Liturgy of the Hours: A daily journey toward Christ

A parishioner on the church sidewalk recently greeted me after Mass and asked if I had a favorite image of eternal life. Without hesitation, I told my friend that I see Jesus holding me tightly in his arms until I finally quit resisting him, until I finally stop squirming, until I finally rest in the assurance of his love for me. This is an image of God’s eternal promise of love and forgiveness, one that I pray for every day.

I have been reflecting on my response ever since, because I know eternal life begins right now, today, in my prayer and actions. This image of eternal life is not only after my death, but also an image that forms my daily prayer, my approach to priesthood and my service among God’s people.

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A priest’s life should be rooted in prayer. Lightstock

I experience such emotional squirming in Jesus’ love nearly every morning as I attempt to pray silently in the old rocking chair next to my bed. God invites me to sit and be calm, to open my life and offer my inner wounds to his ever-flowing mercy. However, on many days, I resist beginning my day sitting in the 19th-century chair that holds my body comfortably.

Silence can be very threatening. My bloated ego wants to protect me from God’s messages in my heart. I resist the first moments of prayer because I understand deeply in my soul that I will have to change when I finally give in to the love God has for me. My resistance can be found in the ways I hold my breath and hold on to my own plans, to my own inability to forgive others. My self-righteousness is among many morning demons and companions in my rocker. My tightness of breath reveals itself because so often I do not feel worthy of such love in the first place. So often my guilt and my underlying shame sit with me in the dark on the faded burgundy upholstery of my inherited rocking chair.

This ego-centered moment is real in the morning darkness. I am not alone in my resistance to start my day by battling my ego and Jesus’ invitation for healing in my life and ministry. This resistance speaks to me about how I encounter God in every hour of the day.

Prayer is this combination of resistance and love for every Christian. Today is the day we need to quit squirming in Jesus’ presence and rest peacefully in his affection. Our personal prayer is the beginning of such a process of letting go, discovering God’s healing and then changing. All prayer begins with our resistance to let go of false notions of ourselves so that we can enter into the mystery of love, forgiveness and mercy that God has for us, today and forever.

What the Liturgy Is (and Is Not)

The Liturgy of the Hours is not just a formal prayer to fulfill our obligations and commitments as priests. This prayer flows from our common silence with all the resistance and all the love. This prayer of the Church invites us to discover love in all of our encounters and daily plans well beyond the silence of morning. Our lives as priests are lived in the circle of swirling expectations from our parishioners, our bishops and superiors, and from the many institutions in which we serve. Even stories of clerical abuse, financial crimes and neglect form our peoples’ expectations of how we are to act, preach and serve. The hours of our day are long with work and often short in our awareness of God’s fidelity within our souls. Without our formal prayer of the Church, we can become isolated in our worries, alone in our fears and resistant to love.

The Liturgy of the Hours invites us into mystery and love. However, our workload, disappointments, loneliness, depression and even addictions may move us away from love and into a tight, rigid and formulaic recitation of these prayers. For many parish priests, these liturgies become privatized. They are sometimes recited trapped between watching the evening news with a sandwich on our laps and getting ready for evening appointments. These liturgies are often read at a rapid pace before the morning Mass, trying to get to the end before the doorbell rings or an emergency call shatters the calm before a planned golf tournament.

The Liturgy of the Hours connects us with our everyday life and is celebrated within community. The poetry, the psalms, the structure and responses call us to recognize that God is not just in the words we proclaim on our lips, but in the way we respond to people during the day. These ancient texts form us especially in people’s suffering and pain and our common quest for redemption and love. If we do not find love in the psalms and prayers, our lives and ministry remain functional and dull. We read between the lines of these liturgies so to unwrap the gifts of compassion and tenderness for the rest of our waking hours when we are not officially praying. These liturgies are like exercise, as our workouts benefit us all throughout the day. In these liturgies, the prayer texts are not the most important piece of prayer. The most important aspect of prayer is to recognize God in the rest of the day when the workout of prayer has long ended.

‘Come to My Assistance’

We begin the Liturgy of the Hours with a memorized response that falls from our lips. “God, come to my assistance. … Lord, make haste to help me.” I suspect that if these were the only words in our daily prayer, they would be sufficient for God. The ability of our hearts to break out of our earthly resistance to God’s life within us is sheer gift. For any Christian to admit that we need help and assistance from God is already the greatest act of faith in our day. We need to say these words, if not in common with other believers then surely in our rooms at daybreak, because they are an act of profound courage to find the love we truly desire. This courageous and formidable act becomes the freedom to believe in something greater than ourselves.

Our ability to ask for assistance breaks the molds of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness. I have learned one thing as a priest: God is God and I am not. This learning comes from many years of allowing my own lips to invite God into the heartache, the disappointments and the resistance of my own life and priesthood.

