Understanding the Washing of the Feet

One of the most striking traditions of Holy Week is the washing of the feet at Holy Thursday mass. Once again, we are reenacting something Christ himself commanded us to do, and the somewhat awkward and uncomfortable way the tradition is performed at many modern masses does nothing to undercut the potent symbolism of the act.

(Photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

(Photo: L’Osservatore Romano)

Multiple layers of meaning and possible interpretations, from the purely cultural to the deeply symbolic, are found in John’s account of the washing of the feet (John 13:1-20). The three most obvious meanings are based upon Near Eastern customs of hospitality, Jewish customs of ritual washings, and the exemplum of Christ. There are deeper meanings as well, with suggestions of the sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation, and even a complete summary of the life of Christ.

Hospitality and Servility

At the Last Supper, Jesus would have been the “host” and the apostles the “guests.” Washing the feet of weary travelers would have been a job delegated to a gentile slave by the host. Not even a Jewish slave would be expected to wash feet. The host of a meal would certainly not lower himself to performing this vile task himself. The feet of travelers in ancient Palestine would have been shod in sandals, and thus filthy from traveling on dirt roads. However, as St. Paul says in Philippians: “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:5-7) Jesus himself tells us that the “first shall be last,” (Matt. 20:16) and in the washing of the feet he shows his willingness to take on the work of the last and the least. (1)

Ritual Washing and the Priesthood

Ritual washing was a key element of Jewish practice, with elaborate procedures and requirements for cleansing those who might become “unclean” during daily life. (2) Several times in the scripture Jesus indicates that the need for this ritual washing has ended now that the messiah has come. (cf Matt. 15, Mark 7, John 2, etc) In John 13, however, we find Jesus cleansing the feet of his disciples.

One possible interpretation is as a priestly act. In Judaism, the Kohen (a member of the priestly class) has his hands washed prior to performing the Priestly Prayer. Historically, this also included washing the feet, although today they often simply remove their shoes. It is one of the rare instances where foot washing is prescribed, following the command of Exodus 30:20-21 that the priestly class “shall wash their hands and their feet” prior to coming to the altar. (3)

The foot washing in John 13 is a prelude to Jesus’ own High Priestly Prayer in John 17. In performing these ablutions, he is thus conferring priesthood on his apostles. It is a way of extending the authority of the Aaronic priesthood to the apostles.


Finally, we have the reason that Jesus himself states for washing the disciples feet. They are to see this as an example to follow. They are to embrace humility at all times, and to serve one another. As St. Augustine writes: “as [man] was lost by imitating the pride of the deceiver, let him now, when found, imitate the Redeemer’s humility.”(4) This is the humble act of the Christian, set against the pride of the world.

Baptism & Confession

There is also a sacramental symbolism found in the scene. When Jesus says “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except his feet,” he calls to mind both Baptism and Confession. The person washed of sin in baptism does not need to be baptized again to be cleansed of his sin.(5) But the feet are the part of the body which carry us through the world, and the world in John is the realm of sin.(6) Our feet carry us into sin, and this sin is washed away in the sacrament of confession. (7) Thus, Jesus washes away the “world” when he washes the feet of the disciples, so that sin has no place at His Father’s table.

Summary of Jesus’ Life

Beyond these surface meanings, however, we find a more majestic symbolism in the washing of the feet. Pope Benedict XVI analyzes this in some depth in Chapter 3 of Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, calling it not only an exemplum (an example to follow) but also a sacramentum (a summary of the grace and mystery of the life of Christ). (8) Fulton Sheen, in his Life of Christ, expresses this with impressive concision:

The scene was a summary of His Incarnation. Rising up from the Heavenly Banquet in intimate union of nature with the Father, He laid aside the garments of His glory, wrapped about His Divinity the towel of human nature which He took from Mary; poured the laver of regeneration which is His Blood shed on the Cross to redeem men, and began washing the souls of His disciples and followers through the merits of His death, Resurrection and Ascension. (9)

Jesus lowered himself to serve sinful mankind, clothing himself in miserable flesh and washing away our sins through his sacrifice. Thus is the entire life of Christ contained symbolically in the washing of the feet.

