What is the Liturgy of the Hours?
The Liturgy of the Hours is also called the Divine Office or the Breviary. The celebration of the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, but it is not the only daily prayer of the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is a series of prayers, scripture, and writings of the saints which mark the hours of each day and offer the whole day to God.
The Liturgy of the Hours is called the Divine Office because it is a duty of the Church accomplished for God. It is called the Breviary (from the Latin Breviarium) because it was an abridgment for the laity of a much longer Office which was prayed by clergy and religious prior to the 9th Century.
The Second Vatican Council in the document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, refers to the Divine Office as “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 84).” The Divine Office, therefore, rightly uses the words of God to offer Him praise; most of the Liturgy of the Hours is the Psalms. In this way, when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, we are acting as a member of the Body of Christ and are standing in the presence of God with the angels and saints.
At the time of St. Benedict of Nursia in the early 6th Century, there were seven daytime hours and one hour at night. In Psalm 118 we hear, “Seven times a day I praise you.” But in the same Psalm, we hear, “At midnight I rise to praise you.” Thus, the first Hour was during the night, around 2 a.m. which was called Matins or Vigil. The Divine Office was regularly prayed by clergy and religious, especially religious communities. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council suppressed the hour of Prime (at dawn) and Pope St. Paul VI decreed a new arrangement of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Office of Readings (Matins)
The Office of Readings begins with an opening invitatory and a hymn, followed by three psalms. Then there is a long passage of scripture, a long passage from Church teaching or the Church Fathers, the Te Deum hymn, and a concluding prayer. The Office of Readings can be done any time after evening prayer the night before all the way through evening prayer of that day.
Morning Prayer (Lauds) – 6 a.m.
Lauds is also a major hour of the day and is normally recited at 6 a.m. It contains an invitatory, a hymn, psalms, a short passage from scripture, intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer, a concluding prayer, and the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus).
Terce, Sext, and None – 9 a.m., 12 p.m., and 3 p.m.
Terce, Sext, and None are the minor hours of the day and follow a simple format.
Evening Prayer (Vespers)
Vespers is the third major hour. It is very similar to Morning Prayer but it ends with Mary’s hymn of praise: the Magnificat.
Night Prayer (Compline)
Compline prepares us for a holy death. Of course, we do not know the day or the hour, but there is an opening verse, an examination of conscience, a hymn, psalms, scripture, a responsory, the Canticle of Simeon (Nunc dimittis), a concluding prayer, an a seasonal Marian antiphon.
Who Should Pray the Liturgy of the Hours?
Canon Law requires that priests and bishops celebrate each hour of the Liturgy of the Hours each day. Without getting too deep into the specifics, it should be recognized that the local bishop can excuse a priest from saying every hour of the day, with good reason. Deacons are required by law to pray at least Morning and Evening Prayer (Lauds and Vespers). The Roman Pontifical in the Rite of Ordination of Deacons even says:
“Are you resolved to maintain and deepen a spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours for the Church and for the whole world?”
Some religious communities are also canonically obligated to pray the Liturgy of the Hours if it is contained in their particular rule of life. The laity are not obligated to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, but they are welcomed and encouraged by the Church to do so!
How Can I Pray the Liturgy of the Hours?
The Liturgy of the Hours follows the Roman Calendar which sets out the liturgical year. So, specific saints sometimes have specific readings on their feast day. Or there are particular prayers and readings for specific feasts and solemnities. In general, the Psalter (the readings of Psalms) follows a 4 week cycle. If one prayed the Divine Office everyday for four weeks, they would have prayed each of the 150 Psalms.
One way to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is to buy a four volume set with a liturgical yearly guide. These books are a bit pricey, but they contain everything you would need to pray all seven hours each day. Another good resource currently available is a one volume “Christian Prayer” book which contains Morning and Evening Prayer for the whole year. There is also a shorter version with just the four week cycle called Shorter Christian Prayer.
If you are more digitally inclined, I would highly recommend iBreviary which is an app for iPhone and Android. The web interface is a little bulky, but the app is excellent. Another good app/website contender is Universalis.
We must know also, with joy, that the Liturgy of the Hours is a public prayer (not a private prayer), even if we are reciting it alone. Because truly we are never alone: we are in the presence of God, praising Him with the angels and saints and the whole Church!
To learn more about the Liturgy of the Hours, check out this book by Fr. Timothy Gallagher entitled: “A Layman’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours: How the Prayers of the Church Can Change Your Life.”