If I highlight this quality of the Liturgy of the Hours, it is because praise is the heart, the center, the most important element of this prayer. When, after some years, I reread the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, I was struck in a new way by this fact: The Instruction told me that the Liturgy of the Hours is primarily a prayer of praise.
I had never thought a great deal about the idea of prayer of praise. I remembered that in grade school the sisters taught us the acronym ACTS to help us remember the different categories of prayer:
We pray to adore God, to show sorrow for sin, to express gratitude for God’s gifts, and to bring our needs to God. The word “praise” was not included in this acronym.
A Prayer of Praise
I had always respected prayer of praise. I thought of it, however, as a style of prayer associated with the charismatic renewal or with praise-and-worship music. I understood prayer of praise as characterized by singing, the raising of hands, and similar qualities. I found such prayer warm and compelling, and I was happy to participate when I found myself in such settings. But it was not a form of prayer that I habitually adopted on my own.
Now the Church told me that this prayer I had been praying for years, the Liturgy of the Hours, was primarily a prayer of praise. As I continued to read and explore, I began to see that praise situates us in our truth as creatures — that is, created beings — before our Creator, and as those redeemed before our Redeemer. I never doubted that I was God’s creature or that Jesus had redeemed me, but my awareness of this could fade in the day, and I could lose sight of who I am before God as His creature and as one redeemed with great love.
I began to realize that praise is the way to live in this truth: that I am God’s creature, loved before all ages, given life in time in this world, and called to eternal joy with God; and that praise is the way to live in the truth that I am infinitely loved by the Redeemer, Who gave Himself for me.
One quotation expressed this best for me. I remember reading these words while on retreat and thinking about them at length. “Praise is,” this author writes, “essentially an unlimited appreciation of the grandeur of God.” The next words spoke deeply to me: “It is a loving appreciation that expresses itself in words and better still in song. It is not a cold and objective statement but warm and human acknowledgment of God.”
When I began to think of praise as “loving appreciation” and “warm and human acknowledgment of God” as my Creator and Redeemer, I began to find it inviting. I found that I wanted to praise God.
When this happened, the Liturgy of the Hours assumed new life for me. For the first time — it now amazes me that I could have prayed it so long without perceiving this — I noticed that praise is present throughout the entire Liturgy of the Hours. I noticed, for example, that the beginning of each of the Hours centers on praise: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,” and then “Alleluia,” which signifies, precisely, “Praise God.”
So many of the hymns, too, are hymns of praise: “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above”; “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”; “Praise the Lord, Ye Heavens Adore Him”; and so many others. The psalms and canticles repeatedly praise God: “I will praise you, Lord, you have rescued me” (Ps. 30:1); “Praise the Lord from the heavens” (Ps. 148:1); “Alleluia. Salvation, power, and glory to our God” (Rev. 19:1); and so on. The Gospel canticles of Zechariah and Mary are canticles of praise: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel”; “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”
I began to see that praise really is the primary focus of the Liturgy of the Hours. When I pray the Hours, I intercede for the needs of the world, and that is very important. Above all, however, my heart — our hearts as we pray the Hours — centers on loving appreciation, warm and human acknowledgment of the grandeur of God, the love of God, the goodness of God, the wisdom of God, the mighty power of God; of His love, which brought me into being, conserves me in being today, redeemed me, and gives me the hope of eternal life.
Worth of Praise
One day I was praying the Liturgy of the Hours and came to Psalm 66. I read the first words, “Cry out to God with joy all the earth, O sing to the glory of his name. O render him glorious praise. Say to God, ‘How tremendous your deeds!’”
I desired this day to direct those words to Jesus and found that as I did so, they became concrete and relational for me. “Let me cry out with joy to Jesus, let me sing to the glory of Your name, Jesus, and render You glorious praise. Let me say to Jesus, how tremendous Your deeds.” As I prayed the words this way, I found that my heart warmed with a sense of God’s deeply personal love for me.
I began to understand that God wants us to praise Him because when we praise God, a blessing comes into our hearts and our lives. We are lifted up; we are fed on truth; we know that we are not alone, that we are loved, that we have a Savior. The truth of our existence in this world comes alive for us. This is why God wants our praise. This is what happens when we pray this prayer of praise that is the Liturgy of the Hours, intended above all to help us live on this level. Supplication, a prayer of intercession for various needs, will follow; but praise is the real heart of the Liturgy of the Hours.
One Sunday, I had just finished celebrating the 11:00 a.m. Mass in a parish where I had served for some time. This was the largest Sunday Mass, and the church was packed. After Communion, I read the announcement that for reasons of health, Deacon Tom, much loved in the parish, needed to retire from serving as deacon. Deacon Tom stood beside me as I read the announcement and said some words to express the gratitude we all felt for him. When I finished speaking, Deacon Tom stood there as the church broke out in a sustained applause, the kind of applause that goes on and on and on, that you know is meant from the heart.
After Mass, I stood outside the church to greet people as they left. There was a smile on every face. Many people said, “Nice Mass, Father,” “Great Mass,” “Thanks for a lovely Mass,” and similar comments. As I thought about it later, I realized what these comments meant. Something joyful had entered our hearts as we expressed gratitude to another. This was why, I saw once more, the God Who loves us wants our praise, our gratitude, and wants us to raise our hearts and voices in word and song to express His beauty, His love, His power, His goodness.
I am grateful to the Liturgy of the Hours for helping me to do something I had never done consciously before, and that is praise God. The Liturgy of the Hours is the principal way in which I express praise of God, and I am sure that this is true for many. If I linger a little on this point, it is because it has come to mean so much for me, and I know how much goodness this prayer of praise can bring into our lives. It is the heart of the Liturgy of the Hours.
This article is adapted from a chapter in A Layman’s Guide to Liturgy of the Hours: How the Prayers of the Church Can Change Your Life. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.