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What is the Liturgy of the Hours?

Like all parts of creation, time can be harnessed for a sacramental purpose: to direct us to the holy. The Liturgy of the Hours is a ritual that engages the sacred character of time and helps us participate in the sanctification of each day to God’s purposes. Time is holy. We’re more mindful of that as we pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

Praying throughout the day has a long history in the church. The practice is rooted in the synagogue prayer which Jesus attended regularly. Jesus teaches his followers to pray and models frequent habits of prayer. In Acts the apostles gather for daily prayer with other believers. Saint Paul urges us to pray “unceasingly.” According to the early church theologian Tertullian, by the early 200s A.D. Christians were trying to do just that. They gathered for morning and evening prayer. They supplemented these communal moments with private prayer at rising and upon retiring and in between at the third, sixth, and ninth hours. They even interrupted their sleep to pray once during the night. These hours were identified with events in the life of Jesus. The midnight prayer, for instance, reminded them that Jesus would return one day “like a thief in the night.”

That was a tiresome schedule for most people with day jobs! Eventually two forms developed: monastic prayer and cathedral prayer. Monks and cloistered nuns might continue to keep the hours described above. Most Christians gathered for morning and evening prayer (matins and vespers) daily. Other hours were optional and private as time permitted. Yet even the people’s cathedral prayer became more formalized and gradually came to be viewed as the property of clergy. Lay folk abandoned it in favor of simpler prayer styles like the rosary.

The Second Vatican Council sought to reclaim this ancient and valuable prayer for the whole church. The council reaffirmed that clergy need not be present for the faithful to gather to celebrate the Hours. Simplified (and less expensive) versions of the Liturgy of the Hours in single-volume format have made this prayer style even more inviting. Personally I consider the years I’ve spent praying the Hours the most fruitful season of my life as a person of faith. This prayer reminds me that every day is a gift from God, every hour an opportunity for grace.

• Matthew 5:44; 6:9-13; Luke 4:16; 6:28; 11:2-4; 18:1; Acts of the Apostles 2:42; 3:1; 20:36; 21:5; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Online resource
Universalis offers the Liturgy of the Hours online

Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours (Catholic Book Publishing, 1999)
Practical Guide for the Liturgy of the Hours by Shirley Darcus Sullivan (Catholic Book Publishing)
A Companion to the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning and Evening Prayer by Shirley Darcus Sullivan (Catholic Book Publishing, 2004)

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Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

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