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Fr. Hildebrand: “The Sanctification of Time and the Liturgy of the Hours”

Posted: October 3, 2014

A “Tutor Talk” by Rev. Hildebrand Garceau, O.Praem.

Note: Periodically members of the Thomas Aquinas College teaching faculty or chaplaincy present informal lectures, followed by question-and-answer sessions, on campus. These late-afternoon gatherings afford an opportunity for speakers to discuss topics of great interest to them and to share their thoughts with other members of the community. Rev. Hildebrand Garceau, O.Praem. (’78), delivered the following talk on September 17, 2014:

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For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

— Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

 

Time is something we live with; it is inseparable from our human experience. Time so envelopes our existence from birth to death that we are often unaware of it and scarcely able to examine it. Time itself is a creature of God, as St. Augustine says: “You have made all times, and you are before all times, and not at any time was there no time”(Confessions, Bk. XI, Ch. 13).

And God has enfolded all of His material creation in time, from the brilliant stars that endure for billions of years to the flower “that blossoms in the morning and withers in the evening.” All material creation comes to be and passes away, including we humans, whose “span is 70 years or 80 for those who are strong” (Ps. 90: 10). Yes, our lifespan is bound by time, but God “has put the timeless into our hearts” (Eccl. 3: 11).

We have an ambivalent relationship with time. It’s like a predatory villain with whom we must all contend. If time were a rational creature we might find ourselves frequently railing at it: “Slow down! I’m going to be late!” or we might find ourselves muttering: “When will this talk be over so I can get to my seminar reading!?” We want our vacation time to go slowly, but our time under the dentist’s drill to go quickly. There’s study time and prayer time, work time and leisure time. We pass the time with friends; we put in time at work. Or, as the song goes from “Porgy and Bess”: “mornin’ time and evenin’ time; summer time and winter time.” The prisoner in solitary confinement experiences time like a heavy weight he carries day after weary day as he marks the days until he is finally released. The downhill skier experiences time at breakneck speed as he plummets down the slope. Let this suffice for an introduction. Next we reflect on our experience of time with St. Augustine as our guide.

Part 1

In his Confessions Book XI Augustine ponders the mysterious nature of time. He seeks to explain the passage of time: “If we conceive of some point of time which cannot be divided into even the minutest parts of moments, that is the only point that can be called the present; and that point flees at such lightning speed from being future to being past, that it has no extent of duration at all”(XI.15).

And yet when we speak of time we constantly use words that describe duration. For example, we might tell a friend who visits us after several years have elapsed that we haven’t seen each other in a long time. Or, coming out of church on Sunday we might say: “What a surprise! Father gave a really short homily today. Is he off to the golf course?”

We use words like long and short to describe periods of time, but if the past no longer exists, and the future does not yet exist, and the present is just a passing instant, what are we talking about? In what sense can that which has such a fleeting existence be long or short?

Again, I quote St. Augustine: “Where does time come from, and by what way does it pass, and where does it go to while we are measuring it?”

Where is it from? Obviously from the future. By what way? By the present. Where does it go? Into the past. In other words, it passes from that which does not yet exist, by way of that which lacks extension, into that which is no longer” (XI.21). Time is certainly elusive. It reminds us of Heraclitus, the Pre-Socratic philosopher who said: “Upon those who step into the same river, different waters flow.” At this point we can sympathize with St. Augustine when he says: “What then is time? If no one asks me I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know” (XI.14). Yes, we can agree. We do recognize time’s passage, but we cannot say what it is.

That time exists somehow through memory we learn also from St. Augustine. After showing that the only time that has any real existence is the present moment, he offers another way of explaining time. “Perchance it might be fitly said, ‘There are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future” (XI. 20).

In considering the opinions of others, Augustine has difficulty with the idea that the motion of the heavenly bodies, sun, moon, and stars, constitutes time. He asks whether the motion itself is the day, or do we call a day the period in which that motion is completed. He presents the difficulty by giving an example from the Book of Joshua where Joshua prays and the sun stands still for a period of a day so that Israel can defeat the Amorites (Joshua 10: 12-14). And so St. Augustine points out that whether an object is moving or at rest, we measure both the motion and rest by time. Therefore, he concludes that time is not the motion of a heavenly body (XI. 25).

