Praying the Liturgy of the Hours for Beginners

For Clare @ Babes In Babylon, because I’m still collecting my thoughts on the role of booze in culture and relationships between men and women, but I can yammer about the Divine Office for days, if anyone wanted to listen.

Long, long ago*, in a dormitory far, far away** there was a brand new practicing cradle Catholic*** who wanted to learn the Liturgy of the Hours. So she bought a copy of Christian Prayer off Amazon. And when it arrived, she looked at the breviary. Then at the St. Joseph’s Guide to Christian Prayer which she didn’t know she needed, but was thoughtfully included. And the little sheets with the Benedictus and Magnificat and Invitatory Psalms. And she flipped open the book and looked for the instruction manual, didn’t find it, stuffed the whole mess into her bookshelf and went off to the Wednesday night Bible study with her Baptist roommate.

The book languished on her bookshelf for several months, but in the new semester she picked it up and tried again. Now she knew that the instruction manual was something called the Ordinary, randomly placed in the middle of the book, and gave it another shot. Only her St. Joseph’s Guide was now out of date, and she coudn’t find an updated one. Back on the bookshelf it went.

Next fall, when ordering Christmas gift books, she remembered and added the current and upcoming St. Joseph’s Guides to that Amazon order. But when she tried to start praying the LotH, it was Advent, and Advent gets all screwy and confusing in the middle. Then she went home to her decidedly not Catholic family, where she was shy and self conscious about the whole business, so she kept forgetting.

Repeat ad infinitum. Learning the Divine Office without anyone to teach you is hard. And if you are easily hung up on doing things just right, you will get frustrated and give up very quickly. The only reason I stuck with it for so long† was because I’m a ginormous liturgy nerd and so I just couldn’t leave it alone. But I’ve mostly figured it out now, so if you want to get started, here is the best way to do it.

First, buy a real breviary. Yes, I know, there are lots of digital breviaries available, and they’re a little cheaper, and they set up everything for you. But because they do all the page flipping for you, they will only teach you the most basic structure of each hour. You’ll never learn how the breviary works, if you use an app.

Second, find the Ordinary in your new breviary. Read the instructions. The instructions are poorly written and omit several key instructions. But they do outline the general structure of Lauds and Vespers. This is also where you will find the Gospel canticles for those hours. You may want to drop a ribbon here for easy reference.

Third, go read the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar. Don’t fret, it’s short. At the very end is a helpful table telling you which days are more important than other days. You can also read the General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours if you’re interested,

Now let’s get started. Is it Lent? If yes, you may go to the current day of Lent and start praying.

If it’s not Lent, and right now it is not, pray Compline†† every night until it’s Lent again, then pick up Lauds and/or Vespers with Ash Wednesday.

This step is very important. The Liturgy of the Hours is complicated, and just trying to jump right in and do everything perfectly is a recipe for failure. Praying nightly Compline will teach you how the basic structure of the liturgical hours works, to understand the psalmody, and to gently develop the habit of praying according to an hour.

Compline is very easy to pray. The psalms are on a one week psalter. Like Vespers, Sunday has 1st and 2nd Compline for Saturday night and Sunday night respectively. You can even select one of these two Sunday offices and pray it every night, in order to memorize it. The only seasonal variation is which Marian antiphon traditionally ends the hour. And the only part unique to Compline is that, after the opening verse and before the hymn, there is an examination of conscience. Here is the basic structure:

  • Opening versicle (O God, come to my assistance…)
  • Examination of Conscience
  • Hymn (optional)
  • Psalm(s) (Antiphon, Psalm, Glory Be, Antiphon)
  • Reading
  • Responsary
  • Gospel Canticle (Antiphon, Canticle, Glory Be, Antiphon)
  • Prayer
  • Conclusion
  • Marian Antiphon

If you want to vary your Marian antiphons across the liturgical year, the traditional antiphons are the Salve Regina from after Pentecost until the 1st Sunday of Advent, the Alma Redemptoris Mater from the 1st Sunday of Advent through the Feast of the Presentation (February 2nd), Ave Regina Caelorum after the Presentation through Lent until Easter Sunday, and Regina Caeli throughout the Easter season and ending on Pentecost.

The only other seasonal quirk that affects Compline is, if you attend either the Christmas midnight Mass or the Easter Vigil, you do not pray Compline on that day. Participation in these liturgies takes the place of the liturgical hour.

And that is practically all there is to know about Compline. It’s a short hour, 7 minutes spoken††† and 15 minutes sung. I’ll discuss the major hours of Lauds and Vespers when we’ve gotten closer on to Lent. If you want to learn more in the meantime, you can always visit Daria’s excellent blog, Coffee and Canticles.

Even now that I ‘get’ the LotH, I still struggle with developing the habit of praying hours every day. We try to pray Compline as a family, but we fall off that wagon regularly. And when I’m traveling or dealing with family visitations, I’m all well intentioned with my breviary, but usually end up forgetting. Thus I feel very strongly that developing the habit of constancy with one hour is more important that doing all the hours, or even one major hour, perfectly from the very beginning.‡

* Twelve years now. Wow. I feel like I should feel old or something.

** Okay, only about a hundred miles or so.

*** This whole sentence is literally true, if puzzlesome. Deal.

† Read: repeatedly attempted for a brief period, then abandoned for several months/years. Wash, rinse, repeat.

†† Don’t fret about the Invitatory until you start praying Lauds or Matins.

††† My CCE class timed it. Ingrates.

‡ Doing them all perfectly from the start isn’t even possible, unless you’re spending time with a religous community that prays them.

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One Response to Praying the Liturgy of the Hours for Beginners

  1. Daria Sockey says:

    thanks for the hat tip to my blog.
    I do think that a few weeks or at most a month of Night Prayer is all is should take to be ready for MP or EP. And don’t you think that Ordinary time is the best time to plunge into the psalter rather than lent? No proper except on Sunday. Nothing but psalter during the week, especially if you just forget about saint’s days for a while

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