Praying with the Church 8 – How the Roman Catholics Pray with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

Before I start writing my thoughts on this chapter, I’ll note there is an online site with the English text of at least some of the Liturgy of the Hours, including readings. Since I’ve never seen the printed version, I have no idea how complete it is. But there’s certainly quite a bit here:  http://www.ebreviary.com/

The Roman Catholic tradition of praying with the church has been deeply shaped by the Rule of St. Benedict from the fifth and sixth century, shaping the monastic order of that tradition. At the heart of his rule lies the hours of prayer also called “offices”. The full rhythm of the hours of prayer stand in “protest against the busyness of a world enthralled by work and money and the relentless pursuit of the time clock. Here, in contrast, we find a day punctuated by prayer and worship.” That image reminds me of the C.S. Lewis observation that only lazy people are busy. We are naturally “lazy” and unwilling to order our lives by the rhythms of God. Set prayers and readings help us in this regard.

He then explores the details of Benedict’s rule. The Liturgy of the Hours has more explicit offices than any other. The day begins at midnight with Vigil or Matins, which is the Office of Readings. This office focuses on readings from the great writings of the church. Next is the morning prayer or Lauds, which can be done anytime between 6AM- 11AM. Next, though it’s generally not used anymore, was Prime somewhere between 6AM-7AM. Next comes Terce, the midmorning prayer, at 9AM. This is followed by Sext, the midday prayer, at noon. None (Italian — rhymes with tone), the midafternoon prayer, is at 3PM. Vespers, the evening prayer, can take place anytime between 3PM and 6PM. And finally there is Compline, the Night Prayer, before retiring for the evening.

Of course, the full set of offices are designed for monastics and it is generally not possible for a non-monastic to routinely follow all the hours, though certainly recommended at special times or during a retreat. As with all traditions, the base of the Liturgy are the morning and evening prayers (Lauds and Vespers). Sometimes lay persons can incorporate other of the hours into their daily rhythms, but those two lie at the heart.

The full liturgy of the hours is a four volume work. This is often called the Breviary. A shorter, one volume version is called Christian Prayer. The basis of the Roman Catholic prayer book, as with all prayer books, are the Psalms. And the other prayers are some of the best prayers penned by centuries of Christ followers. Mary figures prominently, of course. But we (as Protestants) need to deal with the scriptural fact that Mary herself prophesied that future generations would call her blessed. And we don’t do enough to give thanks to the most important woman in church history, the mother of Jesus.

The Liturgy of the Hours is the most complete prayer book in the history of the Church. However, that very fact also makes it the most complex. Scot relates his own personal story with the Breviary. He struggled with it for some time, but never could quite unravel how to use it. Then one day, on a flight, he sat next to a young woman who pulled out a “green book filled with ribbons and small bookmarks, stuff hanging out and other things falling out.” Scot recognized the book as a volume of the Liturgy of the Hours for Ordinary Time. Having struggled with its complexity, Scot asked her to explain it to him. She did the best she could in their short time together and at least got him oriented. And so he recommends, if you really want to learn how to use a prayer book of any tradition, find someone who already uses it and ask them to teach you.

Scot then provides an example of one session of morning prayer (lauds). The prayer begins with the Invitatory (“Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise”) and Psalm 95 (which is prayed every morning) and then moved to Week I, Monday morning prayer, and said (or sang) a hymn, most of Psalm 5, and a short prayer about that psalm. Then he was invited to pray 1 Chronicles 29:10-13, Psalm 29, and another short prayer. Next he was directed to recite 2 Thessalonians 3:10-13, say a short responsory prayer, then (as for each morning) the Canticle of Zechariah from Luke 1. The morning session ends, as it does each day, with some intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”), and then two concluding prayers. This takes about 15 minutes and everything is said or sung out loud. If you followed the full hours, the entire Psalter is recited every month.

Throughout the chapter, Scot has a lot of excerpts from the Liturgy of the Hours, discussion of some of the simpler prayer books drawn from it, and quotes and writings about famous Christians shaped by the Hours. It’s neat to read.

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