Monday, December 9, 2013
"Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise."- Psalm 51:15
Since I've come to seminary directly from graduate school, the academic part of seminary hasn't been as much of an adjustment for me as it has been for some of my classmates who have been out of school for over 20 years. The structured prayer life we have here at seminary, however, has been a bigger change for me. Having Morning Prayer, Mass, Evening Prayer in common every day is very different from what I had been used to: namely, praying on my own whenever I found time and getting to daily Mass a couple times during the week. I like having the consistency of praying at the same time every day, and I hope that I am forming a strong habit that will last after I leave seminary, God willing, as a priest. Of course, there are some times that I don't feel like praying or that my mind wanders during prayer, but it still good to develop the discipline of regular prayer.
The prayers we use when we gather as a community are the Liturgy of the Hours, also called the Divine Office, and the book they are printed in is called a breviary. The Liturgy of the Hours is, as the name implies, a liturgy just like the Mass. They form the "official" prayer of the Church. While we can pray in almost any way we want when we are in private or with a group, the Liturgy of the Hours is a prayer of the entire Catholic Church, and so it has a set structure like the Mass. The basic outline for each "hour," as the sets of prayers are called, is a hymn, three psalms or other scriptural canticle (fancy word for song), a short reading from Scripture, a Gospel canticle, intercessions, and a closing prayer. It usually takes between 10 and 20 minutes to pray one hour.
Since I first started praying parts of the Liturgy of the Hours a couple of years ago, I have grown to appreciate it more and more. I love that when I engage in this prayer, I am joining in the prayer of the universal Church. Pope Francis, religious men and women, priests and deacons, and lay men and women all over the world are praying these exact same prayers along with me. I also love that I am praying Scripture - almost all of the Liturgy of the Hours is taken from the Bible, especially the Psalms. These 150 ancient songs are our divinely-inspired hymnal, and they express every emotion and situation we go through in our relationship with God. Rejoicing, praise, anger, suffering, sorrow, mourning, thanksgiving - they are all there. In addition, here at Saint Meinrad we are blessed to participate in the monastic tradition of chanting the psalms. Occasionally the beauty of the words and the chant can be almost overwhelming.
Probably my favorite time of the week is Sunday night, because it is then that the beauty of these prayers comes through the clearest for me. After dinner on Sunday, there is a Holy Hour. Sitting in the presence of Jesus in the Sacrament always fills me with peace, life, and confidence. It is easiest for me to pour out my heart to Jesus when I can talk to him eye to eye, as it were, through His Body present on the altar in front of me. Then, at the end of the Holy Hour, we pray Night Prayer together as a community. Out of all the chant melodies we use, my favorite is the one we use for the Canticle of Simeon with its beautiful antiphon: "Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace." Then comes Solemn Benediction, where Christ himself blesses us as the deacon holds up the monstrance containing the Eucharist. Afterwards, the rector sprinkles us with holy water as we sing the Divine Praises, and we end by chanting the Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen). The whole thing fills me with a feeling of rest and comfort: that Christ and his mother are with me, watching over me, and protecting me. Afterwards, I leave refreshed and confident, ready to wrap up any tasks I still need to accomplish before Monday morning, then relax and sleep trusting in God's watchful care.
I say all this not to try to show how holy or prayerful I am, but to show how the structure of the Liturgy of the Hours is helping me to improve my prayer life. Of course, if all I am doing is simply reciting or chanting words without really meaning them, I am accomplishing very little. Prayer is not about what or how much we say, but about being honest with God. Jesus makes this point crystal clear in today's Gospel, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). I can say to God, "Thank you, God, that I am not like other men. I pray three times a day, I say rosaries and light votive candles," but if that is all my relationship with God is - empty words and gestures - then it is worthless. What God wants is honesty: "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." I still have a long way to go with that.
If you are looking for a way to deepen your own prayer life or to become more regular in your prayer, I would encourage you to consider praying some part of the Liturgy of the Hours. There are websites like www.DivineOffice.org or smartphone apps like iBreviary that have the texts available for free and put everything together for you. The monthly Magnificat booklets also have a simplified form of Morning and Evening Prayer for each day, along with the daily Mass readings and prayers. Start slowly: pick just one hour (morning, evening, or night) and try to stick with that until you get the hang of it, then you can try adding more. There's no need for you to buy the full four-volume set until you have some experience with the Liturgy of the Hours and are convinced you want to make it a permanent part of your prayer.
The most important thing, though, is simply to pray, period. How or when doesn't matter nearly as much as whether you are doing it or not. Don't get caught up about trying to find the right way or the best way to pray: if you're talking to God, and you're being honest, then you're doing it right.
"May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life."
- Conclusion for Morning and Evening Prayer