Appreciating the Office of Readings

The American novelist Saul Bellow once spoke about “the tyranny of perceptions,” those evanescent opinions that daily flood our society and divide it. He was concerned that these were being substituted for basic reasoning.

As we know from the work of Aquinas, forming the image of something in our minds is not the final step in the process of knowing. Rather, there is something more that we have to actually do and that is compare the idea in our minds with the reality that we are confronting. So forming an image of what happened at a police-involved shooting, for example, is not worth anything unless it agrees with the facts. Those would be the facts uncovered over time by the medical examiner and the other experts.

Similarly, when most people work with ideas about the Church, they are statistically more often under the tyranny of some half-formed perceptions rather than fully-formed ideas that actually represent the real Church and its teaching. Some people I speak to have created for themselves – remember this is going on within their own minds – a disconnect from the Church as a living and present community. Then their thinking about the Church is not really about the Church, but their own wandering, lost among their own poorly formed ideas.

As with every other part of the human condition, the Church, from her vast experience, has developed tools to heal us, in this case, of our poorly formed ideas about the history of salvation and our place in it. And one of them is known as the Office of Readings.

As you know, the Office of Readings is part of the official daily prayer of the Church, one of the means by which the community makes a serious effort to sanctify the hours of the day. As usual, many ignore the various daily Church disciplines, foregoing things such as daily prayer and daily Examination of Conscience.

But the Office of Readings is special. In that prayer, we join with the rest of the Church in offering praise to God and the core of that praise is proclaiming the truth about the great unfolding of our salvation. Engaging this truth heals us – helping us to join the mind of Christ rather than the mind of some clique. And it changes the world by making this truth present where it was not before. As a result, it renders praise to God.

The Office of Readings consists of saying a number of psalms, the ancient prayers from the Old Testament, as well as two readings: one from the Scriptures and one from the tradition of the Church. Scripture and Tradition are God’s revelation – unmessed with. This is literally the real, divine revelation. These are the facts involved in accurate perception and are worth more than the time frittered away on a sitcom, or on lusting to belong to a particular social circle.

The Ratzinger brothers read the Office together
The Ratzinger brothers read the Office together

What is this revelation? According to Vatican II, the sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture “of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God.” We look into this mirror when we start to read the Office of Readings regularly. We look at God – something much better than staring into our digital devices.

The Council was emphatic that “both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.” Our loyalty to the unity, the unity of the deposit of word of God, leads us into unity as a community.

People choosing which parts of Catholic teaching they “like” disrupts the unity of the Body of Christ. Looked at from inside or outside, the Catholic Church seems to be a fractured mess with this group following this perception of the Church, that’s group following another perception of the Church and so on.

In fact, there is only one deposit of the word of God involving both the complete Scriptures as well as the complete tradition of the Church. It is that community, out of all of the scattered fragmented communities each under the tyranny of its own perception, that holds to the one deposit of faith that is indeed the closest to the true Church.

It is such a community that makes people say, with St. Paul: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” (Philippians 2:2)

Many of us have come to believe that there’s something intrinsically wrong in thinking the same thing – which may be true when what we’re thinking is some currently fashionable nonsense. When it comes to thinking about the one true God who made and sustains all being, it’s no virtue to indulge in individualist fantasies.

We pray for unity at every mass, but could we do more than that? We could all read the artifacts from the one deposit of faith and come to be of one mind – forgetting our private imaginings and joining the mind of the Church.

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; and, most recently, Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini.

  • Howard Kainz

    For those with smartphones and tablets, the “Laetare” app is downloadable. It has the divine office in English and Latin, including the Office of Readings (Matins), readings for the Mass of the day, and many other documents and prayers.

    • Paul Soper

      The Office is also available online

    • Paul Soper

      Do you mean “Laudate”?

    • Howard Kainz

      Sorry, that app is “Laudate,” not “Laetare.”

      • Alicia

        Thank you Mr. Kainz. I just got it. It’s amazing. It’s got everything. Wonderful. Thank you.

      • Maria Tierney Koehn

        Agree with Alicia. The Laudate app is just wonderful! And Free!

        Thank You and God Bless!

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Bl John Henry Newman makes the distinction between the real and the notional, the concrete and the abstract, very clear, when he says, “Revelation sets before it [the mind] certain supernatural facts and actions, beings and principles; these make a certain impression or image upon it; and this impression spontaneously, or even necessarily, becomes the subject of reflection on the part of the mind itself, which proceeds to investigate it, and to draw it forth in successive and distinct sentences.”

