The Liturgy of the Hours: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions
Having spent the past 15 years at various Jesuit institutions, I have probably logged more hours on retreats, in spiritual direction, in prayer groups, discussing or teaching theological topics and doing or organizing service work than your average 30-something. But despite all of the above, I am embarrassed to say that for the past few years I have not spent much time praying, and when I have it has not been as fruitful as I would like. This is due, in large part, to the pace of my life. As with many people I know, I am over-committed, juggle too much responsibility and collapse at night very much aware of all I was not able to accomplish during the day.
To fill the void of my poor prayer life, I have often browsed through the many meditation books and resources for busy people, but nothing I have tried has satisfied more than a feeling of fulfilling an obligation. My search was more for something with the depth and beauty that so many other aspects of our faith can offer. But how to find a middle ground among my spiritual desires, the scriptural call to pray ceaselessly and the constraints on my time and energy?
Last spring the U.S. Cistercian novice directors asked my husband and me to meet with them in Snowmass, Colo., to help them better understand Generation X. Having no experience with cloistered religious, I arrived at the meeting somewhat skeptical, even suspicious, of their vocation. The Jesuit charism surrounding social justice and phrases like contemplatives in action were what encapsulated my ideals of Christian service. I did not understand how a cloistered life was a ministry to the church or the world, or how monastic men and women were bringing about the kingdom of God. But after several days of meetings, meals and late-night conversations, I came to admire the Cistercian life and saw many more connections between our two vocations than I would have imagined. These were healthy, interesting, intelligent and deeply spiritual people, whose time living in a community of work and prayer had given them insights into their own talents as well as the challenges they faced within their communities.
Cistercian time is punctuated by praying the Liturgy of the Hours and by practicing mindfulness during the day’s work. And although I am not called to their particular vocation, I longed for a way of marking my own days with similar rhythms of prayer.
After returning to Chicago, I committed myself to more regular prayer. In my home library I found a two-volume set of books that I had bought several years before but had never used: a layperson’s guide to the Liturgy of the Hours. I decided to take up the texts on my own terms, adapting it to my vocation and lifestyle without learning the rubrics or even much of the history. I did not want to get caught up in shoulds, but wanted to explore how God might be able to break into my contemporary life through this ages-old tradition. Morning and evening prayer include several psalms, a brief reading from a saint, theologian or spiritual writer, a responsorial psalm, the canticle of Zechariah or of Mary, prayer petitions and a short prayer to begin or end the day.
After spending time with these prayers and, later, learning more about the history of the Liturgy of the Hours, I found many aspects of the office particularly suited to much of what I had been seeking. With its roots in ancient Jewish rituals, its later adaptation by the early Christian community and its continued use daily throughout Christian history, I felt a profound historical connection with the countless generations who have punctuated their days in similar ways. Especially valuable for me is the prayer experience offered by the particular version I use. It combines ancient psalms and canticles, readings from the church fathers, medieval saints and modern women, along with intercessions that relate to the challenges of contemporary socioeconomic structures and environmental concerns.
The development of the devotion over time also exemplified the adaptability and flexibility for which Ihad been searching. From as early as the fourth and fifth centuries, attempts by the laity to integrate regular prayer times with their urban lives resulted in the flowering of different traditions for praying the Liturgy of the Hours. A monastic lifestyle allowed for a more frequent and time-intensive focus on the psalms and prayer periods throughout the day and night. In turn, an urban cathedral tradition developed for the laity, which called people to pray as a community in the morning and the evening and included shorter meditations and fewer psalms. This tradition accommodated the workaday life of the average person. But from the 12th century on, outside of monasteries the practice became primarily a private, clerical devotion. The laity focused on shorter prayers and devotions like the rosary, which could be done either privately or within the church community. Today, priests and deacons are still required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily, and the Second Vatican Council called for the devotion to be incorporated more into parish life.
In addition to the historical tradition of the devotion, it moves me deeply to think that people throughout the world, from all walks of life, are praying with similar texts each day. This provides an almost tangible connectedness that inspires me in the solitude of my home office. When I am able to pray in the morning, it brings a mindfulness to the gift of the day, which often stays with me after I walk out the door. The text itself provides not only the comforting repetition found in the Mass, but also enough variety that I have less of a tendency to go through the motions, as I do with other forms of prayer. By following the liturgical year I feel connected to the seasons of the church year in a way that I enjoyed when daily Mass was still an option for my schedule. And the readings for feast days allow me an opportunity to gain insight into the lives of inspiring men and women. Overall, the various types of prayers and readings touch upon the struggles and celebrations that occur in the lives of us all.
Admittedly, I do not pray the Liturgy of the Hours as diligently as I might, nor do I replicate the total commitment of the monastic communities. But the connectedness I feel to a larger praying community helps with this. If I can pray only once a day or miss prayer altogether, I know that thousands of others are carrying on this living tradition for the good of all creation. If I begin praying the office and discover an image or phrase that calls my attention, my Ignatian education kicks in and I realize that God is drawing me toward a more specific word to focus on that day. And on days when I actually pray the morning, afternoon and evening hours, I know that I have taken up the call to prayer for those who did not have time or were for other reasons unable to pray.
It is ironic that a trip intended to offer a cloistered community insight into a generation that grew up in the midst of instant entertainment and constant activity would result in my incorporating an ancient contemplative practice into my Ignatian-influenced, action-oriented Christian life. It seems a special testament to a Spirit who brings forward elements of our tradition that have been life-giving for previous generations in ways that are fruitful and adaptable in the midst of contemporary challenges.