Awake at all Hours: Praying the Divine Offices

Jessica Linzel, Brock University

Prayer is a necessary part of everyday life for many people around the world. Modern day Roman Catholic Church priests must pray the entire Liturgy of the Hours every day in order to maintain a consistent devotion to God. This sacrament has evolved over time, from its beginnings in antiquity, through the deeply religious Middle Ages, and the into the age of Reformation where it saw numerous corrections and translations. My goal for one week was to follow a simple version of the Liturgy of the Hours in order to feel what it was like to be a devoted member of the clergy during these earlier periods. The outcome resulted in a distaste for waking at 3am, but a greater understanding of why this became a daily practice.

The initial task of figuring out when I needed to pray each day was difficult because some versions of the liturgy instruct the participant to coordinate their prayer schedules with dawn and dusk, which fluctuate depending on the seasons, or what part of the world one lives in. For this reason, I chose to simply pray once on every third hour, according to The Divine Hours: Pocket Edition, compiled by Phyllis Tickle.[1] Her book offers one week’s worth of prayers, with a concluding chapter that contains a selection of traditional, seasonal, and occasional prayers. The hours take place at 12am, 3am, 6am, 9am, 12pm, 6pm, and 9pm. Since the author has not included a daily mid-afternoon prayer in her book, I decided to choose a short prayer from this final “occasional prayers” chapter to recite each day at 3pm, the hour of “None”.[2]

As I began my first prayer at 12am on Sunday morning, I immediately ran into the question of how to pray. The purpose of praying each office on a certain hour is to help church members in all places co-ordinate their worship, even though they may not be in fellowship together bodily. Some churches assert that the liturgy is not legitimate unless the words are spoken aloud, while some claim it is enough to simply read silently. Therefore, I decided to pray out loud if it did not disturb anybody, and silently if I was around other people. I also prayed on my knees since the monks claim this is the best position for full concentration. As a Christian, prayer has always been an active part of my life. At first, I did not imagine that this week would have any effect on what I felt was an already meaningful religious existence, but I was wrong.

Almost every office seemed to take place at an inconvenient time. Whether I was at school, work, or a friend’s house, and whether I was sleeping or cooking a meal or driving my car, I still needed to stop what I was doing and take the time to recite the office. One of the toughest places to recite the offices was in the restaurant at which I work. On both Tuesday and Friday night  I was able to get away with hiding out in the bathroom at 3pm, 6pm, and 9pm for a few minutes, but Saturday morning was an extremely busy shift, and I got more than a few dirty looks from co-workers as I ducked into the bathroom at 6am, 9am, and 12pm. Thankfully I was able to explain the situation once things slowed down and nobody was upset, but it definitely showed me the social sacrifice that one needs to make in following the hours of the divine office, and I was also humbled in my sacrifice of hygiene.

This sacrifice in social relationships was also felt while I attended school. Brock University has a meditation room, and this was greatly appreciated since by this point I was getting sick of praying on the bathroom floor. It made me wonder how monks would have found places to pray whenever they left the monastery, since they could not do a quick Google search of the facilities as I was able to. While this time I had a nice quiet area to pray, the timing still caused a lot of problems. I tried to complete the offices in the 10 minutes between classes, but ended up entering late almost every time. It gave me embarrassment as it caused a scene whenever I had to find a seat after class had already begun, and it made me feel rude as I raced in and out of most classes without the regular casual conversation through the hallways with various classmates. The location of the meditation room was also not always near me on campus and more than once I found myself on the floor of the bathroom yet again.

This living history project also caused me to sacrifice my physical comfort as I ended up losing a few hours of sleep. I often waited until midnight to go to bed so that I would not have to wake up at 12am in order to pray. I also had to set my alarm for 3am and 6am every morning which by the seventh day was no easier than it was on the first day. I accidentally slept through my alarm on one of these mornings and felt a slight twinge of guilt. This is possibly what a monk may have felt if he missed praying an office, as God was left unglorified during this moment of human weakness. In fact, every time I was late in praying, which was about half of the time, I became aware of my own human frailty as I could not even keep a simple prayer schedule due to my own focus on the demands of this earthly life. I realized that this must be why the offices were initiated, in order to keep people, especially churchmen, focused on glorifying God because of how easy it is to become caught up in the things of this earth.

I was often half-hearted or hasty in my recitations. Looking back, I have developed an appreciation for the amount of self-discipline that it must have taken for the clergy to put their negative feelings aside and focus on prayer, especially if feeling anger, frustration, and exhaustion. Rarely do I feel like praying if I am ever irritated; I prefer to wallow in self-pity for a while first. However, praying on regimented hours required my attention whether I felt like it or not, and after reciting hymns of praise it made me feel rather silly for getting worked up over little things, as I became continually refocused on the bigger picture of life. This was one of the biggest benefits I saw, as the bible does require devotion at all times, not just whenever it is most convenient. In fact, the reward was often greater when completing a prayer that was begun in frustration as my negative feelings became eased by the end. Once, while on my knees at work, I was also able to spot a key that had been missing for a few weeks behind the toilet in the staff bathroom so I guess there are more than just spiritual benefits.

The final unexpected aspect of praying the liturgy of the hours was a feeling of communion. Monks who prayed the divine offices would do so on their own at times, but they often also gathered together to pray. I am able to feel this fellowship every week in church, but praying the offices forced me to get out of my comfort zone and pray with other people much more often, since there were many times in this week where I was with certain people who were comfortable joining me in prayer for those few minutes. For example, I was driving home from Toronto on Thursday night and got caught in traffic. It was 6pm and my boyfriend was in the car with me, and since I was driving, he offered to read the office aloud for the both of us. Also, on Monday night I ate supper at a friend’s home. Instead of praying a blessing on the meal, I was able to recite the 6pm “Vespers” office aloud. On Thursday afternoon at 3pm I chose to pray a prayer for the sick from the final chapter with my brother and his children. He was worried for his wife who was in the hospital at the time undergoing a minor surgery, and the book offered words that fit the situation perfectly; words that I was not eloquent enough to conjure on short notice. These examples and others showed me the power of prayer as not only a personal sacrament, but also as a way of unifying believers, for the edification of all.

I learned much in this past week while observing the Liturgy of the Hours. I realized why leaders of the church felt this was necessary in the past, and why it has continued to be a tradition today. It gave me a taste of what it would be like to live this way constantly, as it would require sacrificing sleep, comfort, and any acts of spontaneity. Living this structured existence was not beneficial to my life in terms of work, school, and social schedules, as it did not offer very much flexibility. However, I can honestly say that the prayers did offer me spiritual benefits, as such constant reminders offered daily encouragement and greater opportunity to live joyfully for God.

[1] Phyllis Tickle, comp., The Divine Hours: Pocket Edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[2] Fernand Cabrol, “None,” The Catholic Encyclopaedia, vol. 11, ( New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), accessed March 2, 2017,