The Value of Praying the Divine Office
From time to time people ask me about some form of prayer in difficult circumstances: they sometimes want a sort of “super prayer.” They have heard, for example, that a particular prayer or a particular novena is of special efficacy. I don’t doubt for one moment that such prayers and novenas can be of an unusual force in one’s life, and bring extraordinary graces, but it is not – I venture to think – because of the form of the prayer, or because a particular saint has some special power, but because of the urgency with which they made that prayer or kept that novena. That is, the very fact of having a great need for divine aid may lead us to pray from a truer, more sincere, less selfish place in ourselves. If I have seen that I am weak, and that I need strength, my prayer is more likely to be similar to that of the repentant tax gather, rather than like that of the self-congratulatory Pharisee of Luke 18.
Our Lord indicated as much when he taught His disciples how to pray the Our Father. The Lord said to intend what we pray, and to pray with all sincerity. He then taught a form of prayer which was carefully structured. I have written about this elsewhere, and shall not repeat it here. But the Our Father forms a pattern or template for all prayers.
Now, after that preamble, we come back to the question of how to pray in times of special need. The answer is, I suggest, to pray as you always do pray, but with more fervour, more humility, more openness to whatever God will grant you, more willingness to accept His Will. And that leads to another question: how should we usually pray? And here I wish to speak about the Divine Office.
The Divine Office was developed by the Church, possibly by analogy with the Jewish hours of prayer in the Temple, but these themselves were based on common sense: the need for prayer at regular times in the day to interrupt the momentum of life. We get lost in the world and our activities. We are like people being held under water. We need to get our heads above the water and to breath. We need to step back a little from what we are doing, from our emotional engagements, from our mental associations. We end up like rats on a treadmill. We need to get off the treadmill. The Divine Office helps us with that.
I said that the basic idea behind the Divine Office is common sense. When it comes to something like food and drink we know this better than when it comes to prayer. Far more people make allowance for regular meals than they do for regular prayer. Yet, both are necessary. In fact, on a scale of human value, one cannot live without food and water, but the body lives chiefly to sustain the soul as it struggles in its return to heaven.
So this raises another question: if I accept to pray the Divine Office, how to do I go about it?
I cannot, if I am a layperson, pray all the hours of the Office (whichever form of it you use). But I can commit to some: e.g. morning and evening prayer. I can commit to the Angelus, at 12 noon and at 6:00pm, and if I have something else on at those times, I can postpone it or bring it forward. I knew a solicitor who, if he had a meeting at 12 noon, would simply turn his chair around and pray the Angelus silently and internally, at 11.00am or some other time. The intention to meet my commitment by however I can is valuable in and of itself.
Then there is the text: any text is good. In English, the Maronite one is hard to obtain, and is quite long. It has some wonderful parts (e.g. the hymns of the Church and Christian Combat) which you will not find elsewhere. There are also a number of post-Vatican II editions, some of which are very nicely presented, and are reasonably manageable. However, the one I prefer to use is the pre-Vatican II, and I am only speaking here of the English translation. I like it because it retained the office of Prime in the morning. It is possible to pray this Office three times each week day including Saturday at Prime in the morning, Sext at noon, and Compline before bed, and to add Lauds and Vespers on Sunday. I think sung Vespers on Sunday evening is a beautiful thing: to open Sunday with morning Divine Liturgy, and to return to the church for the sung service and return home for supper. I can still remember that from my early childhood, and what a feeling of peace there was, of the day being framed by the two great celebrations. It helped make Sunday a special day. The main drawback with the old Latin Divine Office in English is of course the awkward translations. Sometimes these are so bad they could push you to learn Latin if you had not done so already.
But do not delay saying the Divine Office just because you do not have the Maronite English or the old Divine Office books. Try these links: Maronite Faith.com and DivinumOfficium.com and Divine Office (catholicexchange.com)
It is not the same as stopping to say your own prayers: the Divine Office is themed. It changes according to the Seasons and provides a variety of thoughts and ideas which might not appeal to you – and for just that very reason may be the ones you most need to read. It is surprising how often people start to read the Divine Office and then say to me that they did not know that psalm was in the Book of Psalms, or that reading was in the New Testament.
It also enables us to pray in invisible communion with other people in the Church. We may not be aware of that, but God is. The Divine Office then, is more than an individual work: it is a church work with individual contributions and benefits.