“Praying with the Church - The Divine Office”
Talk on the Divine Office, originally given to Students in January 2014
By Dom Benedict Hardy OSB, Prior of Pluscarden
I want to talk about the Divine Office. What I say will inevitably be coloured by my experience of 30 years in the monastery, where the Divine Office is one of the principal things we do: our whole life is structured around it. 7 times a day and once at night we come together to sing it. That all takes several hours, every single day. We do other things too: we celebrate daily Mass of course, we read, we work, we eat and sleep. But just to make sure monks get the priorities of their life right, St. Benedict calls the Divine Office simply The Work of God - the Opus Dei - and he insists that nothing whatever in the monastery is to be preferred to it.
The Divine Office we pray at Pluscarden is somewhat different from what most people are used to. It’s not the Roman Office, but the Monastic or Benedictine Office. Obviously the two are not opposed to one another: they are variants of the same thing. Our Office faithfully follows the liturgical laws of the Church, and is fully approved by her. One major difference between the two is that ours is much longer. Monks need length. We came to the monastery to pray: we’re not in a hurry; we have nothing better to do. What we do at Pluscarden remains almost exactly what St. Benedict prescribes in his Rule, written in the 6th century. As a matter of free choice, also, our community has retained the Latin language and Gregorian Chant.
For most people who aren’t monks, though, the Divine Office will mean the post-Vatican II vernacular Roman Office, published in 3 large volumes. They cost around £50 each, which is a lot. Maybe you can get second hand ones for less. They haven’t been edited either since the 1970's, which is a big pity, because the first edition was far from perfect, and lots of things have happened liturgically since, so an updated version is badly needed. Various abridged formats are available also. Priests, deacons and Apostolic religious are bound to recite this Office daily, and other members of the faithful are warmly encouraged to take it up for themselves, whether in groups or as individuals. Part of the purpose of this talk is to underline that encouragement, while saying a little bit about the meaning and value of the Divine Office, its history and content.
Participation in the life of the Church, in the prayer of Christ.
Why would anyone want to take up saying the Divine Office, especially if already they have a good routine of personal prayer and regular Mass attendance?
One of the most central and fundamental of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council is that all the baptised are called to the fullness of the Christian life; to the fullness of holiness. So all the baptised are called to participate fully in the life of the Church.
At the heart of the life of the Church, and at the source of her holiness, is her divine worship: the liturgy.
Vatican II most beautifully says of the Liturgy that “it’s the summit towards which all the activity of the Church is directed, and the source from which all her power flows” (SC 10; LG 11; CCC 1324).
Therefore all the baptised are called to participate fully, consciously and actively in the liturgy. It’s their privilege, their birthright, their dignity. So St. Pius X said, and Vatican II strongly took him up on this: full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.” (cf. SC 14).
By participating in the liturgy we exercise our baptismal priesthood; our participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
As our great High Priest, Jesus Christ offers perfect worship to his Father. This began at the moment of the Incarnation, when he stepped into this world in frail mortal flesh. It continued uninterrupted throughout the whole of his life on this earth. It continues now forever in heaven. But it was perfected, consummated, focussed on the Cross. This was Jesus’ great act of consecration; there supremely he offered his Father, on our behalf, perfect obedience, in perfect humility, with the perfection of love, to the end.
Ever since then the worship of the Church, the worship Christians offer to God, has been through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ. According to St. Paul, the Church on earth is united to Christ as a Body is united to its head. St. Augustine very much developed this idea. It means that when the Church prays, she offers to God the Father not just her own worship, but Christ’s perfect worship, his sacrifice of praise, his adoration, his love, his self offering.
This prayer of Christ and of his Church is the liturgy. It’s praise of God the Father through Jesus Christ our Priest. It’s also the song of love sung by the Church as Bride for her lover the divine Bridegroom, Christ the Lord. So St. Augustine famously said: Christ prays for us as our Priest; he prays in us as our head; he is prayed to by us as our God. Let us recognise therefore our voices in him and his voice in us. (cf. GILH n. 7).
If the official liturgy of the Church contains all that, then obviously it has a dignity and a value that far surpasses any merely individual prayer. Certainly we have to pray as individuals; certainly our prayer has to be fully personal, authentic, unique to ourselves; but as Catholics we know we do so within a vastly greater reality, the reality of the Mystical Body, of the communion of the Saints, in union with the whole Church both now in heaven and spread throughout the world.
Meaning & value
I wonder if anyone has read a book called The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger?
