Questions about Praying the Liturgy of the Hours

One of my favorite bloggers, Leila of Like Mother Like Daughter, wrote recently about how she won’t write about her prayer life. She’s a wise woman, much more so than I am. I think I’m probably a fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread.

When it comes to prayer, I’m really like a child reading at the level of “the fat cat sat on the mat.” I know my letters and the sounds they make and I can string them together to make words; but there’s a whole world of literature out there that is still inaccessible to me. So my writing about how to pray, daring to advise others about how to pray is perhaps like the blind leading the blind. Though in his book on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis argues to excuse his audacity in tackling a subject he knew that he was singularly unfit for that sometimes when a boy is learning math and gets stuck he’s better off turning to a fellow student than to a teacher because the teacher no longer remembers what it’s like not to know how to work that kind of problem while for the fellow student his own recent mastery of it is quite fresh in his memory.

So that’s my excuse. I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours for–goodness is it eight or nine years now?–anyway, for a while and so I’ve got some experience under my belt. And yet I remember very clearly what it was like when I was just getting started. And I know what it is to struggle. To fall down and forget how to pray regularly, to pull myself back up again and start over when I’ve let the habits lapse. I’m a work in progress and if any of my experience helps someone else, well then thanks be to God that it is so. For whatever reason, I feel compelled to tackle this subject again and again, to seek help and inspiration from my fellow travelers on this journey and in my own turn to reach back to lend a hand to those who are climbing behind me.

So now if you haven’t decided to kill me because of all my cliches and mixed metaphors and rambling going nowhere introductory and exculpatory thoughts, I’ll get to the actual topic at hand: the question.

I’ve got a question for you about praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

I’ve had the app on my new iphone since just before Christmas, and sometimes I only get to pray it in the mornings, but I’m really enjoying it. I do sometimes find it overwhelming though, and I feel like I’ve missed out when I get to the end but find that there isn’t anything that remains in my mind to take with me into my day. I’m familiar with lectio divina, and I’ve used the Irish Jesuits’ online prayer sacredspace.ie on and off for a couple of years. When I read the bible, which isn’t every day by any means, I like to read until I find something that resonates with me, and then I stop and take that thought or word into my day. So I do find there is a lot to read through with the Liturgy of the Hours. I kind of understand that the complementary psalms are to be used only at the day time hours, but if I’m only doing it once a day then I feel like I should get through the whole thing.

I guess my language says it all – I do sometimes feel like it’s something I “should” get through” which takes away much of the joy for me.

Do you have any suggestions? Is there something I don’t understand?

It’s not surprising that it’s overwhelming. I think it does take time to ease into learning how to pray the liturgy of the hours. There is a lot there and if it’s not at all what you’re used to, it can be a lot to get through, a lot to absorb.

I know some people start slow. They read just one or two of the psalms and some of the prayers. That’s probably not a bad idea. I think one fault I have is the need to finish, to complete it. I will sometimes rush to get through if I feel I’m short on time or I worry I might be interrupted. But I think the feeling like I need to get through it all is probably a stumbling block to my actually entering into prayer. I suspect that a few lines prayed deeply would be more beneficial to me than an entire office prayed at breakneck speed.

I know too well that feeling that there’s something I’m just not getting or that I don’t understand. I’ve often experienced getting to the end and having nothing to carry with me though the day. Sometimes they’re just… words on paper or on the screen. They hardly register in my mind at all and then they are gone. Am I praying? Am I just spinning my wheels? How do you pray anyway? What does that mean? Usually, I’m pretty sure I’m doing it wrong. But I muddle through anyway. I figure trying is better than not trying. And who knows maybe I’ll eventually get better with practice. Is praying like playing the piano or riding a bike? (Not that I’ve ever learned to do either.) Or is doing it wrong over and over and over again only reinforcing bad habits that some day I’ll have to unlearn? I understand that this whole venture is fraught with doubt and perplexity.

I swing back and forth between feeling that the prayers are something “I should get though” and feeling like they really do nourish me with words that speak to my heart. But you know, I don’t think either one is really a completely wrong attitude. On the one hand it would seem obvious that it is better to pray with one’s whole heart and one’s whole mind and to really listen and heed the words. But on the other hand I also do think there’s a virtue in pushing through when I don’t feel it and, yes, even when I’m just putting in my time and getting through it because I feel like I should. All of us are human and frail and our minds wander. Certainly distraction in prayer is something we should push against; but at the same time whether we experience consolations or dryness in prayer is not fully in our control either. God will give us consolations or withhold them according to his own designs and not our desires or perceived needs.