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The Judas Tree, And Other Legends of the Betrayer

This is cercis siliquastrum, the Judas Tree:

It is, according to legend, the type of tree from which Judas hanged himself, and its once-white blossoms blushed with shame to be part of such a terrible history.

Or perhaps it’s called the Judas Tree because the clusters of blossoms sometimes hang from the branches, suggesting a hanging man.

Or maybe it’s all just a mistake: its French name–“Tree of Judea”–misunderstood as “Tree of Judas.” Legend is funny that way.

The Wednesday of Holy Week is sometimes called “Spy Wednesday”: a reference to the day Judas allegedly made his deal to betray Christ. There is a lot of lore surrounding Judas, invented as an attempt to fill in the gaps in the Gospel narratives.

Jacobus de Voragine relates some wild tales about Judas in the entry for St. Matthias in The Golden Legend. Jacobus admits that these are legends and we shouldn’t put too much stock in them, but they open an interesting window into Medieval perceptions about the figure of Judas, which are not at all as simplistic and some might think.

For example, we are told that his mother–Cyborea–has a premonition that her son would be the downfall of her people. He told her husband, Ruben, and when the boy is born they set him afloat in a basket.

The baby washes up on the shore of an island called Scariot, whose Queen is lonely and childless. She takes the baby in, hides him, and then feigns pregnancy and produces the child as her own nine months later. The King is overjoyed to have a son, and Judas is raised in royal style.

Shortly thereafter, the Queen becomes pregnant, and the two little princelings grow up together. Judas, rotten to the core, mistreats his brother, and the Queen begins to resent the foundling. Eventually, the truth comes out, and Judas slays the true heir to the throne, then flees to Jerusalem.

There, he enters the service of Pilate, who sees a kindred spirit in the wicked young man and puts him in charge of his household.

One day, Pilate spies a field of fruit and is overcome with a desire for some. He sends Judas off to gather it, whereupon he gets in an arguement with the field’s owner: his real father, Ruben. Judas slays the man, and Pilate gives all of Ruben’s property and his wife to Judas.

Judas finds his wife/mother in misery one day, and asks her what is her sorrow. She pours out her entire tale, at which point Judas realizes the true horror of his situation. Cyborea urges him to seek out and follow Jesus, beg forgiveness for all his crimes, and repent.

This Judas does, but his wicked tendencies cannot be checked, and he soon begins stealing money entrusted to his keeping. He rages against the 300 silver pieces spent on the ointment, and then betrays Jesus for 30 silver pieces. The amount is chosen because Judas had been skimming one-tenth of the purse, and the price of his betrayal was the amount lost from the purchase of the ointment.

Finally, after his betrayal, Judas repents once again, but swallowed up by despair he kills himself by hanging: his stomach bursting and spilling his bowels upon the ground. It was deemed fitting that he was burst open, so that the lips that kissed Christ should not be defiled in death, and that the bowels which had conceived the betrayal should burst, while the throat that uttered traitorous words was strangled. Moreover, he died hanging in the air, thus offending neither the heights of heaven where the angels dwell nor the earth where his fellow men roamed.

We see a lot of the Medieval imagination and misunderstanding in these tales. First, there is the strange mash-up of the stories of Moses, Cain and Abel, Joseph, and Oedipus, but through a dark, inverted lens. It suggests the inherent evil that appears bred in the bone of Judas, known even to his parents before his birth. His attempts to repent end first in backsliding, and then in suicide. He is the very image of a cursed figure.

Yet the classical motifs suggest a strange, uneasy overlay of fate in his story. Oedipus, for example, wasn’t inherently evil, but rather fated to be a tragic figure. It was the role picked out for him by the gods. It’s an element that sits uncomfortably on the story of Judas, who was a more active agent in his own downfall. The very notion of the crushing whims of inexorable fate is anti-Christian to its core.

Some Gnostics, and later some Muslims, regarded Judas in a better light. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas depicts him as an active figure in the ministry of Christ who helped free Jesus of his body, while the very late Gospel of Barnabas offers a Muslim-style Judas who takes the place of Christ on the cross. Different movements imagine the Judas they need.

