Last week, after some planning, we began praying the Liturgy of the Hours -- aka, the Divine Office or the Breviary. I lead it at 7:30 am, which means we end before the Rosary, which usually starts about 7:45 am; Mass is at 8:15 am (that is, excepting Wednesday when it's at 6:15 pm).
Some of the planning involved deciding what books to order; I got the slender, "Shorter Christian Prayer," which will be the easiest to use, most of the time; but it has only the major feast days, omitting most saints' days. There are a few times when it will be a little clunky, as was the case on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. We didn't have the proper readings or antiphons which are recited before the psalms, but we made the best of it.
After a week, how is it going? Not bad. We have about four or five people taking part, which is what I expected. And, as expected, it's a little confusing, but we're making it work. I'm explaining things along the way.
So what is the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’? As the name implies, it is liturgical prayer; meaning, it is the corporate prayer of the whole Church; and it is about sanctifying time – so it is customarily prayed at different hours of the day. Like the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours – also known as the Breviary or the Daily Office – is filled with Scripture; mostly psalms, as a matter of fact.
While there are many forms of prayer, all Christian prayer can be sorted into two categories: “public” and “private.”
Examples of public prayer are all liturgical: Holy Mass, Exposition of the Eucharist, the celebration of sacraments, and the Liturgy of the Hours. They are “public” in this sense: that when a sacred minister – i.e., a bishop, priest or deacon – leads these prayers, the whole Church is praying, even if it’s only happening in Russia, Ohio. When I take a day of rest, and when I go on vacation, I will offer Mass on my own, usually with no one else present. And yet, the whole Church, in a sense, offers that Mass, because Christ himself offers it, through the priest.
This explains why a priest is not free to modify parts of the Mass (or any other liturgical prayer), beyond the options provided. No Mass, offered by me, ever “belongs” to me. Nor does it belong to the people attending it; that’s why if people ask me, “Oh, can’t you do such-and-such on this special occasion?” My answer is the same: I am not free to change the Mass to suit me, or you, or anyone.
The term “private” prayer applies both to traditional devotions, such as the Rosary, as well as spontaneous prayers, either alone or in groups. This doesn’t make them less meaningful, nor does it mean they aren’t powerful; it means they don’t represent an action of the Church as a whole in the way liturgical prayer is.
The heart of the Divine Office is Scripture – specifically, the psalms. And, although we will mostly recite this prayer, it (like the Mass) is meant to be sung. The psalms are the “hymnbook” of the Bible – they were used in the Temple of the Old Covenant, or when people made pilgrimages to the temple. In fact, the first verse of many psalms contains directions on how the psalms were to be sung. For example, Psalm 4 begins: “For the leader; with stringed instruments”; Psalm 5 refers to “wind instruments”; and some refer to melodies which are lost to us.
There are different accounts of how the Liturgy of the Hours/Divine Office originated; but there is no doubt that just as the early Church gathered to pray the Holy Mass, it also prayed the psalms daily. After all, the early Church was heavily Jewish. Just as Jews, then and now, will pray at different times of day, so the Divine Office does the same. Over the centuries, the Divine Office came to be seen as primarily a prayer for bishops and priests, and was chanted by them in the larger churches, or in monasteries. From time to time it has been modified, most recently at the same time that the Mass was reformed in the 1970s. In recent years, there has been a renewed effort to involve laity in the Liturgy of the Hours again. When I was ordained, I promised to offer this prayer every day, with the people if possible, but for the people in any case. So...that's what I'm trying to do.