| December 1, 2010 | 4 Comments

Alessandro Marchetti, a junior at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, prays the Liturgy of the Hours Nov. 23 in the Sitzmann Hall chapel. He said he has prayed the Liturgy of the Hours daily since he was a child. Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

It was 6:25 a.m. The vast majority of University of St. Thomas residence hall windows were dark and the campus was quiet, except for the hushed voices of a few students walking briskly to the chapel.

Every weekday morning, students meet to pray morning prayer at 6:30 at the Florence Chapel in the basement of the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas. On this particular morning, 14 students — five women and nine men — sat down, opened their prayer books and prayed aloud in unison, their voices filling the small, dimly lit room.

Liturgy of the Hours (sometimes called “the Divine Office”) is the public, daily prayer of the church. Mostly comprised of Scripture — especially Psalms and Gospel canticles — it’s organized as a four-week cycle of prayers, which are said at certain hours of the day.

In an apostolic exhortation on Scripture released Nov. 11, Pope Benedict spoke about the beauty and importance of Liturgy of the Hours, and he encouraged lay people to pray it.

The Liturgy of the Hours began as a prayer of the laity in the early church, and it is a means to “pray without ceasing,” which Paul urges Christians to do in his First Letter to the Thessalonians.

Today, lay people are still interested in praying it, said Deacon Joseph Michalak, director of diaconate formation at the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. Those wanting to deepen their prayer life often ask how to pray it, he said.

Prayer to order the day

Liturgy of the Hours includes prayers for morning, midmorning, noon, midafternoon, evening and night. The prayers change daily, according to the liturgical season. Most religious communities pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and priests are required to pray it.

In praying the Liturgy of the Hours, “all of time becomes immersed in the Paschal mystery,” Deacon Michalak said.

St. Thomas junior Alessandro Marchetti, 20, has been praying the Liturgy of the Hours since about the second grade, he said. His brother, a seminarian, introduced him to the practice. Now that Marchetti lives in the Center for Catholic Studies-sponsored Catholic men’s house, he helps to organize daily morning prayer.

“It’s the frame of our day,” said the Stamford, Conn., native, adding that the Catholic Studies men’s house residents are encouraged to pray night prayer on their own. For Marchetti, praying the Liturgy of the Hours is “entering into the divine rhythm,” he said.

Spreading its use

Pope Benedict, like Pope John Paul II before him, has strongly encouraged Catholics to re-embrace this public prayer, Deacon Michalak said.

In his apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini” (“The Word of God”), Pope Benedict said the Liturgy of the Hours “sets forth the Christian ideal of the sanctification of the entire day, marked by the rhythm of hearing the word of God and praying the Psalms.”

“In this way, every activity can find its point of reference in the praise offered to God,” the pope said.

“Verbum Domini” was a response to a list of recommendations drafted by the world’s bishops at the end of the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Word of God.

The synod recommended promoting widespread use of the Liturgy of the Hours among all Christians. In “Verbum Domini,” the pope affirmed this message and called for religious communities and parishes to encourage lay people’s participation in such prayer.

“This could only lead to greater familiarity with the word of God on the part of the faithful,” he said.

It’s common for lay people only to pray morning (“lauds”) and evening (“vespers”) prayers, and “Verbum Domini” encouraged the faithful especially to pray these two “hours.”

Good to pray, hard to learn?

Deacon Michalak gave a presentation about the Liturgy of the Hours Nov. 16 to a crowd of 260 people at St. John the Baptist in New Brighton.

The lecture was the first of two presentations on the Liturgy of the Hours sponsored by the Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute, which is overseen by the St. Paul Seminary. The second presentation will be given Dec. 7 from 7 to 9 p.m. at St. John the Baptist. It is open to the public.

“In the language of the church, the Liturgy of the Hours is the bride praying with the bridegroom; it’s the body [of the church] praying with the head,” Deacon Michalak said, pointing to “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” a Vatican II document on the liturgy, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Verbum Domini” applied the same metaphors.

The Psalms, which are the basis of the Liturgy of the Hours, are a “school of prayer” for Christians, said Catechetical Institute director Jeff Cavins.

“They not only provide the believer with words for prayer, but [they] also teach them how to pray, and in what situations they should be praying . . . [including] discouragement, betrayal and joy.”

