The breviary is the official prayerbook of the Catholic Church, the prayer said in the name of the Church. It could be said that the Holy Ghost and the Church have been working on it for more than 3,000 years, and it has become the basic book of prayer. It contains the Divine Office, or the formal prayers which the Church puts into the mouths of her priests and religious.
The two chief objectives which the breviary fulfills are:
1. It is the prayer of the Church as a body
1. The breviary is above all the prayer of the Church. It is helpful to understand the difference between private prayer and liturgical prayer. In private prayer I pray, mostly for myself and my own affairs. It is I who stand in the center of action. But in liturgical prayer, that is, in the breviary, it is not primarily I who am praying, but the Church, the Bride of Christ. The object of Her prayer is broader: all the needs of God’s kingdom here on earth. In liturgical prayer, I am like a leaf on the great living tree of the Catholic Church. I share Her life and Her problems. The Church is praying through my mouth; I offer Her my tongue to pray with Her for all the great objectives of redemption, and for God’s honor and glory.
The Church weeps through our tears with those who weep, rejoices through our joys with those who rejoice, does penance through our penances with those who are repentant. All the sentiments of Holy Mother Church find their echo in us. This gives a deeper content to our prayer; we spread out far beyond our own selves. It is through the breviary that we participate objectively in the official ministry and care of souls. The objectives of the Church, the objectives of Christ’s redemption, become ours. We should approach our prayer of the breviary saying: Now the Church is praising God through my mouth; now the Church is struggling after souls with my hands!
2. It is a guide to genuine spiritual growth for the individual soul, religious or lay
The breviary fulfills a second purpose. In the universal spirit of prayer as described above, the individual soul is not to lose sight of itself. The individual, too, must grow; that is the subjective side of liturgical prayer. The breviary is a staff and guide to heaven. For us,it can be compared to the Angel Raphael who led the young Tobias successfully through all the dangers of his journey. It leads us through the Church year. As our Catholic churches sanctify space, so the breviary sanctifies time. By the arrangement of prayers in the sequence of canonical hours, we are made to progress in building up the temple of grace within our soul. By means of the “hours” of the Divine Office the Church puts sword and trowel into our hands for every time-segment of the day. The breviary, as the prayer of the canonical hours and as the prayer of the Church year, is in the highest sense the guide for souls.
St. Benedict said, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God.” Is this the case nowadays? Are we not a race of action, of restless, unwearying activity, and not of quiet, contemplative prayer? We say, of course, that prayer is good, but wonder sometimes what we get by it. We tend to want to work and labor to “make ourselves useful.” Has God changed, or have we, nowadays, less need of Him? Can human activity supply the place of divine grace, and is it not solely by prayer that divine grace is called down upon us?
When Israel fought against Amalec, Moses on the mountain was raising his hands in prayer. It was not the fighting warriors that vanquished the enemy, for as often as Moses let fall his hands it was Amalec that got the upper hand. This Old Testament story has often been used in favor of the Church praying as compared with the Church militant. At the present time, more than ever, we stand in need of prayer, and of the solemn prayer in common (if and where possible) of the Divine Office.
The worship of God is the first and most important duty of the human race. Man is a rational being created to praise God, says St. John Chrysostom, to offer to God the worship of all creation. It is not sufficient that each individual should comply with this duty by only his own prayers. The relation of God to man, of the Creator to the creature, of the King of kings to His subjects, demands a solemn common worship, sacrifice, and prayer, such service as Holy Church offers to God.
The human race must offer to God, socially, either as a united body or by due representation, its tribute of adoration, praise; and thanksgiving. If each individual member of a congress were to offer its respects to the Head of State in private, this would by no means have the same significance as if all did so in common, or by special and solemn deputation. That’s what God requires, for He has written: “All the nations that Thou hast made shall come and adore before Thee, O Lord“; “Praise the Lord, all ye nations, praise Him, all ye peoples.” Next to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in which the work and fruit of our Redemption is continually re-presenced and perpetuated, the Divine Office gives the greatest glory to God, and is most closely united and intimately connected with that Sacrifice.
The Holy Mass is the sun and the canonical hours the rays which surround it. Without Christ Himself, there would be no rays, but on the other hand the rays announce and spread far and wide the glory of the sun, and it is by their means that we receive the sun’s light and heat. The Divine Office is divine in its origin and source, divine in the Object of its praise, and divine in form, which is of no human invention. The Holy Ghost lives, works and speaks in the Church, and we-have to thank Him for its contents, its arrangement, and its words, which He has inspired. It is the official prayer of the Church, and as She is the Mystical Body of Christ, every breath in Her Body belongs to Him. He is Her Head, and Her prayer, Her language, Her voice are His, and therefore divine. “He Himself praises Himself,” says St. Augustine.
The sublimity of this solemn praise of God implies also its efficacy. Our divine Lord Himself has said: “Wheresoever two or three are united in My name, there am I in the midst of them,” and again, “Whatsoever you shall ask in My name, I will give it to you.” “Thy prayer,” says St. John Chrysostom, “is not of such efficacy when thou prayest alone as when thou prayest with thy brethren,” for, as St. Ambrose observes, “If many souls unite they become powerful, and God cannot despise the prayers of a multitude.”
They who sing psalms together as a well-ordered army in battle array do violence to heaven most pleasing to God. Individuals are like drops carried on by the force of the stream. Devotion in common arouses, vivifies, enkindles. It overcomes, to a certain extent, the lukewarm distractions of the individual and unites him in the harmony of the choir, and thus the common prayer and praise resound like one voice rich and full-toned, well pleasing to God. It is the one voice of the Catholic Church, of His Son, to which He must listen.
List of the hours: Matutinum (Matins), Laudes (Lauds), Prima (Prime), Tertia (Terce), Sexta (Sext), Nona (None), Vesperae (Vespers), and Completorium (Compline).
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