Why pray the Office?

One of the primary reasons to pray the Divine Office is because it works. Many Christians report just that, and they go further and call the daily Office one of the most important aspects of their spiritual life. It is the core of what “being religious” actually means, in terms of behavior.

But what are we saying when we say “it works”? I think we are saying that it raises our eyes to God Almighty. The Office is the reliable and time-tested way to recognize the dimension of the Blessed Trinity — of reality — that is wholly transcendent and “other.”

God is one, and “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance,” in the words of the Quicunque Vult. Yet we speak in our Creeds of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do not “confound the Persons” when we gently recognize the threeness of reality of God: in His nearness, named the Holy Spirit; in His incarnation, named God the Son, Jesus Christ; and in His otherness, named God the Father.

This recognition orders — that is, directs — our Prayer. Coordinating these three emphases demands a system, and that system is called “Rule,” or better, “Regula.” By Regula, we mean the threefold framework, summarized as “Office-Mass-Devotion,” for response to the threeness of divine reality. In short, we mean exactly what is described by Saint Luke as the first acts of religion by the first Christians:

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

  • Devotion (the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, baptismal ministry rooted in the Bible) emphasizes the nearness of the Holy Spirit.
  • Mass (the breaking of bread) emphasizes the Son who communicates Himself to us.
  • Divine or daily Office (the prayers) emphasizes the Father Almighty.

The early Church recognized that Jesus of Nazareth was a man long before they realized he was God in His full and definitive revelation. In other words, the early Church realized Three before they realized One. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was developed over time as the Church recognized the true depth that had been revealed to them. It is not wrong for us, by analogy, to do the same.

The mystery in the ultimate sense involves seeing the three realities of God cohere in one being, or substance. That perhaps is a lifelong journey, as well as into the next life. The basic point is that the Divine Office is the sturdiest way in this life to recognize something of ultimate reality beyond time and space, and to do so simply and orderly every day. This is consistent with the fact that what the Office is built upon is the Our Father set-prayer, as I have previously written. The Office is built upon the words Jesus gave us — His words, His set-prayer, His praying for us.

Yet if we understand the Office are centered in the Father, are we splitting God apart in our prayer? Is this some sort of crypto-modalism? In fact it is nothing of the sort.

We can never attain to a completely synthetic view of what God has revealed Himself to be. For that would involve a level of unified knowledge which can belong to none but God himself. Such a simple and simultaneous knowledge of what God is must exist in God Himself. But we on our part must be content to approach the sanctuary from the outside and from a number of different points of view.

This is from an essay by Lionel S. Thornton (no relation to Martin) called “The Christian Conception of God” in a book called Essays Catholic and Critical from the 1930s.

To put that in other words: our lived journey toward glorified being in Christ, codified as the doctrine of theosis, begins by approaching the three Persons of God more or less one at a time. (This occurs simultaneous to our confessing at all times the doctrine of the Trinity.) And, over time and into our next life, we grow by Grace into the synthetic, unified, full trinitarian truth. That is, what we experience consciously eventually matches what the Church teaches about God.

As children we learn about God by first being introduced to Jesus and his ministry. Our understanding of God deepens and widens as we get older and begin to consider and grapple with the activity of the Holy Spirit beginning in Acts, Chap. 2. Perhaps it takes a certain maturity to begin to really grapple with God the Father, as wholly other, the transcendent creator of all. Ascetically, the divine Persons can only be understood when considered together, so there is no harm in particular study of one of them, for the other two Persons will have to come in at some point.

With the Office in particular, with its dry repetition that, unlike Mass and Devotion, gives little to nothing to us in the moment, we can begin to truly experience the sheer immensity of God and his vast creation. How else, save the Divine Office, do we pray with thanks to the dimension of God beyond the conditions of time and space? ontological and axiological Other?

The Divine Office is our joining into the ceaseless praise offered to the Father by the Saints and Angels as the Body of Christ himself. It is Christ who makes up for our frailties and completes our prayer, and it is the Holy Spirit, Saint Paul tells us, whose power allows us to even say “Our Father.” So despite the emphasis in the Divine Office being given to the Father, it is still thoroughly trinitarian Prayer.

In sum, our prayer life rooted in Regula — associating Mass with the Son, Devotion with the Holy Spirit, and Office with the Father — is an “ascetical application of trinitarian dogmatic,” to quote Martin Thornton. Over time and through use, these “different points of view” become by the Grace of God a single woven tapestry of praise to one God, so that our glorified worship is to “Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity.” And absolutely nothing less.