I am not normally a great one for making New Year’s Resolutions. But I made one this year and it has turned out very well. At the start of 2020, I resolved not to lose weight or finish my novel or learn a new language – although I should do all of those things – but to pray at least one Office from the Divine Office every day. Many years ago a friend who was entering religious life gave me his three-volume set of the entire Divine Office, and since then they have often glared reproachfully at me from the shelf (I have never been one of those people to whom a good prayer life comes naturally or easily). The final prompt for my resolution was a challenging homily from my parish priest last Advent. He urged us to pray more and to re-examine our priorities, suggesting to us than we could easily make more space for prayer if we cut out time-wasting and distractions.
The riches of the Divine Office have been a fantastic discovery.
The Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes known as the Breviary (a breviary is the name given to the prayer book containing the prayers), is the formal public prayer of the Church. Nowadays it consists of five individual “offices”, i.e. sets of prayers to be said at different times of the day: The Office Of Readings, Morning Prayer, Prayer During The Day, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer. Most Catholic monastic communities structure their prayer around the offices, and all priests are obliged to pray the entire Divine Office every day; not a trivial commitment, as to pray through the whole thing properly takes about an hour in total.
My own extremely limited plan to manage just one per day seems rather ineffectual by comparison. But from tiny acorns mighty oak trees grow – and there is no point setting oneself over-ambitious goals, in the spiritual life just as much as in physical fitness or intellectual activity. You’re not going to give up booze, pizza, chocolate and carbohydrates all in one go or read a Tolstoy book every week, and when you try, and fail, you’re probably going to feel bad (I’ve seen it suggested that only a quarter of people continue their New Year’s Resolutions beyond January 31, and only 8% make it to the end of the year). You might, however, be able – as a first step – to swear off crisps and wine, or manage ten pages of War And Peace each evening. Little successes in self-denial and virtuous habits are not only good for you in themselves, but strengthen the will and enable further incremental improvements. That, at any rate, was my thinking.
Occasionally a word or phrase leads to them asking difficult theological questions, pushing at the limits of my own understanding. “How old is God?” was a question I was asked recently.
I won’t claim, three-quarters of the way through the year, that I am some kind of spiritual master who has reached a new plane of sanctification (ask my wife and children about that!). But I have kept the resolution, with only one or two lapses, and the riches of the Divine Office have been a fantastic discovery. Generally, I say Evening Prayer after I’ve finished reading bedtime stories with my son and daughter, just as they’re dropping off to sleep, and it feels like a very fitting way in which to end my day with them. Occasionally a word or phrase leads to them asking difficult theological questions, pushing at the limits of my own understanding. “How old is God?” was a question I was asked recently, also “where is heaven?”.
A few nights ago the Psalm for Evening Prayer was Psalm 120, ending in the wonderful words, “The Lord will guard your coming and going, both now and forever”. My son asked me what that meant, which opened up a lovely conversation about the love and care of God. Sometimes he is still awake at the end of Evening Prayer/Vespers and asks me to do Night Prayer as well, which I find very touching.
Niall Gooch is a columnist for Chapter House. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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