We’re Still Waiting for a Reformed Liturgy of the Hours

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 Vespers at the Basilica // News // The Daily Domer // University ...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.

LITURGY OF THE HOURSYes, 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.

27 comments

  1. Perhaps something as simple as going through the Book of Psalms once a month, every month, will do for a start.

  2. I think we need a ‘parochial’ Office, not just a Cathedral Office or a Monastic Office. Even some communities of religious have much simplified forms of Office. The need is demonstrated by development of ‘super-abbreviations’ like the Rosary, and the Angelus.
    Cranmer devised a structure for parish use which has passed the test of time, the difficult trick would be to develop a structure like that which harmonised with the Lectionary cycle and the Office of Readings. I don’t mean, neccessarily, that they should integrate, but they should not clash.

  3. I am sure you are aware of the publication of Shorter Christian Prayer in more than one edition from a few different publishers. That may be what you need at this point in your life. I love praying the hours on my own but I don’t have children (I do have 6 dogs, one is 9 months, and two are 3 months old).
    I am also an elementary school teacher and find that I can’t always pray the hours at the appointed times. I’ve learned to let go of that expectation. I pray Morning Prayer when I have a break in my morning responsibilities and I never pray Evening Prayer at the appointed time. I just can’t. I have decided it’s best to wait until the house is quiet.
    I also came to the understanding that what I do every day in my work and ministry is prayer. Strangely enough, it was praying the hours that led me to this awareness, along with a particular reading from the writings of St. Benedict during the Office of Readings. I often offer the morning chores I have to accomplish as my Invitatory to Morning Prayer. I have, on occasion, prayed only one of the psalms when I’m in a real crunch. Not everyone can be in a monastic setting or even a prayer community. We do the best we can with who we are and how we live. Our vocation is our prayer.

  4. We received the body of the dead into church during a candle-lit service of evening prayer celebrated according to the parish-cathedral tradition, which provided a ritual parallel to the rites of initiation celebrated during the Easter vigil. Read about it here: McCarthy, D.P., “A Gentle Light in Mourning: Fulfilling Christian Initiation and Life at Funerals”, Ecclesia Orans 3/1 (2019) 89-119.

  5. Thanks for your comment! Yes, there certainly are a number of very good resources, including Christian Prayer, and Shorter Christian Prayer. Aside from these, there are even more modified versions, like ones by Bill Storey, mentioned above. The heart of my worry, though, is that the high variability of texts makes it very difficult to regularly pray if your hands are not free to hold one such book! And, that the content of the prayers, while deeply attentive to tradition, is somewhat challenging to translate into familial settings.

  6. The current Liturgy of the Hours would be better off called “Liturgy of the Minutes.” If it were reduced any further, it would cease to have meaning. In fact, a good case can be made that lessening the burden made it easier for some clergy and religious to shrug it off altogether; certainly the notion of an obligation to pray on behalf of the Church has suffered a great deal.

    What is interesting to me is that the old Divine Office – in both its monastic form and in the form of the Roman Breviary – is making a comeback, including among young people and within families. I know of quite a number of families that sing the old Compline together, or the psalms of Prime. Perhaps the problem is when lay people feel guilty for not doing more than they can. When God gives us a family, he expects us to pray when and as we can, and to set aside certain times for it, with the help of our spouses. We should not feel under any obligation to pray the Office, as wonderful as it is.

    Now that I am older and my children are grown, it has become easier.

    1. Would “the old Compline” be the “Compline of All Time © “, with the psalm distribution dating all the way back to 1911 when Pius X radically reformed it, i.e., the Compline in use from 1911 to 1970?? I suppose that makes the “Compline of All Time” more traditional than the Catholic Church’s official Compline, which has only been in use from 1970 till now. Making it only 50 years old, compared to 59 years.

      Or are these Catholics praying the centuries-old pre-1911 version? This would suggest that even Pius X, the anti-modernism pope, is for them insufficiently orthodox in things liturgical.

      awr

      1. Dom Anthony, there certainly are Catholics (and others) who believe that the reform of the Roman Psalter promulgated by Pope S. Pius X was the first “excessive” exercise of papal liturgical authority in modern times, and is connected to all of the subsequent changes.

      2. Yes. If you carry their position to its logical end, I’m pretty sure it leads back to Pius IX as the last ‘safe’ pope, and everything since as increasing capitulation and sell-out. Crazy.

        And Pius X’s reform of chant was even more of a rupture – check out how much the 1908 Graduale Romanum differs from the Ratisbon edition it replaced! But for that matter, the 1614 Medici on which Ratisbon was based was also quite a rupture, as were all the ‘reform’ editions across Europe after Trent. So maybe the rot goes back further and the Tridentine reforms are implicated in the modernist reformist mindset. Hahahaha.

        awr

      3. ” . . . the Tridentine reforms are implicated in the modernist reformist mindset”

        and isn’t there at least one dimension (if not more) of truth in that?! Sacra Tridentina and Quam Singulari, too….

  7. I somehow do not think the numbers of those rushing to pray the abolished office of Prime will be very great. That feels like antiquarianism.