Returning to the hypothesis that time is related to memory, St. Augustine uses the example of reciting a Psalm he had memorized. He recognizes the whole Psalm as what he is about to recite before he begins to recite it. He recognizes the part that has already been recited that has passed his lips. He calls the three parts of the recitation, 1) the expectation (the part not yet recited), 2) the consideration (what is now passing my lips), and 3) the remembrance (what has already been recited). We could do the same with the Lord’s Prayer or any other text we have memorized. Once we have recited the phrase, “Our Father, Who art in heaven,” we also recognize the three parts. Our mind is aware of the part already recited as remembrance, namely the phrase “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” We are aware of our voice pronouncing the words as they pass our lips, which is consideration. Our awareness of what we are about to recite, namely the next lines of the prayer, is expectation. Once the recitation of the Our Father is completed there is no longer any expectation because all has passed into remembrance. We could reason in the same way for watching a movie. What is not yet seen is expectation. What we are now viewing is consideration. What we have already seen is remembrance. If it’s a thriller, we might use suspense instead of expectation! Finally, any action or motion could be divided up in this way. From this we can conclude with St. Augustine that time is remembrance, consideration and expectation, three actions of the mind which attends to any period of duration.

Surely this is not an exhaustive explanation of time, but let it suffice for our purpose here. We are less concerned about the nature of time, and more concerned about how it may be sanctified. Let us look at the last chapters of Book XI of the Confessions as a bridge to the second part of this talk, which leads us into a consideration of the sanctification of time through the prayer of the Liturgy.

Throughout the Confessions St. Augustine turns to God in praise and thanksgiving. In chapter 29 of Book XI he concludes his consideration of time with these words: “Forgetting what is behind, not straining outward to things which will come and pass away, but straining forward to what is before, not according to distraction, but with mental concentration, I press on toward the prize of my heavenly calling, where I shall hear the voice of praise and I shall see Thy delight, which neither comes nor passes away.”

Now all of us, I think, must feel a certain kinship with St. Augustine’s longing for the eternal life of our “heavenly calling.” We live in time, but we have the timeless in our hearts, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, that longing for something which endures, which will not pass away, and so is not subject to time. Now let us examine the life of Our Lord, how He spoke about intervals of time, and how the Church has sought union with her Divine Spouse by the sanctification of time.

Part 2

Usually when Jesus speaks of an “hour” as a unit of time, He is referring to His Passion. For example in responding to His Mother at the wedding feast at Cana, He says: “My hour has not yet come”(Jn. 2:4). Later, as His Passion draws near, He says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen. Amen. I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies it produces much fruit”(Jn. 12:23-24). Then in the Garden on the Mt. of Olives, on that first Holy Thursday night, He says to Judas and the Jewish crowds: “This is your hour, the time for the power of darkness”(Lk. 22:53).

The destruction of evil forces also takes place in a brief hour; for the Devil knows “he has but a short time” (Rev. 12:12). In the Book of Revelation the brevity of the devil’s power over the world is shown in the destruction of the wicked city of Babylon: “Alas! Alas! For the great city … In one hour she has been laid waste”(Rev. 18:19). When Jesus meets His hour, the hour of His Passion, He brings about the defeat of the devil, death, and sin, all destroyed in an hour!

If the enemy has his hour, the Lord has His day. Psalm 118 proclaims: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad” (vs. 24). However, the day of the Lord is not always described as a joyful time. In the prophet Joel we read: “The day of the Lord is coming; Yes it is near, a day of darkness and of gloom, a day of clouds and somberness” (Jl. 2: 1c-2). For the just the day of the Lord is a cause for rejoicing, for those who have spent their time wisely and not gone after fleeting pleasures. But for the wicked the day of the Lord is a day of sorrow and trepidation because they have wasted their time in pursuit of sin. Therefore, the Lord warns us about the unexpected time of His coming. “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” (Matt. 24: 42).

