Everyone knows that monks devote their lives to silence, but also to daily prayer and chanting. Monastic prayer occurs at fixed-hours throughout the day. The rota of Psalms, canticles, scripture readings, antiphons and other prayers that incorporate this daily liturgy is known as the Divine Office (or the Daily Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours).
Praying the Divine Office is central to monastic life, but even those of us who aren’t monks may find that this type of prayer is an essential part of our spiritual practice.
But it’s a huge commitment and many people might find it daunting to pray even part of the Divine Office on a regular basis.
If you’ve read Befriending Silence, then you know that I have a tempestuous relationship with daily prayer. In chapter 7, I make the following confession:
When I first became a Lay Cistercian, I struggled with the liturgy… My life was too busy, too unstructured, too freeform, and too spontaneous for me to be bothered by something like daily prayers. Or so I rationalized it to myself. I muddled along, praying from time to time and justified to myself all the days that I didn’t manage to pray.
In the book, I go on to talk about how forming a friendship with a devout Muslim, who prays five times every day, inspired me to take the Divine Office more seriously. I wish I could say that I am now a model practitioner of daily prayer, but the truth is, I still struggle with it.
Recently I met with one of the monks who guides our Lay Cistercian community, and we talked about the liturgy. He asked me why I find the Divine Office worth praying. Just off the top of my head, I came up with four reasons, and as I reflected on it, I thought of three more. So I thought I would share them with you.
If you pray the Divine Office, perhaps this will be inspiration to carry on. If you don’t yet pray it, or need encouragement to begin or (like me) to strengthen your commitment to regular prayer, then I hope the following reasons will be a help for you.
- The Divine Office provides us with a language for prayer. Sometimes it’s hard to find the words for prayer. But in the Liturgy of the Hours we have access to wisdom that stretches back to before the time of Jesus. The Psalms, canticles, and other passages from scripture form the bulk of the Daily Office; in many ways, it is the Bible at prayer. But the liturgy also contains many other prayers that convey a range of feelings and concerns — it is a rich and nuanced vocabulary for prayer, that will deepen your ability to communicate with God throughout the day.
- The Divine Office teaches us who God is, who the Church is, and who we are. What’s interesting about the liturgy is that not all parts of it are addressed to God — some of it (for example, the canticles of Zechariah and Mary) is language about God. But it’s still prayer — because prayer is more than just us talking to God, it’s God speaking to us. And throughout the liturgy, we encounter insight into God’s personality and character — along with similar insights into what it means to be human in relationship with God, whether as individuals or as a community.
- The Divine Office forms our identity as members of the Body of Christ. The liturgy does more than just describe who God is, and who we are. It also guides us to become who God wants us to be. Our faith is clear: we are created in God’s image and likeness, but we often behave in ways that fail to live up to who God calls us to be. We need guidance to be the people we are meant to be. The wisdom abounding in the Office shows us the path God calls us to follow. It’s not magic: we still need to respond to God’s call to become holy. But the liturgy is a trustworthy map.
- The Divine Office helps us to pray at a level deeper than our feelings or experience. The liturgy is a daily commitment, not a “when you feel like it” commitment. It is meant to be offered to God on a regular basis, no matter what kind of mood you’re in or what’s going on in your mind. In that sense it is like marriage: a commitment of love, understanding that true love runs deeper than the emotions that ebb and flow from day to day or season to season. And while it is hard to keep praying during dry seasons or times of emotional turmoil, doing so is a powerful way to deepen your faith.
- The Divine Office teaches us humility, obedience, fidelity, and patience. This is the other side of the previous point. We pray on a regular, daily basis, not because our mercurial emotions tell us to, but rather because we want to be faithful to God, obedient to God’s word, and committed to a trusting relationship with God built on eternal values like humility and patience. These are values at the heart of Christian spirituality — even if they are not always held in high esteem by our secular culture. But when we grow in these authentic values, we conform more fully to the image and likeness of the God who created us.
- The Divine Office helps us to grow in intimacy with God. I’ve compared the liturgy to marriage, and it’s an appropriate analogy, because like marriage, the Daily Office is all about love. Too often we get unhelpful messages about God, not only from secular society but even sometimes from the Church. Too many of us have images of God that emphasize anger over love, judgment over mercy, sternness over tenderness. Yes, God is holy and just, that is true. But God is Love — and the promise of spirituality is to discover that Love and to become one with it. The Divine Office calls us to that graced discovery.
- The Divine Office reminds us that every day is a place where we can touch eternity. I experience the liturgy in many different ways: sometimes it inspires me, sometimes it encourages me, and frankly, sometimes I argue with it or chafe against it. All this is okay. The liturgy speaks to us in the glorious complexity of our humanity, which means we will react to it in a variety of ways. But what is always part of the Divine Office is its orientation toward eternity: it is an invitation to see God, and life, and humanity, from the vantage point of heaven rather than just earth. It reminds us that communion with God isn’t just something that happens on Sundays or at churches or monasteries. The healing and life-transfiguring power of intimacy with God can touch (and transform) our lives at all times and in all places. The very regular, ordinary, dailiness of the liturgy helps us to keep this in mind.
I hope you find this list helpful — and may it be encouragement and inspiration for you as you continue your journey deeper into the heart of God.
Can you think of other reasons why it’s a blessing to pray the Divine Office? If so, please share your thoughts with me, either in a comment below this post or on social media. Thanks!