One of the New Testament’s best pieces of advice, written by Saint Paul to help the small community in Thessalonika, was to “pray without ceasing.”
Through the centuries since that letter was written, the Church has taken the advice very much to heart, and the result was what we might call the Church’s prayer schedule, sometimes referred to as the daily office (from the Latin officium divinum or divine service), the opus dei (work of God), the liturgy of the hours, or the canonical hours. Whatever it’s called, its goal is to divide the measuring of our days and nights into prescribed times of prayer so that we never stray completely away from the presence and closeness of God.
Where did it come from?
The pattern of worship in the early church was, predictably, influenced by its members’ Jewish heritage, which recognized three times of daily corporate prayer—morning, afternoon, and evening. The Didache, the earliest extant Church manual, takes up that pattern and urges Christians to recite the Our Father three times a day. “We should do in order everything that the Lord commanded us to do at set times,” said Clement of Rome. “He has ordered oblations and services to be accomplished, and not by chance and in disorderly fashion but at set times and hours.” Both Clement of Alexandria and Origen refer to prayer three times a day; Tertullian, Cyprian, and Hippolytus urge people to pray even more frequently than that. By the fourth century, many churches offered daily morning and evening prayers, and regular attendance was expected.
Different practices for different vocations
But by the fourth century the Church’s prayer life also seems to have split along vocational lines—between secular Christians and those living in monasteries.
The secular times of prayer, known as the “cathedral office” (i.e., taking place in the parish church or cathedral), comprised morning and evening prayer with additional admonitions to pray privately at midday. This was largely a matter of convenience: people needed to work during the day.
Some Christians felt that the apostolic teaching to “pray without ceasing” ought to be taken literally. While Christian spirituality emphasized prayer as intrinsic to one's life and work, the monastic movement emphasized prayer as one's life and work. In order to effect this ideal, people withdrew from the world into intentional communities, with corporate prayer times bringing them together throughout the day and night to perform what St. Benedict would later call the “opus Dei”—the work of God, or monastic office.
There was some variation in the pattern of the daily monastic office, particularly between the East and the West, but it generally included Matins (the night office); Lauds (at dawn); Prime (morning office, often associated with daily Mass); Terce; Sext (noonday office); None (afternoon office: the ninth hour); Vespers (evening prayer); and Compline (at bedtime).
There are communities that continue to follow these prayer patterns, while active orders have adapted them to their situations and needs—as have the majority of people who with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and urbanization lost the rural rhythms that permitted regular corporate prayer and yet still want to do what they can to “pray without ceasing.”
What are the differences between the different office prayers?
Let’s look at what a non-monastic person might take on as their daily office: morning, noon, and evening prayer. Just as prayer assumes a number of forms—petitions, intercessions, thanksgivings, praise—so too particular times of the day require particular prayer attitudes.
Morning prayer is alert, focused, and sometimes didactic; it contains longer readings—and more of them. When engaged in commonly, it might include a brief sermon or homily.
Noonday prayer has traditionally focused on the passion of Christ and the conversion of Paul, with appropriate scripture readings and prayers.
Evening prayer is more introspective, focusing on preparing the soul to go to sleep; quieter and less lengthy, it allows for meditation and repentance. Since the fourth century, evening prayer has included what’s known as the “lamplighting” canticle, the Phos hilaron:
O gracious Light,
Pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.
Losing the daily office
As time passed, the daily office became to most of us “what those in religious life do,” not what the ordinary Catholic does. Many Catholics today pray only when they’re at Mass on Sundays. Others may say blessings at meals or pray with their children at bedtime; but for many of us, that’s about it. We’ve lost that constant sense of being in the presence of the Living God that our ancestors in the faith considered so important.
And think about what we’ve lost in the process.
We’ve lost, first and foremost, an ongoing, daily connection with God, that sense of always being in the Lord’s presence. Humans are creatures of habit: when we’re not in the habit of praying without ceasing, we’re far more likely to lose our focus and drift away from our anchor in God.
We’ve also lost the people that we were: our tradition. We are all the product of our collective pasts, and the people of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the people of the early Church and the medieval Church—these are all who we are, too. In losing the daily office, we’ve lost touch with our roots in the Christian tradition.
In the same way, allowing ourselves access once again to traditions of prayer permits access to our deepest selves.
How to recover the daily office
But how do we go about recovering the daily office in our lives?
The Church urges us to recover the practice; the Office of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship notes that “(f)rom ancient times the Church has had the custom of celebrating each day the liturgy of the hours. In this way the Church fulfills the Lord’s precept to pray without ceasing, at once offering its praise to God the Father and interceding for the salvation of the world.”
I’m not suggesting that we can keep all of the canonical hours; we’ll run into the same problems that the old “cathedral” office sought to remedy—the need to work, to run businesses and households. As much as we may wish to, most of us can’t be running off to church several times a day.
Still, it’s possible to start the day with God, and to end it with God, and perhaps to remember at some point in the middle of the day who it is that gave you the time and space you’re living in.
And once you start doing that, a strange thing happens: you start seeing the whole of your life—your time, your family, your possessions, your friends, your work—as being part of a greater context. Recovering the daily office in your life means recovering holiness, the sanctity of daily life. And all the things that you used to see as distractions, annoyances, and drudgery become infused with the sacredness of God.
God has asked you to live in this world. To sanctify it somehow. To make of all the petty things, the annoyances, an offering of love. And how better to make that offering than in regular prayer times with him?
How do we pray?
A typical office (prayer time) might incorporate the following:
- Opening versicles
- Confession of sin (especially appropriate if this is an evening office)
- Versicle and response
- Scripture reading
- Our Father
- Intercessory prayer
- Concluding sentences
This may still be too lengthy, and can be shortened to simply include prayers, scripture readings, and psalms.
Recovering the use of the daily office not only puts us into contact with our collective past, but also leads us into closer contact with our own faith community. Sunday mass is normative and creates community, just as any repetitive action does, but daily corporate prayer enhances that sense of community on a more intimate level.
Individual daily prayer is important in terms of individual faith journeys; corporate daily prayer is just as important in terms of corporate faith journeys. So take the time to put the daily office back into your individual life, and pray with others whenever you can. Start an evening prayer group, or get together with coworkers for the morning office before your day in your office begins.
This is, in fact, what the community of faith is all about. And recovering the daily office will enrich your spiritual life—and that of those around you—until you’ll wonder how you ever lived without, as the apostle said, praying without ceasing.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir