Liturgy of the Hours: The Church’s pattern for the laity’s holiness
Peter Jesserer Smith Nov. 8, 2017
As a young man in his 20s, Andrae Goodnight had come to a Catholic church just looking for peace and quiet. At that time a city councilman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he had hit a low point in his life, overwhelmed with the noise of politics. Even though he was an African-American Presbyterian, Goodnight walked into a Catholic church, figuring it would be open on a weekday.
However, people started to come for worship, and Goodnight, thinking his prayer for solace denied, started to make his way out of the church. But all of a sudden, a worn, leather-bound book, carried by an elderly nun caught his eye. He saw her open its thin pages to one of the brightly colored ribbons. He observed its beautiful images and text of psalms and prayers that she must have highlighted and underlined, over and over again.
Goodnight was curious, he told Angelus News — and decided to learn more.
“I asked myself, ‘Do Catholics have a whole other book that I’m not aware of?’ ” he said, recalling that moment. “But I could tell it was a source of much affection for her.”
Goodnight had prayed for a moment of solace, but this encounter more than seven years ago would introduce him to the Liturgy of the Hours, a constant source of spiritual solace, conversion and strength. The nun told him she was praying with her book on the Liturgy of the Hours, and invited him to join her and other Catholics who had gathered to pray together during the Church’s liturgy called Morning Prayer — not the Mass.
“That became my door into the Catholic Church — praying those prayers was my way in,” said Goodnight. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours drew him closer to Jesus Christ, changed how he lived his life and prompted him to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. “Because I was praying these prayers, I wanted to be around the people praying these prayers.”
Now a Catholic actor who lives in Orange County with his family, Goodnight plays Servant of God Augustus Tolton, the U.S.’s first African-American priest and candidate for sainthood, in St. Luke Productions’ live drama “Tolton: from Slave to Priest.” But praying the “offices” of the Liturgy of the Hours — the prayers set at various times from the morning to the evening — continues to nourish his own spiritual life. He and his family pray together the office of Morning Prayer to start their day, and at the end of the day they pray Night Prayer [or Compline], where they also thank God for the blessings of that day, and ask his help for themselves and others.
“It really orientates the entire day to God,” he said, adding that it also reminds them how to approach God every day as their loving Father.
The Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes known as the “Divine Office” or the “Breviary,” is the form of liturgical prayer the Church’s faithful have prayed together since the time of Jesus, and complements the Mass, also known as the Divine Liturgy. But the public celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours in a church can be led by either the clergy or the lay faithful, who can also offer a reflection on the daily Scriptures.
The Liturgy of the Hours has two chief offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, as well as five other offices of prayer set for other intervals during the day. These daily offices revolve around the praying of the psalms and canticles from the Bible, and include the Our Father, Scripture readings, the reflections of the saints, intercessions, hymns and other various prayers.
The Second Vatican Council, in “Sacrosanctum Concilium” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”), strongly recommended the faithful pray the Liturgy of the Hours, “either with the priests or among themselves or even individually,” because these prayers would help them “sanctify the day.”
Father Sebastian Carnazzo, a lecturer in biblical studies at St. Patrick’s seminary in Menlo Park, and pastor of St. Elias the Prophet Melkite Catholic Church in San Jose, told Angelus News that Christians of the Western and Eastern Churches have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours in their various traditions since the time Jesus taught them to pray the Our Father.
The origins of the Liturgy of the Hours, he explained, go all the way back to the earliest Israelite liturgy, when the “sacrifice of praise” would be offered in the tent that housed the Holy of Holies in the morning and the evening, at the same time the animal sacrifices would be offered.
Father Carnazzo explained that the Church would later develop parish-based offices and monastic offices, and people would begin their workdays with the morning office, or Matins (also known as Lauds in the West, but Orthros in the East), and conclude when the church bell rang for the evening office, or Vespers. The rosary, in the Western Church, he explained, originated as a private devotional that provided a way for people to join themselves spiritually to the monastic men and women chanting the Liturgy of the Hours in church — 150 Ave Marias represented the 150 Psalms of David.
At a certain point after the Middle Ages, Father Carnazzo indicated, the Church’s experience of the Liturgy of the Hours diverged: in the Western Church, the celebration of the hours greatly diminished from lived parish life and became more associated with priests and religious, whereas it carried on in the Eastern Churches.
However, the Second Vatican Council, which commanded the reform of the Liturgy of the Hours, indicated it wanted the public celebration of Morning and Evening Prayer back into the lived experience of the lay faithful, throughout the universal Church. In “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the council fathers stated, “pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts.”
A slow restoration underway
Catholic parishes are slowly rediscovering the beauty of the Liturgy of the Hours, and adding this ancient prayer to their liturgical celebrations. Several parishes in the Los Angeles area, such as St. Bede the Venerable on Foothill Blvd., provide times for Morning Prayer and Vespers, just as they do for Mass.
“We have about 15 to 20 people that have their own breviaries and come to pray with us,” said Dominican Father Michael Fones, pastor of St. Dominic’s Church on Merton Ave. in Los Angeles.
Father Fones said it was “really wonderful” to have the lay faithful praying the Morning and Evening offices with the Dominicans during the week.
“It really is a prayer for the whole Church and not only for clergy and religious,” he said.
“We’re entering into Jesus’ sacrifice during the Mass, and we’re entering into his prayer during the Liturgy of the Hours,” he said. Father Fones explained that Jesus prayed these psalms, “the prayer book of the Jewish people,” and knew them intimately. While private or devotional prayer, such as the rosary, help a person draw closer to Jesus Christ, when Christians come together to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, they are “truly joining Jesus’ prayer for the Church and for the world.”
