Praying the Divine Office

I love old movies, you know, the ones that don’t have scantly clad women in every other scene blasting out profanities while firing an AK47 into unsuspecting public.

I especially love old Catholic movies. What a different time in our nation when a producer could put together a  movie like “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, or “The Song of Bernadette” and actually expect an audience to want to see it. I’m too young to remember such a time, but in my minds eye I can imagine the shops all closed on Sundays, and Friday fish specials at every grocery store. I don’t actually know if it was ever like that, but in my “Leave it to Beaver” dreams, that’s how it is.

One thing you will often see in these old movies is that moment when you catch the priest unawares. If you were to catch a priest off guard in a modern movie, I am saddened to say that it is probably something you really don’t want to see, and you should probably go to another movie immediately. In the good old black and white days though, catching a priest off guard always meant the same thing.

He was reading out of the black book.

What was this ominous black book? Why was he always walking in the garden with that same darn book? Was it the Bible? Butler’s “Lives of the Saints”? Nope, it was the Divine Office.

Just in case you are wondering, all clergy is expected to read the Divine Office, and most religious orders have it in one form or another written into their Rule as well. It’s just one of those things that the religious are supposed to do.

“Priests and deacons aspiring to the presbyterate are obliged to carry out the liturgy of the hours daily according to the proper and approved liturgical books; permanent deacons, however, are to carry out the same to the extent defined by the conference of bishops”  -Code of Canon Law 276-3

So yes, priests are supposed to pray the whole darn thing every day, and according to the the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, deacons are required to pray at least morning and evening prayer. It’s just one of those things that are supposed to be done.

At first, I must say, this was a daunting task. These books are rather confusing to the novice, let me tell you. It is broken into a bunch of different sections and you are constantly flipping from one side of the book to the other to find whatever reading or prayer is next. If it a holy day not celebrated on a Sunday, it might be in the back of the “Propers”. What? It’s a saint’s feast day? Is it local or not? Okay let me search the “Proper of Saints” real quick. Should I pull out my addendum? I mean this thing is so complicated that every year, they print out a guide just with the various page numbers you should be on every day.

You should see all of us deacon candidates when we get together and try to figure this out. It’s hilarious, not unlike watching a circus. We are all shouting out page numbers, books are flying through the air, a moments smile when you get to the right page only to arrive a moment too late and have fumble while the rest of the group is on to the next section. We are like a wheelbarrow full of monkeys.

Phew, It’s like holy juggling.

All joking aside, the rich liturgical feeling of this most ancient prayer truly is divine. You cannot help but feel yourself moving through the liturgical calendar, chanting away with all the men and women before us. The prominent position of the psalms in this prayer help your mind and heart go back even further to our Jewish roots. It is truly timeless.

Unless you are short on time, in which case it feels like a race. “I must do this, I am commanded!” you think to yourself. I hope the Lord can see through my selfishness, and if He cannot reward my lack of focus, perhaps he will be kind to me for my persistence.

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