In it he roots the liturgy of the Church back in the story of the Exodus. Moses demanded that Pharoah let the people go. Why? In order that they could sacrifice, as God had commanded them. So the Exodus happened; but liberated Israel only became a people, the holy people of God, once God himself at Mount Sinai had given them his law, which in great part was a law of worship. Later on, in the time of the monarchy, the worship of the desert was formalised in the Temple in Jerusalem. That all centred on the rite of sacrifice, but it included also psalms and prayers. For those unable to participate directly in the Temple worship, the worship of the synagogue was instituted as an extension, or legitimate substitute. There, in every synagogue, the Torah, God’s holy law, was enthroned and brought out as a sign of his presence; and there the people met to praise God, even without sacrifice, in a set structure of prayers, readings, psalms, intercessions, hymns, blessings.
All of that of course we understand as an anticipation or foreshadowing of the new dispensation made in Christ. Animal sacrifices in the Temple ceased, once Christ had offered once for all his perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice on the Cross. The shadow now gave place to the reality, as the book of Hebrews constantly insists.
Does the perfect worship offered by Jesus then replace our prayer? Certainly not! On the contrary: it enables it. So St. Paul cried out: I beseech you brethren, by the mercy of God, that you offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational service (Rm 12:1).
Just to follow up or spell out this insight of Joseph Ratzinger: we who belong to Christ are now constituted as the new Israel. Like Israel of old, we are defined as a people who have been redeemed, set free from slavery, only at the most radical level - as St. Paul puts it, we are freed from the slavery to sin. And why? In order that we might offer true and acceptable worship to God. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: the kind of worshipper the Father seeks is one who will worship in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:23)
The central act of the Church’s worship is the Holy Eucharist; the Eucharistic sacrifice. This is Christ’s own offering, Christ’s own action: one with Calvary; one with the eternal intercession offered by him in heaven. Here the Church is most fully herself, here she most fully acts. Yet even if the liturgy is very solemn and elaborate, it’s all rather quickly accomplished. In its essence it takes only minutes, or even seconds. There’s a healthy Christian instinct that wants somehow to prolong this moment, to savour it, to respond to it in praise and thanksgiving, in order better to live it. So there is the Divine Office. We can think of it as set all around the Mass, pointing to it, flowing from it, leading back to it: much as the liturgy of the synagogue pointed to the liturgy of the ancient Temple.
Personally I became a Catholic because of the Eucharist. You need the Mass; you can’t live without it; so you need to be a Catholic. But then what? I recall feeling very strongly, though without quite being able to articulate it, the need to somehow carry on with the Mass even after it was over. Then one day I visited a Benedictine monastery; the first one I’d ever seen or heard of. They celebrated Mass extremely well, so that was nice. But then, after Mass, the congregation left, as usual; but the monks stayed behind, sat down in Choir, and started singing Psalms. I was done for! I only wanted then to become a monk. So I did. (Eventually)!
Origins & Content
Where does the Divine Office come from?
In 1970, an International Commission of Scholars and Experts, working with an official Vatican mandate, produced a book. The Pope approved it, and the whole Church was told to get on and use it.
That’s absolutely not how it all came together in ancient times!
Clearly, there is a certain fundamental continuity with the Jewish synagogue liturgy. We know that the early Christians continued to attend the synagogue, and that before any writings of the New Testament existed, Christians continued to hold the whole of the Old Testament as Holy Scripture. So it was natural for Christians to continue praising God, especially by using the inspired words of the Psalms.
St. Paul writes: With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God... (cf. Col 4:16; = Eph 5:19).
How did things then develop? As you’d expect, this is an extremely complex subject, and the first centuries of the Church are rather deeply shrouded in the darkness of persecution. But we know that from one end of the Roman world to another Christians would come together regularly to pray. Most typically, communities of clergy and people would gather around their Bishop: but also there were monastic communities in cities, or the countryside, or in the desert. So in the first millennium or so the thing simply grew, as it were, organically, diversely, without any central control, and with a great deal of variety: yet also of course with many elements of fundamental similarity, rooted in shared traditions and principles.
The tradition of the monks of Egypt from the early 4th c. was to meet for prayer only twice a day. The hermits would come together only once a week, on Saturday evenings. Then they would sing Psalms all night, ending up with the Eucharist early on Sunday morning.
The tradition that came from St. Augustine was rather different. He presumed a completely different environment from the desert of the solitary hermit. For him, we need help and encouragement to call to mind our need for prayer during the course of a busy day. So his community met at the 3rd, 6th and 9th hours of the day, as well as at dawn and dusk, for brief services of communal prayer. These little services incidentally find justification by being mentioned in Acts as times of prayer.
