MY FIRST INTRODUCTION to the Divine Office was at a very “low” Episcopal parish which did Morning Prayer three Sundays a month. For the longest time I didn’t think of it as anything other than a liturgical version of the “Hymn Sandwich” common in other Protestant communities. This was true, but not in the way I imagined: the reverse was true. Those others (Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians) had taken the Anglican service and de-liturgized it to their own ends. The Anglican practice was intended for twice-daily use every day – not just Sundays. In the Church of England, the vicar is obligated to offer both Morning and Evening Prayer as public services every day. This is not an obligation for American Episcopal clergy, but it is still common practice; and so it was at a very “high” Episcopal Parish, the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Time Square, where I first experienced the Daily Office as a daily service and also one intimately connected to the Eucharist: both services were followed by a Eucharist each day. The Episcopal Daily Office Lectionary (at least in the 1928 and 1979 Books of Common Prayer) parallels the Eucharistic Lectionary. The daily and weekly prayers (Collects) are the same. Eucharist and Office are connected in ways that only become apparent as they are both prayed together. When I left ECUSA in 2002 I brought with me all my love for the Daily Office. Everything I found and loved in the Episcopal tradition was only amplified as I moved closer to the Catholic Church. For a while, I even ran an unofficial daily office website for members of the Orthodox Church who used the Western Rite. Now, as a lay member of the Dominican family, the Office is not a part of my daily prayer but the heart of it.
Let me explain the names first. Office, Daily Office, Divine Office, and “the hours” can all be used interchangeably. “Office” comes from two Latin words, opus meaning work and facere meaning “to do”. The Daily Office is a doing, a task. St Benedict calls it the work of God. Chapter 19 of the Rule of St Benedict reads:
We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that “the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place” (Prov. 15:3). But we should believe this especially without any doubt when we are assisting at the Work of God. To that end let us be mindful always of the Prophet’s words, “Serve the Lord in fear” (Ps. 2:11) and again “Sing praises wisely” (Ps. 46:8) and “In the sight of the Angels I will sing praise to You” (Ps. 137:1). Let us therefore consider how we ought to conduct ourselves in sight of the Godhead and of His Angels, and let us take part in the psalmody in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.
We will come back to that last sentence, but see how it invites us to take the Psalms and sing them in such a way that our mind enters into “harmony” with our singing and then change our lives (our conduct).
Nota Bene: There is an Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic form of the Daily Office, but while much of what I’m about to say is true of that form from a theological point of view, the experience that office for the laity in the parish is very different. The public celebration of Matins or Vespers in the liturgical East is often edited for time and even many monastic communities pare it down quite a bit. So what follows is mostly for the Western Folks.
The Prayer of Christ
The Daily Office, in the use of psalms and readings, continues the Jewish tradition of scripture meditation on a daily cycle. In one form or another, this same piety would have been shared with Jesus and his Apostles. However, that’s not how this is the prayer of Christ.
The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours (GILoTH) highlights a number of ways in which this Prayer of Christ is realized: by virtue of the Incarnation, the Son’s eternal praise of the Father has become human. “Christ’s heart the praise of God assumes a human sound in words of adoration, expiation, and intercession, presented to the Father by the Head of the new humanity, the Mediator between God and his people, in the name of all and for the good of all.” As the Body of Christ in the world, the Church gives her voice in the continuation of this praise.
The Prayer of the Church
The Daily Office is the Prayer of the Church. Clerics are obligated to various parts of it (Priests and transitional Deacons to the whole office, permanent Deacons to whatever their Bishop directs). Consecrated religious communities in their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd orders are likewise committed to the daily recitation of the Office. Various devotional societies also use the office and the church counsels it for all the laity. Joining in this prayer plugs in you with everyone. Emotionally, this gives me joy in knowing I say the same prayer as XYZ persons with whom I connect on Twitter – but have never met. I know that laypeople, Fr John on Catholic Stuff You Should Know, and even the Pope are all praying the same texts I am praying. When the office points me towards a verse in 1 John for meditation, Catholics all over the world are meditating on that same text. This alone is powerful.
Let’s double down on this though: it’s more than an emotional connection. It’s spiritual warfare. Hear the promise Jesus gives us in Matthew (18:19), “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (AV) The prayers we all say “touching any thing” are very powerful indeed. The intercessions and psalms each day contribute to the building up of the church and the world as the whole church, together, intercedes before God in the heart of Christ. The Kingdom of God on earth is manifesting through our prayer by its effects in our hearts and in the world.
Praying the Psalms
This is the heart of the Work of God. Yet, this part of the Office can be the most confusing to folks in our culture, not least because we are literate. Reading is seen as a utility rather than a practice – and certainly not a spiritual practice! For the early monastics, though, even through the 1700s in the west (and more recently in other parts of the world) literacy was not a given. Men coming to the communities would be taught to read if needed by their work, but they were taught the Psalms by heart through singing in the community. The melodies joined with the text, the whole thing wrapping around the heart in a great vestment of praise and intercession.
The oddity we feel arises from the idea that “text” is not praying. We think of text as only for conveying content: teaching, proclaiming. We tend to think of words on the page as only tools intended to do something else. Our culture tends to be very literal both inside and outside the church, literal and utilitarian. If do not do something with these words then I’m only reading them. Reading, though, is a type of meditation and so a type of prayer. Joseph Campbell – certainly no Christian writer! – notes that any action with text (including underlining passages as we read) can be meditation. So also the Psalms.
Today it feels odd just to read the same Psalm every day at the opening of the Office (Psalm 95) but there are stories of Saints who had memorized the entire Psalter and could recite their daily Psalms without any help. St Benedict even required the daily Bible verses in the Office (other than the Psalms) to be short and easy to memorize. Everything was intended to come in little chunks easy to digest. These made them easy to pray as well. Yes: maybe today you are not “feeling” the need to say the text of a certain Psalm. But someone, somewhere, is. If one of us is in need we are all in need in the Body of Christ. We all pray together for each other. Later, though, as these texts work themselves into your memory, if you need the Psalm it will be there for you, leaping instantly to your mind becoming your own prayer.
As with the Psalms, so with the other parts of the Office – the Canticles, the Bible readings, and even the longer texts in the Office of Readings. These are not “just” things to read, but a great bulwark of mental prayer and strength for the daily battle for sanctity.
We must not let our mere literacy (a mere ability to read) deny us this great spiritual gift! We pray the Psalms over and over daily and as we begin to comprehend them, to fill our mind and heart with them, we become conformed to them. The text changes us. We incarnate the truth that the law of prayer is the law of our belief.
Offering the Day and Ourselves
It’s not just a tedium, but rather it become the leaven in our lives. If we see it as only an obligation or, worse, only yet another obligation, it cuts into our lives, into our “me time”. Well, it’s supposed to. You can read the entire day’s cycle in about 1 hour. It’s not much time for God, actually! And the more you do it the more it will be that quality “me time” you’re craving. It will grow to be the heart of your day – even spread out over little bits, here and there.
In these ways – the prayer of the church, meditating on scripture, conforming ourselves to the texts – the Daily Office becomes in us what it is intended to be in the Church: an ongoing Eucharist (thanksgiving) made of breaking open the hours and pouring out ourselves to God. We offer the day, hour by hour, to God the Father at the hands of Christ, reaching out through our prayers united in the Spirit. The Mass in our lives (daily or weekly) becomes the Mass of our lives.