Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A Short Guide to Praying the Liturgy of the Hours 

A close friend of mine asked me for some assistance in navigating the Liturgy of the Hourse, a.k.a. the Breviary, a.k.a. the Divine Office. This priceless gem of Catholic liturgy, long a cornerstone of the Church's spirituality, remains an undiscovered treasure for many Catholics, and many who have discovered it have since abandoned it, bewildered and confused by its complex structure.

(For those interested in purchasing the office, it comes in a four-volume set, although laypersons might prefer the cheaper [although much more complicated due to its condensed structure] one-volume version, or even the Shorter Christian Prayer, which contains only Morning and Evening Prayer [probably the only two prayers I would recommend for beginners anyway]. Alternatively, a subscription to Magnificat includes a daily selection from the office [although I personally find it overly simplified and methodologically flawed], or one could just keep it simple and pray a couple of the Psalms every day - which is, after all, how the office started anyway.)

I am cutting and pasting here a two-page summary of how to navigate the Liturgy of the Hours. I threw it together in twenty minutes and -- yes, I know - it is quite incomplete and even simplified to the extent of being partially inaccurate. But I post it here in the event that some reader may find it helpful.

There are four sections of the office relevant for our purposes: the Proper of Seasons, the Psalter, the Commons, and the Proper of Saints:

The Psalter: This is the 'foundation stone' of the entire office, and consists essentially of the 150 Psalms from the Bible (along with a handful of other 'Psalm-like' New Testament passages), which are broken up over a four-week cycle. Every day during this four-week cycle includes seven 'hours' for prayer: each hour, with some exceptions, has three Psalms (or, in the case of longer Psalms, segments of a Psalm). The four weeks are identified by Roman numerals (Week I, Week II, etc.). The Universalis Calendar is a good key to finding out which week we are presently in: just find the date and look in the right-hand column. If we are in, say, Wednesday of Week I, you will go to that respective day in the Psalter. That day will have a section for each hour: Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Daytime Prayer, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer. (There are actually three ‘daytime hours’, but only one is included, for reasons we won’t get into here.) Traditionally the hours are said at the following times: Morning Prayer at 6am, the Daytime Prayers at 9am, noon and 3pm, Evening Prayer at 6pm and Night Prayer at 9pm or right before bedtime; the Office of Readings can be said at any suitable time, but is often said right before Morning Prayer. Not all the offices need to be said; pick those suitable for your schedule - most laypersons stick to Morning and Evening Prayer, the 'two hinges' of the day.

Now, the parts of each 'hour'. The Office of Readings, Daytime Prayer and Night Prayer are a little different, and each has its unique character, so let's stick with Morning and Evening Prayer for now, which are nearly identical to each other. Each begins with some opening prayers ('Oh God, come to my assistance, etc.'). Then a hymn is typically sung, though this can be omitted if you are praying alone. Then the three Psalms are given; each has an 'antiphon' (marked 'Ant.') which is said/sung immediately before and after each Psalm, to 'set the tone' for that Psalm. Some Psalms have a 'Psalm-prayer' afterwards which may also be said as a reflection, though this too can be omitted. After the Psalms comes a brief biblical reading and a reflective 'response' afterwards. Then comes either the Canticle of Zechariah (Morning Prayer) or the Magnificat (Evening Prayer), which also has an antiphon. (Since this is said every day, it may not be printed out in the hour; it is probably located somewhere else in the office, or in a separate sheet.) The hour closes with a set of petitions/intercessions, then the 'Our Father', a concluding prayer and then the closing words ('Let us praise the Lord', etc.). Morning and Evening Prayer should take about 10 minutes to say alone, maybe 15 in a group. If you say it with more than one person present, the Psalms and Canticle/Magnificat are often said 'in choir' - that is, with each person saying one 'paragraph' and then switching back and forth, and assigning respective duties for each other section (one person assigned to do the reading, another to lead petitions, etc.). This Psalter, again, is the 'core' of the office, and in ordinary time when no feast is being celebrated, that's about as complicated as it gets.

Proper of Seasons: Things get only a little more complicated when we step out of ordinary time. The Proper of Seasons specifies certain changes that are made to the Psalter when a feast or season is being celebrated – mainly Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and other 'moveable' feasts (i.e., feasts which are not on a set calendar day but shift around each year). It is good to keep one bookmark (most offices have ribbons) in the Proper of Seasons to keep track of where you are in the year. Apart from the long 'deserts' of ordinary time (such as we are in now), some things will change. What will typically change are the hymns (there are 'season-specific' hymns suggested for Lent, Easter, etc.), the antiphons and the concluding prayers. The Psalter, biblical reading and petitions will usually stay the same, except on the most important feasts, when these too change. So, on these days, you will often be flipping back and forth between the 'Proper' (for those things which change) and the Psalter (for those which don't). That’s when ribbons/bookmarks are handy. If the Proper of Seasons does not offer a substitute set of Psalms, e.g., then assume it is the same.

Proper of Saints: Most of what was said above for the Proper of Seasons can simply be repeated for the Proper of Saints, which is for all feasts of saints and other 'fixed' days (which are set on a calendar day each year). The Universalis calendar, linked above, can help you keep track of what feasts is being celebrated. Keep in mind that, when feasts overlap (say, St. Patrick's is on a Sunday of Lent), a very complicated system dictates which 'trumps' which: Sunday, e.g., always 'trumps' nearly every saint's feast. So keep the calendar handy. Every saint’s feast has a 'rank', and the lowest 'ranked' feasts ('optional memorials') are just that, optional, so they need not be celebrated, unless you have a particular devotion to that saint. So what was said above applies here. When you are celebrating the feast of a saint, go to that page (the Proper of Saints is in chronological order, so just keep another bookmark here) and it will tell you what changes. Typically, for saint's days, very little changes - often just the concluding prayer and often the antiphon. Everything else stays the same.

Common of Saints: Think of this as what fills the 'gap' between the Proper of Saints and the Psalter. Let’s say you’re celebrating the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7. You have a strong devotion to the Rosary and want to devote as much of the daily office as possible to the Blessed Mother. But, to your dismay, the Proper of Saints only offers a concluding prayer for this feast, and everything else remains the same. The Common of Saints offers a resource for expanding the celebration to include MORE of that saint/feast. The Common of Saints is broken up into categories: virgins, martyrs, pastors, apostles, etc., including one for the Blessed Virgin Mary. If you wish to devote more of the daily office to the celebration of a certain saint, you may go to the Common of Saints. In this case, you go to the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it will offer additional substitutes for the antiphons, Psalms, readings, petitions, etc., all of which have a 'Marian' flavor. But, of course, you don't have to do this if you don’t wish.

So, again, things only get complicated on feasts. On some days - say, a feast in the middle of Christmas – you might be switching back and forth between all four sections. During ordinary time on non-feast days it’s just the Psalter. In fact, while you are getting used to the office, I would suggest simply ignoring the feasts and seasons and doing the Psalter alone for a couple of weeks. Then expand to other sections as you get more comfortable. Don’t worry about perfection - I've heard forty people say the office and each does it differently. There’s no 'wrong' way - as long as you are doing it at all, that's right.

# posted by Jamie : 12:49 PM


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