    This distinction was brought home to me very clearly once, when I was reading some precognitions of witnesses in which several of them said, in one way or another, that a certain man was drunk. Only one (a retired army officer) did not: “He was unsteady on his feet. When I approached him, I noticed that his eyes were glazed, his speech was slurred and his breath smelt strongly of alcohol.” His testimony was categorical, not argumentative, concrete not abstract; he alone was describing the man; the others were describing their own impressions of him. There is a lesson for the apologist here – that, of course, is my idea, or notion, or reflection..

  • Nancy Lynne

    In the past I purchased “Shorter Christian Prayer: The Four-Week Psalter…” and found it too confusing. Later I used “Work of God: Benedictine Prayer” from The Liturgical Press successfully but I wanted something more and discovered Universalis on the internet. You can use it for free or purchase apps so you don’t have to be online to read it. It’s wonderful. I thank God that I now share this Treasure of the Church in my old age but sadly regret that this gold mine of grace was unavailable (in the sense that it was a complicated project to learn to use and that it was the province of those in religious life) earlier.

  • monica

    Thank your for pointing out the unifying aspect of the Office of Readings. How true and how beautiful it is. Our thoughts are formed in one Truth and so we are brought together in Christ in our thinking — and by extension in our doing and in our being.
    Another type of unifying aspect I find in praying the Pater Noster. These Latin words are so familiar to so many great saints over so many generations that I find a mystical formation in praying them.

  • Alicia

    Excellent article Fr. Bramwell.
    The problem with the younger generation is that schools are teaching ‘ what to think ‘ instead of ‘ to think ‘.
    “Wait teacher, this is difficult, you have to think ” is an answer I frequently got from students, most of them in their early and mid twenties. Usually, a few of them would look up ,and agree “Yes, you have to think, wait ” Unbelievable !!!
    Well, I’d agree and tell them those little grey cells got rusty if they didn’t use them. The few smart ones would look at me sideways and smile.
    They don’t want to be bothered. They just click and get all their answers from google and their ideas and opinions (beliefs) from TV, movies, internet. Books? Reading? No time, too busy ! Doing what? Clicking !!
    They just go with the flow and aren’t even aware of their ignorance in many, many topics. The scary thing is that they can vote, protest, and shout ‘ their opinions ‘ with no idea of what they are talking about or arguments to back their ‘opinions ‘. It’s so frustrating. It’s like going against a tsunami.
    We must pray frequently for them and ourselves. Rosaries, lots of them because we need Our Lady’s and God’s help.
    Thank you for an excellent article.

    • Sheila

      Excellent reply. Yes, and “if” the uninformed go to the polls to vote….they could be just be a click away from disaster. And not just in an academic setting, how about all the pew warmers in our churches? Many do not know their faith and vote for evil in our country. We all need a wake up call of one sort or another. More Rosary Crusades…every day!

  • kathleen

    It took me almost 20 years to appreciate the Liturgy of the Hours. I particularly appreciate the Office of Readings. So much to learn and appreciate. I know my day goes so much better when I take the time early in the morning to pray the Divine Office. I still miss sometimes, but not so often. Truly a grace from God. Thank you for your fine article and reminder of the richness of our Catholic Faith.

  • James

    My favorite “hour” of all. Thank you for highlighting it.

  • Richard A

    I’ve been praying the Office of Readings daily for 12 years, and I love it. Like Nancy Lynne, I use the Universalis app, though, so apologies to Fr. Bramwell, I’m still staring at my digital device.

  • N. W. Flitcraft

    The Officium Lectionis is usually the only office I do every day. My understanding is that many clergy neglect this office, simply doing Lauds and Vespers; but I think the Lectionis is crucial for keeping track of the “movements” of the Church’s mind. There is one terminological correction I feel I must point out: “perception” is what happens when the mind receives and constitutes what is real, and so what you are calling “perception” cannot, in fact, actually happen. I think the more accurate term would be “conception” or “preconception.” Modern thought tends to obfuscate human consciousness by making it in to a kind of Idea Jar, whereas in reality the mind can only discover itself in the presence and/or identification of intelligible objects — and these, precisely, what what we “perceive”; i.e., one cannot be said to be “perceiving” when the mind is directed at an unreal or false object.

  • Lisa Vigliotta

    This is the best concise explanation of the DO I’ve read. Thank you.

  • Bernadette

    I loved this article! Thank you father.

  • John Byrnes

    In app form, see the Liturgy of the Hours
    via the amazing Catholic Mega App or
    via the praiseworthy Daily Catholic App.
    Both of which are totally free.
    By the way, I will give a slight edge to the
    Catholic Mega App.
    Another interesting app is the one called
    The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) On-
    Line (Anglican/Episcopalian). Good stuff
    here.