Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Liturgy of the Hours - An Introduction

“I would like to call everyone to pray the Psalms, to become accustomed to using the Liturgy of the Hours, Lauds, Vespers, and Compline. Our relationship with God can only be enriched by our journeying towards Him day after day.” - Pope Benedict XVI

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Holy Hours, the Divine Office, the Daily Cycle; all of these are different names given for the eight periods of prayer throughout the day. Perhaps you have heard the name Vespers or Compline mentioned by someone, or you know someone who prays the Hours as a personal devotion, or maybe you own a copy of the Breviary and have attempted to pray one of these hours at one point or another and found it altogether confusing to figure out let alone pray . For most catholics this is enough to end their acquaintance with the Hours. So what are they and how did Christians start praying them?


The Hours as we have them today can be found in every tradition of apostolic Christianity, which illustrates just how ancient they are (at least fourth century old). Drawing from the example of the Jewish Faith at the time of the Second Temple, the Hours really begin to take form during the second and third centuries. At the temple, minor priests lead prayer services during the morning, midday and evening (on occasion midnight) that consisted primarily of the chanting of psalms. Early Christians adopted this as a way to consecrate their days to Christ, joining together not only at the Holy Mass, but now also in short prayer services that marked the coming of light at sunrise and the coming of darkness at sunset and times in between. Because of the underground nature of the faith at this time, there was much variation in practice as attested to by early fathers like Clement of Alexandria

With the lifting of the persecution by Emperor Constantine, Christians were now free to address variations amongst regional prayer services and formulate what would become the Hours. Over the period of about two hundred years, between the fourth and fifth centuries, the church began to piece together the hours. Psalm 119 was influential, owing to two lines:

“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws (Psalm 119:164).”


“At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws (Psalm 119:62).”

Called by different names by different traditions, they all boil down to the same basic periods of time: sunrise prayer, morning prayer, mid morning prayer, noon prayer, afternoon prayer, sunset prayer, evening prayer, and middle of the night prayer. Initially these services were all celebrated at the cathedral of the bishop, but as diocese grew and more country churches became established, it became burdensome and impractical for smaller communities to celebrate the full set of Hours. Some regions never celebrated the entire eight from the get go. Gradually though, the dominical hours of Sunrise and Sunset became the only two Hours celebrated in most parishes. But the full set of Hours did not die. Monasticism embraced the Hours, becoming the foundation for Monks everywhere. Over time as Christianity spread, so did the Hours, and wherever they went, they acquired a unique character of their own, from the Malabar Coast in India to the lonely islands of west Scotland.

The Nature of the Hours

At their core, the Hours are the daily communal work of the faithful. To give you an idea of their place in the Christian life, they can called the “Little Liturgy” whereas the Mass is the “Great Liturgy”. With one voice, we offer our supplications for the world, offer our thanksgiving for all gifts and blessings, and praise Him for his ineffable glory. Everything you would find in the Mass, except the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. Instead, we have the Psalter; the heart of the Hours.

Each Hour contains at least 3 or 4 psalms (and sometimes many more)and have been selected for each of the Hours according to a particular theme. Interspersed between the psalms are prayers and litanies. All of these are focused on a particular mystery or theme which that gives each of the Hours their unique character: Watchfulness, Creation, the Resurrection...

To pray the Hours, is to immerse yourself in the Psalms; the prayers of Christ, and his ancestors. A treasury of healing and faith.

"The Book of Psalms contains everything useful that the others have. It predicts the future, it recalls the past, it gives directions for living, it suggests the right behavior to adopt. It is, in short, a jewel case in which have been collected all the valid teachings in such a way that individuals find remedies just right for their cases... [In every Psalm, there is] the voice of the Church.” - St. Basil the Great