By Br. Sam Joutras, O.S.A.
As a pre-novice enters the house of formation, he will find that his community gathers in the chapel not only for daily Mass, but also in the morning and evening, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. From the beginning, Christians “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). One of the salient marks of early Christians was their devotion to pray at set times during the day. These set times arose from ancient Jewish tradition, which held fast to morning, evening, and night prayers in the Temple.
As Christianity grew, so did the practice of praying at fixed times throughout the day. In the third century, as monasticism found its rich beginnings in the desert, Christians desired to give unbroken, uninterrupted praise to God, following what we know today as the Liturgy of the Hours. St. Benedict, who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries and is the founder of the Benedictine monks, believed that “To pray is to work; to work is to pray.” Following his inspiration, Christians also began to call the Liturgy of the Hours the “Office,” or opus in Latin, meaning work. Many times in the history of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours has been revised; the most recent revision was in the Second Vatican Council, which sought to restore it more fully to its spiritual significance of offering praise to God at different times throughout the day. Praying the Office has inspired Christians throughout the centuries to offer their work and daily activity to God.
Morning and Evening Prayer are the principal hours for the Office that are prayed in our Augustinian communities; Night Prayer, around 9 p.m., is also fairly common. In our chapels, we sit in choir style, which means that we sit on opposite sides and face each other to facilitate recitation and singing. We use a book called the Breviary, which is the compilation of the daily Psalms, readings, and instructions for the Liturgy of the Hours. After an opening hymn, we begin a call-and-response form of reciting three Psalms that are arranged in a four-week cycle. Then there is a short reading from Scripture and a responsorial prayer, after which we recite or sing the Gospel Canticle. For Morning Prayer, the Gospel Canticle is the Benedictus, the prayer that Zechariah recited when he could finally speak, after the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:68-79). For Evening Prayer, it is the Magnificat, the prayer that the Virgin Mary said when she visited Elizabeth (Luke 1:46-55). We then end with Intercessions, the Our Father, and a closing prayer. Depending on the day, we follow the specific prayers for a feast day or liturgical season. While the Office may seem cumbersome at first, we become accustomed to its rhythm fairly quickly and delve into its depth as we settle into Augustinian life.
Augustinian life, in part, revolves around praying the Office. We are conscious of the importance St. Augustine placed on praying the Psalms, who believed that the Psalms are a history of the soul. It is very edifying that when we pray this Liturgy in our chapel, our hearts and voices are in communion with Christ, who prayed the Psalms on earth, and with the whole Church. Beginning, punctuating, and ending the day with this communal prayer helps me to perceive the hand of God in the midst of busyness and discernment of this way of life: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You” (Confessions 1, 1).