The priest added that technology has also helped make praying the Liturgy of the Hours more accessible, so the faithful do not need to always carry a book in order to pray the office hours.
“With these readily available apps, you can have it on your phone, and people carry their phones everywhere,” he said. Instead of flipping to Facebook or reading the morning news, a Catholic could instead sit down and pray the Morning office.
“There’s a connection to not only Jesus and his prayer, but also Catholics all around the world, who all day long are saying these prayers,” Father Fones said.
Diverse traditions of prayer
The Liturgy of the Hours has many different variations throughout the Church, both within the Eastern and Western Churches.
Greg and Karen Herr, lay Benedictines at Blessed John Henry Newman Church in Pasadena, told Angelus News they use the Daily Office of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. The ordinariate’s English-Catholic form of the Liturgy of the Hours traces its lineage through the English Church’s Book of Common Prayer tradition. Anglicans retained the medieval Catholic practice of praying or chanting Morning Prayer (Mattins) and Evening Prayer (Evensong) throughout the week — a living tradition restored to Catholic practice through the Ordinariate.
Greg explained that the daily office helps him stay focused in prayer by providing the structure, with set psalms and readings, including passages that he would never have thought to read on his own.
“Praying the office aligns my heart with what the saints have said throughout the centuries,” he said.
Karen said she particularly loves the canticles, particularly in Evening Prayer: such as the Phos Hilaron, the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) and the Nunc Dimittis (the Canticle of Simeon). The “Prayer Book English” of the daily office, she added, was written by people who have a “real ear for poetry,” especially the psalter rendered into English in 1535 by Myles Coverdale, which formed generations of Catholics and Anglicans in the English-speaking world. Karen said the poetic rhythms makes it “stick in the heart better.”
“In particular when we pray together, or when we pray at church, that tends to be a very fruitful exercise for me,” she said. Getting together with other people is difficult, given the highway traffic of Southern California. But the Kerrs said they have benefited from the internet, where they use a website (called prayer.covert.org) to look up the daily offices and sometimes pray with others through the website’s call-in number.
Praying some form of the Liturgy of the Hours helps the lay faithful on their path to holiness, explained Father Hezekias Carnazzo, pastor of St. George’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Sacramento. Father Carnazzo, who serves as the director of education for the Eparchy of Newton, which has been encouraging parishes and families to pray the Byzantine form of the divine office, told Angelus News that the liturgical hours become an opportunity for the faithful to start “the first beautiful moment [of the day] to thank God,” and then to finish the evening, as the sun sets, to “thank him for the gift of the day.”
“Originally the psalms were chanted by God’s people as part of their daily prayer,” he said. The Psalms of David, he pointed out, are an “everyman’s prayer” for the Christian, because their principal author, King David, was someone who sinned, but tried to remain faithful to God and trusted in his mercy.
“The psalms are the foundation for the spiritual life of the Christian,” he said. “The hours which then punctuate the day are a constant reminder for us to lift up our eyes to God.”
Mass and the Hours go together
Father Carnazzo added that the Mass, or the Divine Liturgy, and the Liturgy of the Hours complement each other beautifully. He pointed out that Christians would be mistaken to assume that if they go to Mass, the source and summit of the Christian life, they do not need the Liturgy of the Hours.
“It prepares you daily for the Eucharistic liturgy,” he said. “If the Eucharist is the source and summit, what about everything else?”
Instead, he explained that Christians should think of the Liturgy of the Hours as the liturgical path that helps them ascend the mountain to the Eucharistic summit, and then guides them back down into the world, living as followers of Jesus.
“My goal is to get my people in every hour of the day to say ‘thank you’ to Jesus,” he said.
Father Carnazzo suggested that lay Christians who want to make time and space for God by praying the Liturgy of the Hours should start with a small commitment, such as praying a psalm verse in the morning and in the evening, and then gradually increase what they pray from the Divine Office, when they feel ready.
Even a modified form of Evening Prayer can provide a beautiful form for family prayer life, he said, pointing out that the Church’s ancient “Phos Hilaron” hymn, “O Joyful Light,” was possibly sung by the earliest Christians when they would light the evening lamp and praise God singing, “You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices.”
Praying with Mary
Brenda García, a Hollywood professional stuntwoman, was introduced to the Liturgy of the Hours at St. Junípero Serra Church in Quartz Hill, praying it before the morning Mass. For the past year, she has prayed Morning Prayer and Night Prayer, using mainly an approved Marian version called the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
García said praying the office hours, particularly by meditating on the psalms with Mary, the “true first disciple,” has deepened her relationship with Jesus Christ, and helped her gain “a tremendous amount of wisdom.”
She said the Catholic practices and devotions she had — prayer, the rosary, the Bible — made even more sense by praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Meditating on the psalms, she added, has helped deepen her own awareness of the mercy of God, and trust in God’s love, just as King David did. She tries to share that message with her co-workers in the middle of Hollywood’s secular environment.
So García begins her day with the morning office’s familiar words: “God come to my assistance! Lord, make haste to help me,” and ends it with the night office’s final prayer: “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.”
For more than a year, these prayers have provided the pattern of holiness to her life.
“And I’ve been growing closer to God, ever since.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff writer at the National Catholic Register, a news service of the EWTN Global Catholic Network. He is a Catholic journalist who has covered a variety of topics and persons in the U.S., the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, and Pope Francis's historic visits to Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and the United States.