Nowadays we speak of this frequency of prayer as a means of sanctifying time. So the Council affirms: (SC 84) “The Divine Office is devised so that the whole course of day and night is made holy by the praises of God.” It hopes that in this way too those participating will be drawn to enter that “prayer without ceasing” which St. Paul commands all Christians (I Thess 5:17).
St. Benedict was very impressed by the symbolism of the number 7. So when Psalm 118 says: Seven times a day have I praised you - that’s how many times he wanted his monks to come together for prayer. We still do that at Pluscarden: the Offices of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.
Psalm 118 also says: At night I rose to give you praise: so St. Benedict had his monks sing Vigils very early in the morning, before dawn. He inherited a tradition that monks should recite not less than the whole Psalter in the course of a week, with never fewer than 12 Psalms at Vigils. So he strongly insists on all that, adding some 20 Psalms to be repeated each day. With the strong influence of monastic spirituality in the Church as a whole, these rules came to be applied to the secular clergy also. So their office used to be quite a heavy burden. In the wake of the Council though it was drastically reduced, with a root and branch reform. That was the beginning of the 4 week cycle of Psalms, and chopping longer Psalms up into easily manageable sections, and omitting the curses, and leaving out some of the more difficult Psalms altogether. We though still keep the one week cycle, and all the difficult Psalms, with all their curses intact!
So what about the Psalms?
There are plenty of problems with the Psalms. They come from a cultural milieu which is utterly different from our own. Often their sense is very obscure, sometimes simply incomprehensible. Above all, they remain resolutely Old Testament. The teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is absent. No turning of the other cheek for the Psalmist: he wants to see his enemies destroyed! His horizon too remains firmly fixed in this life, with almost no notion of any after life with or without God. Sometimes too he dwells on his own righteousness, and asks for it to be rewarded, in a way that seems to us sheer Pharisaism.
Yet, for all that, we love the Psalms, we love singing them, and this love only grows with constant use. Ps 146:1 Laudate Dominum, quoniam bonum est psallere Deo nostro, quoniam iucundum est celebrare laudem.
The experience of the ages confirms this. The Psalms speak to God, or cry out to God, with a refreshing directness and familiarity. They express too every human emotion, just as it is, in the raw, from the heights of spiritual joy to the depths of anguish and despair, and with everything else in between. Jesus prayed the Psalms, so did his disciples, so did his mother, and so has the whole Church done throughout the ages.
You could boil human emotions down to two main categories: that of being Up, and that of being Down. Up Psalms sing out: Alleluia! Praise the Lord! Thank you Lord, for all your goodness, mercy and love! How wonderful it all is; how wonderful is this world you have made, and how wonderful is my life lived out amidst it all! Then the Down Psalms cry out: Lord have mercy on me a miserable sinner! Lord save me from this mess I’m in! Lord, you surely see I can’t cope without your help! Come quickly then to my aid!
In Gideon Bibles you’ll find a guide in the index telling you where to find scriptural words that correspond to your own current emotion. The Divine Office does the opposite of that. We don’t pray the Up Psalms when we feel up, or the Down Psalms when we feel down. On the contrary, we submit ourselves to what is before us, rather than choosing it to fit our mood: and this discipline is a actually freedom, and guarantee of authenticity. Of course our own personal prayer remains rightly subjective, but the prayer of the Church carries us beyond that, to the fullness of Christ’s mystical Body, suffering and rejoicing...
One of the greatest Christian commentators on the Psalms was St. Augustine. Believing very strongly in their divine inspiration, he thanked God for providing us with the words we need in order to praise him. Like most of the Fathers, he read Christ back into the Psalms, finding allegorical or accommodated meanings in their every detail. So, for example, when the Psalmist speaks of his enemies, we think not of people but of vices, or bad habits, or even demons. When he speaks of victory for the King we think of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Etc. One obvious justification for this method is St. Luke’s account of the risen Christ appearing to the gathered disciples on Easter Day. He explains to them how all that was written about him “in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms had to be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44). Then Luke says, he opened their minds, so that they could understand the Scriptures.
We still continually shine the light of Christ into our singing of the Psalms, by adding always the Gloria Patri at the end of each one. We do it in other ways too: for example sometimes through Antiphons, or Psalms headings, or Psalms collects. I absolutely recommend anyone to read St. Augustine... His sermons on the Psalms are a huge, many volumed work; his Confessions are shot through with Psalm quotations...
Reading Christ back into the Psalms is not the only way of praying them as Christians. We can also read them, as it were, forwards, towards Christ; seeing how he superabundantly fulfilled, or purified, all the longings and hopes and prayers of God’s people. To help us do that we nowadays have tools the ancient Fathers lacked: notably historical and literary criticism, which enables us to understand better the Psalms in their original context.