When Catholics pray the Liturgy of the Hours — even when they pray it alone — they are praying with the entire church, he added.

This idea appeals to Bob Conroy, a parishioner at St. Michael in St. Michael and marketing consultant for Relevant Radio, who attended Deacon Michalak’s lecture.

Conroy is gearing up for a 90-day pilgrimage in Europe, beginning in Rome in late December and including holy sites in Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Ireland. He’ll be making the pilgrimage alone, so he plans to look to the Liturgy of the Hours to provide a rhythm to his day and connect him to others, if only in prayer, he said.

A flexible prayer

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours takes time; morning and evening prayer both require about 15 minutes. It’s easy for the time commitment to discourage busy Catholics.

“The nature of life is that it tends to want to have us slide away from those things that draw us closer to Christ and his church, so it’s hard always to find the means to overcome those daily obstacles,” Conroy said.

Yet, Liturgy of the Hours makes prayer part of everything one does, he said. “[It] has value from being able to join with all the people who have ever prayed the prayers, all the people who ever will pray these prayers, and all the people who are praying these prayers right now.”

Deacon Michalak recommends beginners pray the Liturgy of the Hours simply, with morning and evening prayers, or even just one per day. The prayer is flexible, he said, and it can be prayed in short or long versions.

Cavins has prayed morning and evening prayer intermittently with his wife for about 16 years, he said. The couple routinely incorporate their own prayers and intentions, he said.

“There’s always a benefit to praying this with someone else,” he said.

The Liturgy of the Hours can be a confusing prayer method to learn by one’s self, Cavins said, which is one of the reasons the Catechetical Institute is hosting the lectures.

At the Nov. 16 lecture, Deacon Micha­lak told attendees just to pray the prayer and not worry about whether or not they were praying the prayer perfectly.

Even after regularly praying the Liturgy of the Hours for more than five years, Linda Corrigan, 58, doesn’t feel like an expert.

It’s easy to lose one’s place in the rotation, or forget to use the special prayers on an important feast day. But Corrigan tries, she said, and she believes that God is pleased with her effort.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours helped Corrigan, a parishioner at Holy Name of Jesus in Medina, to build a regular prayer life, she said.  She has long attended daily Mass, but now she also prays the noon Angelus and a Divine Mercy chaplet. She also makes time each day for spontaneous prayers of praise.

“I’m guessing that praying the Liturgy of the Hours’ morning and evening prayers opened me up to receive the grace to pray more,” she said.

Old prayers, modern means

Although the Liturgy of the Hours is traditionally prayed from either a four-volume set or the single-volume “Book of Christian Prayer,” websites and smart phone applications offer another — and sometimes easier — means.

Eschewing the sometimes cumbersome task of tracking one’s spot and flipping to different parts of a book for parts of the prayer, sites like universalis.com/today, divineoffice.org and liturgyhours.org lay out the daily prayers in easy-to-follow formats.

Advent is the perfect time to start the Liturgy of the Hours, because it’s the beginning of the new liturgical year, Deacon Michalak said.

“Advent is chiefly a time of preparing for the second coming of Christ, and we prepare for Christmas, the celebration of the first coming, as an anticipation of the second coming. The Liturgy of the Hours is an eschatological prayer — it’s a prayer that anticipates heaven.”

6 Reasons to pray the Liturgy of the Hours

» You’ll learn Scripture better. Most of the Liturgy of the Hours is from the Psalms. “The Psalms have always been the Christian prayer book,” said Deacon Joseph Michalak, the archdiocesan diaconate formation director.

» You’ll meet the Church Fathers and other saints. “In the liturgical calendar, the church introduces you to great characters — the saints . . . whereas most people would not engage the saints on a daily basis,” said biblical scholar Jeff Cavins. You’ll also foster proper Marian devotion, Deacon Michalak added.

» You’ll celebrate the seasons in the church year. Instead of thinking only in terms of winter, spring, summer and fall, you’ll incorporate Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Ordinary Time in your understanding of the movement of time.

» It’s ecumenical. Because it’s based in Scripture, some Protestants pray the Liturgy of the Hours, too.

» It’s universal. Catholics from both Roman and Eastern Catholic churches pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

» It will reduce your anxiety. “It sets our minds on things above, where Christ is,” Deacon Michalak said.

— Maria Wiering

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