Over the last few days I've been questioning the importance of the liturgy in the personal individual prayer life of faithful Christians. By "liturgy" here I don't simply mean just the Mass/Divine Liturgy/Qurbono. What I'm referring to is the entire liturgical life of the Church including the celebration of the Sacraments, the daily cycle of the Hours, the yearly rhythm of feasts and fast, etc. Why is all of this so important? Why would the Church impose any sort of "obligation" to participate in this? Why not just insist that the faithful simply pray on Sundays?
In questioning all of this I was reminded of a section in a book by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) entitled Feast of Faith. It's been so many years since I've read that book that I don't remember exactly where the section is, nor do I remember exact quotes. All that I remember is that he provides us with an image of a mother teaching her child to talk. Babies learn to talk from their parents, but from their mothers in particular. As she nurses her child a mother will speak to it. Whenever a child is distressed it almost always turns to its mother, who comforts it with hugs, kisses and soothing words. A child will gaze into its mother's eyes as she speaks lovingly to it, repeating words over and over until those very words begin to form on the lips of the child.
So too with the Church. It is through this cycle of feasts and fasts, daily prayers, weekly (and sometimes daily) Divine Liturgy, etc., that the Church teaches us to speak the words of prayer. It is in the Liturgy of the Church that our Mother teaches us to speak with and relate to God our Father, Christ our Brother, and the Holy Spirit the "Giver of Life." Without the Liturgy we are like infants attempting to speak without anyone teaching us not only the basics of grammar, but even the basics of forming a proper word.
In the East the Jesus Prayer has taken on a special pseudo-liturgical role primarily for those who, for one reason or another, cannot participate in certain areas of the Church's liturgical life. That is why there are set "rules" to replace the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours if one is unable to participate in them. It is also why one can replace participation in the Divine Liturgy by repeating the Jesus Prayer a certain number of times. It's not that the Church is trying to provide a way out of going to Church on Sunday. Rather it's because the Church recognizes that it is not always possible to make it to Church every Sunday. The Jesus Prayer keeps us connected to the Church's liturgical life.
At one time in the Church (both East and West) it was obligatory on the faithful to participate daily - yes daily - in Matins and Vespers. Certain traditions in the Church still maintain such an obligation. Among the Coptics the faithful are still required to pray the Agpeya (Coptic Liturgy of the Hours). Unfortunately in the West the Liturgy of the Hours was considered for centuries to be the obligation of clergy and religious exclusively. This, happily, is something that the Second Vatican Council strove to remedy by recommending a reformation of the Roman Liturgy of the Hours and by clarifying it's important not only in the lives of clergy and religious, but also in the lives of the lay faithful as well.
In the Byzantine East the Horologion grew in large part out of monastic usage. Over the centuries it has acquired a great deal of complexity to the point the celebrating Orthros/Matins in full can take upwards of two hours, and Vespers an hour and a half. One almost needs to be a liturgical expert simply to navigate the multiple volumes required to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours according to the Byzantine tradition. Parishes, if they celebrate the Hours at all, will typically skip over certain prayers simply because the Horologion was designed for monastic use and not for use in parish churches. Certain monasteries here in the U.S. have actually been in the process of reforming the Byzantine Horologion in order to create an adaptation that is both consistent with Tradition, but also suitable for parish churches who's parishioners have busy lives.
I am personally a big fan of the Maronite Liturgy of the Hours. The translation available here in the U.S. contains only Safro/Matins and Ramsho/Vespers, and it is not a full translation of either of those services. Rather, it is an adaptation of the much longer monastic service made suitable for parish, group and private use. Some folks don't like the translation, but not knowing a word of Syriac and not having and older translation to compare it with I wouldn't know if the translation is good or bad. I do know that it is very prayable and that the theology and spirituality it conveys is beautiful, clear, and orthodox.
Why do I mention these different traditions of the Liturgy of the Hours? Because praying the Hours is one way that we can enter into the liturgical life of the Church and allow our Mother to teach us to pray truly. By repeating Her words and allowing those words to enter our hearts, Her words eventually become our words and Her prayer our prayer. We are blessed in this day and age to have easy access to the books needed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. The Byzantine Horologion (and most other volumes), the Maronite Prayer of the Faithful, the Roman Christian Prayer, and the Coptic Agpeya are all readily available on Amazon, Ebay, or by simply doing a quick google search. We today really have little to no excuse not to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours. So sit down with your Mother for 15 minutes a day and let Her teach you how to pray. May heaven consume us.