But today, we remember the more straightforward figure of the traitor, a man who robbed from the poor and betrayed the son of the living God. It’s fitting that, although Judas is not a saint and the only one of the twelve not on the calender, we remember him on this day. He’s there as a warning, because each of us, every day, betrays Christ in ways small and large.

Judas didn’t just know the truth: he walked with the Truth. If he can fall so far, what of us?

Bishop O’Connell On His Recovery, the Synod, and More

oconnellI had a chance to interview the Most Reverend David O’Connell, Bishop of Trenton, about his recovery from an emergency amputation, his Lent, the synod, and his diocese. An excerpt:

Has [your recovery] given this Lent any added meaning?

It’s something that has been part of my own movement into Lent. I’m conscious of this disability, and that it is requiring sacrifice on my part. The biggest sacrifice is the fact that I can’t get out and see my people. I’m here in the residence, and I do a lot of work from here, but this has been a real challenge. There’s something about confronting real challenges in life that does test your faith, and that’s what Lent is all about.

Lent is recognition of the challenges you have to face and the resolution that you make to overcome them to be better. In the course of my ministry and many years as a priest, I’ve can’t tell you how many people I’ve told, “Don’t lose faith, hope, don’t give up, don’t be afraid.”

Now this Lent and this experience has been my chance to listen to my own advice. God has been ever-present. I’ve had that sense very clearly in the crosses and also the successes each day. This is a Lent that I won’t soon forget.

We are drawn closer to the Lord because we become aware of our shared dependence. That’s something as human beings we don’t think about a whole lot. We are totally dependent on God and on others. When you don’t have a leg you can’t walk. You need people to get you out of bed, you need people to help you. I need people to teach me how to relearn how to take a step, stand up, sit down, walk up a stair. You don’t think about these things. I do feel that this experience has deepened my realization of dependency, and that maybe isn’t the worst thing.

Read the whole thing at the National Catholic Register.

Bishop O’Connell is my bishop, and I’m glad to see him healing so well.

The Three Pillars of Lent

We meet again, Lent, my old foe. This time I will have you!2015-02-18 12.52.52

I joke. I love Lent, at least since I’ve learned to meet it not as my Everest to be conquered, but as 40 days in the desert with Christ.

That’s a pretty tall order to fill, and our forebears in the faith used to do it with hard Lents that saw them eating one major meal a day and giving up meat, eggs, and diary for the entire period. Indeed, it’s a practice still followed by some our separated brethren in the Eastern churches.

That option is certainly open to modern people, but it’s probably not the ideal for most of us. Life has changed significantly. For long periods of history, people only had one major meal a day anyway, with dairy and meat not always on the menu for many classes.

Does this mean we’ve gone soft?

Of course it does, but it also means that getting back to that spiritual fighting weight is a formidable task made more difficult by a simple fact of modern life: the culture is not fasting. When Christendom was ascendant, everybody observed the fast in the same way. Today, if you want to observe, say, a medieval fast, you’ll be the odd one out. Even Catholics aren’t doing it that way. This has to make it more difficult.

I’ve tried the hardcore stuff with varying levels of success and failure, and found that, for me, the road through Lent is best taken one step at a time rather than with some grand itinerary.

The point of our time in the desert is to draw nearer to Christ. There are three ways to live Lent:

  • Carrying the cross with Christ by sharing a small portion of His suffering.
  • Emulating Him in acts of charity and kindness.
  • Drawing near to Him in prayer and spending time at His feet, learning from him through Scripture and spiritual writing.

And so, this is the way I make my Lent.

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me
I observe the required fasting and abstinence, but I’ve found that giving up X or Y doesn’t really do anything for me. I make my fast day by day, choosing something each day to bypass and offering that up, in this season, for the deliverance of Middle Eastern Christians.

One day I may observe a full fast, while on another I’ll choose to forgo something I want. It works for me because it makes each item a choice and each choice is linked to an intention. “Forty days without chocolate” doesn’t work for me as well as reaching for a beer and saying, “No” to myself.

That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Whatever You Did to The Least of These, You Did to Me
Each day should be lived in caritas, but in Lent that charity should be more focused, more intentional, more deliberate. One kind deed a day should be a goal for every day, but in Lent, we should reach beyond and in so reaching, connect those acts to some intention. Sometimes, the most charitable thing I’m capable of on a given day is not throttling someone who richly deserves it, and that just doesn’t count.

