga Schorterneyer, O.S.B., writes from the Abbey of St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colorado. Visit www.Walburga.org.
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