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Joe Laramie, S.J.June 02, 2023
The breviary, or the liturgical book containing the Liturgy of the Hours, is seen in this illustration photo. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Another busy day: Zooms, meetings, emails and two Masses. I squeezed in a quick run before lunch. After dinner in my Jesuit community, I am in my room, sitting in my recliner, watching the sun go down. It is time for morning prayer. “Lord open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Well, Lord, it is morning somewhere. In Australia, it is tomorrow morning.

An old teacher once said, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” She was right. An even older Jesuit once said, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.” He was right, too.

This reflection is about praying the Liturgy of the Hours badly, but still praying it. Also sometimes called the Divine Office, it is a collection of psalms, prayers and other texts arranged for daily prayer throughout the church’s liturgical year. Morning prayer, daytime prayer, evening prayer and night prayer are meant to be prayed at particular times each day. Morning prayer includes an introductory psalm, a song, three psalms, a short reading from Scripture, the Canticle of Zechariah from Luke 1, petitions, an Our Father and a closing prayer. For convenience, these texts are arranged into a set of several printed books commonly called a breviary. And yes, there is an app for that: iBreviary.

An old teacher once said, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” She was right. An even older Jesuit once said, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.” He was right, too.

Priests are called to pray the breviary five times each day. Many religious orders also pray it according to their own rules. Morning prayer takes about 10 minutes—eight if you are precise and efficient, and five if you rush through it. That is 13 psalms each day; it takes 45 to 60 minutes to pray it all.

When I am praying it well, the breviary brings me a quiet spiritual pause at several points during my day. Instead of rushing from one event to the next, I am called to sit and reflect when I wake up, after lunch, before Mass, after dinner and at bedtime. On Sunday, I begin with Psalm 63: “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting.” My first conscious thoughts are centered in the Lord and my need for his grace. Friday midday prayer brings Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” I recall Jesus crying out to his Father from the cross (Mk 15:34).

In the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians are seen praying communally several times each day. What were they praying? The psalms, most likely. In the Temple, they might have prayed Psalm 122, “I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Faithful Jews prayed the psalms in the centuries before Jesus was born, and still pray them today.

For Christians, the psalms are interpreted through the life of Christ. Psalm 23 proclaims “the Lord is my shepherd.” Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, guarding and guiding me (Jn 10:11). The Second Vatican Council encouraged lay people to pray the breviary, too. I know couples who pray evening prayer after dinner. In evening prayer on Thursday, St. Peter calls us to “love one another from the heart,” apt advice for a family or a Jesuit community (1 Pt 1:22). I have seen families pray night prayer at bedtime; young kids can learn the responses quicker than many adults: “Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep.” I often pray midday prayer with my college-age staff; they love the idea of praying with monks, priests and Christians around the world.

Praying with Benedictines is the difference between shooting baskets alone in your driveway and playing with an N.B.A. team.

I have been on retreat with Benedictines at Conception Abbey in Missouri and at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. These monks are the black-belt ninjas of the breviary. St. Benedict organized the psalms as we know them today—into liturgical seasons, chants and time periods. Praying with Benedictines is the difference between shooting baskets alone in your driveway and playing with an N.B.A. team. They know the chants, the cadence and the choreography—bowing, standing, processing—in elegantly effortless rehearsed synchronization.

I’m shooting baskets in my driveway, a proud amatuer at this. Some days I miss a few psalms. Those are airballs. Sadly, now and then, I miss almost the whole day. This is like the son who said, “I will go” into the field, but he never does. Mea culpa.

I know of others who object to praying the breviary at all. Many priests have said, “As soon as I got out of the seminary I never opened that book again!” They feel that this rote recitation conflicts with a more personal, spontaneous style of prayer.

Spontaneous prayer is indeed a gift, and in fact I find that the more I pray these psalms, the more I am moved to spontaneous prayer. But spontaneity is unreliable as a daily rhythm. Imagine two marriages. In one, the man only spends time with his wife when he feels moved to do so. The other man makes a point of spending time with his wife several times each day—morning coffee and a short conversation, quick phone call at lunch, longer conversation at dinner, and a final word and kiss goodnight. Which of these marriages will be stronger? Which of these men will “spontaneously” be moved to express love to his wife more frequently?

Through the church, God gives me the breviary, essentially saying: “Look, I know you’re busy serving my people. So pray this. I have it all set for you. I want to talk with you throughout the day. It’s beautiful. And not too long.”

If I pray the breviary poorly one day, there are more psalms coming my way when the sun rises.

Yes, sometimes the breviary is inconvenient. “I’m so busy!” Charity is also inconvenient. So is service to the poor. I’m reminded of a line from the TV show “Duck Dynasty,” set in southern Louisiana: “If you’re too busy to hunt and fish, then you’re too busy.” If I’m too busy to pray, then I’m too busy. I need to reflect on how I am spending my time. Am I really working 15 hours per day? Or am I working seven or eight hours, and then wasting a lot of time on social media and watching TV? Our two husbands above: Maybe one day per week he is really too busy to talk with his wife. If he is too busy to talk with her five days per week, then he needs to take a long look at his priorities.

 

After 20 years of praying the breviary, I have developed a few short cuts. I’ve memorized several psalms. Many psalms show up again and again; in a sense, the church is helping us to know these “by heart.” With the breviary, we can use the same three psalms for daytime prayer every day: Psalms 120, 121 and 122. Memorized, I can pray them when I’m driving. The same is true for night prayer; there is just one psalm for each day of the week, but you can pray the same one every night. This is the great lullaby of the church; in a chair or even in bed, you can murmur Psalm 91 as you doze off to sleep. God says, “When he calls I shall answer: ‘I am with you.’” I have prayed that line several thousand times; I need to pray it again and again so that these words are imprinted deep into my heart.

If I pray the breviary poorly one day, there are more psalms coming my way when the sun rises. Christ prayed these psalms. Christ wrote these psalms through the Jewish scribes. He prays these psalms with me. He prays them in me. I conclude night prayer: “May the all powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death. Amen.” More graces and psalms await me tomorrow.

More: Prayer

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