Praying the Psalms: or the Liturgy of the Hours for Dummies

So my last attempt to write about praying the Liturgy of the Hours got all out of hand and became about me, me, me. Mostly. But I wanted to get back to Jen and her request for help because I know she’s not the only one who finds herself a bit overwhelmed when faced with the Psalms.

Yes some days even I find myself staring at the words on the page thinking, what the heck? (For some reason this is true for me especially of the Psalms for the short daytime offices). Jen asked for book recommendations and I listed a few in her comments. But thought I’d give a little fuller account of the books here.

And then—maybe this should have been two posts but I’m going to roll them into one out of sheer laziness—I wanted to provide a bit of help for readers who are interested in the Liturgy of the Hours and don’t even know where to start, so there you have it an omnibus post with all sorts of links and aids for praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

What is the Liturgy of the Hours?

First, a very brief overview (for a reader who is very interested in knowing more and perhaps in learning how to pray the hours; but doesn�t know where to begin). 

The Liturgy of the Hours, also called the Divine Office, is, along with the celebration of Eucharist, the public prayer of the Church. Christ asks us to pray always and he asked his apostles to watch one hour with him. In the Liturgy of the Hours the Church throughout the world is constantly watching with him, praying with him.

The Liturgy of the Hours is a way of praying through the scripture—and especially the Psalms�in the Body of Christ, to sanctify the hours of the day. There are seven �hours� or times of prayer spread throughout the day and night. The liturgy of each of these hours is comprised of Psalms, canticles (songs from other books of the Bible than the Book of Psalms), scripture readings from both the Old and New Testaments, hymns, and prayers.

The two main hours of the Liturgy are Morning and Evening Prayer, also known as Lauds and Vespers, which take place at sunrise and sunset, bookending the day. (And if you�re just getting started, I would begin praying just one or both of these and not attempting other hours until you have these two smoothly incorporated into your day). It takes about 10-20 minutes to pray each of the hours depending on whether you pray it silently or with a group (it could take longer if you give more time to silent meditation).

Historically the Liturgy of the Hours is rooted in the worship of the Temple. Jesus and his followers would have gone to the Temple or synagogue to pray at certain hours of the day and their prayer would have consisted largely of the Psalms and readings from the Old Testament in a very similar arrangement as the current liturgy.

A good short overview of the Liturgy of the Hours is here. It is slightly more thorough than mine and better composed.

And a longer read—but well worth it—is the official Church document on the Liturgy of the Hours, General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours.  I�m slowly working my way through this now.

Who Prays the Liturgy of the Hours?

The Liturgy of the Hours is the public, corporate prayer of the whole Church, it is not individual or private prayer. Even when prayed by a lone individual, say a stay-at-home mom all by herself, she still prays in union with the Church as the Body of Christ.

Although it is still mainly prayed by priests and religious, it is not reserved for them. The Second Vatican Council specifically encouraged the laity to pray the Liturgy of the Hours either in community or alone. In fact, from the earliest days of the Church a form of the liturgy was probably prayed by all early Christians gathering to pray together at sunrise and sunset. It wasn�t until later that it began to be seen as a prayer exclusively for those in religious life or Holy Orders.

Of especial interest to me is this exhortation from the General Instruction that encourages families to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours:

Finally, it is of great advantage for the family, the domestic sanctuary of the Church, not only to pray together to God but also to celebrate some parts of the liturgy of the hours as occasion offers, in order to enter more deeply into the life of the Church.

The Church encourages individuals and families to pray at least a part of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is sad to me that more Catholics don’t know more about this rich treasury of prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours is in fact the very best school for teaching us how to pray as we ought. As such it seems to me it should be of special interest to homeschooling families. 

How Do I Get Started?

The Liturgy of the hours can seem quite daunting to a newcomer. Where do you even begin?

If you are a completist and are up for a bit of a challenge you could jump right in to the four volume set of Liturgy of the Hours. This is what I use and I love it. The complete Liturgy of the Hours with all the readings and options. However, the price tag is hefty and learning to navigate can be a bit daunting.

For most newbies I�d recommend beginning with the one-volume Christian Prayer  or Shorter Christian Prayer.

If even buying one book is daunting, you could also begin by visiting Universalis, an easy to use online version of each day�s divine office. (Uses a slightly different translation of the psalms and readings so not useful for praying along with someone who has the Christian Prayer or The four volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours
books.)

