"O God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit..."
The Liturgy of the Hours - also called the Divine Office, the Canonical Hours, or the Breviary - like so many Catholic practices, is drawn from Jewish tradition. In the Psalms, we find references to the practice of praying at different hours of the day and night: "In the morning my prayer comes before you" (Ps 88:13); "May the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice" (Ps 141:2); "At night His song is with me - a prayer to the God of my life" (Ps 42:8); "Evening, morning, and noon I cry out..." (Ps 55:17). The Psalms, the most ancient prayers of the Church, remain a central element of the Liturgy of the Hours to this day.
Traditionally, the Divine Office consisted of eight fixed "hours" of prayer: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. It was composed in the fifth century, and it development was more or less completed by the end of the sixth. The Church has of course made changes and additions to the Office over time, but its character remains largely unchanged. It is one of the most treasured prayers of the Church, and each day it gives hundreds of thousands of the faithful the opportunity to pray together in one voice.
Perhaps the reform of the Divine Office best known to us is the revision promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970 with his Apostolic Constitution Laudis Canticum. In this document, the Holy Father explains the reasons behind the reform, which were twofold: first, to encourage its use by more of the faithful, and second, to give the canonical hours a more logical relationship to the chronological hours to which they are assigned:
"The office has been drawn up and arranged in such a way that not only clergy but also religious and indeed laity may participate in it, since it is the prayer of the whole people of God. People of different callings and circumstances, with their individual needs, were kept in mind and a variety of ways of celebrating the office has been provided, by means of which the prayer can be adapted to suit the way of life and vocation of different groups dedicated to the liturgy of the hours.
"Since the liturgy of the hours is the means of sanctifying the day, the order of this prayer was revised so that in the circumstances of contemporary life the canonical hours could be more easily related to the chronological hours of the day."
Today, the Liturgy of the Hours consists of the recitation of the following prayers: the Office of Readings (formerly Matins), Morning Prayer (Lauds), Daytime Prayer - which consists of one or all of Midmorning, Midday, and Midafternoon Prayer (Terce, Sext, and None), Evening Prayer (Vespers), and Night Prayer (Compline). The "major hours" are the Office of Readings, Morning and Evening prayer. The recitation of Prime was eliminated by the Second Vatican Council, and in Laudis Canticum Pope Paul VI attributes this change to the aforementioned aim of making the canonical hours correspond more closely to the times at which they are prayed.
The great beauty of the Office lies in the unity that it makes tangible. As Pope Paul IV wrote so beautifully:
"Everyone shares in this prayer, which is proper to the one Body as it offers prayers that give expression to the voice of Christ's beloved Bride, to the hopes and desires of the whole Christian people, to supplications and petitions for the needs of all humanity.
"This prayer takes its unity from the heart of Christ, for our Redeemer desired 'that the life he had entered upon in his mortal body with supplications and with his sacrifice should continue without interruption through the ages in his Mystical Body, which is the Church.' Because of this, the prayer of the Church is at the same time 'the very prayer that Christ himself, together with his Body, addresses to the Father.' As we celebrate the office, therefore, we must recognize our own voices echoing in Christ, his voice echoing in us."
If you're interested in praying the Liturgy of the Hours, you can find guides to praying it online, or use the guide provided with your breviary, should you choose to purchase one. The four-volume set is expensive ($145), but it contains all the canonical hours, while the single volume, Christian Prayer ($36), contains only Morning and Evening Prayer for the year. My four-volume set was a gift from two friends of mine, and now I can't imagine living without it!
If you don't have money for a breviary, or you're still waiting for yours to come in the mail (or if you've misplaced your breviary, as I often do), you can find the Hours for each day online (free!) at Universalis.
"May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen."