March 9, 2017—In the fall of 1999 I encountered the Liturgy of the Hours for the first time. I arrived at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia weary after a long drive and not at all sure why a Presbyterian pastor would immerse in the life of a monastery for a week. Now, eighteen years later, I marvel to realize that since that day in 1999 I have been praying the daily offices for eighteen years and though I rarely get all the seven moments of prayer in during my busy schedule as a pastor, I almost always pray one or two. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Liturgy of the Hours has kept me in ministry. It is the single most important discipline I keep to remain healthy in ministry. And there is more, I have seen how this form of prayerful attention to God can sustain the discipleship of my parishioners and add its own modest contribution to the renewal of the church which is so desperately needed. There is much to commend the Liturgy of the Hours (LOH), far more than I have space for here, but let me share four aspects which are beautiful to me.
Something Old—This practice of stopping regularly throughout the day to return one’s prayerful attention to God is something old. Very old in fact. From the earliest centuries of the faith the monks of the deserts were keeping the disciplines which would be more formally structured in the Rule of St. Benedict. When I pray the LOH I feel that deep connection to the ancient church. I know my prayers join in a chorus of unending prayer which stretches back 1600 years or more. There is an old-school, back to basics, aspect of this discipline of prayer which connects me to Christians throughout the history of the church and that is a treasure to me.
Something New—In the wake of Vatican II the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours (GILH) was published with the intention of fostering a disciplined revitalization of the LOH for use throughout the church. The idea was to ask communities who prayed the LOH to renew their liturgies and to make them available as widely as possible. It was also suggested that new and creative expressions of the LOH were needed which, as long as they followed the GILH would be both new and faithful to the long-standing practice of the discipline. Even Presbyterians like myself are now emboldened to work on the renewal of this form of prayer and many of us have joined in work of creating new expressions of the LOH which are appropriate for our settings of ministry.
Something Borrowed—I am aware that, in a way, I have “borrowed” this practice from the Catholic Church – but only to a degree. Calvin taught that we are to pray “continuously.” He advises that we should lift our hearts to God at all times and pray without ceasing. (Institutes III, XX, 28) Yet, it is necessary, because of our weakness, for us to set certain hours for prayer. Calvin suggests the following pattern — I have added parenthetically corresponding hours of the LOH:
† when we arise in the morning, (Vigils)
† before we begin daily work, (Lauds)
† when we sit down to a meal, (Sext)
† when by God’s blessing we have eaten, (None/Vespers)
† when we are getting ready to retire. (Compline)
Something You—Sometimes when I am teaching about the LOH (which I do frequently in both Protestant and Catholic settings these days) I have someone ask, “How can you pray the same liturgy for eighteen years, day after day and not get bored with the repetitious nature of these prayers?” The answer to the question is quite complex, but one part of it is that I bring myself to the daily discipline of praying the LOH. I change from day to day and thus my experience of the prayers changes from day to day. I do occasionally feel the repetitive nature of this form of prayer, but far more often I wonder at its capacity to unfold into endlessly new moments of meaning.
In my current church, we offer vespers during Advent and Lent. I structure all Session retreats around praying the LOH, and we have a ministry of adult faith formation The Pilgrimage which often structures its retreats on the framework of praying the LOH as a way of sanctifying time while on retreat. Over the years I have used this discipline to good effect in a wide variety of ways in the life of the congregations I have served. Its impact is a subtle, but real change in the health and vitality of a congregation. I am pleased to be teaching the up-coming course on the Liturgy of the Hours at Montreat through the Center for Lifelong Learning and hope to see you there!
Paul H. Lang is Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church in Fargo, North Dakota. A graduate of Furman University (BA Music), Paul continued his studies at Columbia Theological Seminary where he earned a Master of Divinity degree in 1993, and a Doctor of Ministry degree in 2003. He received the Lyman and Myki Mobley Prize in Biblical Scholarship for his paper on the use of musical settings of the Psalms in Christian worship.
In 2010 Paul coauthored a book with Ben Johnson on making a personal retreat (Time Away published by Upper Room). He continues to work on adult faith-formation and leadership development in the church. He has been an instructor for the Synod School of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, the Presentation Prayer Center, the Presbytery of the Northern Plains, and continues to write and teach in a variety of other settings around the country. More at www.paulhlang.com.
The Center for Lifelong Learning is offering an abundance of courses and events for pastors and lay-persons seeking vibrant learning and cohort opportunities specifically created to build and enhance skills in Christian education and formation, church leadership, spiritual formation and spiritual direction. Our courses are designed for people at all stages of their ministry. Check out our current classes HERE.