One of the main reasons why the Liturgy of the Hours has not become popular is that the current printed editions are way too complex. The office book is a book for experts, not for regular churchgoers who need to be made familiar with the value and beauty of this liturgical treasure in the first place.
I remember Saturday, December 19, 2015. I joined a Capuchin community for Vespers. We used the regular German office book (“Stundenbuch”). The edition contains six ribbon page markers. You know how complex the rubrics in the seven days before Christmas are: On that very day the six markers did not suffice to prepare all required pages!
I regard this experience as a personal challenge: How would I arrange an office book, preserving as much of the liturgical treasure as possible, but also making it more useful for beginners or communities with little experience? Could the Roman Catholic Church get something as simple as an Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer?
Here is an outline:
Let us neither reduce the course of hours per day nor the course of elements as used since 1970 (I am not against such ideas, but that would raise much more fundamental questions). The focus in the first step should be on the arrangement of psalms and canticles for a simplified office book, fully according to the Council’s reform of the Liturgy of the Hours (Sacrosanctum Concilium 83–101) and preserving key elements of the Western tradition.
What should be preserved?
- “Morning psalms” (e.g. Ps 63) at the beginning of Lauds (typical topics: awakening, sunrise),
- “laud psalms” (e.g. Ps 148–150) at the end of Lauds (praise, salvation, exultation),
- “torah psalms” (e.g. Ps 119) in the Little Hours (constancy, truth to God’s word),
- “pilgrim psalms” (e.g. Ps 122) in the Little Hours (pilgrimage, Jerusalem),
- “evening psalms” (e.g. Ps 141) in Vespers (sunset, danger, trust in God, thanksgiving),
- “trust psalms” (e.g. Ps 91) in Compline,
- appearance of every psalm and canticle during a certain period of time,
- course reading of the psalms (traditionally in Vigils, Little Hours, and Vespers).
We can find all of these principles more or less in the entire history of Western liturgy from the Rule of St Benedict to date. Current Old Testament scholars consider the course reading the original meaning of the psalter: The psalms were meant to be meditated in exactly that order.
What should be done differently to the current Roman breviary?
- All psalms and canticles should have a chance to appear, even if you only pray e.g. the Vespers regularly,
- course reading should be highlighted as a very simple and probably the oldest method of meditating the Scripture,
- feast days should not be regarded as important as the regular cycle,
- the printed edition should be made for almost self-explanatory use.
I suggest a new office book with two parts. The first part contains the Office for a one-week-cycle, the second part contains all psalms and canticles in biblical order. You need one page marker for the first part (e.g. on the page where “Thursday Vespers” begin), and one page marker for the second part (I will explain that a little later).
Every hour during the week has certain fixed psalms. The Lauds start with a morning psalm and end with a “laud psalm”. The Little Hour starts with a torah psalm and ends with a pilgrim psalm. The Vespers start with an evening psalm and end with what could be called “psalm of rest” which I select from the current psalms of Vespers and Compline. Those psalms should somehow lead over to the night – even if there is still Compline afterwards. So we have two psalms fixed for Lauds, Little Hour, and Vespers, the middle place is still empty. The Office of Readings is completely empty by now. The Compline gets a small selection of traditional Compline psalms (see below).
Finally – and this is where part two of the edition comes into play – all empty space is filled with course reading: Take as many psalms as you like and start where you have finished last time (this is where you need the second page marker). If you want to perpetuate the current order, you take one psalm in Lauds, Little Hour, and Vespers, and three psalms in the Office of Readings. If you are a priest very tired from work but obliged to pray the office, you take no psalm at all, so you are free to shorten the hour. If you are a hermit who loves to spend every minute with the Scripture, you take more than one psalm.
The result might look like this:
- Office of Readings:
Course reading (as long as you like)
Sunday: Ps 118 – course reading – Ps 150
Monday: Ps 63 – course reading – Ps 117
Tuesday: Ps 3 – course reading – Ps 145
Wednesday: Ps 5 – course reading – Ps 146
Thursday: Ps 57 – course reading – Ps 147
Friday: Ps 51 – course reading – Ps 148
Saturday: Ps 92 – course reading – Ps 149
- Little Hour:
Sunday: Ps 1 – course reading – Ps 121
Monday: Ps 119 I – course reading – Ps.122
Tuesday: Ps 119 II – course reading – Ps 123
Wednesday: Ps 119 III – course reading – Ps 124
Thursday: Ps 119 V – course reading – Ps 125
Friday: Ps 119 XIV – course reading – Ps 126
Saturday: Ps 119 XVIII – course reading – Ps 127
Sunday: Ps 110 – course reading – Ps 114
Monday: Ps 111 – course reading – Ps 16
Tuesday: Ps 113 – course reading – Ps 138
Wednesday: Ps 115 – course reading – Ps 116
Thursday: Ps 23 – course reading – Ps 62
Friday: Ps 130 – course reading – Ps 31
Saturday: Ps 141 – course reading – Ps 27
Daily: Ps 4 – Ps 91 – Ps 134 (or a selection of these three)
The result would not be a uniform Roman Breviary for the worldwide Church. It would rather be a flexible pattern that can be (and has to be) customized by every individual or group. I regard this as an advantage. Communities that do not pray all the hours do not miss any psalm. Even if it takes a long time before a certain psalm occurs, it will occur for sure some day. Every time you pray the office you get a new – maybe unsettling, maybe inspiring – combination of biblical words.
There are some additional ideas I have in mind. Most of them would enlarge the printed edition or make its use more complex:
- Every Hour should get a selection of Scripture readings for different times of the year (Advent, Lent, etc.).
- Every psalm should get a selection of antiphons for different times of the year.
- Orders for feast days of the Lord, feast days of St. Mary, feast days of martyrs, days of sorrow, etc. could be added to the one-week-cycle.
- The Old and New Testament canticles should be part of the course reading, but could also be highly recommended for certain feast days (instead of a fixed psalm or instead of the course reading).
- The canticles from the New Testament could replace the Benedictus in the Lauds or the Magnificat in the Vespers on certain days.
- A second volume of the book could offer the Hours for the most important or unusual days in the year, such as the Paschal Triduum, Christmas, All Souls’ Day, Ash Wednesday, etc.
- Of course, the entire book should be printed with melodies so that all parts of the liturgy could be sung.
The result might be a book of about 300 pages in post card size (without the readings for the Office of Readings); similar to the Office in an Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer.
Of course, all these ideas are not fully elaborated, but I would be interested in your opinion: Is this a way the Roman Catholic office book could go?