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The Divine Office as a Form of Sacrifice

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There is more than passing value in reflecting on the Divine Office as a form of sacrifice.

For one thing, we know that for anything to be pleasing to God it must be sacrificial; it must cost us something. A self-satisfying gift is a cheap gift. And the Divine Office should not be a cheap gift to God.

Moreover, the Church regularly associates the Eucharist and the Divine Office in all her official teaching. We know that each is a sacrifice, indeed the sacrifice most pleasing to God. We should therefore expect the Divine Office to be somehow a sacrifice too.

Then again, we read again and again in Scripture about offering to God a sacrifice of praise, or spiritual sacrifices, or, as in the Miserere we read those strange words addressed to God:

Sacrifice gives you no pleasure, were I to offer holocaust, you would not have it.
My sacrifice is this broken spirit. You will not scorn this crushed and broken heart.

Evidently, then, there are two quite different senses in which we may use the word "sacrifice," and it will be useful to know which one we mean when we speak of the Divine Office as a form of sacrifice.

Sacrifice may, first of all, mean some visible or physical or sensibly perceptible thing that is precious to us, but that we offer to God by:

  • giving up the satisfaction of enjoying it, like some delicacy at table or some physical comfort or convenience.

  • enduring some physical pain or discomfort, that (as generally happens) God sends us without our asking for it; or that we voluntarily undergo as an act of sacrifice.

But sacrifice may also mean some invisible or spiritual thing that is equally (and perhaps more) precious to us but that we correspondingly offer to God by:

  • giving up the interior satisfaction of enjoying it, like some preferred opinion, or our own idea on how something should be done, or our habitual way of thinking.

  • enduring some spiritual pain or distaste, arising from what God may send us (such as criticism of our conduct) or that we may voluntarily experience (such as the conscious and deliberate awareness of our sins).

Clearly, these two kinds of sacrifice have much in common, and yet they are not the same. If we would coin a distinction between them, we might call the first, sacrifice of the body, and the second, sacrifice of spirit.

Needless to say, both kinds are pleasing to God, even when, as in the Miserere from which we quoted, God wants to make sure that our bodily sacrifices are sincere and animated by a genuine sacrifice from within our spirit.

So we return to our consideration of how the Divine Office is a form of sacrifice. And immediately we see it is, and should be, sacrificial in both ways:

  • as the surrender to God of something we like physically, or that we endure in body as an expression of our praise of the Divine Majesty,

  • and as the surrender to Him of certain things that we like spiritually, or that we endure in spirit again as a token of our total dependence on God.

My intention in this conference is to be as practical as possible, in order to help us make the Divine Office what God and the Church want it to be: at once a prayer of praise and intercession, and a sacrifice that is most pleasing to God.

After all, prayer to be effective must also be a sacrifice; and sacrifice is nothing, if it is not in essence a prayer to Almighty God.

Before we take up each aspect of how the Divine Office is a sacrifice, we should note that the two kinds of sacrifice (bodily and spiritual) are not really separable in practice, as, in fact, they should not be. When we offer God something physical with our bodies or emotions, we also (implicitly) offer Him our spirit. And when we surrender out of love for Him something pleasant in spirit, our bodies normally also feel the surrender.

Nevertheless, it is useful to deal separately with each aspect of the Divine Office as sacrificial. For one thing we should hopefully better dispose ourselves to making the surrenders demanded not only willingly but even cheerfully.

The Divine Office as Bodily Sacrifice

There is, of course, no way of identifying all the sacrificial elements pertaining to the body or the emotions that reciting or singing the Divine Office includes. We are all different, and therefore what may be a sacrifice for one might not be for someone else.

Allowing for these differences among ourselves as persons I would reduce (for the sake of easier reference) the bodily sacrifices involved in the choral praying of the Divine Office to five, as follows – sacrifice of place, of time, of posture, of duration and of voice.

Let us look at each of these to see what they mean:

Sacrifice of Place. When we pray the Divine Office together in chapel, we surrender all sorts of options that would otherwise be open to us. We leave the place where we are, and go to the place where the Office is to be said. For some people, this can be quite a giving up of where they might personally prefer to pray.

Change of place is not only physical movement of body; it is also adjustment of where I am when the Office is to be said to where I should be, if the Office is to be said in common.

Newton's law of motion that a body at rest tends to remain at rest can be painfully verified here, when we voluntarily move from a variety of directions and humbly converge on a single place of worship in response to the call to chapel.

Sacrifice of Time. This kind of sacrifice again differs immensely with different people, and for some no doubt it hardly seems to be a sacrifice at all. It all depends on what a person is doing, or could be doing, or would be doing at the precise time when the call is given for the recitation of the Divine Office.

Time, it has been said, is our most precious commodity after the grace of God. Wise men are miserly of this time, and saints have been careful not to waste any time, seeing how little we have of this priceless possession, and how quickly it runs out or better, how quickly time is running headlong into eternity.

