Bonum est confiteri Domino: et psallere nomini tuo, Altissime
Ad annuntiandum mane misericordiam tuam: et veritatem tuam per noctem (Ps 91: 2-3)
It is good to give praise to the Lord: and to sing to Thy name, O most High
To shew forth Thy mercy in the morning, and Thy truth in the night
One of the first things that strike a stay-in visitor or a newly-arrived postulant at our convent is the amount of time dedicated to the recitation of the Divine Office.
As teaching sisters who have to devote a considerable portion of our time to our apostolate of educating youth; it would appear, at first sight, fairly incongruous to give up to two-and-a-half hours each day in choir to an exercise that seems to be the one distinguishing characteristic of the monastic orders. On a practical level, wouldn’t planning lessons and the never-ending chase after late homework require all of our time?
Indeed, much emphasis in terms of time and attention is given to the recitation of the Breviary in our community. We begin before the crack of dawn appears, and our praise does not cease till after the sun has set, ushering in the night. Our recollection is further enhanced by the bell being rung five minutes before each Office in order to prepare ourselves in choir. But above all, why is it our immense privilege and happiness to be able to do so eight times each day?
Firstly, one might perhaps point out that our joy in assisting at these prayers comes from the sublime beauty of the psalms, canticles, hymns, not forgetting the lessons taken from the Gospels and Church Fathers. The entire range of all possible human sentiment in our worship of God is expressed vividly through the psalms alone; petition, adoration, thanksgiving, desire and contrition in every season of joy, sorrow or desperate need find an adequate medium through the psalter.
Two brief examples illustrate this clearly. The exuberant joy in the Ouam dilecta tabernacula tua Domine virtutum: concupiscit et deficit anima mea in atria Domini (How lovely are thy tabernacles O Lord of hosts: My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord) of Psalm 83 speaks of our delight in appearing before the throne of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The same God who is our delight is however also a Man of Sorrows, as seen in Psalm 54 which gives a description of His desolations. The qui simul mecum dulces capiebas cibos: in domo Dei ambulavimus cum consensu (Who didst take sweet meats together with me: in the house of God we walked with consent) of this Psalm poignantly portrays the heart-rending pain of Our Lord when he was betrayed and denied by his friends during His Passion. It is aptly chosen by the Church for Terce on Wednesday, the day when He was sold by Judas.
Furthermore, the various antiphons, hymns and short lessons in the Breviary which change according to the liturgical season also keeps us united to the liturgical life of the Church. Through the Divine Office, further expression is given to the sentiments which animate the Church as the entire life of Our Saviour unfolds each year. These mysteries which include the expectation of His coming during Advent, the sorrow at His approaching death during Passiontide and the triumphant joy at His Resurrection during the Paschal season are then brought closer to our souls. We are thus united more intimately to Jesus who continues to live thus in His Church, and as we progress in the spiritual life, we would also identify more and more with the sentiments of the Church as one of her members. Does this not especially pertain to us religious who have the privilege to be completely consecrated to the love and service of God and His Church?
Yet, the most significant aspect of the Divine Office is its quality as the Church’s official prayer. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange O.P notes that it is simply a continuation and extension of the Holy Mass, which is the great prayer of Christ who renews His Sacrifice at Calvary daily until the consummation of the world. Similarly the Church, who is the spouse of Christ, does not cease day and night her own prayer of adoration, thanksgiving, reparation and petition before God: Sempiterna sit beatae Trinitati gloria, aequa Patri, Filioque; par decus Paraclito, unius Trinique Nomen laudet universitas.
The professed religious or cleric thus becomes the ambassador of the Church when praying the Office; he or she does not pray as an individual but enters into the sentiments of the Church as her mouthpiece.
Its dignity further increases when we consider that the words used are those of the Holy Ghost Himself; given directly through the Sacred Scriptures or else indirectly through the authority of the Church, for it was she who directed the arrangement of the breviary and the composition of the various hymns and lessons.
Who can then doubt the favourable reception given by God to those deputed by the Church to praise Him, if they do so devoutly? St Mary Magdalene de Pazzi mentions that a single petition of the Office, on account of it being the prayer of the entire Church, is worth more than a hundred private prayers. Dom Chautard adds that Church herself supplicates with and through us for her varied and pressing needs, always having her prayers answered and heard in some way as the dearly beloved Spouse of Our Lord.
The Office then becomes a cherished tool in the hands of the Dominican for the accomplishment of her vocation. This powerful weapon (for we are in a spiritual battle, clearly!) draws down the graces which sustain our apostolic thirst for souls and the desire that God be better known and loved, especially by those who are entrusted to our care.
One of the most outstanding features of the Office in the Dominican rite consists of the bodily movements that accompany our prayer. As outlined in our ceremonial, these include processions, the profound and medium inclinations of the body, kneeling, standing in alternate choirs, full prostrations on the ground, turning to the altar and back to a choral position. St. Dominic, who preached against the Albigensian heresy which taught that matter and the body was evil, chose rather to use the body in prayer as something good. These are significant aids to maintaining the reverence due to God during both the public and interior worship of so adorable a Being.
Above all, the most beautiful of these must be the profound inclination or bow made at every Gloria Patri, especially at the end of each psalm or portion thereof. It is truly a compact summary of what the Divine Office is: the continuation of the adoration and praise offered by Our Lord to His Father during His mortal life by the Church, and the beginning of the praise and thanksgiving that will occupy her for all eternity before the Holy Trinity, in saecula saeculorum.