Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Liturgy of the Hours

Official Public Prayer of the Church


The Heart of Contemplative Monastic Life

This last week has gone by rather quickly. In most monasteries each sister has a regular work assignment(s). These are formally given out after the election of a new prioress. In addition to this responsibility, each sister has other tasks to fulfill on a rotating basis with all the other nuns. These tasks include kitchen clean-up after meals, answering the door and the telephone, and fulfilling specific roles at the recitation of the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours. One of those roles includes that of leader of prayer for the week. That was my assignment in this busy week - Transfiguration which we celebrated as a solemnity, the feast of the martyr St. Lawrence, memorials for St. Dominic and St. Clare and an optional memorial which I chose to incorporate on August 9, the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). Without going into the endless details this meant picking out the hymns, selecting special prayers and following the guidance of the rubrics for the materials (psalms, intercessions, etc.) required for each. The community relies on the leader of prayer to set this up, post the information and conduct the Office in fitting fashion.

There are many websites which will give the history and details of the Liturgy of the Hours. But I will try to sum up here. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Sacraments, and the celebrations of the Liturgical Year, AND the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office comprise the official public worship of the Church. At specific times of the day (most commonly morning, noon, evening and nightfall) a selection of psalms, a canticle, intercessions interspersed with antiphons (scripture verses) are read or recited. In the earliest days of the Church these 'offices' were public, often in a church or a cathedral. Over time they gradually moved more exclusively into the realm of the monastery and also given as a specific assignment for clerics. That was pretty much the situation before the Second Vatican Council. I remember seeing a priest walking up and down the rectory garden path reading his breviary (the book containing the prayers of the Divine Office) - it was all in Latin too. With the Council mandate for the reform of all Liturgy the Office was simplified, translated into the vernacular and highly recommended to ALL the faithful as "The People's Office". Today there are significant numbers of lay people who find that the Liturgy of the Hours 'grounds' their prayer life.

The Liturgy of the Hours, especially the 'hinge' hours of Morning and Evening Prayer, ideally provide the setting for daily participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The prayers of the Hours are both preparation for reception of the Eucharist and thanksgiving afterward. For contemplative nuns and any monastic, the Liturgy of the Hours along with the time of Mass provide the horarium or daily schedule around which everything else must center. In our monastery we pray the Office of Readings along with Morning Prayer at 7am; Midday Prayer at 11:40am; Evening Prayer or Vespers at 6pm; and Night Prayer or Compline at 8:15pm. During the summer our daily Mass is at 8am while during the rest of the year it is at 5pm. Some orders like the Trappists and the Carthusians rise at around 1 or 2am for a sung or recited Office in the middle of the night. Each monastery follows the Church's official design or rubrics for the Offices but variations will appear from place to place. At one time this community sang every Office, that is, they chanted the psalms. Today we chant the Offices from Saturday evening to Sunday night and on feasts or solemnities. On other days they are recited. But there is singing at every Office for the opening hymn and the gospel canticle (Benedictus at Morning Prayer, Magnificat at Evening Prayer and Nunc Dimitis at Night Prayer).

As a lay woman I found that private reading of Morning and Evening Prayer helped me to settle down, to put myself at a remove from the activities of the day, and then enter into a more contemplative mode of prayer. As a contemplative nun, these times of prayer with my community are very precious and very beautiful. They are not to become routine and automatic. At these times we stand together before the throne of God praying for the world, for the intentions coming to us constantly, and for our own great need and desire to remain faithful and persevere.

The illustration above is a page from a medieval Book of Hours, an illuminated manuscript of the psalms and prayers for the Liturgy of the Hours. This is King David, commonly thought of as the author of the Book of Psalms. Such lavishly illustrated prayer books hold honored places in many museum collections.

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