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‘Pray Without Ceasing’
From 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. —Office of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship
When I, Fanny McElroy, first discovered The Brother Cadfael Mysteries, by Ellis Peters, I ripped through them like a scairt rabbit about to be et by a hawk, as Sister Alma Rose says her Daddy Pete says, or maybe it’s “a hawk after a scairt rabbit.” Anyway, I read them fast. And then there weren’t any more, because Ellis Peters died, so for the longest time I put off reading the final book, the twentieth, because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Brother Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey during the 12th century, but I found other books to read because I had become fascinated by all things medieval and all things Roman Catholic.
I loved Brother Cadfael’s irreverent way of being genuinely and truly religious, his painstaking cultivation of herbs for healing, his humor and his kindness. And the way he told the time not by the clock but by the Canonical Hours for Prayer — Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline, and so forth. Sister Alma Rose has specific times for prayer during the day, and if I am at her house when one of those times comes, we go into her chapel and pray together, and sometimes we pray out loud, sometimes we don’t, and she reads a psalm and we sing a hymn — harmonizing rather nicely, if I do say so — but the thing is, she always seems to know what she’s doing, I mean there aren’t any awkward “what should we do now?” moments. And now I know why.
The Liturgy of the Hours
One lazy summer afternoon I was sitting on the steps of Sister Alma Rose’s great green wraparound porch half-listening to Sister Alma Rose talking with Father Dooley and his sister Bernadette, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and who is a willowy, fair-haired, freckled young woman who has, as she says, “quite enough money,” and her occupation is Doer of Good Deeds, and she would have become a nun, she told us, but she wanted to get married and have children, which she hasn’t, yet, but she’s only something like twenty-two, so she spends her time visiting the sick and does what she calls “healing prayer work,” and sometimes she takes in the homeless, temporarily, like mothers with children running from an abusive man, that sort of thing, not scary people or drug addicts.
Versicle: Poem on a Stick?
So I’m sitting there, drowsy with the sun and the hum of a summer afternoon, and I perk up when I hear Bernadette say “Compline,” so I get up from the step and go over to the green wicker table and sit in the one vacant green wicker chair and listen to Bernadette talking about the Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called the Divine Office, I have no idea why, but Catholics have funny names for everything, like antiphon and breviary and versicle, which is not “a poem on a stick,” as I suggested, and everyone laughed, which was very gratifying because when one thinks that one is being very clever, it’s good to know that others think so too.
I think that everyone was surprised by my fascination with such a dry subject as the Divine Office, which I had thought was something from long ago… well, which it is, but it is still practiced, or “celebrated,” as Father Dooley says, and he as a priest is obligated to “celebrate” the Liturgy of the Hours, but it is a joy to him, he says, and Bernadette also “celebrates” the Liturgy of the Hours, and Sister Alma Rose says that her daily prayer times are “based on” the Liturgy of the Hours. “Fanny McElroy,” she says, “y’all have been celebrating it with me for years,” and then she laughs and pours me a glass of Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incomparable lemonade.
Sister Alma Rose is not Catholic (she has referred to herself as “a Christian Jewish Buddhist,” probably offending adherents of all three religions, but she doesn’t mind — like J. Krishnamurti, she doesn’t mind much of anything, she says, and she is certainly the most serene person I have ever known, though in a crisis she becomes very exercised and shouts prayers to Heaven).
I am not a Catholic either, but there are many things I like about Catholicism, and here is one of them: For two thousand years or so, in spite of corruption and scandal and competition from other religions, and popes who had mistresses and children, and bishops who plotted royal assassinations, and so forth, the Catholic Church has inspired, comforted, counseled, educated, and healed. Irish monks preserved the knowledge from Roman and Greek antiquity by copying a huge lot of documents by hand (read How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill).
