Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office
The official prayer of the Roman Catholic Church is known as Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office. The roots of this prayer are found in early Jewish worship before the time of Christ. Jesus and his disciples used this form of prayer. It was carried over into the worship of the early Christian Church and continues in an unbroken tradition down to our own day.
In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, the Liturgy of the Hours was the prayer of all the people, clergy and laity. For many reasons however, over the centuries the Liturgy became the particular prayer of the clergy, the nuns, and the monks. Today, the resurgence of the Liturgy of the Hours among the laity is one of the blessings flowing from the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.
We at St. Clare’s strive to celebrate each hour as close to its proper time as we are able. In this manner we consecrate to God the cycle of night and day, the liturgical seasons, and all of our life and activity. We find that the Liturgy of the Hours is an important way to strive for unceasing prayer, mindfulness of God and the experience of being transformed in Christ.
In the following paragraphs, we have written a brief explanation of the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office.
Vigils, or “watching in the night” is celebrated in the middle of the night. We meditate on salvation history as it unfolded down through the ages. The office of Vigils consists of a hymn, psalms, scripture, patristic readings, and canticles suitable to the spirit of this office. This time of watching is inspired by Matthew 25:6, and Mark 13:35 when one awaits the arrival of the Bridegroom. In monastic communities, the concentration of vigilance begins with this office and continues until the next office of Lauds. Monastics spend this time enveloped in and supported by darkness and silence. It is a time for lectio divina, prayer, and meditation.
Lauds is celebrated at daybreak when the sun dispels the night and the new day is born. The Church has always considered the sun to be a symbol of Christ rising from the dead. This prayer is called “Lauds” because it is a laudatory liturgy of praise in the early morning light. We thank God for the first light at the beginning of creation and for the second light of our redemption in Christ’s paschal victory. It is a joyful, optimistic hour reflected by the hymn, the psalms, and the canticles.
Midday prayer, takes place about noon when the sun has reached its highest point in the sky. This is often a time when we feel a bit weary, and mindfulness is all but impossible. It is a time when we pray to resist temptation and to keep from being overcome by the demands and pressures of life. We are reminded that Christ was crucified at the sixth hour, and we seek to unite ourselves with Him. We are aware of our failures and mistakes and pray for our deep and abiding conversion even to the point of sacrifice.
Vespers, celebrated at day’s end, takes on the character of evening. Its name is from a bright star, the planet Venus, seen in the western sky soon after sunset. The day is almost over, and our work is done. This is the hour when we review the day’s activities and rest in thanksgiving and humility after the struggles, successes and failures of the day and of a productive life.
Compline comes from the Latin which means “to complete”. It is the last prayer before retiring for the night. We pray it privately. It marks the completion of our day and heralds life’s end. It leads back into the darkness of the night. This is the darkness of God’s mysterious presence, the abyss of mercy into which God lets us fall. Compline may be understood as a daily exercise in the art of dying. For what is sleep if not a little rehearsal for death? But it is a death that ends in the fullness of life and light. The core of this hour is the song of old Simeon on the threshold of death:
“Now Lord, you will let your servant go in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your saving deed which you have set before all: a light
for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory to your people Israel”