Since both the mind and the voice are called into play, or better put, “called into prayer,” every time we gather for Mass or the Divine Office, we should consider the mind and voice now.
Saint Benedict in his Rule speaks of Mens concordet voci, “let the mind or spirit be in harmony with the voice.” Presumably Saint Benedict got this notion from earlier patristic sources, such as Saint Cyprian of Carthage (+258 A. D.) who wrote: “God does not hearken to the voice, but to the heart” (De or.dom. 4). And Saint Augustine (+430 A. D.) who said: “What the voice pronounces should linger on in the heart” (Praec 2,3). In modern times someone put: “If the heart doesn’t pray, the tongue only plays.”
The point seems to be seeking a positive interior disposition in our prayer, fighting against mere “piety of the lips,” or “lip service,” which allows God as far as the threshold of the mouth–since it is God’s word we pronounce–but not into the dwelling of the heart. In the work of prayer the most important dimension is really the interior, since anyone, even a parrot, can recite the words, but only a human can express with love the words being spoken.
Now who among us can say that every time we gather for prayer in common or in solitude that we truly “cry with joy,” as Psalm 94 has it, or that we are going to “dance for the Lord” as another psalm puts it? Perhaps we are feeling half asleep, totally distracted, or in a disagreeable mood. What then? Should we simply not pray until we are fully awake, focused on what we’re doing or in a good mood? We know that would be impossible in our way of life, with its specific demands of time and place. What parent would only tend its child when that parent was feeling up to it or truly loving and self-giving? So for us, with the task of “raising our prayer to God,” like a parent raising a child, we go about doing the work in season and out, both when we feel up to it and when we really don’t feel like it.
Maybe more accurately we would say on some or many days: “I am exhausted with my groaning; every night I drench my pillow with tears; I bedew my bed with weeping. My eye wastes away with grief” (Psalm 6:7-8). We have to admit it is probably very hard or impossible even to achieve perfect harmony between the mind and the voice. Part of the challenge is that the sentiments we find in the Psalms are so extreme and follow one another so rapidly, even within the same psalm. The danger is to lose interest in the sacred texts, think of it all as a mere formality and withdraw our full participation and interest. We must fight this tendency, of course, and continue to strive to pray the psalms with heart and mind lifted up to God.
We all struggle each day to bring our attention, feeble as we may feel it to be, to the Divine Office. We believe that we will find nourishment there, even if we are never fully ready for God’s action within us. Indeed, we are slowly formed and informed by a willing participation in the Office each and every day. The Liturgy of the Hours becomes an education, literally a “calling forth,” of our energy, sentiments, and love, in the service of God and neighbor.
We must come to every liturgical celebration with a living faith. I am part of the mystery of the whole Church, overflowing with praise and thanksgiving to God. Though a less than perfect member, sinful and broken, I am called to holiness in the mystery of the Church redeemed in the Blood of Christ. And the same Christ, who promised to send the Holy Spirit to assist us in our weakness, is with us when we pray.
Whatever is being proclaimed in the psalm, I am praying also: be it lamentation or rejoicing, for example. These are not necessarily the deepest sentiments of my individual self at this particular moment, but are sentiments of the praying Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The people of God, all baptized Christians, long to see God’s face, and are yearning for the courts of our God (Psalm 83:3).
As a “work of the Church”, the Liturgy of the Hours should be considered as inspired and unified by the Holy Spirit, who prays in us. The example and command of our Lord and the apostles to “pray always” is expressed concretely in the gathered assembly that prays the Divine Office. It should not be considered a mere legal formality, or a “burden that must be fulfilled” to “be a good religious.” Rather, the Office is a fount from which we get daily nourishment and refreshment for our spiritual journey, from the God who calls us.
Thus the Liturgy of the Hours is not an optional activity for religious, but a vital occupation. It is indeed an obligation that we undertake willingly, trusting that God will manifest himself to us through the Church and in Christ Jesus, who first called us to this way of life. We believe our Lord will not abandon us even if we are unfaithful or frail, so we go forward and pray the Liturgy of the Hours each and every day, in good times and bad, rain or shine.
As praying communities who publicly carry out the praying of the Office, we represent the entire Church at prayer, building up the whole mystical Body of Christ by offering a sacrifice of praise to our God. The Liturgy of the Hours should build up our personal prayer as well, helping to renew within us an awareness of God throughout the day, ever present, yet easily overlooked in our lives, even in the cloister, where we are “concerned with many things,” like Martha of Bethany (Luke 10:41), to keep the life going and financially solvent. At the Office we turn to God, look to Christ, place our hope in him, really the whole of our life in him.
The scriptural, patristic, and poetic texts are meant to increase our faith, hope and love. The problems we face as individuals, community or Church, are all brought to the Lord in prayer whenever we wish, and certainly when we gather as one to praise our Maker.
It is the word of God we ponder in the Office, to which we must respond by words and deeds in accord with the Lord’s commands. “Dialogue with the Savior” is one phrase used to describe the Liturgy of the Hours, and I think it’s a fitting description. That is certainly our hope in praying the Office each day: to dialogue with the Savior.
Of course it is not only that, because we pray for all God’s people as well, those who are near and those far away. We pray for the intentions of others, for their well being, health of mind and body, knowing that it is God who can work wonders in their lives, that it is God who also accepts prayers on behalf of others. The selfless prayer of the contemplative thus has a universal and apostolic value, for it is directed for the good of all, living and dead. We are intercessors for the entire world, and need not leave home to do so! We can always think of Saint Therese of Lisieux, a cloistered Carmelite nun, yet proclaimed the patroness of foreign missions. This speaks clearly of the Church’s understanding of the efficacious nature of prayer.