After the defeat of the wicked and with the great advent of the Lord, there comes the great triumph of the day of the Lord in heaven:

The liturgy of heaven was commonly foreseen by the prophets as a victory of day without night, of light without darkness: “The sun will no more be your light by day, and the brightness of the moon will not shine upon you, but the Lord will be your everlasting light” (Is. 60: 19, cf. Rev. 21: 23. 25). (Gen. Instr. On Lit. of the Hours #16)

And so the Church seeks to be vigilant and use the time allotted to her on earth in doing good works. Thus she seeks to clothe the naked, feed the poor, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners. In this way she hopes to be found prepared like the trustworthy servants who are ready to receive the master at any time, even late at night. “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them” (Lk. 12: 37).

In addition to works of mercy, the Church also offers to the Lord each day the pure and living sacrifice of the Mass, and the sacrifice of praise, the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. Both the Mass and the Hours are the official prayer of the Church, her public prayer or Liturgy. The Liturgy is public as opposed to private prayer. In public prayer, whether one or many are involved, they are united in prayer with the whole Body of Christ. Private prayer, like the Rosary, is also highly recommended, but its efficacy is different, depending as it does on the devotion of the individuals.

Public prayer in the Church has its roots in the Old Testament. The sacrifices of the Temple at Jerusalem were a form of public prayer, as prescribed in the Law, and usually included prayers and Psalms. There were also Synagogue services where texts of the prophets or Psalms were read. We have an example of such a synagogue service in Luke where Jesus is invited to read from the prophet Isaiah (Lk. 4: 16-21).

We know that Jesus Himself prayed at various times. Sometimes He prayed early in the morning: “Rising very early before dawn, He left and went off to a deserted place, where He prayed” (Mk. 1:35). He prayed all night before choosing the twelve apostles: “In those days He departed to the mountains to pray and spent the night in prayer” (Lk. 6:12). On the Mount of the Transfiguration once He had prayed, “His face changed in appearance and His clothing became dazzling white” (Lk. 9:29). After the Last Supper, He prayed certain Psalms with His disciples, which were prescribed as a conclusion to the Passover. “After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mk. 14: 26). Even on the Cross we hear Him praying Psalm 22.

Mary and the Apostles gathered in prayerIn the earliest days of the Church we recall that the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin gathered in prayer after Jesus’s Ascension into heaven, as they awaited the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). Subsequently we read of the Apostles Peter and John going up to the Temple to pray at the ninth hour, 3 p.m., a time that was customarily set aside for prayer. Elsewhere in Acts of the Apostles we read about the early Christian community: “They devoted themselves to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The breaking of the bread was an early name given to the Eucharist; it is likely that “the prayers” were Psalms recited at certain times of day. Ever since, in imitation of her Lord, the Church continually offers the sacrifice of praise at certain times of day.

Shortly after the great period of the early martyrs, in the early fourth century, there arose communities of men and women especially in the Egyptian desert and the near East. These communities lived according to a rule of life and subject to an “Abba” who was an older monk. They spent much of their day in prayer. They worked with their hands, weaving baskets, growing fruits and vegetables, caring for animals, and doing other common work. At fixed hours they gathered for common prayer, thus punctuating their day with the praise of God. Saints associated with this period are St. Paul the first Hermit, St. Anthony of the Desert, and St. Athanasius. Some lived as hermits in caves and gathered together for Mass and prayer. Sometimes they would form communities with more common observances. The monastery in the photo below (St. Paul’s, Egypt) has its origin in these very early monastic groups.

St. Paul’s Monastery, Egypt

Some of the early founders of these communities are well-known to us. St. Augustine in the late 4th century had a community of priests in his monastery at Hippo. These were the forerunners of the canons regular. In his Rule for clerics, St. Augustine writes about community prayer: “Be persevering in the practice of prayer at the hours and times appointed” (Ch. 3).

St. BenedictSt. Benedict (left) and his sister St. Scholastica founded the great Benedictine family in the sixth century, and today there are Benedictine monasteries all over the world. The great Benedictine motto, Ora et Labora, “Pray and work,” characterizes the way of life of a Benedictine monk or nun. Between the hours of prayer there would be time for manual labor, spiritual conferences, the copying of manuscripts, and study. The preservation of many “great books” we owe to these diligent monastic communities. That is why Pope Paul VI named St. Benedict a patron of Europe. In his Rule, St. Benedict insisted, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God.” By this phrase, “Work of God,” he meant the Liturgy of the Hours.

