As we pass the time of our days, does it seem to us as merely a succession of hours with no meaning or direction? Are we just marking time as we move from time-passed and time-to-come? These are not idle questions; they have real and significant practical importance. They lead to the ultimate questions of our lives: Why do I live? What purpose is there to my life? Is today just a series of unrelated events given form merely by the fact that they happen to me?
The realization of the centrality of time and its meaning, or lack of meaning, hits one especially in old age. As one has gone through all their hopes and plans and faces a great deal of loss (family, friends, health, etc.), one is confronted with the possibility that everything is a mere succession of events leading to extinction. Not a happy thought! This is the very opposite of the Good News of the Gospel of Christ, which is that everything has purpose; that God is at the center of all our experiences; and that even our losses and suffering are but the Cross of fidelity to God. In practical terms, this is a very big difference between the two worldviews. This is why St. Paul can proclaim that Christ has robbed death of its sting.
As an aid to an understanding of this, the Church has enshrined a liturgical celebration of the meaning of time. It is called the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’, and like so many other Christian realities, it comes to us from Judaism, right from the prayer in the Temple of Jerusalem. While the great Temple was used for worship, there were regular prayer times that used the Psalms (which are such beautiful examples of poetic and revelative expression). We hear of the Apostles going to the Temple for the afternoon prayer. Judaism pioneered a fundamental change of perspective that moved away from a cyclical view of time (seen in the cycle of the yearly seasons) to a linear view of time that sees it marching forward by the will of God to ever deeper formulations of Divine Wisdom’s interplay with human freedom.
After the destruction of the Temple, Christian communities began to use the psalms at the Sunday worship. It was after the great persecutions of that era that Antony of Egypt went into the desert to pray, beginning the whole movement of hermits that eventually developed into the monasteries of the Christian East (following the rule of St. Basil) and the Christian West (following the rule of St. Benedict).
It is a mistake to minimize the importance of the monastic movement to both the development of Christianity and the growth of learning over the perilous time of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. Through the use of silence, work and prayer, the monasteries fostered art and science, learning and holiness to an unprecedented level.
Central to the monastic day is the Liturgy of the Hours that limits and defines the sacred character of every day. It is a constant reminder that God is still at work at creation and that we are being formed even now into His handiwork.
I remember my first introduction to a monastery: It happened while I was in College. A bunch of us went for a retreat to a monastery near Rochester called ‘Our Lady of the Genesee’. It was truly astonishing: The monks rose from sleep at 2 AM and started to pray in the Chapel, singing the psalms and praying for the world, shrouded in night. I remember asking one of the younger monks: Why do you do that? He answered: We pray for others, and nighttime is when sin tends to happen, so we keep vigil both to pray for the sinner and to await the return of Jesus in His glory.
Wow! I was blown away! Prayer really mattered to these men and they were willing to sacrifice everything to offer themselves up to God for the good of the world, just like Jesus. As I followed their day while on retreat, I saw them at work (they run a bakery to support themselves) and then returning to the Chapel at distinct times of the day and night to pray using the ancient Psalms, just like they did in the Temple in Jerusalem.
This daily round of prayer was codified and published by the Council of Trent four hundred years ago and became known as the Breviary. It was made a required prayer of every Priest. The Second Vatican Council in our own day also invited lay people to pray ‘The Divine Office’ as it is popularly known. Here at Immac, we pray it every weekday morning in Morning Prayer as we end our daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Quite beautifully, the Prayers that the Divine Office consists of are said in union with the entire Catholic Christian world: Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Consecrated Brothers and Sisters, and lay people, combining together to create one unified prayer. One is never alone when praying the Divine Office!
It is a great comfort to spend each day in prayer realizing that each day is God-centered and that every good action we perform is part of God’s continual creation of the world!