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Praying the Divine Office: Try It, You'll Like It

By Father Eugene Hemrick
Catholic News Service

Are you looking for a better way to pray or a way to improve your prayer life? Then consider praying the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. It may surprise you to learn that it is not restricted to priests and is used by numerous laypersons.

What is the Divine Office, and what are its benefits?

The Divine Office is also referred to as the breviary, meaning the book containing a shortened version of prayers, biblical readings and writings of saints. Instead of having us recite all the psalms at once, the breviary selects certain ones that have a similar theme to recite throughout the day. Instead of reading the book of Job, an episode from it is chosen, with a prayer that helps us reflect on its meaning. When a saint's feast is celebrated, often the Divine Office contains original writings of the saint.

The Divine Office breaks the day into the Office of Readings (which contains a hymn, three psalms, a reading from Scripture and a reading from a saint or other church writers), morning prayer, mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon prayer and evening prayer.

Allow me to point you to some of my favorite hymns and readings so you can experience its beauty firsthand.

On Wednesday of the first week, we start the day singing: "Morning has broken like the first morning. Blackbird has spoken like the first bird. Praise for the singing! Praise for them, springing fresh from the Word."

As a child I often awoke on a fresh summer morning to the happy sounds of birds outside my window. It was an absolute blessing to start the morning in this manner. Later when I began reciting the breviary, the last verse of this hymn best expressed my gratitude for a new morning: "Praise with elation, praise every morning, God's re-creation of the new day!"

Another hymn I particularly love for its spirit is found in mid-morning prayer: "Breath on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew that I may love the things you love and do what you would do.... Breathe on me, breath of God, my soul with grace refine until this earthly part of me glows with your fire divine."

On the feast of St. Anthony of Padua June 13, Anthony advised us: "The man who is filled with the Holy Spirit speaks in different languages. These different languages are different ways of witnessing to Christ, such as humility, poverty, patience and obedience; we speak in those languages when we reveal in ourselves those virtues to others. Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak.... Happy the man whose words issue from the Holy Spirit and not from himself."

What is found in the Divine Office is a spirit that is uplifting and so true to the real self we desire to be.

Imagine being inspired throughout the day with this spirit. This is the power of the breviary. It speaks to the godly spirit implanted in us.

When we are happy the Divine Office helps us to celebrate; when we are sorrowful it teaches us how to turn sorrow into joy.

Purchase the Divine Office and pray it. It will be the wisest investment of your life.

Liturgy of the Hours: It's not just for clergy anymore

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

For the past 16 months, Pope John Paul II has been encouraging people to pray with the Psalms, and particularly to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

The papal audience talks reflect a growing reality: Priests and religious are not the only ones using the breviary for morning and evening prayer.

What's more, convents and monasteries are not the only places where lay people can experience the chanting or recitation of the prayers communally, the way they were designed to be prayed.

The first 23 papal talks, which began in March 2001, were published in book form by the Vatican this summer; the book is available only in Italian.

"It is an encouraging fact that many lay people, both in parishes and in church groups, have learned to value" the Liturgy of the Hours, the pope said in the first talk of the series.

The psalms used in the liturgy, Pope John Paul said, are highly poetic prayers reflecting a full array of human feelings: "joy, recognition, thanksgiving, love, tenderness and enthusiasm, but also intense suffering, sorrow and requests for help or for justice, which sometimes are expressed with anger or imprecation."

"The whole human being is found in the psalms," he said.

At St. Peter's Basilica, like in many cathedrals around the world, everyone is welcome to join in Sunday evening vespers.

The Sunday prayer is the only part of the Liturgy of the Hours celebrated in public by the Chapter of St. Peter's Basilica, the group of priests who ministers full time there.

The number of participants changes with the seasons, one of the priests said. As few as 50 people will add their voices to the chants sung entirely in Latin in midwinter, but with the spring and summer tourist season, the numbers quadruple, he said.

Just down the street at the Carmelite-run Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, everyone is invited to join the recitation of morning and evening prayer in Italian every day.

"We've always done it," said the pastor, Carmelite Father Alberto Campagnucci.

The congregation usually includes about two dozen people, mostly laity who stay for the prayers after the parish's morning and evening Masses.

But the most famous place in Rome for communal evening prayer is the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which gathers as many as 1,000 people at 8:30 every night.

In addition to singing the psalms to Eastern melodies, the service includes the reading of a Gospel passage and a reflection usually offered by a lay person.

However, when guests of a certain stature stop by, they are invited to preach.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, gave the reflection July 10, for example.

In the past two years, other guests leading the reflection have included the Orthodox patriarchs of Constantinople, of the Armenian, Syrian and Ethiopian churches and Archbishop George C. Carey of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion.

The prayer is the centerpiece of the activity of the Sant'Egidio Community, a group of lay people engaged in all sorts of social services, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and works for peace.

One of the pope's introductory remarks about the Liturgy of the Hours could have been written with the community in mind:

"Thanks to the communal prayer of the psalms, the Christian conscience remembers and understands that it is impossible to turn to the Father, who is in heaven, without an authentic life of communion with one's brothers and sisters, who are on earth," the pope said.

Evening prayer used to be sung in the Church of Sant'Egidio near the basilica, but moved in 1998 when the church underwent renovation.

About 200 people could fit inside Sant'Egidio, if they filled the choir loft as well as the main body of the church.

The congregation always included visitors, but it was not until the prayer moved to the Trastevere basilica that the community realized what a huge outreach it was.

"Praying with the psalms and the prayer of the church feeds those who are hungering for the word of God and thirsting for authentic inspiration," said Father Marco Gnavi, a member of the community.

Added together, he said, the nightly congregation comes to between 150,000 and 200,000 each year; obviously, many are community members and friends who attend on a regular basis, but thousands are drawn from crowds who flock to the Trastevere neighborhood's squares and restaurants each night.

"It is obvious the prayer is not our possession," Father Gnavi said.