A handful of retreatants are already waiting when I arrive at the monastery for Morning Prayer. For the last three days, three times each day, I have walked to the monastery from its neighboring retreat house, tread quietly up a flight of stairs, and entered a brightly-lit chapel for Liturgy of the Hours with the Benedictine Sisters.
This morning, there is a greater sense of ease among the retreatants. We have settled at last into the rhythm of prayer that winds through life at the monastery. We are more familiar with the components that comprise the different “hours” of prayer—with the progression of psalms, readings, responses, and hymns; with the exchange of voice and silence. It is the end of retreat, and it seems we have finally begun.
It was only recently that I grew more curious about the Liturgy of the Hours, or “Divine Office,” which Catholic religious offer on a daily basis. I knew that it provided a way of engaging with Scripture and also of praying with the communal Church—for religious and lay people alike. I knew only the broad strokes of the different “hours,” however.
In fact, the Divine Office invites Christians to pray at five distinct hours of the day, from Morning Prayer (Lauds) to Night Prayer (Compline), designating each part of the day as sacred. Each prayer has a unique structure and rotation of Scripture verses, which are found in the Christian Prayer book, or, more completely in a 4-volume text of the Hours.
A person does not need to offer each hour of the Divine Office in order to engage meaningfully with this prayer, though. Nor does she require proximity to a religious community. Although rooted in communal prayer, the Office can be offered individually and from anywhere—in its own way, this is participation in community, too.
Over Lent, I began adding Night Prayer to my routine. I chose this “hour” in part because it fit my schedule and, in part, because it has a simpler structure—helpful for the novice. For further simplicity, I utilized an app on my phone that outlines the prayer in its entirety. (Although, admittedly, I find something irreplaceable about holding a book.)
The introduction always begins the same way: “O God, come to our aid,” followed by the response “O Lord, make haste to help us.” In community, a presider would begin and all would offer the response. The doxology (“Glory to the Father . . . ”) follows.
You can pause here to offer an Examination of Conscience and to recite the Hymn.
At least one Psalm follows, beginning with an “antiphon,” which is said at the start and conclusion of the psalm. Fittingly, the psalms that rotate through Night Prayer often ask God for guidance, peace, and protection. I may carve a small phrase from these verses to carry into the next day.
Next, there is a Reading, Short Responsory, and the Canticle of Simeon, which begins and ends with the antiphon: “Save us Lord, while we are awake; protect us while we sleep; that we may keep watch with Christ and rest with him in peace.”
There is, finally, a Concluding Prayer and a Marian Hymn.
It seemed complicated to me, too. But a rhythm gradually emerged, and by entering into that rhythm, I began understand more fully what this prayer does: It points to the holiness wrapped within every hour. It ushers a quiet spaciousness into our frenzy for success and production, a place where God can speak. It deepens the experience of Church community by joining voices across distance, each carrying a unique story and struggle and joy and petition.
For those interested in the Liturgy of the Hours, I recommend the (free!) app Laudate, which includes a number of excellent prayer resources. The IBreviary website and app are additional options, and the USCCB website also has a helpful introduction. Finding (or starting!) a community that gathers regularly for prayer is never a bad place to start, either; my own experience with the Benedictine Sisters sparked my spiritual curiosity and encouraged my further exploration.
No app or guide can surpass the simple practice of showing up, however. In my experience, this bears fruit on the I-have-no-mental-space-for-prayer days when mere habit spurs my participation. Sometimes, it is quick and sleepy and unfocused. It is not always striking or spiritually consoling. Sometimes, the entire prayer flits by before I realize that my mind remains latched to its opening words: O God, come to our aid; O Lord make haste to help us. Sometimes, these words are enough.
Written by Anne Boyle.