By day the Lord commands his steadfast love;
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
Morning, noon, and night, a prayer rises from abbeys, convents, monasteries, rectories, hermitages, and seminaries throughout the world.
It happens five times a day, sometimes more, at fixed hours. It is regular, rhythmic, cyclical, like the hands of a clock, or perhaps like the circuit of the stars or the sun.
What is this prayer that all these religious communities offer continually to God?
It is the Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes called the Divine Office. It has its origins in Jewish prayer customs and has been practiced since the very earliest days of the Church. It is the daily public prayer of the Church, a prayer which permeates the day and night and sanctifies every temporal moment.
In the words of the Second Vatican Council:
By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God…it is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom; It is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.
—Sacrosanctum Concilium, 84
This Liturgy comprises five “hours”—that is, five segments that are prayed at five different times of the day: the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Daytime Prayer (which can include one or more of Midmorning, Midday, and/or Midafternoon Prayer), Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. These hours are primarily composed of the Psalms, and—depending on the hour—also include canticles, hymns, readings from the Old and New Testaments, excerpts from the Church Fathers and spiritual masters, and other prayers.
The Liturgy of the Hours is prayed throughout the liturgical year, corresponding with the feasts and seasons, just like the Holy Mass. Religious life is structured around Mass and the hours—they are the fixed points around which all other activities revolve.
This continual regimen of prayer is so important to the prayer life of the Church that most religious are obligated to recite it daily!
FUN FACT: In the older form of the Liturgy of the Hours (usually called the Divine Office), these hours are eight in number and are called Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. Many communities follow this older form.
Of course, you don’t have to be a priest, monk, or nun to join in this magnificent prayer. The Church encourages lay people to participate, too, to whatever extent our schedule and state in life allow. For example, you may be able to do Morning and Night Prayer, or perhaps Midday Prayer during your lunch break.
If it all seems a bit intimidating, and you’d like some help as you get started, The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours is your how-to guide. This book offers clear instructions on navigating the Hours and guidance on building a prayer habit that works with your busy schedule. You’ll also discover the history and continuing importance of this ancient cycle of daily prayer. Available today at The Catholic Company! We carry the full Liturgy of the Hours, too!