Breathe in and breathe out. You’ll take thousands of breaths like that today yet hardly realize it.
Breathing is automatic, a barely noticeable rhythm that’s tied directly to your survival. As you pull air into your lungs, your heart beats and pumps through your veins with life-giving oxygen—and you’re probably not going to give it a thought unless something suddenly goes wrong.
Life is made up of such essential biological rhythms. Our circadian rhythm controls when we fall asleep and when we wake up. Our metabolic rhythm determines periods of hunger and signals when to eat. These forces hum along in the background, allowing us to function efficiently, to develop habits and routines while expending little additional mental energy.
We know how devastating it can be when these rhythms are disrupted. If you spend all night tossing and turning, worried about a big meeting or test the next day, you are going to feel the effects the next morning. Now, turn that sleepless night into a week of them, and suddenly returning to a normal routine is much harder. Routines and rhythms—whether essential to life or healthy additions to life—keep us moving along.
The Church too, in her wisdom, provides us with a rhythm— in this case, of prayer—that helps sustain us. Lectio divina provides one type of rhythm; the liturgical seasons and the intentional cycle of readings at Mass provide another. The liturgical cycle calls us to recognize the natural progression of life and death and points us toward life eternal. It celebrates even the ordinary moments of life with two seasons of Ordinary Time, recognizing that our extraordinary God is present in situations and circumstances that seem routine or mundane—even “boring.” The liturgical seasons provide a flow and context for the Mass, offering unique readings for each season and calling us to reflect more deeply on Christ’s kingship, life, death, and resurrection.
In short, the Church recognizes the natural flow and rhythm of seasons and invites us to see the handiwork of God within that. The Church also recognizes that, as our lives change, as our world alternates through times of war and peace, and as our personal lives and communities move somewhere between order and chaos, we need a rhythm of prayer that keeps us grounded in what is eternal.
To this end, the Church offers another rhythm of prayer that is the same throughout the worldwide Church and is deeply rooted in Scripture—the Liturgy of the Hours. The Liturgy of the Hours is a collection of prayers separated into offices or “hours” that span the day. There are seven: Lauds (morning prayer), Terce (midmorning prayer), Sext (midday prayer), None (midafternoon prayer), Vespers (evening prayer), and Compline (night prayer). The final “hour” is called the Office of Readings.
The prayers, as you can see, are designed to be spread throughout the day rather than prayed all at once. This rhythm is intentional. Not only does it keep the person praying the Liturgy of the Hours grounded in prayer, but it also ensures that someone is always praying on behalf of the Church. (Anyone can pray this way, but priests, deacons, and religious brothers and sisters make promises to pray the offices every day.) Since the hours are spaced out and time zones vary, at any given moment, including right now, people are praying the Liturgy of the Hours on behalf of the Church. They are keeping the rhythm alive and petitioning for our needs and our world.
A selection from Mark Hart’s latest book, Unleashing the Power of Scripture: A Guide for Catholics (The Word Among Us Press, 2017). Available at wau.org/books