The Psalms make up the bulk of material in the Divine Office. But obviously there is much more; maybe I should try to mention one or two other elements now if time permits?
Each Hour or little service has its own hymn. We still sing some of the hymns written for that by St. Ambrose back in the late 4th century, but the tradition of hymn writing never stopped, and continues on of course very much unabated in our own day.
Each Hour also has its own Scripture reading. One of the aims of the Conciliar reform was to spread out for us the table of Holy Scripture more fully, so we get a lot, from both Testaments. Typically, the Chapters at the Day Hours are brief: one or two sentences only. In ferial time, for variety these now come in a 4 week cycle. There are special cycles also for the Seasons - Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter - and for the feasts. After the short reading the rubrics ask us to make a little pause, to let the words sink in, then the community responds to the reading by singing a responsory. This idea reaches back to the very early Church, and before that to the synagogue. In this way the text of Scripture becomes prayer for us, or is used directly to nourish for our prayer.
At Vigils, or the Office of readings, a fairly substantial scripture text is offered, on a continuous cycle. A 2 year cycle for that exists, which we use at Pluscarden. Unfortunately it’s not printed in the standard Divine Office books.
At Vigils also there’s a cycle of (mainly) Patristic readings. No official 2 year cycle for that has yet been promulgated: it’s badly needed. At Pluscarden we have produced our own, which we hope one day to get officially approved.
All of this is extremely nourishing for our Christian life. This is drinking from the pure and healthy sources of Christian spirituality. The taste may take some acquiring, but the more we acquire it, the richer our Christian life becomes, the more firmly rooted in the tradition, the less susceptible of being swayed by any passing fashions of our particular age.
To say no more for now, because time is short: but I should briefly highlight how, with the Mass, the Divine Office follows and reflects the Church’s Liturgical Year. In this way also the Office keeps us plugged into the wellsprings of the Church’s life - keeps us firmly in communion with our fellow Christians throughout the world - provides us with on-going catechesis. So if the Office rests on frequent repetition, it’s nevertheless full of never ending variety...
If you are sufficiently determined, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get into the habit of saying, for example, Morning prayer each day. That only takes 10 minutes. Morning prayer with the Office of Readings: half an hour, more or less. When I was a student, a group of us met for a while each morning to say it together. Some people (laudably!) say it immediately before or after Mass. Even if you only do that once a week - it’s still worth doing! Evening prayer is just as important but maybe harder to manage in the midst of student life. Compline from the Roman Office should be possible though: it’s very brief!
In the monastery of course there’s no question of trying to squeeze a bit of Divine Office into a crowded schedule. It’s our life; or our life revolves around it. The bell goes, and you turn up, and it all just happens. It’s long, but personally I’ve never ever found it too long, and I’ve never been bored by it. And often it’s very beautiful. Bl. Columba Marmion as a young secular priest on holiday heard Vespers at Monte Cassino and was overwhelmed by the desire to be part of it. I feel the same, still 30 years on.
The other day one of the brethren, senior to me, made a remark about Vigils. Singing that, he said, all he can think is what a huge privilege it is to be there, and that there was nothing else in the world he’d rather be doing, and nowhere else in the world he’d rather be.
The post-Conciliar introduction of the vernacular is a great help for lots of people, but one of its down sides is that there’s no venerable tradition of music which everyone knows. Big pity. The Divine Office should be sung; just as it should ideally be communal, not private. Music for the vernacular Office does exist, but it’s of varying quality, not too easy to find, and far from being universally known. Still, if you can’t sing the Office, it’s still worth saying; and if you can’t say it in a group, it’s still worth reciting alone!
The General Instruction on the Liturgy if the Hours is definitely worth reading. There’s plenty of theology in it, as well as a practical guide telling you how to do it!
What’s it all for? The Council gives the Divine Office 2 main purposes: the glorification of God, and the sanctification of man (SC 7).
Those are two very noble goals to pursue!
The glory we give to God through the liturgy is one with what we will spend our eternity doing in heaven; one indeed with what the Angels and Saints are doing in heaven even now. So a monastery is in a real sense heaven on earth; its life is heavenly, because directed to the praise of God.
And as a matter of fact, we believe that in so far as we truly give glory to God, then we also thereby build up the whole Church, and also somehow contribute to the well being of the whole human family.
And as to our sanctification, Pope Paul VI once remarked: “The Liturgy is not only the highest expression of the Church’s life; it’s also the source of her contemplation and holiness.”
So we should participate in it if we can!