In order to make the sacrifice of time, spent as we say on the Divine Office, we must be sure that no time could be better expended. We must, if necessary, steel ourselves to the conviction that after the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, the time surrendered to the Divine Office is most acceptable to God.

Sacrifice of Posture. If it seems like a trivial thing it is not. Just watch some people when, as they say, they are taking a relaxed posture. Human ingenuity has exhausted itself in inventing chairs and divans and setees and lounges and cushions and pillows and footrests and paddings and you name it – all designed to make the human body more comfortable and more at ease.

I still remember some years ago in the Century magazine, the letters of protest to the editor because he allowed (in good faith) an ad to appear describing two types of church pews: one for Catholics and the other for Protestant churches. The ad described the advantages of Catholic church pews which occupied minimum space for maximum capacity and quick change from sitting posture to kneeling position. It described the advantages of Protestant church pews, with no kneelers, with cushioned seats, and with comfortable angle for the sitting position while listening to the sermon!

Certainly the prescribed posture, and gestures, and bodily position that are part of a reverent communal recitation of the Divine Office calls for no small amount of sacrifice. It is plain wisdom not to ignore it.

Sacrifice of Duration. This may not seem to be a great deal and yet it can be quite demanding.

The full recitation daily, of the whole Divine Office, is not short. In fact, this was one reason why Saint Ignatius when he was establishing the Society of Jesus obtained from the Holy See what was then an unheard of concession: dispensation from the choral recitation and singing of the Divine Office.

Lest there be any misunderstanding on this critical point, we can profitably quote from the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius where he sets down certain Rules for thinking with the Church. Remember he was writing during the period of the Reformation when hundreds of monasteries and convents were swept out of existence and when the recitation in choir of the Divine Office was being ridiculed and abandoned across the whole of Europe.

Writes Ignatius: "In order to have the proper attitude of mind in the Church Militant we should ...praise the frequent hearing of Mass, singing of hymns and psalms, and the recitation of long prayers, both in and out of church; also the hours arranged for fixed times for the whole Divine Office, for prayers of all kinds and for the canonical hours."

When, reluctantly, he asked the Holy Father for a dispensation for his order from the choral recitation of the canonical hours it was not because he did not cherish and deeply respect the community saying and singing of the Divine Office. It was only because for his priests, actively engaged in their far-flung and time consuming apostolates, he thought they should be allowed to recite the office privately.

But for religious communities in general, and with emphasis for those whose main apostolate is to offer prayer and sacrifice, he praised (and I praise) the sacrifice of duration offered to God. Notice that duration is not only time, but much time, a long time – spent in Liturgy of the Hours because we consider this kind of duration not too expensive to pay to the loving God.

Sacrifice of Voice. If this seems odd to call it a sacrifice, let me assure you it is not odd at all.

The careful, which means prayerful, recitation and especial chant of the Divine Office calls for numerous sacrifices involving the human voice. Who says what prayers, at what time, with what intonation, or elevation of voice. What melody is used by whom, following what pattern, alone or together, at length or antiphonally.

All these are common knowledge to anyone who takes the choral saying of the canonical hours as seriously as the Church wants them to be taken.

I remember in the life of Saint Robert Bellarmine when he became Archbishop of Capua in Italy, how scandalized he was at the cathedral with canons who rushed through they were – as they were – impatient to get through with it. I also remember the monastery of Cistercian nuns that I recently visited, where I attended their singing of one of the hours of the Divine Office. Those fifteen minutes were a sermon of sacrifice, to hear their voices reverently modulated in prayerful unison in honor of the Holy Trinity.

The Divine Office as Spiritual Sacrifice

As we turn to reflect on how the Office is a sacrifice of spirit, here too persons differ so much it is impossible to generalize. What may be hard for one person, may not be for another, and vice versa.

Yet I think we have enough in common, as human beings, to be able to say there are certain aspects of reciting the Liturgy of the Hours in common which call for self-sacrifice on everyone's part.

Let me then mention again five that I consider fairly obvious, namely – the sacrifice of language and sentiments, of structure, complexity and privacy.

Sacrifice of Language. One of the definitions we give of vocal prayer, as distinct from mental prayer, is that in vocal prayer we do not use our own words but follow the formulation given to us by someone else. Of course, every prayer should also be mental in that we are mentally alert and aware to the fact that we are praying.

The Divine Office is emphatically vocal prayer. The language we use, the words pronounced and the very sequence of what we are saying is all pre-arranged, pre-determined, if you please, for us by the Church.

Does this call for sacrifice of spirit? Indeed, and for some people great sacrifice, especially if (as may be supposed of religious) they are much given to mental prayer, and find great relish in communing with God in their own words, and not be held to saying just what the Office prescribes we should say when we pray.

Sacrifice of Sentiments. Closely associated with the foregoing is the sacrifice of sentiments when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

What would normally be on my mind or in my heart might be far removed (even as prayer) from what, e.g., the Psalm that I am singing bids me to think and, as it were, tells me to desire.

