In the contemplative monastic tradition of the West, pride of place has always been given to the celebration of the Divine Office. Along with the daily Eucharist, the Opus Dei nourishes and forms the individuals and the community as a whole. “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” Saint Benedict wrote in his Rule (RB 43.3, “Those Who Arrive Late at the Work of God”). This reflects the constant conviction of the Church that the Divine Office is to be among the primary responsibilities of the Church (see the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, n.1).
All Christians are called to pray and common prayer is an important part of the life of prayer to which all believers are invited. Vatican II tried to re-introduce the laity to this important Prayer of the Church, the Divine Office, and in some parishes it met with success. In many others, though, the Divine Office remains an unknown reality and it is rarely or never prayed. Praying communities such as Christ in the Desert can hopefully encourage others, even those not committed to monastic or religious life, to at least consider incorporating some of the Divine Office into their daily lives. We certainly meet in our monasteries today many who are zealous to be people of prayer and often they simply need to be directed to the riches contained in the Liturgy of the Hours.
When a community gathers to pray the Divine Office, it represents the entire Church at prayer. It is not to be seen as a sort of “pooling” of private prayers, but truly the Church praying as a body together with Christ her head, in the name of all and for all, thus being again the Church at prayer. The assembled community is a sign of communion among themselves in Christ the Lord who prays with them and in the Holy Spirit who has called the community into being, bestowed upon it the charism (that is, gift of the Holy Spirit) of prayer, and who “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
The structure of the Opus Dei is intended to promote between God and his people a conversation which includes both listening and responding, silence and words, Sacred Scripture and poetic texts reflecting Scripture themes like those of the Church’s hymns (General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, n.33). In more recent times silence has come to be valued as an important element in the Divine Office, most often after each psalm or reading. Such silence helps all to absorb the word that has been chanted or heard so that it may take root and grow in attentive hearts. On the other hand, the silence must not be so long as to bore or cause distraction in the choir, such as one or all falling fast asleep! A balance is needed and will inevitably vary from community to community and between individuals within the community.
The Work of God is one of several means of prayer in the monastic day. It holds pride of place, of course, along with the daily Eucharist. The daily horarium (schedule) revolves around the times we gather for the Office and Mass. As we are expected to pray in solitude as well as in common, the Opus Dei should inspire our solitary prayer and vice versa. The prayer in solitude will probably have much less structure and ritual, but it is nonetheless a very important part of our life of prayer. We may begin each day with the praise of God in common with others, but eventually we continue in private, under the inspiration of divine grace, the dialogue with God begun earlier.
The Opus Dei is spread over the day in order to consecrate the entire day to God. The old practice of praying all of the Offices at the beginning or end of the day clearly defeats the notion of sanctifying the entire day by consciously stopping other activities to gather for prayer in the Oratory or the monk’s private cell. As our Lord himself is described as having done, we too are to go back continually to the source of our energy and life–God himself–to draw further strength and inspiration to go about doing good.
Three Liturgical Cycles: Daily, Weekly, Yearly
The celebration of our salvation in Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church is carried out according to daily, weekly, and yearly cycles. Both the Eucharist and the Divine Office reflect this structure and are celebrated accordingly. The mystery of Christ’s Resurrection is the center of all three cycles and so is ever-present to those who participate in the Liturgy of the Hours or the Holy Eucharist.
Each day the Opus Dei begins with waiting for the Risen Christ (Vigils), welcoming him at dawn (Lauds), meeting him again throughout the day (Little Hours and Vespers), and finally placing ourselves under God’s protection at the end of the day and the end of our life (Compline). In addition, there are specific feast days of Christ, his Mother, the angels, and the saints, feasts which are set before us so we might ponder God’s mighty deeds through the ages. We recount throughout each day and the entire Liturgical Year the great things Christ has done and the heroic response of his followers as martyrs, confessors, doctors, and holy men and women. The Mass of the day likewise reflects these realities in order to seek the intercession of the saints as well as the edification and sanctification of God’s people.
The weekly cycle of the liturgy begins by recounting Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week, Sunday. Of course, in the Easter season the resurrection is the special focus, but really every Sunday has as its focus the opportunity to contemplate the Risen Lord. “The Lord’s Day” is to be unlike the other days of the week, thus the Sunday liturgy has longer Offices and normally a different daily schedule with little or no work. At Vigils, the Te Deum is sung and the Gospel of the day is read; there may be additional readings as well. At Mass, the Gloria is sung (except in Advent and Lent) and the Nicene Creed is recited or sung every Sunday and Solemnity. The other days of the week are to be centered around Sunday.
The Liturgical Year is our annual, year-long contemplation and celebration of the redemption of the human race in Jesus Christ. Rooted in the Paschal Season, we pass from Advent, to Christmas, to Ordinary Time and Lent, then Easter (the high point of the Liturgical Year), then Ordinary Time again until the cycle begins anew at Advent. Throughout the Liturgical Year, various feasts and solemnities draw our attention to one aspect or another of the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ, be it our Lord’s Nativity, his Baptism or Ascension, or his Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Conception, Birthday, Assumption, etc. Solemnities of the Apostles and particular patron saints are also included in the Liturgical Calendar each year. All of this is a way to recount with joy and deepen our awareness of God’s unbounded goodness to the human race.