Don’t hate me for saying this, but I’m starting to wonder about the value of the Liturgy of the Hours. I admit this with something like shame, for I have deeply loved praying the Hours during graduate school days at Notre Dame (when Morning Prayer and Evening prayer were prayed every day during the summer sessions), and when visiting monastic communities. But these moments of praying the Hours with a well-versed, dedicated liturgical community, are few and far between. It has been (sadly), many days since my idyllic graduate school summers, and the ability to travel to a monastery is impossible at present—and not only because I have two small and squirming children.
The Hours, simply looking at them, are difficult. They are many words, they are many parts, and they happen at moments when the family is most busy. In the early morning, we don’t simply open our lips to proclaim our praise. We hastily peel off wet diapers before suffering the sorry consequences, and speedily spoon-feed mango purée while dodging a cascade of half-chewed cereal. In the evening, our waning moments as the day is almost over are spent wrestling a soap-slippery baby boy who wants to stand in the tub, and convincing our daughter that her tangled mess of strawberry hair does, indeed, need brushing.
Morning and evening prayer say nothing about these things.
Yes, I know well that morning and evening prayer are arguably the most ancient moments of the day at which Christians pray (and, yes, I know this is a complicated generalization, but let’s just agree that there is biblical evidence for appointed times of prayer!). I know well that morning and evening have Christological significance, symbolizing our dying and rising with Christ. I know well that the psalms, canticles, and responsories, are all intended to draw us more deeply into the mystery of the living God, as the Church, the Body of Christ, sings its prayer without ceasing.
I know all this. And yet, unless I am in—or at least interloping—in a stable community of prayer, I simply find that the Liturgy of the Hours is disconnect and abstract. The Hours have become an act to accomplish—not a prayer to live.
I should say clearly that this may be simply a “personal problem”—one which has become more acutely challenging for me as I seek ways of praying with my beloved Church while I am separated from worship and the Sacrament. Perhaps this is the pandemic talking. Perhaps I am just bad at commitment (I realize I am not the only one who has a busy life). But, on the other hand, I suspect that I’m confronting more personally a problem which others have grappled with for years: the Liturgy of the Hours is still in need of reform.
Yes, the Divine Office received a name change and, in order to be “more perfectly prayed,” received its own set of directives for reform in Sacrosanctum Concilium (83-101). Yet, in what Roman Catholic parishes do we have regular opportunities for the Hours (see SC 100)? Better yet, in what cathedral do we have regular opportunities for the Hours? In searching my home region, I would need to pack tiny children in a car and drive 156 miles in order to find a Sunday celebration of Vespers in a community which was not monastic.
I do not write to simply complain, throwing yet another frustrated yawp into a well-muddied liturgical pool. I write because I am personally coming to the conclusion—that we are still waiting for a reform of the Hours.
I do not mean a new translation of texts, which is forthcoming. What is needed is a more profound, structural change which allows ready practice, memorization of texts, and the possibility of inculturation. Is this not what happened to the Roman Catholic experience of the Mass?
Will it be the case that, in some liturgical future, an inculturated, assumedly simplified, version of the Hours will exist which will invite active participation by all the faithful? Perhaps, as exists with the Mass for Romans in the present day (with the allowance of the 1962 Missal), there will be a “two-tiered” system of the Hours? For communities where it is meaningful, a purely “monastic” form might be used, retaining the current iteration of the Church’s ritual. But, in parochial or private situations, a thoroughly reformed iteration might be practiced—perhaps attempting to model an assumedly fourth-century “cathedral” form, as our liturgical historians such as Bill Storey (of blessed memory) once famously described?
Wouldn’t it be better to practice the prayer of the Church in a new way—than to know it exists and willfully—even necessarily—choose to ignore it?
In any case—I know I love the Liturgy of the Hours. I also know that I fail spectacularly at being able to pray it. I’m looking forward to some more hopeful future in which I might be able to join the Church again—maybe over a bowl of purréed mangos—in sanctifying the day.