Please explain the Liturgy of the Hours. Is there a specific prayer? Why was it for priests and religious alone?
The Liturgy of the Hours is recognized as the “official prayer of the Church.” It consists mainly of the praying of the Psalms at particular times (or hours) of each day. In a primitive way, the Liturgy of the Hours came about in the time before Christ, simply through the practices of the Jews, who would have prayed the Psalms. Christ himself of course also prayed the Psalms (as he did even as he was being crucified: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”). In the early centuries of the Church, the practice of the clergy coming together throughout day (morning, midday, evening, night, etc) for communal prayer began to form into something more structured, centered in singing psalms and other hymns. This practice would further develop with the rise of monasteries (places where monks live), as the Liturgy of the Hours would become a way toward the goal “praying without ceasing.” By praying throughout the day, and in a sense making time holy, monks could grow in their sense of allowing God to truly lead them through every moment of the day, with these times of prayer forming this ongoing relationship. Still later, the obligation for clergy to pray these hours would be instituted, for the sake of praying for the people, giving a good example, and for their own personal growth.
These basic roots have led to what we have today in the Liturgy of the Hours. Perhaps you have noticed me or other priests carrying a small book around (I carry mine in a removable black book cover)—this is a “breviary,” or the book from which we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes called “The Divine Office.” There is a particular set of prayers for each “hour,” consisting mainly of a four week cycle of the 150 psalms, and of other Scriptural passages. While all priests and religious make promises or vows to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, all of the members of the Church are invited to pray this prayer. In earlier centuries of the Church, only the clergy would pray it, partially because books were expensive to produce and much of the population was illiterate, but also because the prayer was still developing in its form. However, in this age when almost all are able to read and as books are quite easy to acquire, truly all can pray this now well established , official prayer of the Church. Furthermore, new resources (such as smart phone apps, internet sites, or resources like the monthly missalette “Magnificat”) give either the complete or modified versions of the Liturgy of the Hours that make this prayer more accessible to all.
Thus, the prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours is very specific and structured praying of the Psalms and other Scripture passages. Truly all people can pray these hours. For through this prayer of the Church, we pray in union with all of the Church throughout the whole world, making all time holy.