Yet, out of love for God and in deference to His Church I subordinate my personal sentiments to those which the Church wants me to have. I submit my mind to the Church's mind in praying what, for the present, she wants me to ask of God, and not what I might prefer if I had my choice in the matter.

I may be feeling sad, and the prayers of the Office tell me to be glad. I may be feeling glad, and the prayers of the Office tell me to mourn for the sins of the world. I may have a strong attraction for the Savior in His heavenly glory, and the Office may require that I sacrifice these sentiments to turn instead to the Savior's bloody Passion.

So it goes, and so it is. But that is precisely what the recitation of the Office requires of the Church's faithful who have learned to give up even their deepest interior feelings in conformity with the Church's directives seeing that these directives come through the Church from Christ Himself.

Sacrifice of Structure. This calls for some explanation. The Divine Office is nothing if not structured. And most people are not that organized or, if they are, they prefer to organize things in their own way.

Yet here we have the epitome of a set pattern, and we are expected to conform. Such conformity, down to the least detail of what I say, or who says it, or when, or how many times, or with what accent, or tone, or in what order – can be self-surrendering in the extreme.

It partly explains why, sadly, so many priests have given up the recitation of the Breviary – even privately. They tell you they find themselves constricted by the regimen of the Breviary's structure.

It also partly accounts for the fact that so many religious communities have for all practical purposes, given up the recitation (not to say chanting) of the Divine Office in common. They claim that Office is a restriction on their individual liberty. Well it is. But that is part of the sacrifice we are talking about.

On both counts to obtain for priests and religious the grace they need to return to the Divine Office as a sustenance for their spiritual lives we should be more ready than ever to make whatever sacrifice of structure it demands. Our sacrifice will merit for others the light and strength they require to make the corresponding sacrifice in their priestly and religious vocations. Our sacrifice will obtain the gift of sacrifice for others.

Sacrifice of Complexity. Not only is the Divine Office highly structured, but it is also highly complex.

This calls for some stress because so many priests and religious in the United States had become accustomed to the interim version of the Breviary called The Prayer of Christians.

It is not my purpose here to comment on The Prayer of Christians as a substitute for the Divine Office approved by the Holy See for the Universal Church. What I feel certain of is that for not a few the adjustment will not be easy. Hence the value of some observations on this point.

Unlike the substitute Prayer of Christians, the official Divine Office of the Roman Catholic Church is far more varied, more changeable from day to day, week to week, and month to month.

All of this naturally makes for complexity, and I would be unrealistic if I ignored what I am certain is going to be an obstacle to not a few priests and religious to take again what some of us had never given up in the first place.

I believe this deserves to be mentioned, that although the revised Liturgy of the Hours is in every respect more detailed than the simplified Prayer of Christians, it is notwithstanding not a complicated ritual prayer. It is consciously shorter than was the Divine Office before the Second Vatican Council. It is also more easy to use, and what we should not omit, more interesting because of its wide variability, its numerous selections from saints, mysteries, and doctors of the Church; and its up-to-dateness in revealing the Church's awareness of the problems and hopes of the modern age.

Yet, having said all of this, the fact remains that all who wish to be faithful to the Divine Office issued by the Holy See on Easter Sunday in 1971 must sacrifice their perhaps natural desire for plainness for the rich and demanding complexity of the four volumes of the Liturgia Horarum, whose Latin edition amounts to over seven thousand pages.

Sacrifice of Privacy. The final sacrifice of spirit called for by the obedient chanting of the Divine Office is the sacrifice of privacy.

How we all cherish to be alone, especially when we are praying to God from our hearts. Did not Jesus tell us to pray in secret, where our heavenly Father who sees in secret will reward us?

Yes, but Christ also told His followers, when they pray to say "Our Father... Give us this day our daily bread ...and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

Clearly we have two different obligations in prayers: one as individual persons and one as members of society, especially of the society which Christ founded as His Mystical Body.

As we close these reflections on the Divine Office, it is well to remind ourselves that the Liturgy of the Hours is not a private prayer. It is a public prayer and, the Church so wants us to respond, a social prayer.

If this means for some of us all of the time and for all of us some of the time the sacrifice of our preference for privacy in communing with God, let us believe that He understands.

He knows, how well He knows, who so often went off to pray alone with the Father. But He will give us the light to see that if we are to please Him who is our common Lord we must be willing and even happy to speak with Him as a community, even as He speaks to us as a community, at no matter what surrender of our personal individuality.

Recall the directive He gave the disciples just before His Ascension. He told them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there in prayer for what the Father had promised. So they did.

For ten days, St. Luke tells us, "All these joined in continuous prayer together with several women, including Mary the Mother of Jesus."

We know what happened. After this novena of praying together, the Holy Spirit came down on all of them, and the rest is a matter of history.

We too should expect the Holy Spirit to come on us, in the measure of our faith and self-sacrifice, to bless us if we pray together – in body and in spirit – and certainly when the prayer we say together is that of the Holy Catholic Church in what we call the Divine Office, but may be called the Sacred Duty of Community Sacrifice.

Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica

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