What does it take to get started with a daily practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours?
A reader of this blog asks the following question:
I have an established practice of Lectio Divina and Centering Prayer in the early morning and Examen and Centering Prayer in the late afternoon. I’m captivated with praying the Daily Office, but I’m struggling how to incorporate Matins, Vespers, and Compline into my day. Suggestions?
The above comment was posted recently to a previous post on this blog, Seven Reasons to Pray the Divine Office. It’s a great question so it deserves a post of its own.
First of all, I’m so happy to hear that lectio divina and silent prayer are already a daily part of your life. That’s wonderful!
So keep in mind — you are already praying on a daily basis. That’s the most important point, and it’s something to celebrate.
Your question is really, “How do I deepen and expand my daily prayer practice?” As you have recognized, the Liturgy of the Hours — also known as the Daily Office or the Divine Office — is a rich resource for nurturing a meaningful and rich prayer life. The liturgy is the “engine” of monastic spirituality: monks and nuns have been praying the Divine Office since the days of the desert mothers and fathers, back in the third century. And the roots of the liturgy go back even further.
The heart of the Daily Office is the Psalms and canticles, prayers and poems of devotion and praise found throughout the Bible. When you pray the liturgy on an ongoing basis, you become immersed in the spirituality of the sacred scriptures — and slowly, imperceptibly but steadily, the words of the Bible begin to shape your worldview, your values, and your sense of God’s presence in your life.
But it’s not an easy practice to begin — or to sustain.
Monks and nuns have it relatively easy, in that they live in a community of brothers or sisters, all of whom share their commitment to spiritual growth and to daily prayer. For a monastic person, the key to praying the daily office is simply showing up, in the chapel, every time the bell rings.
For those of us who don’t live in a cloister, then the prospect of praying the Divine Office — day in and day out — means making a commitment that will impact our daily life in a significant way. This is because the liturgy involves what has been called “fixed-hour prayer” — praying at certain, specific, times of the day. For example, the current version of the Catholic Daily Office includes:
- Morning Prayer (at or near dawn);
- Noonday Prayer (which can be divided into three “Little Offices” to be prayed at approximately 9 AM, noon, and 3 PM;
- Evening Prayer (at or new dusk);
- Compline (right before going to bed);
- the Office of Readings (which can be prayed at any time during the day; it is equivalent to the Vigil, or Night Office, that monks pray typically around 3 AM or 4 AM.
So to pray the entire Liturgy of the Hours would entail 5 to 7 times of prayer each day, with a total time commitment of approximately two hours!
Many monasteries have their own liturgies, some examples include Benedictine Daily Prayer and The Saint Helena Breviary. Orthodox Churches also have their own versions of the Divine Office, as well as some of the Protestant denominations — a liturgy can be found in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer and the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
Then there are contemporary, “independent” liturgies that you can pray, including Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, and the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer.
This brings us to the question: “I’m struggling how to incorporate Matins, Vespers, and Compline into my day. Suggestions?”
Matins can refer either to the middle-of-the-night prayers (the Vigil, or Night Office) or to Morning Prayer (also called Lauds). Vespers is Evening Prayer, and Compline prayer at the end of the day. So the reading wants to incorporate liturgical prayers for morning, evenings and night into daily life.
Now, how to do it? As I said above, if you don’t live in a monastery, it can be a challenge simply finding the discipline and the perseverance to continue this prayer practice, day in and day out.
There are a lot of reasons for this.
Many of us lead over-busy lives, between a demanding work schedule, the time commitment that social media asks of us, to say nothing of family obligations, volunteer or church commitments, and simply relaxing and enjoying some “down time” with a favorite book or tv show. How can we fit up to two hours of prayer into such a full schedule?
Then there is the inherent challenges in the practice itself. Prayer that is read from a book can feel stiff, wooden, or formulaic. It’s easy to argue with the words printed on the page, or to feel as if no one is listening. Like any other new commitment (like joining a gym or learning to play a musical instrument), persevering with the Daily Office, day in and day out, can seem pointless or boring, especially after the initial enthusiasm wears off.