Another place you could start is at DivineOffice.org, which has an audio version that is very nice to pray along with. (They don�t have all the texts online though, so it isn�t always easy to follow along.) Even if you are using the books or universalis, I�d also recommend listening to some of their podcasts just to get an idea of how the Liturgy is supposed to sound. (My review is here.)

Liturgy of the Hours for Dummies?

In the comments on Jen�s blog someone asked if there is a Liturgy of the Hours for Dummies. I haven�t found one, though I did find this book the other day: The Divine Office for Dodos: A Step-By-Step Guide to Praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

I�ve never read this and so cannot recommend it or say anything about it except it looks like it might be useful. I think, though, at one point one of my readers mentioned that she used it to learn to pray the Liturgy.

The book I do own and highly recommend is The School of Prayer: An Introduction to the Divine Office for All Christians If you’re going to get just one book, I’d say this is what you want. It gives general guidelines for how to pray the Psalms and then goes through the entire 4 week cycle of the Liturgy of the Hours commenting on each day’s Psalms, canticles and readings. The commentaries are great, highlighting both the meaning in the Old Testament context, how ancient Israel would have read it and then highlighting how the Psalm should be read as fulfilled in Christ. Each commentary is not super long or in great depth but are generally enough to give me a foothold when I feel I’m floundering with how to approach a particular Psalm.

My dad gave me this book at the same time he gave me the The four volume set of Liturgy of the Hours. I read parts of it at the time and found it interesting; but I wasn’t really ready to get out of it all it had to offer. It went back on the shelf again. Waiting. Then when Jen asked for advice I knew at once that would be the first book I’d recommend. I went to the office and searched the shelves and came back to my desk with a little pile of books. I opened them and began to read it all over again. Let me tell you, this is a great book!

Other Books about the Psalms

I also use The Navarre Bible: The Psalms and The Song of Solomon . This contains the text of all the Psalms and a line by line commentary on each one. These commentaries not only discuss the original Hebrew context and illuminate connections to other books of the Bible but also the Christian interpretation, sometimes highlighting various Church Fathers and saints.

This is a fairly scholarly work and more of a Bible study sort of material than about praying the psalms. And yet I include it here because the two are not always so easy to separate. A greater understanding can help to deepen our spiritual understanding as well. In any case, it suits me quite well because my approach to prayer tends to be very intellectual.

Another book I have on my shelf but haven�t read yet is Singing In The Reign by Michael Barber. A good overview of the entire Book of Psalms by a Catholic scholar, which I plan to read as soon as I can find where I put it.

Lastly, an easy read and a book that is very accessible and which has been helpful to me is C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms
Lewis explains in his introduction that this is not a scholarly work:

I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. If an excuse is needed (and perhaps it is) for writing such a book, my excuse would be something like this. It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. […] The fellow pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The exert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling hte pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.

In this book, then, I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained, when reading the Psalms, with the hope thatthis might at any rate interest, and sometimes even help, other inexpert readers. I am “comparing notes”, not presuming to instruct.

Other Resources

An interesting summary of an article detailing the history of the laity and the Liturgy of the Hours.

A letter from the Archbishop of Omaha, Nebraska to the priests in his diocese exhorting and encouraging them in the daily recitation of the office. Although addressed to priests, I think it speaks to anyone who prays the office. Or to anyone who is interested in understanding what the office is and why the church prays it.

Elizabeth Foss, one of my favorite homeschooling bloggers, writes about how she incorporates the Liturgy of the Hours into her busy days.

Also, check out Jennifer of Conversion Diary’s excellent series of blog posts on her “Reckless Experiment with Prayer”, giving structure to her life through praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

Lectio Divina

I am planning another post on Lectio Divina; but I wanted to give it a brief mention here as my inquiring reader asked about it.

Lectio Divina is a slow, contemplative praying of the scriptures, slowing down to savor and rest in God’s presence in the word and its techniques can be applied to praying the scriptures in the Liturgy of the Hours.

A good introductory article on Lectio Divina by Father Luke Dysinger, O.S.B. is here at Beliefnet.

A longer article on Lectio Divina, also by Father Dysinger.

Other Lectio Divina resources from the OSB (The Order of Saint Benedict) website.

The Divine Office and Me or How I learned to Pray the Liturgy of the Hours

Finally I’ll end with a what may be a little digression in a long series of digressions, but I thought it might be helpful: a bit of my own experiences.

I got started back when I was in grad school. My dad sent me the one volume Christian Prayer. That�s not a bad place to start. It�s easier to use that the 4 volume Liturgy of the Hours�and much cheaper. After I�d been praying that for a year or two, dad gifted me with the full four volume set, which is what I use today.

