This year for the first time I am a companion to a candidate for our Sister of Notre Dame Associate program. At the opening retreat, the women were introduced to the Divine Office.
The Divine Office is a form of liturgy, the official public prayer of the Church, just like the Mass and the sacraments. Like all liturgy, it is the sacred work of the people. Other names for the Divine Office are the Liturgy of the Hours and the Prayer of Christians. Although priests are obliged to pray it (the breviary), and many men and women religious pray it, the Divine Office is intended to be the prayer of all Christians. But for most people, it is one of the Church’s hidden treasures.
One year I offered to teach parishioners at my parish how to pray the Divine Office, and our pastor provided them with the prayer books. Most of the people who learned this way of praying continue to do so. In fact, one man I taught prayed the Office on a plane during a pilgrimage. When he finished, a woman he didn’t know asked to borrow his book because she forgot hers. Not long after, I attended their wedding and took partial credit for their happiness!
So how did this Divine Office originate? According to Psalm 119:164, the Jewish people prayed seven times a day using the psalms. We know that the first Christians (who were originally Jewish) met at certain times of the day to pray together. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, Peter and John were going to the Temple to pray at 3:00. The Christian hours became fixed especially through the efforts of monastic communities. (Some monks and nuns rise in the wee hours of the morning to pray an hour.) Sometimes the prayers are chanted.
Today the hours are Morning Prayer, Midmorning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Midafternoon Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. An additional Office of Readings can be prayed at any time. (Formerly the hours were called Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.) Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are known as the two hinge hours. In some parishes people pray these prayers together. On each day of the Holy Week triduum, my own parish prays Morning Prayer.
Praying the Divine Office sanctifies the whole day and sanctifies us. By praying the Office we praise God and unite ourselves with the liturgy of heaven and with the universal Church. This was brought home to me when in Arabia I stayed with two different religious communities. I was able to pray the same Divine Office with them.
The Divine Office parallels the seasons and feasts celebrated at our daily Masses. A booklet called an Ordo is a guide for knowing what prayers to pray each day. The Divine Office is heavily scriptural. The hours are composed of psalms (the prayers Jesus prayed), canticles, Scripture readings, antiphons, intercessions, and prayers related to the day’s Mass. Because the psalms are originally Jewish prayers, in the Office a “psalm prayer” usually follows each one. This added prayer puts the theme of the psalm into a Christian context. The prayers follow a four-week cycle. Just as the Mass has special prayers for feasts, Mary, and the saints, so does the Office.
You might purchase a copy of the Divine Office or go to www.divineoffice.org or www.universalis.com where you will find the entire Prayer of Christians for each day.
Remember, “A day hemmed by prayer is less likely to unravel.”
• What fact entices you to pray the Divine Office?