The unintended witness of a well-thumbed breviary

The unintended witness of a well-thumbed breviary

During my silent retreat, which has just ended, all the retreatants prayed the Divine Office in common.

The Divine Office, aka the Prayer of the Church, aka the Liturgy of the Hours, is a series of vocal prayers constituting psalms, hymns, scripture readings, intercessory prayers and other sacred texts. It is an ancient form of prayer — an adaptation of the Jewish prayers which our Lord himself would have prayed with his disciples, and maybe also as a child, with Our Lady and St Joseph.

People are often surprised to learn that priests are not obliged to pray the Mass every day. Daily Mass is certainly encouraged, and strongly recommended. Hence this advice from St Bede, a Doctor of the Church:

“A priest who without an important reason omits to say Mass robs the Blessed Trinity of glory, the angels of joy, sinners of pardon, the just of divine assistance, the holy souls in Purgatory of refreshment, the Church of a benefit, and himself of a medicine.”

Nonetheless, daily Mass is encouraged, not required. Praying the Divine Office, on the other hand, is required. Clergy and religious all over the world pray the Office every day, and a growing number of lay faithful also pray it, privately or in common.

These sacred texts can be prayed all in one sitting (it would take about an hour), but that’s not ideal. The prayers are intended to sanctify different “hours” in the day. Sometimes life in the parish obliges me to pray Evening Prayer at midday, or Morning Prayer late at night, because that’s the only time available to pray. (Never let the perfect become enemy to the good!) So it’s nice, on retreat, to pray the hours as intended, at the corresponding time.

Which brings me to this:

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My neighbour’s breviary — the prayer books which contains the texts of the Divine Office.

That breviary would have resembled my own breviary once, which I acquired eleven years ago, when I joined the seminary. I don’t use mine much — I tend to use the Universalis app on my iPhone — so my breviary is more or less in mint condition:

This is not my actual breviary. You know you need to pray more if your prayer books are still wrapped in plastic!
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This is not my actual breviary. My prayer life can always improve, but none of my prayer books are wrapped in their original plastic!

Every day of the retreat I looked at that breviary in awe. It is a testament to 40 years of daily prayer, observed faithfully. The breviary’s owner has in fact been praying the Office since the 1950s, but the English translation was only published in 1973. I won’t name him, to save him embarrassment (not that he frequents blogs), but by all accounts this priest is a holy man of God, as devoted to the spirit of poverty as he is to prayer.

I received many helps and graces during my retreat, and this priest’s unintended witness is one of them.

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