Saturday, October 8, 2011

How do you choose which form of the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours to say? Part I - Introduction


c15th book of hours

Many people become interested at one point or another, in saying some or all of the Divine Office (aka Liturgy of the Hours). 

And rightly so, since it is an important part of the patrimony of our faith, a continuous tradition of prayer that reaches back to the earliest years of Christianity, and provides access to the great prayerbook of the Church, the psalms.

But which one?

When you start looking for books or websites to aid you though, there are a bewildering array of options to choose from. And as learning the Office actually involves quite a lot of effort (and potentially cost in buying books) you don't want to make too many wrong choices!

So how do you decide which one you should be saying?

I want to start a little series here that aims to help you through the process of choosing an appropriate form of the Office for you and thus hopefully minimising the time and cost involved.

And I should start by thanking members of the Trad Ben yahoo group who provided some comments a while back on this subject that I intend to draw on heavily.

But first a few basics....

What is the Divine Office?

The Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours as it is known in the Ordinary Form, is, just like the Mass, part of the Church's public prayer, its liturgy.  There are a number of different versions of the Office - the 1970 Liturgy of the Hours and the 1962 Roman Breviary being the main ones.  But there are also many (mainly traditional) versions of the Office associated with individual religious Orders, such as the Benedictine and Dominican, as well as popular forms of it using a much smaller number of psalms (such as the Office of the Dead and the Little Office of Our Lady).

Like the Mass, each officially approved form of the Office has approved texts and associated requirements for it to be said validly (ie as liturgical prayer, the public worship of God) and licitly (according to law).

Like the Mass it is intended to be said (or rather sung in the case of the Office) in a church accompanied by appropriate ritual as befitting the highest form of prayer offered by the Church.

Where it differs from the Mass, however, is that although it is preferable that it be said by a group of people in a Church, led by a cleric (or group of religious in the case of the Office), it can also validly be said (in accordance with a permission granted following Vatican II) by groups of laypeople, or even by individuals alone. 

Indeed, these days, most priests and religious (who are required to say the Office everyday) are far more likely to say it by themselves than 'in choir' or 'in common'. 

And the flexibility this implies makes it a very attractive option for people who want to increase their prayer commitment in a way that links closely to the Mass, and join themselves to the public prayer of the Church.

The Office as a devotion

It is worth noting though, that though the Divine Office is part of the liturgical prayer of the Church, it can also be said devotionally, giving it the same (lesser) status as the rosary and other acts of piety.  And there are a number of 'Offices' which were always intended solely to be said as devotions rather than as part of the official prayer of the Church.

In part this is because of history: prior to the Council of Trent there were few restrictions on the laity saying the Divine Office.  Most priests in parish churches, as well as monasteries, sang the hours publicly everyday.  But many people said them privately as well, the reason why 'Books of Hours' were amongst the most popular books of the Middle Ages.

The need to counter widespread heresy, however, led to the introduction of much tighter controls over liturgical texts, as well as the decision to restrict the 'delegation' to say the Office (the Church can decide who can say its public prayers on behalf of us all) to clerics and religious (monks and nuns).  Laypeople could still say the Office - but only as a devotion.

The result was, particularly in association with the liturgical movement in the early twentieth century, the development of a large number of devotional 'short offices', intended solely for the laity.  An example is the relatively recent Benedictine Daily Prayer A Short Breviary, but there are many others around.

That all changed with Vatican II, with Sacrosanctum Concilium urging a recovery of the Church's longer tradition of the Office as a liturgical prayer involving the laity as well as priests and religious.  The Council (and subsequent law) removed the restriction of the formal delegation to say the Office to clerics and religious, allowing laypeople also to say it liturgically. 

Unfortunately, in my view at least, as with so much else of the positives that can be found in the texts of Vatican II, its laudable  objective of reopening the Office to the laity was largely sabotaged by the botched job of reform represented by the 1970 Liturgy of the Hours.

Yet despite the problems associated with the Liturgy of the Hours, there has been something of a revival of interest in the Office on the part of the laity, not least (perhaps somewhat ironically depending on your attitude to the pastoral decision made at Trent and in its wake) amongst the more traditionally inclined.  As a result, an increasing number of new editions or reprints of various traditional forms of the Office are becoming increasingly available.

A disclaimer

This website is of course dedicated to the traditional form of the Benedictine Office said according to the 1962 rubrics, which is my favourite form of the Divine Office.  So my comments will of course to some extent be biased towards this option!

But I, like most people, only arrived at this preference by a process of experimentation, and I am perfectly well aware that my preference is shaped by a number of particular factors - the amount of time I have to devote to the Office, my preference for the Latin, and my attraction to Benedictine spirituality in particular.  Accordingly, in the course of this series I will try to make it clear why some other options may suit others better.  Just keep in mind my possible biases on this subject...

More soon.

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