The Liturgy of the Hours

“The mystery of Christ, his Incarnation and Passover, which we celebrate in the Eucharist especially at the Sunday assembly, permeates and transfigures the time of each day, through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, ‘the divine office.’”

-Catechism of the Catholic Church

While the Liturgy of the Hours is still an important piece of the official prayer life of the Catholic Church, it seems safe to say that most people, if they are familiar with the Hours at all, associate them with the monastic culture that flourished across Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

From Song of Toledo:

“When he arrived at the monastery, Pelayo’s life changed almost completely. From constantly working alongside his father and, more significantly, rarely setting foot in a church, it seemed now he never left the small chapel that sat along the stream running through the monastery grounds. He had once thought going to church meant, at most, taking some time on Sunday. What Pelayo had never known until he came to Morela was how often some people – those who had decided to separate themselves from the world in order to dedicate themselves as fully as possible to the praise of God – actually interrupted their daily lives in order to turn and face Him.

Six times during the day and once in the middle of the night- at the Liturgy of the Hours — the brothers’ work, rest, or reflection were all interrupted so that they could come together in the chapel to pray and sing. It was the singing that Pelayo at first found strange, but he soon became fascinated by it. Or, perhaps more to the point, he became increasingly aware of how opening his mouth to sing somehow made him feel as if he were reaching out his hands to a person he could not see. While no single brother taught Pelayo how to sing, the brothers collectively showed him that the mystery and joy of song lay at the root of the life they shared. Not that their communal life revolved simply around singing. Rather, it revolved around worshipping and working for God, but that worship came most predominantly in the form of voices raised in song.

Each of the Hours —Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline — brought its own unique opportunity to sing praise to God’s name. In part, Pelayo was sure, it was simply that the shifting light of the day changed the atmosphere in the chapel, and that he and the brothers would bring a fresh set of hopes and concerns to offer up to God as the day wore on. But he came to see that there was more to it than just that. Each part of the day, Brother Domingo had taught him, brought new temptations, new opportunities perhaps to grow rebellious and resentful of the work before them, or to be excessively slighted by the words or actions of a neighbor, or to encounter more moments when they had to remind themselves of God’s love because, for one reason or for countless reasons, someone might again be falling prey to the doubt that God even existed. In other words, throughout each day Pelayo was repeatedly reminded of his need to be converted yet again, fully mindful of the fact that, indeed, he would need to be converted again the next day.

He had to admit, at first, it seemed rather strange to have the day interrupted so frequently so that they could all crowd into the small stone chapel next to the stream and sing. It was not a grand building. Rather, it was only a small, rectangular room with two rows of benches stretching along either side. At the front, on the wall behind an altar of piled, flat stones, hung a coarsely carved, wooden cross that stretched nearly from the floor to the ceiling. Nailed to that cross was an equally coarsely carved representation of the Lord, whose arms covered half the span of the wall. Thick and dark, in the dimly lit chapel the crucifix seemed at first a gloomy, foreboding presence, but Pelayo came to see that his first impression was merely a transitional one. While he had seen crucifixes before, there had certainly never been one in the hut where he had lived with his father. Now, to come in contact several times a day with a figure that was so looming and prominent was to be affected time and again by a host of new and unfamiliar considerations.

Over time, Pelayo decided that God’s divine presence was most apparent at Matins, which the brothers sang in the middle of the night. At night, with only a single candle to light their way, they made their way from the dormitory to the chapel, and it was in that darkness that Pelayo began to believe that he could actually feel God close to him. At Matins, he felt unimpeded by the sensations of the monastery’s daily routine or by any part of the world around him, by the brothers passing by in silence, the cold in his room, or the relative bustle of the Chapter, the period each day when the brothers met to discuss the monastery’s business. When they sang at night Pelayo stared into the near darkness, and somehow, he felt that God was looking back. He felt God in the coolness against his skin, in each breath his lungs inhaled, in the warm sleeves of his cowl as he sat with his hands clasped in prayer. The distractions of the day were cloaked by the night, and it was at night when he joined the other monks in song that he knew that he was closest to the Almighty.”

Despite its medieval (and earlier) roots, monastic chant is still alive and well today.

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