Introduction to the Breviary

INTRODUCTION TO THE BREVIARY

THE BREVIARY is the official prayerbook of the Church.  The Holy Ghost and the Church have been working on it for more than 3,000 years, and it has become the basic book of prayer, a precious common fund to which the great men of prayer from every age have contributed their thoughts and sentiments.  The two chief objectives which the breviary fulfills are : 1. it is the prayer of the Church as a body and, 2. it is a guide to genuine spiritual growth for the individual soul.

1.  The breviary is above all the prayer of the Church, the prayer said in the name of the Church.  It is helpful to understand the difference between private prayer and liturgical prayer.  In private prayer I pray, mostly, for myself and my own affairs.  It is the isolated person who stands in the centre of the action, and the prayer is more or less individualized.  But in liturgical prayer, and therefore in the breviary, it is not primarily I who am praying, but the Church, the bride of Christ.  The object of her prayer is broader, too: all the needs of God’s kingdom here on earth.  In liturgical prayer, I feel more like a member of a great community, like a little leaf on the great living tree of the Church.  I share her life and her problems.  The Church is praying through my mouth, I offer her my tongue to pray with her for all the great objectives of redemption, and for God’s honour and glory.

We weep, too, or rather the Church weeps through our tears, together with those who weep, rejoices through our joys together with those who rejoice, does penance with the repentant.  All the sentiments of Holy Mother Church find their echo in our heart.  This gives a deeper content to our prayer; we spread out far beyond our own selves.

This basic element of our prayer with the Church gives the key to understanding and appreciating many of the psalms.  For there is not room enough within the narrower confines of our own personal experience to sound all the rich variety of sentiments and moods and affections that these hymn-prayers contain.  It is through the breviary that we participate in the official ministry and care of souls.  The objectives of the Church, the objectives of Christ’s redemption, become our own personal interests and objectives.  We have become pastors in our own living room, from early morning until late at night.

So important, so essential, is this basic understanding of liturgical prayer that we should write it on the opening pages of our breviary and read it over at the beginning of each liturgical Hour: Now the Church is praising God through my mouth; now the Church is struggling after souls with my hands!  Proper liturgical prayer is a most efficient tool in the ministry and salvation of souls.

2.  There is a second side to the breviary, a second purpose it fulfills.  In the universal spirit of prayer described above, the individual soul is not to lose sight of itself.  The individual, too, must grow; that is the subjective side of liturgical prayer.  For the man who prays, the breviary needs to be staff and guide and way to heaven.

The Church accompanies the priest and religious with this book all during his life.  The breviary might be compared to the Angel Raphael who led the young Tobias successfully through all the dangers of his journey.  The breviary is our own personal Angel Raphael—from the time of subdiaconate or profession up until the hour of death.  It leads us through the Church year; almost every day it holds up a special guide, a special hero for our imitation—the saint of the day.  It is not easy to list all the advantages that one day’s liturgical prayer in the breviary has to offer.

But the most prominent feature of the breviary’s benefit lies in its wonderful arrangement of prayer in the sequence of canonical hours.  Each day we are to make some further progress in building up the temple of grace within our soul.  By means of the “hours” of the Divine Office the Church puts sword and trowel into our hands for every time-segment of the day.  The breviary, as the prayer of the canonical hours and as the prayer of the Church year, is in the highest sense the guide for souls; we need to get acquainted with this guide, and let ourselves be led.

These, then, are the two principal objects of the breviary.  Worldwide pastoral prayer and personal interior growth in prayer unite and intermingle.  The one makes pastors of us, the other makes us saints.  Two great realities are at work in the prayers of the breviary, both together; for they are as alike as mother and daughter.  Just as each human individual carries a little world of his own within himself (microcosm) which is quite similar to the bigger world around him (macrocosm), even so the child of God carries about within himself a kingdom of the soul that is very like the great kingdom of God outside him, the Catholic Church.

One more thought: Breviary and Mass belong together; they form a unity, the liturgical day.  We might compare the relationship to the sun and the planets.  The Mass is the sun about which the planets, that is, the canonical hours, gravitate.  The canonical hours prepare for the Mass, they surround the Mass, they try to realize and retain the fruits of the Mass, and spread them over the day.