Vespers at the Institute for Church Life
Student attends traditional prayer service for the first time
The McGrath Institute for Church Life hosts Vespers in the Our Lady of Mercy Chapel in Geddes Hall once a month; the Wednesday before fall break was the inaugural Vespers service of this school year.
Vespers is the evening prayer of the Catholic Church; equivalent evening also prayers exist in the Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. Its structure is simple and always the same: an introductory verse, a hymn, the psalmody, the reading, a homily, the responsory, the Magnificat, intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer, the concluding prayer, and a dismissal.
Vespers is part of the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, which is the daily prayer of the whole Church. Priests and religious pray the Divine Office every day, structuring their days’ work around the rhythm of the prayer. The Church encourages lay people to pray the Divine Office as well so they can participate in the wider liturgical life of the Church.
The Liturgy of the Hours has been described as “prayer for people who are bad at praying.” It is the universal prayer of the Church because, as is apparent from our spiritual peaks and valleys, we are rhythmic animals— rational animals, yes, but nonetheless animals who are not always capable of or good at personal, unscripted prayer.
The structure of Liturgy of the Hours allows the whole day to be directed to God in a constant, yet ever-shifting, manner. The readings and psalms change with the seasons, and each hour has prayers appropriate for that time of day. There are six hours: dawn, or the invitatory psalm; morning, or Lauds; midmorning, or Terce; midday, or Sext; afternoon, or None; evening, or Vespers; and night, or Compline.
The morning prayer, Lauds, proclaims the arrival of the Lord with these words from the canticle of Zechariah: “The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death…” In contrast, night prayer, or Compline, asks the Lord, “Save us, Lord, while we are awake; protect us while we sleep; that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest with him in peace.”
Vespers is the longest and most elaborate of the hours, to be prayed at or around sunset. It is meant to close each day of work, calling upon the Lord to bless our worldly endeavors, and entrusting in him our rest of the evening. Vespers developed as the center of the communal prayer of towns during the Middle Ages. In monastic communities from antiquity to modernity, incense is used in Vespers, and this fragrance called the villagers into the monastery to join in this prayer together at the end of their work day.
The lengthiest portion of Vespers is the psalm, which is chanted and sung. Normally, monks are trained to chant psalms, so I wasn’t sure what to expect at a prayer service composed entirely of laypeople. I was pleasantly surprised: the prayer was loud, enthusiastic, and even mostly in tune. A few times, we failed to all change notes at the same time, which prompted a burst of awkward giggling.
As I looked around the chapel, I was reminded of those peasant villages, composed of what must have been a strange hodgepodge of people, some worn out, some sweaty, many children, and the homeless or stranger. In the chapel, I saw some peers, some older people, a few young families with children who mischievously explored the space around the tabernacle while we nervously watched them, professors, and other Notre Dame staff.
Liturgy is marked like that, by imperfect people meeting to join in the living Church. No matter what our state is when we join the prayer, soon, our voices and our breaths are synchronized. We stand and sit together, listening together, responding to each other. The Liturgy of the Hours is a reminder that we are saved in community; no matter where you pray the Divine Office, you are choosing to participate in the Church’s constant rhythmic striving towards salvation.
Madeline Foley is a Program of Liberal Studies major from New Orleans, Louisiana, who is interested in the ordinary sacramentality of life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.