So: what can we do to minimize the struggle and enjoy the prayer? Here are a few thoughts:
Use an app. Some liturgies (including the Catholic Daily Office) are now available as apps for your tablet or smartphone. I use one called Universalis (available for iOS devices or Kindle/Android devices). You’ll pay a small price for it, but far less for the app than you would for the printed version of the Liturgy; best of all, you carry it with you wherever, making it easy to pray the office during your commute (assuming you’re not driving, of course!), while traveling, etc. Furthermore, the app is easy to use, not requiring the sometimes-complicated page turning that it takes to pray the liturgy using a book.
- Start small. I think it might be a mistake to begin trying to pray three offices — unless you are retired or have lots of time on your hands. What’s important is to establish the “dailiness” of the Daily Office. The best way to do that is to begin with one specific office, such as Morning Prayer or Compline, and commit to praying it on a daily basis. Once you’ve got it so established in your daily routine that you wouldn’t think of skipping it, that’s the time to introduce another one of the offices into your daily routine. So grow your commitment slowly and organically.
- Combine the Liturgy with other prayer forms. The reader who asked the original question (see top of this post) has an advantage in that daily lectio and silent prayer are already a daily habit. It is both easier, and more meaningful, to incorporate the Daily Office into an already-existing prayer practice. If you are already spending twenty minutes each morning doing Lectio and another twenty minutes each evening doing silent prayer, then consider praying the corresponding office of the liturgy right before or right after your already-established prayer routine.
- Pray with others whenever possible. While it is both acceptable and very lovely to pray the Liturgy of the Hours by ourselves, this is a kind of prayer that works best in a communal setting. Some churches have a small gathering of people who meet daily for morning and/or evening prayer; consider joining such group (or starting one in your own parish). Another option is to find a group of Benedictine Oblates, Third Order Franciscans, Lay Cistercians, Secular Carmelites, etc., and join them. Many of these kinds of groups have regular gathering days where you can join with others and pray the liturgy together. Even just praying one day a month with a group can help you to persevere in your own practice. And at least once a year, make a retreat at a monastery where you can join the nuns or monks with their daily prayers.
- Consider finding an accountability partner. If you can’t find a group to join, or have difficulty in starting your own prayer group, then the next best thing is one person who can pray with (and for) you. This person could be a spiritual director or spiritual companion, or simply an informal prayer partner. But it needs to be someone who shares your interest in, and desire for, daily liturgical prayer. You can gather once a month or so and pray one of the offices together; but you can also function as accountability partners to each other, checking up on and encouraging each other to persevere in daily prayer.
- Allow the prayers to be rote (up to a point). I think one of the challenges in praying from a book is the understandable desire to “mean it” or “do it with feeling.” We think rote prayers are insincere. But here I have found the prayer practices of other faith traditions to be instructive. Having participated in Muslim prayers and Buddhist chanting on a number of occasions, I’ve been surprised to see how comfortable people of other faiths are with “rote” prayers. Rather than fret about such prayers lacking meaning, the emphasis is on allowing the repetition to make subtle transformations in our hearts and minds. I think this works just as well for Christian prayer. Obviously, it’s important to prevent the mind from wandering all over the place during the prayer! But it’s okay to let the prayers have a rote or repetitive feel, as long as you make a basic effort to comprehend the words you are praying. Trust that the Holy Spirit is the one truly at work here, allowing the words of the prayers to form you at a level deeper than consciousness.
- Be gentle with yourself when you miss a day or two. Everyone has a bad day now and then, or a disorganized day, or a forgetful day. We find ourselves getting ready for bed and then realize, “Oops! Forgot to pray the liturgy today!” It happens even to the most seasoned prayer practitioner. So it will happen to you, too. My advice here is to simply resolve to do better the next day and then let go of worrying about what you did (or did not) accomplish today. Even if you drop the practice and go several months (or years, or even decades) without praying, you can always start over again. So always be willing to begin again. Once you’ve made the commitment, you are a prayer practitioner for life. Some days you’ll practice your prayer, and some days you won’t. But always seek to return to your prayer whenever you skip a day or miss a season.
I hope these tips are helpful. Prayer has been so meaningful for my own journey as a contemplative Christian, so I wish the same blessings for you, whoever you are that reads these words. Pray every day! And allow God to be the one in charge. It’s an adventure in love — that will last forever. Enjoy!