Lockdown Liturgy: Here’s Your Key Back In

May 08, 2020

By Patrick Kornmeyer


The present world-wide quarantine has occasioned a restriction in the faithful’s access to the sacramental life of the Church, unprecedented at least in living memory. Public Masses are cancelled, confessions severely restricted (if not cancelled also), and the Sunday Mass experience, previously limited to the homebound, now streaming to screens across the globe.

When most Catholics think of the “liturgy,” they often, and correctly, think about the prayers and ceremonies surrounding the Eucharistic sacrifice. Some, also correctly, will include the rituals surrounding the celebration of the other six sacraments. What many do not know, or do not fully grasp the import of, is the fact that any layperson has access to a major part of the Church’s liturgy in a way that is less obvious, yet more real, than watching a Mass on a computer screen.

The Divine Office, referred to variously as the Breviary or the Liturgy of the Hours, is without exaggeration the second half of the Church’s liturgy (public worship). While, unlike attendance at Sunday Mass, recitation of the Office is not obligatory for laypeople (but it is for priests and religious), nevertheless the Office is essential to a truly and fully liturgical spirituality.

Briefly, the Divine Office (from the Latin officium, meaning “duty, service”) is a liturgy offered to God that consists, not in the confection of a sacrament, but in a pure sacrificium laudis, the verbal incense of a sacrifice of praise. Unlike the Mass, the Office can be said by laypeople, even if they pray it individually. The difference is that clerics and religious, by receiving an official mandatum from the Church and canon law, are able to say the Office “officially,” in the name of the Church, whereas laypeople do not have such a privilege. Nevertheless, there is nothing, which prevents laypeople from praying the Office, especially as it is a true exercise of uniting one’s personal prayer with the public prayer of the Church.

This is a subtle but necessary distinction: clerics and religious pray the Office in the name of the Church; laypeople do not pray it in the name of the Church, but they still unite their prayer to this public prayer. Thus, while not “fully” (or “officially”) liturgical, when laypeople pray the Office it is much more than a mere personal and private devotion.

The content of the Office principally consists in a collection of Psalms, readings from Scripture, and Orations (corresponding to the prayer used at the Mass of the day), in addition to various other prayers. The Psalms have always had an essential place in the prayer life of the Christian faithful, and this remains the case to this day.

The Patristic interpretation of the Psalms is that they are the prayers that God gave to man in order to teach them to pray. Young children, by continually hearing the speech of their family, gradually come to make the words their own, at first in an awkward and extrinsic way, but eventually in a way where the words become truly their own. When a man says “I love you” to his wife, the words are truly his, even though the man had nothing to do with the invention of the English language. He is using “borrowed” grammar and vocabulary, and the phrase has been uttered innumerable times through the ages; yet in this case the words truly are his own. In the same way, though the Psalms may at first seem foreign and stilted to us when used as prayer, with time and exposure the Psalms become a second nature of speech, a grammar of prayer.

The Catholic liturgy can be understood as a ladder of ascent to God. The prayers and ceremonies that surround the sacred mysteries (or, in the case of the Office, the divine word of God) are themselves sacramentals. Especially in the case of the sacraments, they are largely unintelligible without the “form” of the words and ceremonies which accompany them. The act of baptizing, for instance, is indistinct from a simple washing without the context of the sacramental formula. No words (form), no baptism (sacrament).

The Psalms not only give voice to the prayers of Christ’s Body, the Church, but also give a privileged look into the mind of Christ himself. Of particular note in this regard are Psalm 21(22), which strikingly illuminates the thoughts and experiences of Our Lord while he was suffering the crucifixion, and Psalm 109(110), the most-referenced Old Testament text in the entire New Testament, which brilliantly ties in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly motifs in the Old Testament into the single Person of Christ.

While some Bibles give tables for which Psalms to pray according to one’s mood, the Office instead provides the standard to which we must conform, the mind of the Church herself (the Mystical Body of Christ) in her perpetual prayer to God.

You read that correctly: in the liturgy, the Church instructs us both in what and how to think and feel. How foreign to our narrow, individualistic mindset today!

St. Paul exhorts us, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The beauty of the Catholic faith in part consists in the fact that we are not trapped in ourselves and our individual moods, but that the health of the Body is the health of the members: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

Repetitio mater discendi—repetition is the mother of learning, according to the ancient Romans. The continual exposure to the Psalms is necessary for the gradual formation of the mind into a true anima ecclesiastica—an ecclesiastical soul, a soul that lives and moves and has its being in the life of the Church, which is identical with the life of Christ’s Body.

We do not want the Bible to fit our fragile, fickle emotions; we want our emotions to fit the Bible. “Be true to yourself” is abysmal advice (literally) unless you carry always in your body the death of Jesus, so that his life too might be manifested in your own life (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:10). To a narcissist, what I just said is heresy and blasphemy. “Crucify such an idea!” they shout, demanding instead the cheap substitutes of carnal pleasures and emotionalism, despite the fact that such replacements are notorious criminals.

If you are not moved to sorrow at the Gospel’s passion narratives, that is exponentially worse than feeling no pity watching an old lady get mugged on the street. If your heart does not melt when your infant daughter squeals with excitement when you walk through the door after work, then I suspect you might get pleasure out of skinning cats. Being “true to yourself,” at its finest, is simply sainthood; at its worst, it is the eternal, infernal non serviam that refuses any authority outside of itself—ironically, leading to the worst servitude of all. Conformity to the mind of Christ and his Church is liberating to the extreme, and breaks out of the hell of the idolatrous Self. This conformity is accomplished through the sacraments, faith, and prayer.

The Church has traditionally interpreted the Biblical injunction to “pray always” in terms of the Office, which sanctifies the various hours of the day. For this reason, Pope Benedict XVI invited all the faithful to participate in this privileged form of prayer: “I would then like to renew to you all the invitation to pray with the Psalms, even becoming accustomed to using the Liturgy of the Hours of the Church, Lauds in the morning, Vespers in the evening, and Compline before retiring.”

This is especially important in a time when access to the Mass is restricted. The liturgy is meant to be a strong rock on which we can lean in all the circumstances of our life, uniting them all to Our Lord in the Eucharist. The “heartbeat” of the Church is the rhythm of its liturgy.

Before taking the plunge to buy a physical copy of the books of the Divine Office (which I ultimately would strongly recommend), there are two online resources that many use: the first is iBreviary (for the post-1970 Liturgy of the Hours), and the second is DivinumOfficium.com (for the traditional Office, often called the Roman Breviary). With either of these resources, you can instantly tune in to an authentic form of liturgical prayer, which especially in this time of quarantine can serve as a profound source of encounter with the living God—no screens attached.