I know there are times when some things I can control will effect my prayer life. If I’ve been avoiding confession, it becomes harder to pray. If I haven’t been getting enough sleep, if becomes harder to pray. If I don’t really put forth the effort to settle myself in quiet and if I hurry through the prayers, it is harder to pray. But sometimes I am sleepy through no fault of my own. I’m a mother of small children and even if I get to bed at a reasonable hour I can have very interrupted sleep. Likewise for making a quiet space in the day. Sometimes it’s not within my power to find a time when I can pray without interruption. So I just do the best I can to get through the prayers while a toddler is climbing on me and when the two year-old is demanding I put a diaper on her dolly and all the other myriad interruptions that can and do happen.

I don’t think its entirely wrong to just sit down and “get through” the prayers if that’s the best you can do on a given day. God knows our hearts and our intentions and our weaknesses and there is also an objective reality to what we get out of our prayer beyond what we feel like we are getting out of it. When I go to Mass and receive the Eucharist, I receive Christ whether I am feeling particularly close to him or not, whether I feel refreshed or not, he is feeding me. Sometimes what impedes that feeling is my own lack of will but sometimes he allows us to not feel any consolation because consolation is not what we need at that point in time. I think sometimes I walk away from my prayers not feeling particularly refreshed because what I need is not to feel refreshed but to have my will strengthened. God wants us to turn to him even when it doesn’t yield an immediate reward of good feeling, even when it feels empty and rote. A friend likened it to when you are trying to help a baby learn to walk how you stand him up and then let go and move away a little bit so that he has to totter a few steps under his own power. Likewise, God wants us to approach him under our own power and seeking him for his own sake and not for the happy feelings we receive in prayer.

I like the idea of looking for a phrase or word or thought to carry with me through the rest of the day. But I’m not sure I could force it. Though I do think I could be more receptive to listening for it. I don’t know, perhaps it’s best to ask God to grant you that favor, but then to be ready to accept ‘no’ as an answer? Listen for something but if nothing speaks to you, let go of the need? Because if you really need it, God will provide.

I do sometimes have that happen. Yesterday morning Dom had to leave early for a meeting in Cambridge. He said goodbye to me while it was still dark and I was still asleep. So I was solo getting the kids up and making breakfast. I was sleepy and didn’t get up before the children woke me so I didn’t have a quiet time to pray before they needed me to change diapers and serve breakfast. Then I had another OB appointment and so had to rush out the door before I had a chance to sit and pray.

So I did my usual rush through the Invitatory Psalm (Psalm 95 which I’ve memorized by reciting it daily for years and years) while I got out of bed and began to face the day. For Morning Prayer I found my oasis of quiet in the car on my drive to the OB. I put on the Morning Prayer podcast from DivineOffice.org and prayed as I drove.

One phrase jumped out at me. It was from the Reading, from the book of Wisdom.

  Wisdom 7:13-14

  Simply I learned about Wisdom, and ungrudgingly do I share�
  her riches I do not hide away;
  For to men she is an unfailing treasure;
  those who gain this treasure win the friendship of God,
  to whom the gifts they have from discipline commend them.

That final line “to whom the gifts they have from discipline commend them” tugged at me. In the moments of quiet that the podcast so beautifully gives for contemplation (I’m bad about doing that when I read the office on my own) I pondered it. What does it mean “the gifts they have from discipline”? What kind of discipline?

Suddenly I recalled all the various times I’ve found myself lamenting my lack of self discipline. And I felt a little nudge. Perhaps instead of seeking self-discipline, what I instead need to be trying to submit myself to God’s discipline. The discipline of his wisdom rather than my own folly.

I’m still not exactly sure what that means. I’ve got more pondering to do. But I suspect it means more listening and less trying to impose my own ideas about order and structure. Letting go of my need for control and instead allowing Him to take the reins.

Has this answered any of your questions? Or am I totally misreading them? I hope at least I’ve been able to show you that as long as I’ve been praying I still don’t have it all figured out. Some days I still feel I really know what I’m doing. I just do the best I can to muddle through. But I want beginners to know that that’s ok. Perhaps the one thing I’ve learned it that it’s not about doing it right or wrong; but about making a space in my life for meeting God.

I don’t always hear him. But to me a huge part of it is having the habit of daily prayer not getting it right every single day. I get into ruts when prayer becomes mechanical but because I am persistent, I am at least still giving God a window into my life.

All I know is that I have experienced many fruits in life through the discipline of the liturgy of the hours in whatever form I have approached it. How I pray and when and how much I get through in a day changes from season to season with pregnancy and new babies and moving and vacations and all sorts of factors. I’ve come to recognize that there is an ebb and flow. Sometimes I am more faithful than others. And yet I keep coming back, even after falling away for weeks and weeks I find it nags at me, calls to me. I feel empty when I am not filling myself from that stream.

3 Responses to Questions about Praying the Liturgy of the Hours

  1. Dorian Speed February 1, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    I think those are the St. Nicholas books we have, too. I could get up and go check, but they are strewn about the house with the rest of the Christmas decorations.

  2. Kathy February 2, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

    Thanks for sharing!

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