‘The Hours’ Challenges

We pray it daily at different hours. The prayers, or more so the recitation of them, unite the Church around the world. I have the same four books today that I bought over 30 years ago while in the seminary. I can’t say the same about the Roman Missal (previously known as the Sacramentary). I am probably not alone in that. The books do become not only a Liturgy of the Hours, but a history of our lives.

Even when left on the seminary windowsill amidst the many others in the hallway or left on the table at a priest conference where many other priests left theirs, I can spot my own book. It is like a parent knowing his own child’s voice in a cacophony of children’s voices. I recognize the wornness of the book, which gold leaf letters are worn off, which ribbons are unraveling, how thick the book has become from all the memorial cards that are stuck in the pages. Each season when the time comes around again and I stumble on Aunt Margaret’s memorial card from 20+ years ago, time is marked once again, not just in praying the hour but remembering that day long past.

The changing of the ribbons is like the resetting of a clock as time moves forward. I had an interesting experience recently figuring out what “day,” what “hour” I should pray; where should I be in the book? I was traveling and had crossed the International Date Line. I went from Wednesday Evening Prayer, Week 4, lifting off from Dulles airport heading west across the USA and the Pacific to Friday Evening Prayer as I landed in Indonesia.

liturgy of hours
The changing of the ribbons is like the resetting of a clock as time moves on. The Crosiers photo

It was fun to experience such a quandary, and I smiled to myself as I thought: “Do I obey the old maxim, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ or do I sit and do a full day and a half of ribbon advancement to catch up with the Indonesian priests? If I skip the day and not read the psalms and canticles, do I follow the same logic when I head east to fly home several weeks later on a Tuesday? Do I not turn the ribbons and pray Tuesday evening prayer Week 1 again, because it was Tuesday evening when I took off from Indonesia and Tuesday evening when I landed back in Dulles? No harm done to pray it twice.”

There is no right or wrong answer to this. It did make me pause to consider how unifying this prayer is if we are all praying different Hours of different days. On the flip side of that coin, the same prayer is being prayed for 24 hours straight across all these time zones, like a song being sung in the round or like a wave at stadium, everybody takes a turn when their time comes around.

The prayer unifies us as we pray the same psalms and canticles. Though we all may be on the “same week” and “same day” and “same hour,” we are not on the “same page.” It is fascinating how many different rubrics there are. I am not sure if it stems from how each seminary interprets the rubric or if it may just be generational specific. One noticeable difference is in praying the psalm prayer. I always pray the prayer. I’ve noticed that it is often skipped by others.

Another rubric difference is who leads the responsorial; or at the intercessions, is one standard response given to the full psalm or do the responders read the words from the second half, beginning at the indented dash? The Liturgy of the Hours is like a standard recipe for lasagna. You give it to five people to make, and you have five different presentations.

liturgy of hours
The psalms truly are the prayers of humanity. There is something there for everyone. They do reflect the human condition, unfortunately too much so. The Crosiers photo

It is interesting to hear how priests deal with missing their prayer time. They skipped a morning prayer due to time constraints or an evening prayer as they fell asleep as they began reading it and woke up hours later in the middle of the night. My mother always told me, “If you fall asleep saying your prayers at night, your guardian angel finishes them.” Thank God for the angels on our shoulders. Some priests advance the ribbon at the next hour and start with whatever the hour is at that moment. Others will read the hour that was missed in order to remind themselves that each hour is important, that it is better to be late than never pray it! It is also a little punishment. After waking up, you double up praying last night’s evening prayer before praying the new day’s morning prayer. This practice might even encourage us not to skip as we would just have to do more later.

In the 28-day cycle there are 56 morning and evening prayers, plus the minor daytime hours and some votive days throughout the year. Among the four volumes there are 147 psalms prayed. It is curious that three psalms are left out of the four-week cycle and the votive days. You begin to wonder what these three psalms did to deserve this lack of acknowledgement. When you look up the three psalms, why not Psalms 58, 83, 109? Are they so bad they could not make the cut? You would think that those compiling the Liturgy of Hours would have been able to squeeze in three more psalms just to say, “We have prayed the full psalmody!”

The psalms truly are the prayers of humanity. There is something there for everyone. They do reflect the human condition, unfortunately too much so. Scholars state that two-thirds of the psalms are prayers of complaining, struggle and the darkness of humanity. Reflecting the human condition, these prayers are where the rubber hits the road. It is an unfortunate indictment of humanity as two-thirds of our time is probably spent on the negative things of life: the complaining, the human condition, the darkness. Maybe that is why Psalm 51 (a.k.a., the Miserere) is prayed every Friday morning and, in the Office of the Dead, as we remember the Cross of Christ. It was certainly one of humanity’s most human moments, when Christ who had taken on the human condition redeemed it on the cross.

It is interesting that some psalms are repeated several times in the cycle, and some psalms have a place of honor while others have no place. Psalms 63 and 149 and the Canticle of Daniel certainly have their place of prominence. Not only are they prayed on Sunday I morning, but are the “go to” psalms for all feasts and the Octave of Christmas and Easter. We do a lot of flipping of pages and ribbons as we are directed by the red rubrical instructions to use Sunday Morning Week 1 psalms. I don’t know if it is just the familiarity or that I really like it, but the Canticle of Daniel is refreshing. The countless verses conjuring up images of cold and chill and all the water creatures bring us back to the human condition — not the darkness part, but the creative part as we think of all of creation. My father was one who liked to fish, loved the outdoors and hunting ducks. He worked for NASA, so at his funeral this was the first reading because so many of the images reminded us of his life (fish of the sea, birds of the air, sun and moon, etc.).

Though the Canticle of Daniel is long, it moves quickly, unlike the longest psalm, Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is the longest psalm as well as the longest chapter in the Bible. It is the prayer of one who delights in and lives by the commandments. With its 176 verses, Psalm 119 has more verses than 14 Old Testament Books and 17 New Testament Books. It is over 2,000 words (this article has 1,524 words). It is primarily read during Daytime prayer for 22 days, a day for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Then there is the shortest psalm just two psalms before the longest. On those Saturday mornings when we are rushed, it is nice to be cut a break as we see these four simple lines of Psalm 117. It seems even shorter when prayed antiphonally, each side taking one sentence. It is over before it starts.

And, of course, there is the tongue twister verse in Psalm 30. If you are in rush to get through the “hour” don’t say this too quickly: “So my soul sings psalms to you unceasingly.” This short verse pretty much sums up what the psalms are all about — giving a way for us to sing to God forever.

What is your favorite psalm? Mine is 62.

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. pcarrion@archbalt.org