A life-changing liturgy

Will Ross suggests that the one healthy legacy of lockdown could be a resurgence in the liturgy of hours.

For Catholics, our Faith is communal as much as it is personal. We see this in our participation at Mass every Sunday.

For me, it was the lack of this communal participation – albeit for very good public health reasons – which I found incredibly hard during the period of lockdown.

I felt very cut off from the practice of the rituals of my Faith. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that.

The streaming of Mass online didn’t help me; it was rather like being shown images of a beautiful glass of cold water while I was dying of thirst. It was observation, not participation – and those two are quite different things. I felt cut off from the active life of the Church.

Even now, long after lockdown, there are many who continue to experience some sense of disconnection from the Church. This may be due to continued fears after the pandemic; or it may be for many other reasons. There are the ill and the housebound who cannot get to Mass.

Then there are those who may feel a rupture between their lives and the ideals put forward by the Church. Though they still believe and have faith in God, they do not go to church. And there are others who may find themselves outside the life of the Church for some other reason.

How, then, can the ‘disconnected’ find some form of active role within the spiritual life of the Church? And how can the ‘connected’ deepen their spiritual lives? The answer, of course, is prayer – in fact, a very specific form of prayer.

We call the Mass ‘liturgy’- it is the public expression of our Catholic Faith. But it is not the only expression of it.

The Church offers us something else, too – a form of prayer which the Church also describes as a ‘liturgy’. This is the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ or the ‘Divine Office’.

This is the official prayer of the Church, offered daily by the entire Church throughout the world – from the Pope, to your parish priest, to the nun in the nearby convent – and, increasingly, by many of the lay faithful.

Because it is the public prayer of the Church, even if prayed alone, it is in fact the voice of the whole Church with which we are praying.

The Church says it ‘is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father’. And that gives this particular prayer great power.

The Second Vatican Council reminded us that we are each invited to become saints – the ‘universal call to holiness’ is addressed to all without exception.

The Council Fathers, writing in the ‘Constitution On The Sacred Liturgy’ (‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’) reminded us that our spiritual lives are not limited to our participation at Mass, but require sustenance through prayer, both communal and private – and ‘the divine office, because it is the public prayer of the Church, is a source of piety, and nourishment for personal prayer.’

Because it is prayed at various points in the day – the ‘Hours’ – it gives us a way to pray without ceasing’, as St Paul counsels us to do in his first Letter to the Thessalonians. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are, the Council noted, ‘the two hinges on which the daily office turns’.

The Liturgy of the Hours consists mainly of the Psalms, laid out over a four week cycle, with some of the beautiful Canticles from the Gospels and the New Testament, such as the Magnificat. And so already, we find we are broadly familiar with the main content of the Hours.

There is also a short Scripture reading, an accompanying hymn, and antiphons – these change with the liturgical seasons, such as Advent or Lent. The Hours end with brief general intercessions for the needs of the Church and the world.

To pray Morning Prayer takes around 15 minutes, and Evening Prayer lasts about 10 minutes, as does Night Prayer.

The book containing the Liturgy Of The Hours is called the ‘breviary’ and is readily available in Catholic bookstores and online. While priests use the full four-volume version, there is a simpler one-volume version called ‘Daily Prayer From The Divine Office’.

This is the volume I have used now for more than 40 years. Once the book is set up with its ribbons to show you where you should be, it is fairly straight-forward to use – and if you need assistance, you can always ask your priest.

There are also very popular apps for smart- phones which contain all the prayers of the Hours and which automatically offer the prayers of each Hour.

For anyone reading this who might wish to pray, to pray more, to pray a little more deeply, or who is looking for a structured yet simple form of prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours may be ideal.

Will Ross recently retired after more than 30 years as a nurse in the NHS, the last 18 as a specialist nurse for dementia. He enjoys writing and photography.

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