If we pray these opening words of the liturgical invocation, we come to the conclusion in our own lives and ministry that only God provides for our needs and that our plans remain anemic at best. The invocation breaks down the barriers of resistance to ease us into the mystery that God is close at hand.

If our hearts truly are focused on God, we can then be lead into the inexhaustible story of our faith. As in every liturgy of the Church, we pray so as to form our own lives in the story of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. There is no other story or aspect of our lives that promises us the hope and freedom we long for and the ability to serve our people. Unless our hearts continually are formed in the passionate love of God, our ministry will become our own vision of the Church. We will falsely believe that our own judgments and decisions form our lives and ministry. We will forget our love affair with God and God’s genuine relationship with his people.

We simply cannot understand how God can be God. Yet, we enter into this mystery of love in song, silence, prayer and examining our lives and conscience every day. This prayer casts a light of hope and peace long within our day in the ways we serve people in a soup line without judgment or ridicule, in the compassion we offer toward a parishioner in a hospital bed without fear of disease or loss, and in the dark confines of a stuffy confessional truly abiding in gentleness and mercy. Our vocation remains to live the interaction of God and his people in the ancient forms of prayer and liturgy and ever becoming new people. This is the beginning of our ministry of breaking through resistance and discovering real love and commitment.

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The Liturgy of the Hours reminds the clergy that they should start and end their days in prayer. Shutterstock

Inspiration in the Psalms

The psalms create the center of the Liturgy of the Hours so that they may help us tease out our resistance toward God. The psalms speak of many stories about how our ancestors struggled to believe in God and in his merciful presence. With wars, violence and hatred among the people whom the psalms portray, the psalms still evoke a confidence in God like no other Scriptures.

We bring our lives to the psalms, our experience of hopelessness and even the despair of our people. The psalms provide a place of comfort to rest our own weariness in order to fully trust God embedded in the human condition.

We continue the journey that our ancestors started, a movement away from our resistance and ambivalence toward God who created us and who still gives us breath and purpose.

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For example, Psalm 27 acknowledges that God is our stronghold. God is light and our help, and our trust remains in him even though evil calls at our doors. The psalmist seeks to be in the Lord’s presence forever and to savor his sweetness. We take heart in the perils of our lives because there is still hope rooted deeply within us, because we believe in God. The psalms invite us to break from our day and to restore our trust in God even when we feel too exhausted to pray, or when we settle into the work of being a pastor and forget that our very breath is given to us by the Divine.

In the course of our day, we often lose the poetry of our faith. We sink deeply into the grind of administration, the work of a capital campaign, and we cringe when the phone call comes at midnight to go to the hospital one more time. The psalms are spiritual refreshment and a healing balm. The reason these psalms are required reading for us throughout the day is that our memories are short, and we need the invitation once again to rest in God when our resistance to God becomes thick with cynicism and dark with anger about our situations in life. We need the sacred poetry every day to remind us of our identity, to open us up once again to the mystery that God desires to heal our resistance once and for all.

Our relationship with mystery can become short-lived in our day. The poetry of the psalms keeps us gentle of spirit and hope-filled in how we deal with people in the maze of pastoral ministry, administration and diocesan politics. The poetry we read enables us to more gently move in the world, with intentionality and authentic awareness of the world around us.

Without the prayer times in our day, our spirits settle into a hardness, a rigid tiredness, then our work becomes stiff, boring and addictive. We need these mystical reminders that God desires us, loves us, in order to remain free so that our spirits may remain calm and refreshed in all of our relationships. We need to carve space within our lives and hearts so that there is room enough for God to heal us, to welcome us into his joy and his living, giving mercy.

Throughout the Liturgy of the Hours, especially within the psalms, we are reminded that faith is rooted deeply in people’s experiences. The psalms speak of disasters and catastrophes, hopes and desires, and the questions and failures of people. Within the story-laden psalms, God opens up his story within the lives of real human beings. This is sheer beauty and revelation. God is among his people. Upon reading these psalms, we connect with the promise that God does not leave us out of the miracle of such revelation and joy. We are part of God’s plan even in our small parishes or as we wait and prepare for retirement. We breathe into this mystery when we recite these prayers even with our shortness of breath in our aging bodies.

Proclaiming the Mercy of God

The Gospel canticles are vivid and authentic reminders that the promises of God are deep within the human condition. The Canticle of Zechariah, the Benedictus, from Luke 1:68-79, comes from the mouth of a man who was somewhat hidden within the story of Jesus. His testimony to the promise that his son would be the forerunner to the Messiah is one of the most beautiful and provocative passages within the Gospels. Within Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel writer so often puts into the mouth of a marginalized person the strong words of reform and liberation.

The Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus)
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel: he has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David. Through his holy prophets he promised of old that he would save us from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us. He promised to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant. This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life. You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. 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

Every morning, as the universal Church, we are reminded of God’s explosive power and authority coming from a man who was struck dumb before this proclamation. This is a man whose voice was taken away, not just his physical voice but also his voice as a human being, his purpose and life mission. God restores his voice and out comes from his humble mouth a proclamation that God’s faithfulness and mercy is being handed down through the prophets to our own lives and situations.

