The Liturgy of the Hours

A Brief History

It is impossible to provide, in such a short a space, a full and complete history and development of the liturgical prayer form called The Liturgy of the Hours. For those wishing more than what follows, you are referred to the excellent text: The Liturgy of the Hours in the East and West: The Origins of the Divine office and its Meaning for Today, by Robert Taft, SJ (Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1986).

090804_1687_-_Copy.JPGFor most Catholics, when they hear the word liturgy, they automatically think Mass/the Eucharist, and that this form of the official prayer of the Church was something done by priests and religious. For the most part, this had been the experience for many centuries. We have already seen how this prayer form was , and continues to be, essential to the life of Saint Benedict and his followers. But the Council Fathers wanted the Divine office to be restored to the entire praying Church. "When this wonderful song of praise is correctly celebrated by priests and others deputed to it by the Church, or by the faithful praying together with a priest in the approved form, then it is truly the voice of the bride herself addressed to her Bridegroom. It is the very prayer which Christ himself together with his Body addresses to the Father." (SC par 84).

The Office is meant to dedicate the entire day to the Lord, as the Psalmist writes,"Seven times a day I have given praise to You, O Lord.” (Psalm 118). The Office consists mainly in the praying or chanting of the Psalms, along with readings from the Scriptures and other sacred writers, along with intercessory prayers. The early Christians adopted this prayer form from the Jews who prayed morning and evening, in the home, the local synagogue and the Temple. The usual practice, which is described in The Acts of the Apostles, was for the Christian Community to gather daily for prayer--usually in homes--in the morning and the evening, and for the Eucharist only on Sundays. When the Church became “legal” in 312 AD with the Peace of Constantine, the community gathered in the Church. With the Latinizing of the liturgy--both Eucharist and Office--the Liturgy of the Hours became something for the priests to pray privately with breviaries (prayer books), or religious in their monasteries and convents. Benedict has his followers gathering eight times daily for prayer (see RB Ch 16) which included during the night. This continues to be the form that most contemplative religious communities, like the Trappists or Poor Clares, follow.

The Liturgy of the Hours at Saint John’s Abbey

Following the directives of the Council Fathers, the monastic community at Collegeville revised its practice of praying the Office, and concentrated on three “hours”: Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, and Evening Prayer, using a 4-week cycle version of the Office created by and for the community in 1990.  In addition to the 4-week Psalter for Morning, Midday and Evening Prayer, there is a special set of common and proper offices for feasts and solemnities.

090804_1674_-_Copy.JPGSo it is that the monks gather to begin their day with a prayer of praise to God their Father and Creator, and then again in the Evening to give that same Father Creator thanks for the day now ending. These prayer times are longer than many other communities for they contain a longer psalmody and readings from Sacred Scripture and other sacred authors. Each takes usually around thirty-five minutes. Before they eat their noon meal, the monks gather for a briefer time, usually 12-15 minutes, taking a breather--so to speak--from daily chores, again with psalms and a reading. There is also an optional gathering for the praying of Compline or Night Prayer.