From the earliest days of the Church, following Jewish forms of prayer in the Temple and synagogues, Christians have attempted to sanctify the day by set hours of prayer. St. Luke records this practice in the Acts of the Apostles. This form of prayer has gone by many names throughout the centuries: the Divine Office (meaning, a divine “obligation”), Liturgy of the Hours, the Breviary (i.e., an “abbreviated” monastic service).
Clergy and Religious are “bound” to the faithful recitation of this consecration of the day; their performance of this “duty” or “obligation” is also an encouragement of the laity to enter into the prayerful sanctification of the day to the extent their state in life permits.
Nearly every pope of the modern era has modified the structure of the Divine Office in one way or another. In its current form, we have the following “hours” (which are not 60-minute periods but “times”): the Office of Readings (Matins), Lauds (Morning Prayer), Midday Prayer, Vespers (Evening Prayer), Compline (Night Prayer).
Sacred Scripture (especially the Psalms) provides the “meat and potatoes” of the Hours. The Office of Readings contains a long reading from the Bible, followed by a passage of relatively equal length from an ecclesiastical source, most often from one of the Fathers of the Church. Lauds, Vespers, and Compline are beautified by three canticles from the Gospel of Luke: the Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis. Lauds and Vespers include a series of petitions for the Church and the world.
As a boy, I was introduced to the so-called “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” a truncated version of the “real thing,” most often prayed by Religious who were not sufficiently proficient in Latin. However, it launched me on a lifelong love affair with the Divine Office.
In the United States, the “ethnic” or “national” parishes often celebrated Sunday Vespers and Benediction for the people. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, made a strong appeal for the laity to pray the Divine Office – at least Sunday Vespers. Ironically, that appeal of the Council Fathers, somehow or other, resulted in the near-total abandonment of Sunday Vespers.
Happily, in recent years, there has been an attempt to restore at least Lauds and Vespers in many parishes. There are many versions of the Liturgy of the Hours available, in Latin and English alike. You can find online a volume that best suits your circumstances; but whatever those circumstances you should make an effort – and commitment – to pray these traditional hours as possible.
Toward that end, I want to provide an introduction and guide to the Psalter, which is prayed in the course of a month in the current configuration.
The 150 psalms in the Old Testament are collectively known as the Psalter, which has often been referred to as “the hymnal of Israel,” originating in the Temple and oriented to it. The Psalter is likewise the hymnal of the Church: it provides the heart of the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as texts for the antiphons to accompany the entrance, offertory, and communion processions of the Mass – as well as the responsorial psalm and gospel acclamation.
Some of these poem-hymns excel in insight, grace, and diction; others, less so. All of them, however, invite one who prays them to plumb the depths of human emotions, ranging from ecstatic joy to subhuman anger to humble contrition.
The name of King David is associated with the psalms; he is surely the direct author of some of these works and the promoter of many more. Needless to say, the ultimate Author of the psalms (as of all Sacred Scripture) is the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, we must appreciate the humanitas, creativity, and genius of the sacred authors whom Almighty God used. Further, if we adopt the worldview of these sacred authors, we can truly pray with them.
In his commentary on Psalm 85, St. Augustine teaches us that, in the Psalter, the totus Christus prays, that is, the Church in her Head (Christ) and in us (her members). In his inimitable style, he remarks: “[Christ] prays for us as our priest, He prays in us as our head, He is the object of our prayers as our God.”
St. Jerome, the quintessential biblical scholar was asked by Laeta, one of the many women to whom he gave spiritual direction, where she should begin when embarking upon a prayerful reading of Holy Scripture; without a moment’s hesitation, Jerome pointed her to the Psalter. For therein, he said, she would not only study Scripture, but she would learn to pray.
In truth, prayer is pure and perfect when we no longer realize we are praying. It is important to note at the outset that the Psalter is not a text in dogmatic or moral theology although such elements are clearly present. The Psalter is a collection of poems of unparalleled simplicity and – on that very score – universality; their meaning needs to be uncovered through prayerful reflection with the goal of shutting out all distractions, so as to fill our minds and hearts with the thoughts and sentiments of the psalmist, entering into his experience of our God.
Thus, we hear St. Augustine reflect in his Confessions: “If the psalm prays, you pray; if it laments, you lament; if it exults, you rejoice; if it hopes, you hope; if it fears, you fear. Everything written here is a mirror for us.” Not surprisingly, the Doctor of Grace preached on the psalms for twenty-six years, giving us an invaluable contribution: Expositions on the Psalms.
Yet another powerful incentive to make these prayer-songs our own is the realization that they formed the heart of the prayer of Christ Himself, as well as that of the apostolic community, of which we have abundant evidence from the New Testament. Indeed, Our Lord’s final words from the pulpit of His Cross come from the psalms.
Here’s the plea of Fathers of Vatican II in Sacrosanctum Concilium:
Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually. (n. 100)
Take to heart that invitation, hearing in it an echo of St. Paul’s urging: “Pray constantly.” (1 Th 5:17).