Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Each morning at 5:00 AM, I rise and plop down upon the couch in my living room to greet the new day. My deepest desire at the time is to consume a cup of coffee and to gaze mindlessly at the television as I recover from slumber. Yet, more often than not, I pass by this temptation to spend the morning “doing” the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer (with a cup of coffee in hand, of course). Before 5:30 AM comes around, I have acknowledged to God the sin that I am responsible for; I have asked God to let me hear the voice of the Lord thundering over the mountains; I have lamented the sorrows that inflict not only me but the entire People of God; and, I have praised God for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’s recreation of the world.
The gift of the Liturgy of the Hours as a daily practice is that the Christian is schooled in the fullness of the spiritual life as we meditate morning after morning, night after night upon the Psalms. And these Psalms are given to us. We do not get to choose which ones we pray. We do not simply praise God with timbrel and harp but must also acknowledge our deep woundedness, the injustice of the world, and the sorrow that comes with hearing only silence in the midst of our prayer to God. If I could create my own personal ordo of Psalms that I would pray each morning, I would avoid anything that could be construed as “negative.” I would sip my coffee in peace and sing to God a new song but never acknowledge the depths of mercy that I need in order to love God and neighbor alike. Yet, the Church’s construction of the Liturgy of the Hours is wiser than my personal ordo. It is a school of prayer.
And when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, it should be noted that this action is never simply about the individual Christian offering his or her prayers to God. The General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours notes that praying each morning with the Church is never a private act:
There is a special and very close bond between Christ and those whom he makes members of his Body, the Church, through the sacrament of rebirth. Thus, from the Head all the riches belonging to the Son flow throughout the whole Body: the communication of the Spirit, the truth, the life, and the participation in the divine sonship that Christ manifested in all his prayer when he dwelt among us.
Christ’s priesthood is also shared by the whole Body of the Church, so that the baptized are consecrated as a spiritual temple and holy priesthood through the rebirth of baptism and the anointing by the Holy Spirit and are empowered to offer the worship of the New Covenant, a worship that derives not from our own powers but from Christ’s merit and gift.
“God could give us no greater gift than to establish as our Head the Word through whom he created all things and to unite us to that Head as members. The results are many The Head is Son of God and Son of Man, one as God with the Father and one as man with us. When we speak in prayer to the Father, we do not separate the Son from him and when the Son’s Body prays it does not separate itself from its Head. It is the one Savior of his Body, the Lord Christ Jesus, who prays for us and in us and who is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest, in us as our Head; he is prayed to by us as our God. Recognize therefore our own voice in him and his voice in us.”
The excellence of Christian prayer lies in its sharing in the reverent love of the only-begotten Son for the Father and in the prayer that the Son put into words in his earthly life and that still continues without ceasing in the name of the whole human race and for its salvation, throughout the universal Church and in all its members (7).
In other words, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is never private prayer. To pray these Psalms and intercessions day after day is to join our voice to Jesus Christ’s continual prayer of praise and lament to the Father. For Christ’s voice still calls out to the Father through the Church. Jesus knows our sorrows, our joys. He knows the suffering of a world where many are forced into migration because of the injustice enacted by political regimes. He knows the sorrows of those who experience radical loneliness, who cry out for God’s help but hear nothing; a nothingness that becomes a taunt. Jesus Christ knows the fullness of the human condition. And through our praying the Psalms within the context of the Church’s prayer, we let his voice resound in our own, offering to the Father a sacrifice of sorrow and praise for the world.
Praying the Liturgy of the Hours each morning is, thus, not ultimately about the development of my individual religious life. Rather, it is an occasion to exercise my baptismal vocation to let Christ’s voice echo throughout the world.
It is to become aware, in praying a Psalm of Lament, that there are fathers and mothers in the world, who have to look upon the body of their child, who drowned while trying to escape from the horrors of a war that no one deserves but those in power feel necessary; it is to take up the voice of my student, who is experiencing deep homesickness and loneliness, afraid that he or she will never find a trustworthy friend; it is to make my own the fear of a colleague, diagnosed with cancer; it is to consider those fathers and mothers, who have made a decision to have an abortion and now deal with the painful consequences on a daily basis; it is to cry out to God in the voice of all those who are denied even the most basic forms of human dignity; it is to recognize my own callousness in the midst of these sorrows, the sin of indifference that becomes my bread. Lord, rouse up your might and come to our help.
To pray these Hours each day, therefore, is to enter not simply into a school of prayer but a school of divine solidarity. For God has taken up in Jesus Christ, the Son, the fullness of the human condition. And even now, the mercy of the Incarnation continues as our voice becomes the voice of the Son.
Of course, the consequence of praying the Liturgy of the Hours is that we must learn to love the world aright. Hans urs von Balthasar notes again and again in his theological aesthetics that the purpose of the Christian life is not “delight” in beauty. It is discipleship. If we are to give our voice over to the sorrows of our brothers and sisters, then we must also give our bodies to their plight. We must care for the sick. We must cry out to those in power to come to the aid of those on the margins. We must go to the margins ourselves, letting the words that we pray echo now in our commitment to love aright. The Liturgy of the Hours invites us not simply to “imagine” solidarity but to practice it on a daily basis.
For each day, we are invited again and again to hear the voice of the Lord, to refuse to let our hearts be hardened. And to enter into radical relationship, through Jesus Christ, to all those who share with us the humanity of the Son.