I started by praying just Morning and Evening prayer. Morning prayer first thing when I woke in the morning before I even got out of bed, evening prayer very last thing before falling asleep at night. That, by the way, is not the canonical time—you�re supposed to pray it at sunset—but it was the best I could manage at the time because my evenings were so often filled with other plans. I saw praying evening prayer at the canonical time as a goal to aim for rather than a place to start. Also, I should explain that I very frequently fell asleep while praying both morning and evening prayer in that first year. Come to think of it, I still often fall asleep while praying.

A good rule of thumb is not to get too stressed about it. If you only have time to pray one psalm, pray just that. In the past few years as a mother of small children I have learned how to pick up and put down my prayer book as the demands of my children allow, how to pause in the middle of a psalm to read The Big Red Barn five or six times and then pick back up again where I left off when the toddler wanders off again in the middle of the sixth read through.

It is very nice to wake up before the kids do to have some quiet prayer and at certain seasons I manage it; but at other seasons (like in the first trimester or as now when nursing a newborn) I listen to my body�s need to sleep and just pray when I can after breakfast. I�m much more of a night owl anyway and do try to set aside some time for prayer after the kids are in bed. Sometimes I involve Bella and Sophie, reading the psalms and prayers out loud, singing the hymns with them, getting them to recite the antiphons, etc. If you�ve got older kids, you might try having them read the prayers with you or take turns reading.

One thing I would stress is going slowly and being prepared for failures. It can be hard to keep it up and over the almost ten years I�ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours I�ve fallen away from the habit and then picked myself up and started again many, many, many times. I always do find that when I fall away I miss it and it eats at me until I pick back up again. But I try not to beat myself up over the times that I am too tired or too distracted to pray. Likewise, don�t worry too much about praying the entire office if it is too much at first. You might start off with just one psalm. Don�t worry if you get interrupted and have to stop in the middle. Especially if you�re a busy mom.

An article I wrote some time back also had some insights about being a stay-at-home mom and praying the Liturgy of the Hours: motherhood and the monastic life.

If anyone knows of resources I’ve missed or wants to chime in with their experiences of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, please be my guest. I’m sure there are some great resources out there that I’ve overlooked.

Updates, More Resources:

Curiously, Willa, is evidently on the same page as I am today. She posts her own set of Liturgy of the Hours links. Which reminds me that I forgot to include in my links for ways to get started Magnificat, which is also a good resource for someone interested in getting started with the Liturgy of the Hours as it features a simplified version of morning prayer and evening prayer drawn from the LoTH.

Sharon also reminds me in the comments of a few more books I wanted to include.  I really want to get these for myself: Psalms and Canticles: Meditations and Catechesis on the Psalms and Canticles of Morning Prayer and Psalms and Canticles: Meditations and Catechesis on the Psalms and Canticles of Evening Prayer. Unfortunately the Evening Prayer volume, which was completed by Pope Benedict, is not yet available in the US, though you can get it from the Catholic Truth Society in England.

I’ve also heard good things about Christ in the Psalms by Henry Patrick Reardon. I can’t remember where I saw the review, though.

Julie D. of Happy Catholic gives a favorable review to another book: Praying the Psalms With the Early Christians: Ancient Songs for Modern Hearts by Mike Aquilina and Chris Bailey.

4 Responses to Praying the Psalms: or the Liturgy of the Hours for Dummies

  1. eileen July 27, 2009 at 9:57 am #

    You did have a busy day!  Thank goodness for father’s and grandmother’s!  Take your doctor’s advice and give up trying to manage it all.  Here’s to having a restful week of recovery.

  2. Colleen July 30, 2009 at 11:03 am #

    I haven’t gotten caught up on your blog in a LONG time – so a little late congratulations is due your way!

    Ben is gorgeous (I know he’s a boy, but I can still use that word, right?)  You seem to be handling it all so well, my third was the hardest for me (maybe because he was colicky?).

    Anyway, congrats again to your whole family ~ you and Dom make beautiful babies smile

  3. Colleen July 30, 2009 at 11:04 am #

    P.S. I was also born at the same Norwood Hospital as Benedict smile

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  1. Master Index of Liturgy of the Hours Posts - The Wine-Dark Sea - February 21, 2015

    […] *Praying the Psalms: or the Liturgy of the Hours for Dummies This is my master post with tons of links I wrote to be a sort of introduction to LOTH: what it is and how do you get started. Suggestions for books and websites and all sorts of other resources. (7/25/09) […]

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