These hours were arranged to coincide with certain mysteries of our Christian faith. In this way the canons, monks, and nuns were able to sanctify their day by coming together for prayer. Here is an outline of a typical liturgical day, the horarium, or daily schedule:

Vigils/Matins

A vigil of prayer said at midnight or very early in the morning. It takes its spirit from the gospel of the trustworthy servant who is ready even late at night to receive his master. This prayer was practiced by the early Church to prepare for great feasts, e.g. Easter and Sundays, and it anticipates the parousia, the Lord’s final coming.

Lauds

Morning Prayer, a prayer of praise to begin the day, one of two principal hours. Along with Vespers and Matins, one of the 3 original “hours” or prayer intervals, Lauds commemorates the Resurrection of Christ.

Mass

The Eucharistic sacrifice is the center of the liturgical day. Vigils and Lauds prepare for it; the other hours extend its salutary effects throughout the day.

Terce

A shorter prayer said about mid-morning, following the Jewish temple custom of the morning sacrifice. It celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, which also took place about mid-morning.

Sext

Another shorter prayer said about noon, the time of the peace offering. We pray for peace in our hearts and freedom from sin’s corruption. It commemorates Jesus’s crucifixion at the sixth hour.

None

The third of the “little hours” said in mid-afternoon, which recalls the evening sacrifice and especially the death of Jesus at the ninth hour, or 3 p.m.

Vespers

The great evening prayer which commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Among more active communities that don’t celebrate the longer Vigils, Vespers at the beginning and Lauds at the end of the night are the great “hinges” of the liturgical day.

Compline

This hour originated with St. Benedict, who included it in his Rule. It is the last prayer before retiring for the night.

[Prime]

[This hour is also a shorter prayer like Terce; it is said early in the morning at the “first hour” or about 6 a.m., but after Lauds. It was suppressed in the reforms of Vatican II.]

Introductory Verse, Medieval Book of Hours (15th c.)The image to the right shows a late medieval Book of Hours, very beautifully illuminated. Many of these books were produced in the Middle Ages; some were very large and elaborately decorated. They prove to us today how important the Liturgy of the Hours was to the Catholics of those days. The page illustrated gives the introductory verse which is sung at the beginning of most hours. It comes from Psalm 70 and reminds us that our prayer is always dependent upon divine help. Abba Isaac said of this verse: “Not without reason has this verse been selected from out of the whole body of Scripture. For it takes up all the emotions that can be applied to human nature and with great correctness and accuracy it adjusts itself to every condition and every attack. It contains an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a consciousness of one’s own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and a confidence in a protection that is always present” (John Cassian, The Conferences, # 10).

From what has been said you might think that the Liturgy of the Hours is the exclusive prayer of priests, monks, and nuns. This is far from true. The Liturgy is the work of the whole Church, clergy, religious, and laity. Especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Liturgy of the Hours has been promoted as the “prayer of Christians.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

1175 The Liturgy of the Hours is intended to become the prayer of the whole People of God. In it Christ himself “continues His priestly work through His Church.” His members participate according to their own place in the Church and the circumstances of their lives: priests devoted to the pastoral ministry, because they are called to remain diligent in prayer and the service of the word; religious, by the charism of their consecrated lives; all the faithful as much as possible: “Pastors of souls should see to it that the principal hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and on the more solemn feasts. The laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.”

In his Apostolic Constitution Laudis Canticum, by which he introduced the new Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI states:

If the prayer of the Divine Office becomes genuine personal prayer, the relation between the liturgy and the whole Christian life also becomes clearer. The whole life of the faithful, hour by hour during day and night, is a kind of leiturgia or public service, in which the faithful give themselves over to the ministry of love toward God and men, identifying themselves with the action of Christ, Who by His life and self-offering sanctified the life of all mankind … For this reason the Hours are recommended to all Christ’s faithful.

Today in many parishes and among lay organizations, the Liturgy of the Hours is a common practice. The Catholic faithful are reclaiming the Prayer of Christians, which was practiced in the early Church.

