By Brody Stewart
Most people may not realize it, but the Church has not one, but two great public prayers. The first is, of course, the celebration of Eucharist, the Mass, with which every Catholic is already familiar. Priests and consecrated religious, however, are just as familiar with the Church’s second great public prayer: the “Liturgy of the Hours,” also known as the “Divine Office,” or the “opus Dei” (“the work of God”). The Second Vatican Council described this prayer as “that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 83), “the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom” (84), and even “the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father” (84). This is not just flowery theological language. Along with the Eucharist, one might be so bold as to call the Liturgy of the Hours the “source and summit” of Christian prayer (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324).
But what is the Liturgy of the Hours? At its core, it is a regular recitation of the scriptures and in particular, the Psalms, which have always been the prayerbook of God’s chosen people. Before the coming of Christ, Israel prayed the Psalms as a way to give collective voice to the breadth of their religious experience—i.e., the whole spectrum of sadness, joy, anger, frustration, and hope. But after Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, a new light shone upon the Psalms: Christ himself came to be seen as the true subject of these songs. According to the author of Hebrews, Christ quotes a Psalm upon his entry into the world: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in. Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do your will, O God.’” (Hebrews 10:5-7, quoting Psalm 40:7-9 [LXX]). So too did St. Peter, in his speech at Pentecost, put the words of Psalm 16 on the lips of the soon-to-be-resurrected Messiah: “you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.” (Acts 2: 27-28, quoting Psalm 10-11). Perhaps most strikingly, Jesus himself quotes Psalm 22 as he dies on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:2). As Christians pray these ancient texts, they are mysteriously drawn into the eternal dialogue between God the Father and his beloved Son.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Psalms became the privileged prayers of the early Church. St. Benedict tells us that the Desert Fathers were in the habit of praying all one hundred and fifty Psalms every single day, but for his own sixth-century monks, he concedes that the Psalter can be said over the course of one week (Rule of St. Benedict, ch. 18). In the present day, the practice of praying the Psalms remains unchanged, but their distribution has become even less daunting: the Psalter is now divided across four weeks instead of one. With such an accommodation, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council extended an invitation and an encouragement for all the Christian faithful to take part in praying the Liturgy of the Hours (SC 100). For each member of Christ’s mystical body who heeds this call, “the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praise of God” (SC 84), and St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” is fulfilled (SC 86, quoting 1 Thessalonians 5:11).
The Liturgy of the Hours is thus commended by Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and the Second Vatican Council. One would be hard-pressed to find a more traditional or more Christian form of prayer. If such musings have convinced you to give it a go (and I hope they have!), then stay tuned for a follow-up post in which I will walk you through how to study the Liturgy of the Hours using the Verbum app.
Part Two Coming Soon: “How Does a Real-Life Seminarian Use the Liturgy of the Hours in Verbum?”
Brody Stewart holds an MA in Theology from Mount Angel Seminary. He enjoys liturgical prayer, patristic biblical exegesis, and melodic death metal. You can view some of his work on his YouTube channel.