I also don’t leave the house very much, which is common for freelancers. On those days, when an opportunity to do good doesn’t present itself, I plan to donate some money to a worthy cause.

This year, we’re planning to get the whole family out to do some works of mercy, either visiting the seniors or the soup kitchen. We are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, shelter the shelterless, bury the dead, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, warn the sinner, counsel the doubtful, pray for the living and dead, bear wrongs patiently, forgive, and comfort.

These things, too, we should do all year round, so Lent is our chance to make it intentional, reaching beyond ourselves and our comfort zones.

To best do this, I try to live Lent every moment I can, and ask myself, “Am I doing all I’m capable of doing, or simply doing what’s comfortable and easy for me?”

Could You Not Stay Awake One Hour With Me?
The devotional and prayer parts of Lent are easiest for me, and the ones I look forward to. It’s not a burden for me to take on an extra course of spiritual reading or prayer, and thus this part of my observance has no penitential aspect.

That’s okay. The fasting and abstinence is our cross and therefore our penance. Prayer and spiritual reading is for our growth, to help us draw nearer to Christ.

Naturally, this means observing the Holy Days, praying the Station of the Cross, and making a better effort at daily prayers, however we perform them.

For me, it means adding an extra hour of explicitly spiritual (rather than historical or purely theological) reading each day. My devotional plan looks something like this:

We’ll also do the daily readings as a family.

With the exception of the Bible and the Creed meditations, I plan to rotate through the other reading with no particular agenda, simply being guided by the Spirit.

If all this seems rather loosey goosey, it is, and intentionally so.
Over the years, I’ve made hard, structured Lents both well and poorly. This year, I choose to be led through Lent by the Spirit rather than drawing a map and an agenda and charging through with grim determination. I want to be open to the action of grace, and so I’ve chosen some structured elements and some general intentions. What this will mean in practice is uncertain, since

I’ve never tried it before. It could be a complete washout, as I fall into old habits.

The best things I can do to make a good Lent is

  • Remind myself daily of the season and its purpose.
  • Leave my comfort zone and put myself on a path so the Spirit can do his work.
  • Remember that this is not a mountain to be climbed or a marathon to be won, but a long walk into Jerusalem at the side of The Lord, and the best thing I can do on that walk is accompany him, emulate him, and be taught by him.

The best things you can do in Lent is a) be present to the Lord and b) be present to your fellow man, whether that means, for you, daily mass, the rosary, and a holy hour or five minutes of silent prayer at the end of a tired day; an hour playing cards with the elderly, or simply making lunch for your kids each morning. Lent finds us where we are. We yield, we act, we pray, and in unity with the communion of saints and Christians everywhere, we hold up these things as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

The Ashes! They Burnses!

So this story flitted across my feed today:

Ashes Burned and Blistered Parishioner’s Foreheads

On Ash Wednesday, parishioners of Saint Joseph’s church in Newtownshandrum, Co Cork received their cross ashes on their forehead as many Catholics around the world did, but something different happened at St. Joseph’s.

The parishioner’s foreheads began to burn and blistered where the ashes marked their foreheads.

When Father Baker realized what was happening he stopped using the ashes at once.

“It was while I was placing the ash on the foreheads of parishioners that people began complaining about a burning sensation on their foreheads.

“I was surprised by it as I was dipping my thumb in the ashes but did not have any sort of reaction to it myself.“Once I was made aware of it, I ceased giving out any more ashes and alerted the parishioners from the altar that they should immediately remove the ashes from their heads.”

The ashes have since been sent to a lab for investigation into what could have caused the burning and blistering of the parishioners skin.

Father Baker insists this was not a supernatural event.

I want to focus on that last sentence for a minute.

I’m not sure if the word “insists” is an accurate reflection of Fr. Baker’s statement or a writerly interpolation, but it seems likely that a priest, looking to reassure a stricken and possibly jittery congregation, would hold firm to the idea that there is a perfectly natural explanation to the experience.

Something caustic probably got in the ashes. This is, all things being equal, the most likely explanation. I doubt God was singling out a bunch of hapless Irish Catholics for a little vampire-style punishment on Ash Wednesday. That would just be too outre.

