Punctuation can make a world of difference in our understanding of written communication. Consider, for example, the following sentences: “Let’s eat, Uncle Larry!” and “Let’s eat Uncle Larry!”
Each sentence is composed of the same words. But a single punctuation mark—in this case, a comma—dramatically changes the meaning (with much less catastrophic consequences for Uncle Larry). Punctuation, then, supplies necessary structure and meaning by interrupting the flow of words in a sentence. Such pauses point the way toward understanding.
In a similar way, the regular praying of the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours is a grace-filled gift to keep us centered and headed in the right direction. The Divine Office literally punctuates—or interrupts—the flow of the hours of the day to supply them with the structure and meaning that otherwise risk being lost amid our other activities and concerns.
The Liturgy of the Hours, like a well-placed comma, helps us to pause and recall God’s abiding presence in every facet of our lives. As St. Benedict writes in The Rule of Saint Benedict, “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere.... But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office” (Rule 19:1, 2).
With this in mind, we monks at Saint Meinrad Archabbey come together five times a day for the Divine Office and Mass—and, of course, we are joined in spirit with other monks, sisters, priests, religious and laypeople throughout the world who regularly pray the Liturgy of the Hours and celebrate the Eucharist. At Saint Meinrad, we monks spend at least two hours every day in church—and more on Sundays and feast days. Sometimes, it seems as though we have just finished praying one of the hours of the Divine Office when it is time to go back to church for yet another!
On a number of occasions, visitors and guests have asked me: “How do you monks ever get anything done when you have to be back in church every few hours?” Well, I will not tell you it’s easy, because it’s not. Those living outside the monastery can also identify with the substantial effort required to juggle the daily demands of work, home and family life.
But whatever our specific vocation as Christians may be, the key to living this mystery rests in constantly asking ourselves, “Where is God in all this?” If we seek the Author of Life, whose Word has come among us in Spirit and truth, then we will find him not only in the composition as a whole, but in all its parts—chapters, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, words, syllables and letters, as it were.
None of this makes any sense, or is even possible, without the abiding presence of Christ, who tells his disciples: “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). To enter into this abiding presence, Jesus encourages us to pray always (Lk 18:1). Additionally, he urges us to pray with one another: “Where two or three are gathered, there I am among them” (Mt 18:20). We know from several New Testament passages that the early disciples were faithful to regular communal prayer. For example: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Over time, this practice developed into what we now call the Liturgy of the Hours, which has been adopted as the prayer of the Christian church. And what were the early Christians praying when they came together? Principally, they prayed the psalms—the ancient Hebrew songs of praise, petition, thanksgiving and lament.
As a faithful Jew, Jesus prayed the psalms regularly. He quotes them often in the Gospels, and points to himself as the fulfillment of all that is expressed by the psalms—and the rest of the Old Testament (Lk 24:44). This is why, when we pray the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours (either alone or in a group), we do so not merely for ourselves but as the body of Christ interceding for the entire world (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, No. 108). In the psalms, we enter into conversation not only with Christ, but as Christ with God the Father through the Holy Spirit. As St. Augustine wrote, in the psalms we find the voice of Christ, who “prays for us and in us and who is prayed to by us.... Let us recognize our voice in him and his voice in us.”
In this way, the Word becomes flesh in a very distinct and mysterious way. God is truly present. So, it may be said that Christ’s presence in the Divine Office periodically punctuates—or interrupts—the flow of the day to provide our lives with the divine understanding, direction and meaning that might otherwise be overlooked.
Praying the psalms pulls us back to the center of our being, makes us pause and remember that God is God—and we are not. And while it may be difficult to find time to pray amid our other daily concerns, or to pull ourselves away from them, it is also true that all these seemingly disparate and unrelenting activities are given their true meaning and direction through regular prayer. As far as living in a monastery goes, we monks are able to accomplish whatever we do not in spite of the daily “interruptions” of the Divine Office but because of them.
Every chapter of our lives—every paragraph, sentence and word—flows from the breath of the Author of Life, “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). So, when we seek God above all things, all the rest finds its proper order and rhythm, just like in a well-crafted sentence—no matter how fragmented things may appear at any particular moment.
And when we prefer nothing to the Work of God (as St. Benedict termed it, Rule 43:3) by praying the psalms, it is God who works on us, sanctifying our days, writing straight on crooked lines and guiding us toward the exclamation point of eternal life.