Why say the Divine Office?

St Benedict devotes a large chunk of his Rule to setting out the structure of the Divine Office that he describes several times as the monk's service to God. He describes the Office as 'the work of God' (Opus Dei), and tells his monks to let nothing be preferred to it. But the Rule is largely silent on just why he regarded the Office as so important.

Fortunately for us, many have reflected on this priority down the centuries, and we can benefit from their reflections.

We are made to worship God

An obvious starting point is to remember that we were all created to know, love and serve God - and above all, as the first commandment reminds us, to worship him. No Christian is exempt from the duty of worship, and there is no better form for worship than the public liturgy of the Church, which includes the Divine Office.

The Divine Office is  part of the formal worship of the Church, just like the Mass and sacraments.   One of the positive fruits of Vatican II, though, the 1983 Code of Canon Law was to make it clear that laypeople can pray the Office liturgically not only when they are present when it is said by monks, nuns or priests, but also when praying by themselves.  Under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, priests and religious are required to say some form of the Divine Office, and laypeople are 'earnestly invited' to participate in the Office as an action of the Church.

The efficacy of the liturgy

This a wonderful privilege.  All forms of prayer can be good and effective.  But liturgical prayer has a higher status than other forms of prayer because:

  • it is not our prayer, but prayer made in through and with Christ our high priest, in effect his action, not ours;
  • it unifies us with each other, the saints and angels.,  Through it we participate in the worship in heaven; and
  • it is more effective than any other form of prayer, even the rosary.
Dom Fernard Cabrol, first abbot of Farnborough, writing in 1915, explains it this way:
Private prayer has a personal value, varying according to the degree of faith, fervour, and holiness of he who prays.  The Church's prayer has always, in itself, and independently of the person praying, an absolute value.  It is a formula composed by the Church, and carrying with it her authority...Liturgical prayer is superior to all others not only because it is the Church's prayer but also because of the elements of which is composed...this prayer holds the first rank on account of its efficacy, or the effects it produces in the soul. (Introduction to Day Hours of the Church, vol 1)
The importance and value St Benedict placed on the Office is still upheld by the Church today, at least on paper. The 1983 Code of Canon Law for example says:
In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church, hearing God speaking to his people and recalling the mystery of salvation, praises him without ceasing by song and prayer and intercedes for the salvation of the whole world. 

Orienting us to heaven

Perhaps the most important function of the Office is that it orients us to heaven where we will participate in the unending heavenly liturgy. St Benedict reminds his monks that when they say the Office they should be particularly conscious of God's presence when saying the Office, and that we are singing in the presence of the angels.

Pope Benedict XVI has said, speaking to the monks of Heiligenkreuz Abbey, that:

Your primary service to this world must therefore be your prayer and the celebration of the divine Office. The interior disposition of each priest, and of each consecrated person, must be that of “putting nothing before the divine Office”. The beauty of this inner attitude will find expression in the beauty of the liturgy, so that wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centred on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity.

Pray without ceasing!

In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, St Paul urges all Christians to 'pray without ceasing'. We can make this a reality in two ways: firstly by actually praying, and secondly, by sanctifying all of our other actions through prayer. The Office, with its eight 'hours' interspersed through the day and night, provides a framework for this unceasing prayer, sanctifying the day, constantly calling us back to prayer, and feeding our contemplation at other times.

Participating in the liturgy of the hours

The privilege of saying the Office liturgically carries obligations with it.  We can't just make it up as we go along, and muddle through.  We have to make an effort to do it correctly, lest we be guilty of liturgical abuse.

If you actually attend the Office in a monastery, even if you don't say anything, you are participating it in it just by listening, hopefully reverently and actively.

On the other hand, just watching a video, or listening to a podcast doesn't mean that we are praying liturgically. It is really no different to watching Mass at home on television - watching or listening to Mass online is a good thing to do, but it is a devotional activity, not the same thing as actually participating in the liturgy.

But if you actually want to say the Divine Office - and hopefully we all do - we need to keep in mind the seriousness and importance of what we are doing.

Because the Office is liturgy, to pray it properly we need to participate actively in it.  One way of doing give it three types of attention:
  • attention to God - putting ourselves in his presence first of all with our bodies.  The Office uses gestures and other ritual actions to remind us of our proper relationship to God and what we are doing, such as standing, kneeling, making the sign of the cross. This can be summarised as 'do the red' instructions in the Diurnal;
  • the second is to the words - pronounce and sing the right words correctly - 'say the black';
  • the third is to pay attention to the sense of the words - bringing our mind and souls into God's presence through them.

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