Sister Alma Rose has told me about the vile perverted priests who prey on young boys, but I don’t think that those sick men’s transgressions erase all the good that the church has done. And I love the idea of Confession, and the Rosary, and having one’s own personal saint, and Mary the Mother of Jesus, with her woman’s wisdom and her tender heart, and, of course, the Liturgy of the Hours. And, basically, that Catholic worship has gone on uninterrupted for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Some facts about the Liturgy of the Hours
So I ask a thousand questions, and here is some of what I find out about the Divine Office:
It sprang from Jewish prayer practices (“Seven times a day I praise you,” it says in the Psalms)
It began rather simply, with reading or chanting psalms; reading from the Old Testament, the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and epistles; and canticles, which are basically hymns from the Bible but not usually from the psalms.
By the end of the fifth century, the Canonical Hours were — and this is a lot of praying and involves getting up in the middle of the night —
- Matins (during the night), sometimes referred to as Vigils or Nocturns, or in monastic usage the Night Office; it is now called the Office of Readings
- Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at Dawn)
- Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = 6 a.m.)
- Terce (rhymes with “purse”) or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = 9 a.m.)
- Sext (rhymes with “next”) or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = 12 noon)
- None (rhymes with “John”?) or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = 3 p.m.)
- Vespers or Evening Prayer (“at the lighting of the lamps”)
- Compline (KOM-plin) or Night Prayer (before retiring)
Wow! Don’t you love it that the time for Vespers is “at the lighting of the lamps”?
The complete Liturgy of the Hours is contained in the Roman Breviary. Most of the pictures on this page are from personal breviaries made for wealthy people in the Middle Ages.
All hours begin with Ps. 69-70 v.2, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me,” and then the doxology: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”
The Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer may consist of
- opening versicle (a short verse said or sung by a priest or minister in public worship and followed by a response from the congregation) or (for morning prayer) the invitatory (Psalm 94)
- a hymn, composed by the Church
- two psalms, or parts of psalms with a scriptural canticle. At Morning Prayer, this consists of a psalm of praise, a canticle from the Old Testament, followed by another psalm. At Evening Prayer this consists of two psalms, or one psalm divided into two parts, and a scriptural canticle taken from the New Testament.
- a short passage from scripture
- a responsory (chant or anthem recited after a reading in a church service) typically a verse of scripture, but sometimes liturgical poetry
- a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke: the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus [Blessed be]) for morning prayer, and the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat: The “Song of Mary” from the Gospel of Luke, Magnificat anima mea Dominum = My soul doth magnify the Lord) for evening prayer
It looks complicated, doesn’t it? But I have to tell you, it is refreshing and renewing to drop everything at 3 p.m. or whatever because that is the time you have set aside for prayer. And if you’re not Catholic, you can develop your own structure for prayer and praise, as Sister Alma Rose has done, she created a sort of hybrid of the Divine Office, and Father Dooley says that’s fine with him, he encourages everyone to pray in the way that suits them best, as long as there’s no mutilation of poultry and stuff like that.
Well, you can buy the complete Liturgy of the Hours in four volumes for more money than I have in my piggy bank, which last time I counted was $97.13, I am saving for a school trip to walk the Appalachian Trail, but there are less expensive books, such as those that have only the Morning Prayer and the Evening Prayer.
There is much, much more to be told about the subject, but Bernadette had to leave to go back to Grand Rapids and her Good Works, which she does out of love and not to earn points toward Heaven or anything like that. So I will just tell you that I, Fanny, “celebrate” the Hours four times a day using the website DivineOffice.org, which has an audio version with beautiful music, and there are other websites with text versions. Sometimes I pray with Mama, and sometimes with Sister Alma Rose, and sometimes it’s just I, Fanny.
Even if you are not a Christian, you might enjoy this prayer discipline, which is principally made up of psalms anyway, though the references to Jesus Christ Our Savior might make you cringe, I don’t know. What I do know is that I need and enjoy discipline and structure in my prayer life, and for me, Fanny McElroy, the Divine Office is the beginning of that discipline and structure.
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