“What is more pleasing than a psalm,” asks St. Ambrose, the fourth-century Archbishop of Milan (“Explanations of the Psalms,” Liturgy of the Hours, III: 347-8)?
We live in a disengaged world of our own making. Buried in digital gadgets, surrounded by noise, we are restless, easily bored, easily distracted—but free. We seek respite and escape from a gripping ennui. Is this all there is? Teilhard de Chardin reflects: “It is a terrifying thing to have been born; I mean, to find oneself without having willed it.” And Hans Urs von Balthasar follows: “If I am a riddle to myself, someone owes me its solution.” Then: “Why do you love me? Why me? Why am I precisely I” (“The Miracle of Human Existence,” 59f).
Vitality of the Psalms
The psalms prompt a zest for life. They proclaim the beauty of the cosmos expanding before our very eyes, whether it be that of a newborn, that of a new spring day, or that of a new galaxy? These wonders are expressed in the psalms which marvel at the exquisite hand of God in an unfolding creation. For God, there is no repetition, only uniqueness of divine creativity. “I look up at your heavens, made by your fingers, at the moon and stars you set in place—ah, what is man that you should keep him in mind? Yet you have made him little less than a god, you have crowned him with glory and splendor” (Ps 139).
The Liturgy of the Hours: the Prayer of the Christian People
The 150 psalms are best organized in the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the Christian people. It was the Rule of St. Benedict that formulated the principle of a complete recitation of the psalter in the space of a week, a practice that continues to this day (The Church at Prayer, IV: 186). St. Ambrose: “In the psalms, instruction vies with beauty. We sing for pleasure. We learn for our profit. What experience is not conveyed by a reading of the psalms?” (Ibid.)
Like the sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours is the public voice of the Church. “The Liturgy of the Hours has an essential role to play in the very mission of the Church; it is one of the Church’s primary functions” (The Church at Prayer, IV:187).
Praying the Hours is the human’s response to the Lord’s command to pray always, from the rising of the sun to its setting. Of course, it was never possible to take these words literally. Nevertheless, the Church has set aside certain canonical hours at various times throughout the day and night. These are the canonical Hours: Matins, Lauds, the Little Hours, prayed from 6 AM to 3 PM, Vespers, and Night Prayer (Compline), the final canonical Hour of the day that asks for peaceful sleep throughout the night.
The conciliar document on the sacred liturgy encourages Catholic families to pray portions of the Hours, if not the entire cycle (#102-111). The Hours are not private or devotional prayer. They belong to the entire body of the Church. Praying the psalms nourishes Catholic family life whose welfare is daily beset with conflicting external forces. Accordingly, many parish churches celebrate the Hours before or after Mass to accommodate busy schedules. During the week, Matins (Morning Prayer) can be prayed before Mass, Midday Prayer before the Noon Mass, and Vespers (Evening Prayer), either before or after the late afternoon Mass.
No Time for Extras
The reader may bristle. People are always on the go. They even work on vacation. There is no time for extras. Isn’t this prayer just for clergy and those in consecrated life who live at a less accelerated pace? Doesn’t this suggestion—to pray the Hours, become an undue burden on the average Catholic, busy at home raising children, or for the person working long hours? No, and no.
St. Ambrose responds: “A psalm is the joy of freedom, a cry of happiness, the echo of gladness. It soothes the temper, distracts from care, lightens the burden of sorrow. It is a source of security at night, a lesson in wisdom by day. It is a shield when we are afraid, a celebration of holiness, a vision of serenity, a promise of peace and harmony. It is like a lyre, evoking harmony from a blend of notes. Day begins with the music of a psalm. Day closes to the echo of a psalm” (Ibid.).
Pre-Cana Conferences, Marriage, and the Hours
The practice of praying the Hours should be encouraged at Pre-Cana instructions so that couples will make the Hours an integral part of their married life—and very early in it. In fact, it is recommended that shortly before or after the sacrament of matrimony, they make a week’s retreat to prepare for their married life. How often do we hear: ‘It takes three to make a marriage.’
If prayer is the underlying power of one’s life, then parents will find ways to incorporate some part of the Hours in their daily schedule. In prayer, married couples derive the strength of God’s grace to live their married vocation. As children mature, they too must learn discipleship in the Lord. A minimal and external Christianity will not fortify the Domestic Church. Christ must be the living and central presence within the family. It takes only a few minutes to pray short sections of the Hours recalling that “in him, we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
The Hours can be prayed with small children at bed time, during a coffee break, or on public transportation. If this is not feasible during the week, then the weekend is an alternate possibility. The Benedictine rhythm of prayer, work, and rest offers the family a rewarding life.
An Unforgettable Experience
One Sunday evening a few years ago when I was visiting the Benedictine Abbey of Chur in Switzerland, the Abbey church was filled to capacity for solemn Vespers. From the procession of monks into the sanctuary to the end of the service, the entire Assembly chanted and sang the Office of the day with full and enthusiastic voices. This was an indispensable Sunday practice that took priority over all other activities. One of the monks remarked that the townspeople so loved this liturgy that they were “wedded to Sunday Vespers.”
The rewards of praying the Hours far exceed any sacrifice. First, as was noted in last week’s essay, the psalms are a treasury of human emotions. Praying the psalms allows our emotions some outlet; it guides them, and elevates our feeling in God. Second, the Liturgy of the Hours is the very prayer which Christ himself together with his Body, addresses to the Father. (The Church at Prayer, IV: 188). We are praying with Christ who prayed the psalms. Third, when we pray the Hours, we are uniting ourselves with the whole of the Catholic Church around the world. While Catholics in the Far East are praying one Hour, others are praying another Hour. Fourth, when we pray the Hours, we are not only remembering the sacredness of civil time but transforming it as well to a higher plan of consciousness toward Christ in God. Fifth, praying the psalms is an experience in reading profoundly beautiful religious poetry.
Great Movements . . .
Great movements are born out of great adversity. Such was the experiment of the first colonists, and later, of the Civil Rights Movement. Such is the situation in the Church today. What is needed for a great movement of renewal? For a moment, let us imagine a cross section of the Church who, convinced of the power of the psalms in their lives and in the culture, would pray the Hours on a daily basis. These might include: commuters in New York subways, farmers and ranchers, political leaders and bankers, blue collar workers, the bedridden and the imprisoned, the addicted, the disenfranchised, artists, scientists, physicians and lawyers, media moguls, and yes, the stay-at-home mother, caring for her family. Imagine such a renewal!
The Rosary Emerges from the Liturgy of the Hours
The present form of the rosary is traced back to the sixteenth century, even though the fingering of beads can be traced to ancient Eastern traditions. In the eleventh century, 150 Our Fathers were given to an illiterate laity to pray as a substitute for the 150 psalms that were prayed by the monks and nuns. Called “the poor person’s breviary,’ the psalms were divided, as was the Psalter, into three sets of fifty, and the strings of beads were used to count them as “paternosters.” Eventually, the rosary, consisting primarily of Hail Marys, was popularized by the Carthusian Order. Today, there is a renewed emphasis in the Church on praying the Liturgy of the Hours (Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 1138-39). In the public prayer of the Church, the Body of Christ immerses itself in salvation history, God’s infinite love for us all.