Conclusion

We suffer temptation throughout our lives. The devil never takes a vacation. The early Church Fathers are insistent on the salutary effects of prayer with regard to temptation: “You cannot be tempted or be lost if you are always mindful of Christ” (Hippolytus, “The Apostolic Tradition”). Origen is even more emphatic: “The adverse powers insinuate an evil spirit in the souls of those who neglect prayer” (On Prayer). The early desert Fathers used to recite the entire Psalter daily in order to ward of the devil’s attacks.

What will we do with the time that remains to us? In a conference St. Bernard reflects on the passage of time, “The days of salvation pass away, and no one considers that the day which has passed away from him can never return.” When our last day on earth arrives, will we look for another month, another week, one more day? But we will not see it. Time will have run out for us. Is it not expedient that we make good use of the time that remains to us? The passage of time is a continual reminder that we are mortal. Each breath that we take brings us closer to our final breath. Each beat of our heart brings us closer to the day when it stops beating. Time waits for no one but, like “Ol’ Man River, he keeps on rollin’ along” (Showboat). And as it rolls along it carries all of us in its tide. Energetic youth gives way to old age, which will overtake most of us sooner or later. A beautiful yet poignant poem from Ecclesiastes reflects on this reality:

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come And the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them;
Before the sun is darkened. and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain;
When the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, And the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind;
When the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed;
And one fears heights, and perils in the street; When the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect, Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets;
Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well,
And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it. (12: 1-7)

Even when we think of the good ways we spend time, in good conversations about the great books and ideas, developing our talents and skills, serving others in charity. All of these valuable and even meritorious activities will pass away with this life. However, the praise of God in the Liturgy is an activity that begins here in time’s evanescent envelope but continues eternally, beyond time, in the kingdom of heaven.

Cardinal Ratzinger in his book, A New Song for the Lord, reflects on the eternal nature of the Liturgy. He refers to the frescoes in the crypt church of the monastery of Marienberg in Germany. The frescoes, seen in this slide, depict Christ in majesty with the angels surrounding Him and offering praise. He writes:

The iconography therefore corresponds to the common fundamental understanding of the liturgy still alive in the entire Church … The real focal point is the Majestas Domini, the risen Lord lifted up on high, Wwho is seen at the same time and above all as the one returning, the one already coming in the Eucharist. In the celebration of the liturgy the Church moves toward its Lord; liturgy is virtually this act of anticipating his promised coming. Liturgy is anticipated Parousia, the “already” entering our “not yet,” as John described it in the account of the wedding at Cana. The hour of the Lord has not yet come; all that must happen is not yet fulfilled; but at Mary’s — the Church’s — request Jesus does give the new wine now and already bestows the gift of his hour. (p. 165)

With the Lord in the center and the angels round about him, the monks (representing the praying Church) offer the sacrifice of praise, the Liturgy of the Hours, sanctifying time day after day. Thus they anticipate the great “day of the Lord”, and the earthly Liturgy in time becomes the means whereby we enter into the heavenly liturgy of eternity.

Cardinal Ratzinger goes on to say:

From the beginning monasticism was understood as living in the manner of the angels, and the manner of the angels is worshipping … Thus, the liturgy is the center of monasticism, but monasticism only makes visible for all what the point of Christian existence, indeed of human existence really is.

Yes, this is our goal, to join with the angels in praise of God. Therefore, we have a truly sublime vocation as Christians here on earth, to anticipate the great song of praise even here in time. It is a fulfillment of Psalm 138: “In the presence of the angels I will sing to you.” As the frescoes of Marienberg show us, our earthly liturgy is a share in the heavenly liturgy, as we join our voices with those of the angelic choirs.

Time is the mysterious vehicle which carries us from our conception to our death. The loving Creator has given us time and our freedom to use it as we see fit. We may not understand it, but we can indeed use it for His greater glory. The Liturgy of the Hours is the public prayer of Christ’s Church. As the Catechism describes it: “Celebrated in the form approved by the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours is truly the voice of the Bride herself addressed to her Bridegroom. It is the very prayer which Christ himself together with his Body addresses to the Father” (no. 1174). While other prayers are truly beneficial and approved by the Church, no other has claim to be an extension throughout the day of the Eucharistic celebration. It is not surprising then that St. Augustine exclaimed: “O glorious day, when I shall hear the song of praise, it will have no evening nor setting of the sun” (Confessions XIII. 35-36).