The liturgy of the hour which is popularly known as the divine office or the “public prayer of the church,” started when early Christians maintained the Jewish practice of praying the psalms at particular points of the day.
As this ancient prayer form started through the time of the desert fathers and St. Benedict, readings from the New Testament were woven in. Recently, each period of the divine office is comprised of several psalms, each bookended with an antiphon (like a refrain) and a doxology which is (a proclamation of praise to God). This is then, followed by a canticle—either the Benedictus, the Magnificat, or the Nunc Dimittis and bookended by another antiphon.
The next that follows are the intercessory prayers, which are gathered together into the Lord’s Prayer. However, the prayers of the divine office can be spoken or chanted and can also be prayed individually or in a community of any size.
The divine office is central mostly for cloistered monks and nuns, who pray not only in the morning, evening, and night but also at several other periods, which includes vigils in the middle of the night.
Though, clergy and religious men and women also pray the divine office, grounding their lives of active ministry in this common prayer. Lauds, (particularly said in the morning), vespers (evening prayer), and compline (night prayer) mostly feel like hinges as the day begins and ends. This particular pattern fits into the weekly rhythm, moving from Sunday to Sunday.
And all of this fits into the larger sacred choreography of the liturgical year with its movements from Advent to Christmas to Lent to Easter, which is a wheel of sacred mysteries that turns each year.
In as much as the divine office is often thought of as a prayer for those in monasteries, the Second Vatican Council have encouraged lay Catholics to pray it as well.
Personally, whenever I say this ancient form of prayer, it pulls me out of wherever I am internally and connects me with all creation: even with those suffering the effects of hurricanes and earthquakes, those who are incarcerated or on death row, those who face poverty and war daily, and the victims and perpetrators of all forms of violence.
Some people find the divine office too wordy or find themselves distracted by this prayer style. But an Episcopal priest and author of Lauren Winner’s shares his own experience about saying the divine office: “My mouth may have been mouthing psalms, but my brain was thinking grocery lists or weekend plans. But if roteness is a danger, it is also the way liturgy works. When you don’t have to think all the time about what words you are going to say next, you are free to fully enter into the act of praying; you are free to participate in the life of God.”
The Liturgy of the Hours indeed, is an ongoing restructuring of our mind and hearts.
Particularly, the discipline of the divine office reminds us who we are, in union with people around the globe, as we pray for the life of the world with words used in countless languages over millennia to cry out to God for mercy. It’s however, a way of loving the world, of offering up to God the “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” of all people.