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Office work: praying the Liturgy of the Hours three times a day keeps me in good company.

I BECAME A BENEDICTINE OBLATE--A "PRAYER PARTNER" of the local monks--because I wanted to belong to a community with roots deep enough to counteract the dizzying impermanence of living in a place where neighbors move every time property values go up. Many years ago, I chose to work at a university, hoping some of that intellect would rub off on me. Now I hoped a monastery's abundance of prayer would spill over and give me a home.

The oblate master shared his secret to the perfect life in God--the Divine Office, also called the Liturgy of the Hours. It was opus Dei, the "work of God" in monastic life, and "the prayer of the church," he explained. "Even the pope prays it!" That was hardly a selling point for a newly-minted Catholic. Popes didn't seem to do much more than travel on business, make proclamations, and wear funny clothes. That wasn't exactly the role model I had in mind.

But I soon discovered the reason for the oblate master's pestering me to pray the Divine Office. It is my work of God, my link to the monastery, my expression of fidelity to the Benedictine community.

The Office is a dry old bird, hard to chew on, a heavy diet of psalms and readings. Morning prayer, which I pray at 5:30 a.m., takes 20 minutes. It has three psalms, an Old Testament canticle, a short Old Testament reading, a response, Zechariah's canticle from the Gospel of Luke (the Benedictus), intercessions, and a closing prayer. There is also an opening hymn, which I admit I have always ignored out of a less-than-melodic early morning spirit.

Evening prayer takes 15 minutes: two psalms, a New Testament canticle, a short New Testament reading, a response, and the Magnificat--another song of praise from Luke's gospel, this time Mary's. There are also prayers of intercession and a closing prayer, as well as another ignored opening hymn. I don't have the singing spirit at 9 p.m. either.

Finally there is the office of readings, which can be prayed at any time during the day. It takes another 20 minutes and includes three more psalms, a hymn (usual response!), a longish biblical reading, and a reading from early church leaders or the lives of the saints.

One of those ancient writers, a desert monk, wrote, "I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God." Boy, has he got my number. Prayer is my warfare against the demons of instability in my life.

"I always knew you were in a lonely place growing up," says my mother, which is a lovely way of saying that I was a strange child. I didn't know it was a lonely place, but it became evident to others in my failing grades and my vulnerability to peer pressure at school. In college I began self-medicating with alcohol to cure the pain of isolation.

Isolation is not only the birth of many an alcoholic but often her death as well. It wasn't until after I began praying the Divine Office that I discovered a new place for me, a place filled with the echoes and spirits of all those who pray it. It allowed me to leave the lonely join the earthbound version of the heavenly host three times a day.

I AM ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO RARELY FEELS THAT I AM walking with God in my daily life or talking to God in my prayers. My prayers are the mumbled, hurried kind. My intent in praying the Office is to grow closer to God by setting aside the time it takes to pray. What it actually gets me is the more "horizontal" awareness of presence--the monks, the oblates, the saints, and, yes, even the pope, who pray the prayer of the church--rather than any vertical sense of God "up there."

The other ways I pray focus more on me and the "vertical" God. The Office, though, is my rock in the tempestuous sea of life, a place to rest when I feel like I'm drowning or to warm myself on a sunny day. Whether I pray it, clutch it, or even sing it, the Office is the liturgy shared with my community, the gift of an elderly monk that I opened and decided to keep on behalf of the church that prays it.

CAROL BONOMO, a Benedictine oblate and lobbyist for higher education in California. Excerpted from My Soul to Keep, Tools for Staying in a Changing Church [c] 2004 by Carol Bonomo. Reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group.
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Title Annotation:practicing catholic
Author:Bonomo, Carol
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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