Even after all these years of praying the Canticle of Zechariah, I have never wanted to memorize these words. Of course they are embedded within my soul, but I always want to read them as if I have never heard them before. They strike me new every day. Hope finds a new corner in my soul to heal me in the morning resistance when I read this text. We give voice to the fact that our voices can be brought into the world with a new freedom, longing and peace, exactly as Zechariah’s voice gave birth to such a hope in the mission of his son, John.

The Liturgy of the Hours gives us a new vision and a new voice to see and to proclaim that God’s presence and mercy is toward people. This is how God also is striving to heal our souls when we as priests are exhausted and lonely. We may proclaim these words in the morning with alcohol breath and with great resistance to acknowledge the truth of our lives. We need to hold on to this canticle for dear life. If we can let go of a layer of our resistance toward God and our resistance to change in the morning, our people will come to understand God because of our struggles and reluctance. God uses us as vessels of hope for others. God gives us a new voice so that we can proclaim our praise to God, the Most High, and remain in the low trenches in the mission of the Church.

A Perfect Model of Discipleship

The Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46-55 radically shakes up our notions of God’s plan for his people. From the mouth of a young woman, the Gospel writer Luke pours forth into the world how God’s plan and faithfulness changes people’s lives, the structures of society and the needs of people in poverty. These words come from a woman who has no power in society. However, because of her place within God’s plan to bear the Son of God, her voice gladly penetrates the generations, and people’s lives are changed because of it. A woman who, at first glance, is weak and voiceless in society becomes a strong prophet. Mary’s committed voice heralds across the Church’s generations to build up others who are weak and resistant to God.

The Canticle of Mary (Magnificat)
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, / my spirit rejoices in God my Savior / for he has looked with favor on this lowly servant. / From this day all generations will call me blessed: / the Almighty has done great things for me, / and holy is his Name. / He has mercy of those who fear him / in every generation. / He has shown the strength of his arm, / he has scattered the proud in their conceit. / He has cast down the mighty from their thrones / and has lifted up the lowly. / He has filled the hungry with good things, / and the rich he has sent away empty. / He has come to the help of his servant Israel / for he has remembered his promise of mercy, / the promise he made to our fathers, / to Abraham and his children forever. / Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

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Father Eric Olsen from St. Louis reads from his breviary while sitting on the colonnade in St. Peter’s Square in 2016. CNS photo/Paul Haring

I have ministered among people on the margins of life during my entire priesthood. Powerless people have formed my faith and priesthood. I have listened to the weak and fragile voices of women and men who have been sexually and emotionally abused as children and who long for their voices to be heard as adults. I have entered into conversations with people who are severely addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex and food. My ministry has taken me into the lives of people who continue to pass down generational poverty and people who were never given a chance for a decent education. No matter how people’s voices have been silenced or shut down, I continue to go to Mary to listen again to her strong, provocative and courageous proclamation that new things can happen, that situations can change and that hope once again can be born within God’s people. Mary’s words become a blue print for ministry among people in poverty and loss. Her words on our lips every night convert our tired and lonely hearts. Our hearts can be inflamed in love and forgiveness in her words that challenge the norm and give courage to the meek and frustrated.

Reflecting Upon God

As I make my way back to the antique rocker before bed, I strive to sit in gratitude and kindness for myself and for the people with whom I have encountered during the day. At night, I struggle to be patient with myself. I understand that prayer and ministry take time and that I cannot solve people’s problems or change their lives.

The Canticle of Simeon gives me rest. His words break down my resistance to God’s intimacy toward us, the faithful. At nighttime, my longing for God grows strong as I examine my day, as we all do. Simeon’s proclamation rests within my own heart. It is finished. Another day. We all wait patiently in the nighttime for things to change and for hope to endure. However, we all have seen God today. Today has been another day of revelation. God loves his people, and we place our trust once again in his mercy. God’s love is particular, unique for each of us.

The Canticle of Simeon
Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.

Within our prayer exercises and within our conversations in ministry, our hearts become united with the love Jesus has for us all. People matter. God matters. Jesus breaks down my resistance. Our relationships enable us to burn with love and to seek the freedom and liberation of our human needs. We wait for the glory of redemption and to set our eyes on the person of Jesus who loves us until we finally quit squirming in his presence. Eternal life begins today.

FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Church (Tri-Community) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He hosts “On the Margins,” a weekly radio Scripture commentary on Mater Dei Radio in Portland, Oregon.

History of the Divine Office
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Early Christianity:
In the first centuries after Christ, because of persecution, people met to pray when and where they could, but much of the prayer was centered around reading the psalms. Following the admonition to pray always, services developed around the important times of the day: morning, noon and night.