Is the Liturgy of the Hours a Required Practice for Christian Contemplatives Today?

A reader writes,

I’ve been leaning into a contemplative way of life for a couple of decades now… I’ve settled down into a daily pattern of Examen, Lectio Divina, and Centering Prayer.
Along this way, I’ve used Daily Office or Liturgy of the Hours. But I moved on, as they were “busy” and “noisy.” Every now and then, especially when I’m on a multi-day silent retreat, they feel appropriate. But not during my normal daily life. (I’m a parish pastor. And I appreciate a devotional pattern outside my work of the Sunday lectionary!) My current pattern of Examen, Lectio, and Centering Prayer continues to “work” for/on me. Yet, I periodically wonder if I should also practice the Daily Office? As a discernment pondering, I wonder if this is an escapist diversion or a calling. And I wonder if the Daily Office is especially appropriate for the First Half of the Christian journey, as Richard Rohr puts it, providing a grounding for the Second Half, which becomes quieter?
This in an open question for me. What are your reflections?

It’s a great question, and of course there is no one right answer.

Many monastic or cloistered writers, such as Teresa of Ávila, suggest that praying the Divine Office — also known as the Daily Office or the Liturgy of the Hours — should remain a central part of a person’s spirituality throughout their lifespan, even if they become dedicated contemplatives who devote significant time to silence. The Office is meant to be formative — the words, the rhythm and cadences, and the practice of slow/mindful praying, all help to shape a contemplative spirit in the heart of the person doing the praying.

Catholic priests, deacons, or members of religious orders or congregations have a commitment to pray the daily liturgy, either communally or privately (individually) that is mandated by their diocese or religious community. But once you get outside the Catholic or monastic worlds, then the liturgy is simply a devotional practice, and not a part of one’s vowed religious identity.

From this we can discern a couple of useful principles. First, that the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours has as much meaning in terms of community identity and belonging as it relates to fostering a deeper relationship with God. In other words, if I as a Lay Cistercian pray the office every day, I have two reasons to do so: first, because it nurtures my relationship with God, but second (and I would argue just as important) it helps to strengthen my bond with the Lay Cistercian community — and by extension with Cistercians and other monastics the world over.

This is similar to how Muslims pray five times a day — specific prayers that Muslims memorize and recite, whether alone or in a group, as an ongoing expression of their identity as Muslims. So when a Muslim prays, he or she is doing it not only as an expression of devotion to Allah, but also as an expression of shared identity with Muslims the world over.

But the second principle we can discern is this: when it comes to devotional practices, we must recognize that tremendous diversity can be found within the Christian family. You mention the Examen, Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer and the Divine Office. But other options exists, from Ignatian prayer, to the Rosary, to the Labyrinth, the Jesus Prayer, charismatic prayer, fasting, and then such things as art-as-prayer, service-as-prayer, that sort of thing.

There really is no consensus as to what constitutes the “gold standard” of Christian spiritual practice.

That problem is not unique to Christianity. If you want to explore Buddhism, your experience will be very different based on whether you affiliate with insight meditation (Hinayana), zen (Mahayana) or Tibetan (Vajrayana) practices. Communities in each of these three “vehicles” have different cultures, different practices, and different philosophies. And even within the same basic “faction” you’ll find diversity: the Nyingma, Gelug, and Kadampa “schools” all approach the dharma in different (and to some extent contradictory) ways.

So. What to do, then? Pray the Divine Office or not? How can one decide? For while the author of my question reports that he finds the office “busy” and “noisy,” could that just be his resistance, and not a meaningful assessment of the practice? In other words, any practice we undertake, sooner or later we will resist — because authentic spiritual practices tend to undermine narcissistic and egoic strategies of control; and when the ego feels its control is being threatened, it doesn’t go down without a fight!

But you can just as easily frame this question another way: am I resisting a practice because it’s not a helpful practice (at least, not for me), or am I resisting the practice precisely because it is helpful, but therefore I find it threatening on an egoic level?

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash.

Once again: there is no one right answer.

I think this question points not so much to the importance of the Liturgy of the Hours per se, as it shows us how essential it is to work with a spiritual director. Remember, it seems pretty obvious that the value and meaning of the Liturgy is found in community. Even my reader acknowledged that he still found the liturgy meaningful when on a retreat (and, presumably, his prayer is part of a larger praying community). For anyone who is not a life-professed member of a religious order or congregation, community is something that they must foster for themselves. For most Christians, the simplest way to form a meaningful community of prayer is to engage in an ongoing discipline of meeting with a spiritual director.

Thus, the question “Should I pray the Divine Office or not?” is best answered in a shared discernment process, with one’s spiritual director. So even a “community of two” might find the Liturgy really important as a way to prayerfully be united to one another, on the days between meetings.

This implies, of course, that both the directee and the director are engaging in a similar (or the same) discipline. In other words, I don’t think it makes sense for a spiritual director to insist that his or directees recite the liturgy, unless he/she is doing it as well.

Does this mean you shouldn’t pray the Liturgy if your spiritual director doesn’t? Not necessarily, for we are always free to go “above and beyond” what our personal rule of life mandates. Like I said, the Liturgy has tremendous devotional value. But if someone is praying it strictly as a personal devotional practice, I think he or she should still discuss it with his or her spiritual director. It is too easy to become obsessive/compulsive about a practice like the Daily Office. Maybe that’s a bit of the “noisy” or “busy” vibe that my reader was picking up on. Praying the Daily Office because one feels that one should or must pray it can be a short path to the liturgy being less about prayer and more about a ritualistic behavior designed to assuage anxiety or bolster one’s ego — precisely the opposite intent of the actual liturgy.

So, in a nutshell: I think the Liturgy of the Hour is a treasure for Christians. I think its beauty and power is truly discovered when it is prayed in community. For Christians who have a formal relationship with a monastic or religious community, following the community’s rule is simply what one does. But for those without that kind of a formal community, a “community” must be formed in order to meaningfully pray the Liturgy, and the easiest way to form such a community (of 2) is through spiritual direction. So one is only “obligated” to pray the liturgy if it is an agreed-upon practice shared by both director and directee. Otherwise, it can be used as a private devotional practice (or not) — but if a person prays it devotionally, he or she should take care to make sure that they are motivated by a genuine desire to grow in prayer, and not by a more compulsive motivation (like “I’m doing this because I should do so.”)

I hope this helps!

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Very helpful. I especially appreciated the opening paragraph. “Many monastic or cloistered writers, such as Teresa of Ávila, suggest that praying the Divine Office — also known as the Daily Office or the Liturgy of the Hours — should remain a central part of a person’s spirituality throughout their lifespan, even if they become dedicated contemplatives who devote significant time to silence. The Office is meant to be formative — the words, the rhythm and cadences, and the practice of slow/mindful praying, all help to shape a contemplative spirit in the heart of the person doing the praying.” That answers it for me! Pax et Bonum.

  2. Timothy Gallagher’s “Praying the Liturgy of the Hours” captures well the lows and highs of being committed to praying the Divine Office. Here is the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on!

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