    I agree with Katherine that more imaginative ways of praying with the Church are needed, without making people feel like 2nd-Class citizens if they cannot manage the “official” version. Michael Demers suggested just using the psalter, and I empathize a lot with that, though getting through all the psalms in a month might prove too much for some busy homemakers. One psalm a day would be more practicable.

    One of the secondary purposes of the Psallite project was to provide memorable weekly antiphons that people could sing and pray from memory during the week, even while peeling the potatoes or doing the dishes or changing diapers. Using short, memorable phrases helps the pray-er to ruminate on them, in the same way that enclosed nuns use repetitive “meditation snippets” while they are carrying out mundane tasks or making rosaries.

    For a year and a half I have been commenting each week on Pray Tell on the Gospel Communions (Songs for the Table) in the Psallite collection, but they account for only one third of the antiphons (and psalms) that are available. The Songs for the Week and the Songs for the Word are also fruitful resources.

    1. Dear Katherine, first of all: I love your posts. Thank you for posting here.

      I agree that one can’t conveniently bathe the children while praying Evening Prayer.

      If you don’t mind my risking the offering of some advice:

      1. Don’t travel somewhere else to pray the Hours. Find a way to make them work within your home.

      2. Given the reality of your state of life / stage of parenthood, your first decision might be: pray the Hours (or an Hour – let’s be realistic) communally or alone. Don’t fear to choose “alone”. Don’t let the perfect (communal Hours) be the enemy of what is possible.

      3. Find a time that can work consistently for you. It could be for 10-15 minutes early in the morning before you even rise from bed or get the children up. It could be while you are loading the dishwasher after dinner.

      You are right that the texts of the Hours aren’t very “domestic”. But if they are prayed consistently, they will start to form you in ways which will change you and, indirectly, your daily domestic routine. And professionally, and your marriage if you are married, and your friendships. We can’t offer daily thanks and praise to God without it changing us.

    2. Paul, it’s good to see you recommending antiphons as a meditative practice, perhaps like the chants of Taizé.

      I seem to remember that some years ago now, you were suggesting here that in an effort to simplify the LOH antiphons would be abolished.

      I’m very glad to see you putting forward a persuasive reason for retaining them. Just as the metrical psalmody of Presbyterianism, and the tones of Anglican chant are wonderful examples of denominational liturgical inculturation, so too are antiphons in the Catholic tradition.

  8. The devotional aid “Magnificat” has something along these lines; that may be worth considering.

    Even simpler (and hence more memorize-able) would be to simply emulate what is known/hypothesized about the cathedral office. So:

    God, come to my assistance. / Lord, make haste to help me.

    Psalm 51 (morning) or Psalm 141 (evening)

    Our Father…

    Let us bless the Lord. / Thanks be to God.

    That could be elaborated on, obviously, but even on its own could be used profitably in my opinion. Or it could be shortened further so that not all of each Psalm is used, but only select verses.

  9. I seem to recall Liborius Lumma offering sensible suggestions for a simplified office here a few years ago.

  10. Our Old Catholic body recognized these issues and developed an adaptation of the LOTH to address almost all of these concerns.

    Monday through Saturday the office is simpler- One psalm, brief reading, etc… takes 7-10 minutes to pray.

    Sundays and Solemnities have a more traditional structure, a three part psalmody, invitatory psalms, etc. We have found it quite workable and well adopted by our people. We also stream live online and have had a good response from participants.

  11. Two comments, one based on personal experience and one historical.

    Personally: Secular Franciscans are enjoined by our Rule to join in the prayer of the Church, with the privileged place going to LOTH, but with a couple shorter options, including the Office of the Passion by St. Francis. I have never met a local fraternity that has adopted any of these shorter options. Instead they struggle mightily to make it through the official LOTH. Despite regular training sessions, it feels forced and un-natural when we pray. Worse is when we come together into regional gatherings, and the small differences that have evolved in local practice clash loudly. The development of iPad apps for the breviary have helped, a little, but it is very hard for us as a community to establish any kind of liturgical rhythm or flow. We do it as a duty, but in my experience we come more alive as a community when we pray the rosary or divine mercy chaplet.

    In this company I am almost afraid to raise a historical point, but I recently finished reading Diarmaid’s The Reformation, and I was taken by his description of the powerful role that the metrical psalms played in the Calvinist Reformation. Singing (not chanting) the Psalms seemed to play a very important role in their evangelization. I have been digging a bit into the metrical psalmodies that are available online, and before the pandemic I was toying with the idea of getting my Franciscan fraternity to learn to sign them. So I wonder, if we are considering a reform of the LOTH, what can we learn from the Calvinist experience 500 years ago?

  12. For a time, I prayed from a 1954 “Complete” edition of the venerable Short Breviary for Religious and Laity published by your abbey. I found it to be fantastic, and incredibly doable, with shorter psalmody even compared to the LOTH — and yet still managing to cover (in the complete edition with a 4-week Matins cycle, 1-week all other hours) all 150 psalms, no abridgments. And 1950 Confraternity psalms, in wonderful modern, comprehensible, yet poetic language. It also followed the occurring Scripture with one moderately-sized lesson for each day of the year at Matins.

    It was actually infuriating to think how such a wonderful piece of work (obviously a labor of great love for the liturgy) was practically thrown on the ash heap of history when it could have served as a popular and parochial liturgy of the hours just fine. In fact, that was my wife’s comment on it, having prayed it with me several times: “Wait, why didn’t they just make THIS into the LOTH?”

  13. I don’t want to come across as condescending, but should you consider other ways of sanctifying the Hours? Many talk of the Rosary with its 150 Aves (at least until the Luminous Mysteries were added) as a form of prayer that was more suited to those who were not in a monastery or celibates who do not have family responsibilities?

    I am a big fan of as many people praying the Hours as possible. But surely the ultimate goal is to pray and each of us has a responsibility of praying in a way that suits us? Priests and those in religious life have a canonical obligation to pray an official form of the LoH, but others are free to pray the Hours or not. No Christian is free from an obligation to pray, but each of us has to do so in a way that makes sense to us. Obviously this can vary depending on our schedule. When we have young children we may pray differently than when our kids are in College, when we are working our prayer routine might be different to weekends and vacation times. When we are going through a difficult time, maybe we have to make the sacrifice to pray in a more formal way. But surely we can use our Christian diecernment to see how best to pray.

  14. Much agreed with Professor Harmon’s thinking here. Like Penance, and probably Orders, the Office is the most unreformed of the post-conciliar effort. It strikes me that a creative and fruitful effort might give us multiple forms. (Why do we need *one* official rendering?) I could foresee a brief morning office for home or classroom use including the invocation of the Holy Spirit for a fruitful day of learning or domestic endeavor, a bedtime prayer with young children, a midweek evening prayer for parish gatherings, to name a few.

    The internet makes navigation of the complexities much easier, but I have to admit I like paging through a few thousand pages instead.

  15. The Eastern Rite takes the approach of developing a personal prayer rule. The full recitation of the office is reserved for monastics. A parish will recite vespers and an abbreviated form of matins on Sundays and feasts. Parish clergy and laity then will develop their own prayer rule. It can be based off of the Divine Office and/or the psalms but doesn’t have to be. A prayer full can be easily memorized.

    A sample rule based off texts of the Roman Rite might Be:
    Lord, Open my lips…
    O God come to my assistance..
    Confiteor
    Benedictus/Magnificat (morning) Nunc Dimitis (evening)
    Gloria (on feast days and Sundays)
    Saint of the Day, pray for us.
    [insert patron saint], pray for us
    Prayers of Intercession (taken from the litany of saints)
    Save our friends, family & benefactors,
    Grant eternal rest to all who have died in faith,
    Spare us from disease, hunger and war,
    Bring all peoples together in trust and peace.
    Guide and protect your holy Church
    Keep the pope and all the clergy in faithful service to your Church,
    Bring all Christians together in Unity
    Lead all Men and Women to the light of the Gospel

    May the Lord Bless us, protect us from all evil and bring us to everlasting life.

    If time permits and one has access. you can add psalms and collects from the missal.

  16. What a topsy turvy world we live in! All week I’ve been reading about revising the current Liturgia Horarum.

    This morning I was rather surprised to read an account by a gentleman of his experience since May of this year reading the Breviary as it stood in the time of Blessed Pius IX. He finds some difficulties but seems to think that this breviary better represents the ancient Roman Office than what they call the Divino Afflatu office of Pius X. This author prefers the ancient Roman distribution of the psalms, but seems to have difficulties with the abundant feasts and their classifications added to the real Tridentine missal since Pius V.

    In my youth I tried to recite the Marquess of Bute’s translation of this breviary. I managed to recite the psalms and collects but found the lections irritating. I fully understood Cranmer and Luther’s complaints.
    Interesting about the psalms in this office. Daily there were enough psalms to satisfy the heart of a Calvinist. I do tip my cap to this gentleman for his fortitude in praying the ipsissima verba of this breviary.

    Incidentally I found reference to this article on the blog of a gentleman who is involved in revivifying the Sarum Usage.

    Perhaps in this time of COVID-19 more prayer is necessary for some folks to say.

  17. My mother is a secular Carmelite, and I have memories from childhood of her just taking time out in the living room to pray the Liturgy of the Hours while dinner cooked. My siblings and I generally left her alone during that time, but family life clearly went on around it. Certainly there is an ebb and flow of different seasons in domestic prayer. We have to allow grace for that. Diaper season has to be just survival and pure dependence on God, I would imagine.

    I am grateful for Devin’s point that in the eastern Churches there is a greater sense that the Liturgy of the Hours is for everyone, but that we will participate differently depending on how we are able. My Orthodox friends seem to have a habit of morning and evening prayer at home that they have passed on to their children; I’m not sure how formalized it is.

    But your point about wishing to see it more available at more parishes is well taken. I used to attend a parish in Louisville where the priest and people joined together for Morning Prayer before daily mass, which seems easy enough to instigate with about 25 copies of Shorter Christian Prayer. I’ve also been floored to see youth who have come through our One Bread, One Cup program willing to propose and lead Compline at the end of a youth service day. It’s short, can be formal or informal, and can lead to reflection in depth if need be.

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