Liturgy of the Hours a treasure in our midst

  • February 2, 2007
Among the initiatives of the Second Vatican Council aimed at making the church’s ancient rites more accessible to God’s people, the reforms and translations of the Mass have been the most successful, as well as the most controversial. Less successful, however, have been the attempts to bring the Liturgy of the Hours — the church’s majestic daily prayer — out of the cloister and the priest’s study and into the daily life of Christians.
This is surely to be regretted. Though not required of lay folk, praying the Office (as priests often call it) provides a sound religious structure to everyday life in the earthly city. It puts us in touch with the immense wealth of Christian prayer, which has been growing and developing within the church since the time of the apostles. Over time, the daily readings from the Bible, especially the psalms and canticles, subtly shape and direct our prayers to God, giving form to our petitions and the often incoherent yearnings that arise from life in the world.

But there are some credible reasons why the popularization of the church’s great prayer among lay people has not caught on. The least serious, surely, is complexity. As revised at the direction of the council, and published by Pope Paul VI, the Liturgy of the Hours in English has been stripped of the often arcane complication of the old Latin breviary. In its place, we now have four fat volumes of texts, organized in two great cycles: one ordered according to a four-week round of psalms and prayers, the other according to the seasons of the church’s year. Putting them together in a seamless fashion, day by day, requires some getting used to, but most people who put their mind to it will quickly catch on to the simple logic involved in fitting the various parts of the Liturgy together. (Newcomers to this manner of praying may find St. Joseph’s Guide useful. At $2.75, it’s a very inexpensive way to know which page to go to.)

Another objection has to do with time. Most of us are busy people, with jobs to do, households to organize and families to take care of. Adding Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, the principle offices of the Liturgy, to an otherwise crowded day may seem at first a nearly impossible thing to do. Yet, here again, the council’s revisions have made it possible to fit Morning and Evening Prayer into just about everybody’s day. Praying each of the two offices takes no more than 20 minutes, or, taken together, the equivalent of about one short TV program. That’s not much time, by any yardstick.

A more substantial reason for not praying the Liturgy of the Hours has to do with the cost of doing so. The complete four-volume, leather-bound set costs about $200. There are ways, however, to cut the expense. The one-volume edition entitled Christian Prayer, which contains all the essential elements of the four-volume set, costs $35 on Amazon.ca, while an even more pared-down version, Shorter Christian Prayer, sells for $16.95. While sacrificing little of the richness of the full Liturgy of the Hours, these abridged versions bring the church’s basic daily prayer within reach of just about everyone.

There are busy, travelling people, of course, who find books of any size and cost too cumbersome to carry around. There are still others who prefer to get their necessary information from the Internet. For such folks, the British software designer Martin Kochanski has created Universalis (www.universalis.com), a free web site that publishes the full texts of Morning and Evening Prayer, Mass readings and scriptural passages, and much else, each day throughout the year. And Blackberry owners can subscribe to downloads of the principle texts from the New York-based Liturgy of the Hours Apostolate (www.ebreviary.com) for $49.95 (U.S.) per year.

Though I started this column with a lament that the Liturgy of the Hours has not become more popular, I should add that the picture is not as bleak as I make it sound. In my travels through cyberspace, I’ve found thousands of people who have discovered this way of drawing close to God. A couple of chemical engineers with a growing family pray the Liturgy together every day. The pastor of a Pentecostal congregation in Michigan begins each day with the Liturgy’s Morning Prayer. An excited Lutheran biologist, a new-ager on Vancouver Island who calls herself Sister Earth, a Cuban-American poet in Chicago, an Australian teacher and jazz fan — these are a few people whose lives are being formed by the Catholic Church’s ancient prayer. There are surely many others; and we can hope that more and more Catholics will discover this treasure in our midst.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)