“It burns!”

Probability, however, is not certainty. There was a time when a priest would have looked at this experience and the “natural/not natural” assumption would have been about 50/50. Why so quick to insist, when encountering something strange in a faith where the supernatural is an integral part, that nothing supernatural is going? The priest is part of a supernatural experience every single day. Is it so outlandish that a penitential event might begin with something a little extra-penitential?

I’m not saying it is, mind you. But I found it interesting that the initial impulse is to dismiss the supernatural completely and seek a wholly materialistic explanation. It’s not how we’ve always thought about these things, so I wrote a little bit about it in this post:

Our Ancestors Weren’t Idiots


Note to Readers: My blogging has been and will continue to be erratic. I’m down to typing mostly with one hand, and my arthritis, in the absence of the extremely expensive medicine that I’m having trouble getting (thanks Obamacare!), is making my life unpleasant. There’s just not a lot of me left over right now.


The Daily Capybara, And a Bit of Legend

The capybara is my favorite animal, and not merely because they’re the only red meat you can eat on days of Lenten fast.

Well, that’s the legend at least. Supposedly, when the missionaries encountered the capybara in South America, they weren’t sure if it qualified as a mammal or a fish. It has webbed feet and can swim, you see, so we’re supposed to believe that men who knew perfectly well that a duck was not a fish, were confused about whether or not a hamster the size of a mastiff was a fish.

It sounds absurd, but it’s possible there’s more than mere legend behind it. At certain points in history, otters, beavers, and amphibians have been included among “fish” for the purpose of determining what could be eaten on days of fast. St. Thomas Aquinas explains why:

Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connexion with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since suchlike animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods. (ST 2–2: 147:8)

For the purpose of the fast, “meat” was considered the flesh of animals that breathed air and spent most of their time on land. St. Thomas also adds, in a response about milk and eggs, that “each person is bound to conform to that custom which is in vogue with those among whom he is dwelling.”

Supposedly, “The Vatican” declared capybara to be a fish, and never undeclared it, so it’s allowed to be eaten during Lenten fast.

There’s also a story that Bl. François de Laval, Bishop of Quebec, made a similar request about beavers in the 17th century. This one even includes details about de Laval writing to the theologians at the Sorbonne for an opinion.

Again, it’s a story that’s certainly repeated a lot, but is it true? The waters of Quebec were full of fish. Beavers created headaches for the bishop: the beaver hunt was distracting the flock and leading to the defrauding of Indians, who were plied with alcohol to give up their pelts. Would he have really been looking for loopholes in the fasting guidelines?

“For $13, I can be yours. I am not edible.”

It’s certainly possible both stories are true. I just haven’t seen any documentary evidence for either. If you know of any, post in the comboxes.

Anyway, back to the capybara. I just love these weird rodents. They’re strange, cute, and, I understand, quite tasty. My family gave me a stuffed one which we named Captain Barry. I feed him a steady diet of FlufferNutella sandwiches and hugs.

So, on my Facebook page through Lent, I’ll be running The Daily Capybara. (Why yes, this is a naked attempt to drive up my Facebook page likes. Why do you ask?)

It’s like Cute Overload, only with edible giant rodents.

Electronic Resources for Lent

I’m rediscovering today just how incredible a single piece of wheat toast can taste when you’re fasting. This effect is not incidental to the practice. 

In the meantime, I just want to point you to a few electronic resources for making your Lent more holy:


CRS Rice Bowl [App o the Mornin’]

Remember getting your little cardstock rice bowls each year at CCD class, folding them into shape, and dropping in change to support Operation Rice Bowl?

You can still do that (and you should) but you can also bring the practice into the 21st century with Catholic Relief Service’s Rice Bowl app (iPhone/Android: free).

CRS has created a series of daily meditations for Lent–some original, some from the writings of Pope Francis–with a focus on Catholic social teaching. All of the meditations come with the app, so it works offline as well as online, and you can sent daily reminders for a particular time.

