In 1979, I was just settling into a study-abroad program in Spain. My emotions were swirling. Euphoria over the exotic surroundings, anxiety about classes, and a dash of occasional homesickness left my head spinning at the end of each day.
Early that first week, our Jesuit chaplain supplied just the anchor that I needed. He announced that “compline” would be prayed in the university chapel every night at 9:00 p.m. That evening, Father Steckler strode down the halls, persuading and cajoling us, “Try it! You’ll like it!” So I tried it. At once, the beautiful words of the Church’s night prayer filled me with the peace I’d been lacking since I’d left home.
O God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me…
Be a rock of refuge for me, a mighty stronghold to save me…
My soul waits for the Lord, more than sentinels wait for the dawn…
Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit…
Protect us, Lord as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep…
That semester of praying night prayer (compline) started me on a lifelong habit that expanded to include morning prayer (lauds), evening prayer (vespers), and later still, the remaining portions of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Liturgy of the Hours is also known as the Divine Office. This ancient tradition consists of a repeating monthly cycle of psalms, prayers, and Bible readings, arranged in seven daily sections, or “hours”—most of which take between five and 12 minutes to recite. These are offered at specific times of day: morning, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, evening, and night. Another hour, the Office of Readings, may be done at any time of day.
The Liturgy of the Hours has existed, in various forms, as the daily prayer of the Church almost from the beginning. Its purpose is to sanctify time and human activity: our rising, working, resting, and sleeping. The Church calls it a “sacrifice of praise,” through which we are united with fellow believers throughout the world, offering glory, thanks, petition, and repentance to the Father, in union with Jesus. Like the Mass, it has a set form, rubrics, and variations keyed to the liturgical calendar.
Because priests and religious are under obligation to pray some or all of the liturgical hours each day, there has long been a mistaken impression that they are the only ones who ought to be doing it. However, the Church has long encouraged the laity to pray one or more of the Hours each day.
The prayers for the Liturgy of the Hours (or “breviary”) is available in the complete Liturgy of the Hours four-volume set, which includes the lengthier daily Office of Readings, or the single-volume edition, titled Christian Prayer. Christian Prayer is the breviary of choice for beginners. It includes the complete morning, evening, and night prayers for the entire year, with limited selections from the remaining hours.
There are also online breviaries, and each of these offers a mobile app ranging in price from free to $20. As long as you are comfortable praying with a back-lit screen, a digital breviary is not only inexpensive but easier to navigate because the prayers for each day are in one section—no flipping or guesswork required.
Anatomy of a liturgical hour
Morning and evening prayer follow this structure:
- Opening: O God come to my assistance/O Lord, make haste to help me. (Glory Be, etc.)
- Two psalms and one canticle (a poetic, psalm-like biblical passage) introduced with short sentences called antiphons; each psalm and canticle ends with the Glory Be and a repetition of the antiphon
- A short reading from either the Old or New Testament
- A responsory verse
- A Gospel canticle (Canticle of Zechariah or the Magnificat)
- Intercessions (similar to the prayer of the faithful)
- The Our Father
- A concluding prayer
Praise for the Divine Office
There are many reasons to love the Liturgy of the hours. Here are some from readers of my blog:
“I’ve become more oriented to God, to daily prayer, to silence. The psalms are a voice crying out to God, with all the human emotions—joy, despair, anger, hope. I feel connected to the entire Church, where these prayers have been said for thousands of years and yet are still new.” —Kim
“So many times a psalm I’ve prayed for years suddenly comes alive with new meaning after a personal event. People might think that [keeping the liturgical hours] means excessive regimentation, but I have found that it actually encourages more spontaneous prayer.” —Anonymous
“The Liturgy of the Hours focuses my thoughts and my faith all day long. From morning ’til night I can keep my feet in this world while my eyes look toward heaven.” —J.T.
“I say morning prayer. It makes me feel good and blessed every time. I leave the house with a smile and a happy heart.” —Erin
“I love that I cannot exhaust all the Scripture, songs, and prayers that the Church provides for me throughout the day!” —Marissa
In November, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI expressed the wish that all Catholics “become accustomed to using the Liturgy of the Hours: Lauds, Vespers, and Compline.” If you’ve been looking for a prayer routine that is deeply scriptural and varied enough to prevent boredom, it would be smart to take the pope’s advice.
Tips for beginners
- Start small, with just one of the hours—or even just one psalm—each day. Add more as you get into a routine.
- If you have trouble with the instructions in the breviary, ask your pastor or someone with experience for help.
- Don’t get discouraged by interruptions. You don’t live in a cloister. Pause and come back to your prayers later, or rest in the knowledge that others around the world have finished it for you.