The app also allows you to create a daily “sacrifice” for Lent, and tracks the things you’re giving up with a suggested value: $1.75 for a cup of coffee, $4.69 for a fast food combo meal, or any custom sacrifice with its name and cost. The idea, of course, is to give up things and allocate the money as a donation to CRS. This donation can be done from within the app, and it’s a pretty clever way of measuring the things we give up for Lent and turning them into a practical good through CRS, which does great work around the world.

A number of meat-free recipes and “Stories of Hope” (video and text) from people helped by CRS are included as well.

It’s a very effective use of technology to combine prayer, Lenten observance, and action. CRS has done a great job on this.

All Depart In Silence

Last night was the most striking moment in the Church year for me: the sanctuary lit only by candles, the priest processing with humeral veil and monstrance to the altar of repose, the Pange Lingua echoing in the church, the altars being stripped, and then the final instruction of the missal: “all depart in silence.”

And so I will be departing now for the remainder of the Triduum. May God be with you and your families, our communities, our Church, our country, and our world. May we remember that the worst thing that can ever happen to humanity, has already happened. Our sins have killed the incarnate Christ, and continue to wound him again every day. We can either add to that misery by dwelling in darkness, or bring the light of love to the dark places.

May we also remember that this worst of all days has become our salvation, “for Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

Be at peace, for He who makes all things new has conquered the world.


9 Ways To Keep Lent

Cardinal Ratzinger and Bl. John Paul II

Pope Benedict gave us a gift yesterday. He gave us a Lent that would focus our minds on Christ, the Church, and His People in a way no one has ever experienced.

I awoke yesterday at 6am to learn–on Facebook–that the pope had resigned. The news spread across the world almost at the speed of thought. When Gregory XII resigned 600 years ago, how many people knew? Or cared? In the modern media age, everyone knew, and many cared very deeply. We were connected to the life of our pope through electronic media, and now we are connected to the end of his reign. It was an unprecedented moment, and we should take a moment to appreciate the unity new media creates in our Church.

It also gives us a chance, going into Lent, to pray for our Church, the man who led it, the men who will choose his successor, and that successor. At this pivotal time in our faith and our history, Benedict has given our Lenten prayers a new purpose.

You’ll see a lot of tech woven throughout the items that follow. It’s how my brain and my life are wired, so it’s natural that my worship and my Lent should be wired the same way. I used many methods to pray and worship over the years, long before I had any gear that would assist. I like it much better this way. Everything is one place, accessible, handsomely formatted, searchable, and with me wherever I go.

Your techniques will be different. Everyone has to make their own Lent. This is mine:

1. Prayer for Benedict, the Conclave, the Church
These will be at the forefront of our minds as we make our way through Lent. Our focus is always on God in the Trinity and the suffering of the Incarnate Christ, but as Catholics we arrive at that focus in myriad ways. Christ founded the Church and established the papacy on the rock of Peter, so it is right and proper to pray for both the current successor to Peter, and the next, whoever he may be. My prayers for the weeks ahead suddenly have a theme.

2. Daily Mass
Last year, my wife and I made a commitment to daily mass throughout the 40 days of Lent. I know many people make daily mass year round, but it’s just not something we can do when we’re getting kids off to school and starting a day. This year, we’re going to try again, because it was such an incredibly fulfilling way to keep Lent.

We knew we wanted to make daily mass, but also knew it could be challenging, so we said each day: we’ll try. And each day, we made it. Rather than a whole 40 days of commitment stretching before us, we only had one day of commitment. And then the next. And the next. In that way, step by step, we made it all the way through without missing a day.

Universalis for iPad

3. Liturgy of the Hours
This is one of the great gifts of the Church: a deep, fulfilling, preset course of reading full of scripture, prayer, and meaningful juxtapositions in readings. The Divine Office is a spiritual treasury that people need to discover and claim as their own.

I make an effort to pray Vespers and Lauds and do the readings every day. Do I make it every day? No, I don’t. Sometimes I just get the Mass readings in. That’s life, and I stopped fretting about it long ago. If you’re interested in doing the Hours, that’s the first thing you need to get past: this idea that you have to read it all and, if you miss some, you’ve failed or need to make it up. No, no, no! Just keep going. If you missed morning, try evening. If you missed both, try the next day. Maybe you’ll only get in one or two in the first week. Well, that’s two more than you had before.

Lent is a perfect time to try the Office. You have a purpose and a commitment: this is how you’re keeping Lent. Forget giving up the chocolate. That’s small beans. It’s nice, and we are certainly challenged to fast, but God would much rather hear from you and have you reading His word.

There are some easy ways to do this. I use a Universalis app on my iPad, which includes everything: all readings, mass readings, and hours. You can read the whole thing online for free, or you can download versions for PC or Mac. I bought a license years ago because I use it regularly, and a worker deserves his wage. There are also $14 apps for iPhone/iPad  and AndroidiBreviary is another option, and it’s free.

I get fairly slack on praying the full Office during Ordinary Time, so I make an extra commitment to praying more of it during Advent and Lent.

4. The Audio Divine Office

The other app I use is Divine Office, which has audio versions of the various Hours as well as the complete text. It’s an excellent app and some people will prefer it to Universalis. I’m used to the feel of Universalis, so I only use Divine Office for the audio files, which can be downloaded for offline use.

Honestly, I run hot and cold on the narrations. Some of the readers just emote too much. I don’t need a performance. I just need text read to me when I’m out and about and can’t keep my eyes on a book, or at the end of the day when I’d rather listen than read. There are free sample versions available for some of the hours, or you can get the whole thing for $20. It’s an excellent piece of software.

5. Magnificat Lenten Companion

I was a subscriber to Magnificat for years before I started doing the regular Office, and I still get their books and companions each season. This is a great supplement, and would work fine as the sole devotional for people who don’t want to commit to a full course of readings.

6. The Homilies of St. Thomas Aquinas
In my Verbum software I have a large collection called  Ninety-Nine Homilies of S. Thomas Aquinas Upon the Epistles and Gospels for Forty-Nine Sundays of the Christian Year, translated by John M. Ashley (London: Church Press Company, 1867). It’s part of their 34 volume Medieval Preaching and Spirituality Collection.

I’ve never read any of these homilies, and there are two for each Sunday in Lent and Easter. I’m planning to read one a week this year, which will be made easier since I can download the whole  book right into my Verbum app on iPad and read them offline, rather than being stuck on a PC screen. You can find a public domain copy here.

Since I’m in a class on Patristics right now, the Church Fathers will be my other companions for the journey. It’s a pretty heavy reading load, but it comes at a good time.

7. The Ratzinger Stations 

We’ll be doing Stations of the Cross, and probably the Seven Last Words, at our parish. I also hope to make time this year to pray the stations written and prayed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005, shortly before his elevation. They’re not only beautiful: they’ll be a small tribute to the man as he moves into his own via dolorosa.

By the way, if you use an ebook reader or tablet, you don’t need to print those stations. You can just push them to your device using any number of Google Chrome plugins. For Kindle, I use Send to Kindle by Klip.me. For iPad, I use either the Intsapaper or Clip to Evernote plug-ins.  You’ll find them in the Chrome store for free.

8. Mobile Reminders

I already wrote about Avocado and how it allows my wife and me to synchronize our lists and schedules and connect throughout the day. We both get reminders to pray the Angelus at noon, and if we’re together in the house (we both work at home) we pray together. If not, each knows the other is probably praying at the same time.

There are many ways to work mobile and desktop reminders into your prayer life. It’s certainly easy, for those who have Siri, to simply tell it to remind you do pray Vespers at a certain time in the evening, or to tap out a quick prayer intention in any number of mobile note-taking apps so you have it with you for your prayers. Evernote is a bit heavy for making quick prayer intention notes, but Simple Notes, Notes, or, literally, hundreds of other programs can do it as well.

Or you can just scribble it on a piece of paper. You know, like the cavemen did.

9. Fasting

We’ll all be fasting as well. I already make an effort to observe the Friday fast, so this isn’t a huge change for me. I will add additional days of fast for Lent, but I don’t often make a particular effort to give things up. The additional time devoted to extra reading and prayer kind of automatically means I won’t be goofing off, watching TV, wasting time on the internet, or playing games as much, which is why I do it.  It kind of creates its own fast by taking time from leisure and committing it to reading and prayer.


As I said at the start: this is my way of keeping Lent. Yours will be different, so feel free to share it with us. Any tools? Any books? Any devotions you’d like to recommend?