I've been perusing of late some of the literature regarding the reform of the liturgies of the Church. In discussions/rants about the reforms of the last half century the focus tends to be on the Mass, since that tends to be the liturgy that most folks attend from week to week. It is sometimes forgotten that the Church's communal prayer life is also a work of leitourgia and that it, too, has not been unaffected by the craziness of the zealots for liturgical reform.
That there has been some craziness, it now seems, cannot reasonably be denied even by the zealots. How else to explain Annibale Bugnini's desperate, 975-page apologia pro labore suo that is his The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990)? It is a fascinating document, providing more information than most readers will know what to do with but in the process telling a story that is still playing out as the rubrics continue to be debated, revised, and republished. Part IV, dealing with "The Liturgy of the Hours", runs from page 491 to page 576 is somewhat more perfunctory in its treatment than the corresponding part dealing with the missal, but it is fascinating reading none the less, and it incites one to rush to Amazon.com right away to order Stanislaus Campbell's From Breviary to Liturgy of the Hours: The Structural Reform of the Roman Office, 1964-1971 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995). Campbell's book provides considerably more detail than Bugnini's (at 358 pages he has considerably more room to provide commentary and documentation) but, sadly, there is little in the way of genuine discussion of the merits and demerits of the reform itself. Campbell does provide one chapter (the last chapter, chapter 6) of "Evaluation of the Reform", but there is little of interest there--it amounts virtually to a summary of what was said in the first five chapters.
Much more meaty is Robert Taft's The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: The Origins of the Divine Office and its Meaning for Today (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, Second Revised Edition, 1993). Taft writes with that peculiar combination of arrogance and presumption that seems almost proprietary among the Jesuits, but I have to say that it is a little reassuring to discover that there is at least one person out there in the world with an ego even larger than my own. (Just for fun, I highly recommend reading this interview with him by John Allen.) Though the subtitle says that this book will treat of the meaning of the Office "for Today", after reading through it one draws the conclusion that "today" has a rather restricted extension for Taft and the meaning of the Office as far as he is concerned is the meaning it had for a certain group of persons who came of age, like Taft himself (born in 1932), in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of these people are positively dinosaurs when it comes to theology and ecclesiology, and Taft is no exception, living in a dream world of house churches and bad liturgies, but he is quite the scholar, and if you can get past his remarkably pompous yet stilted prose and formidable sense of self-importance this book is well worth reading.
One comes away from books like these with a strange feeling in which regret and hope mingle. On the one hand, one learns that, as usual, committees can't be trusted to produce anything brilliant, innovative, or truly beautiful, and the present structure of the Roman Office is nothing if not the product of committee after committee. On the other hand, the sale of prayer books modeled on the Roman Office has been growing since the 1980s and one dares to hope that perhaps, just perhaps, some Christians are beginning to realize the happy burden that is our "official" prayer life.
The difficulties with the Office appear to derive from its rather byzantine history, arising from a variety of sources, most of the earliest now lost to us, but including both monastic and cathedral practices. These latter two were quite different in many ways, with the monastic practice including the continuous recitation of the entire psalter in a week while the cathedral practice was to select psalms and canticles fitting to the time of day or year. When Trent standardized the "Roman Use" in the 16th century a balance had to be struck between these two practices as well as between the sanctoral and temporal cycles. When, in 1911, the Tridentine Breviary was revised, attempts were made to adjust the balance in these and other tensions, but it seems inevitable that whenever there are multiple interests at play it will be impossible, perhaps even in principle, to come up with something that both pleases the largest number of people and adequately balances all of the competing components derived from multiple sources. The history of liturgical reform in the 20th century certainly bears this out, as the debate over liturgical structures raged from the 20s to through the 60s and folks are still pretty pissed off about what the outcome was. The only people who seem to be even the least bit happy with the status quo are the folk liturgists. By "folk liturgists" I don't mean the people who put together guitar masses but rather those people who are generally responsible for putting together liturgies of any kind and who may even have some sort of training in "liturgics" or some equally silly discipline but who manifestly have no conception of the nature of what it is they are putting together. These are the people who have bequeathed to us that abomination of taste and sensibility that is the standard Sunday morning Mass of most average size parishes in the United States and Western Europe. There is a special circle of Hell reserved for them, just below the usurers.
As both Campbell and Taft note, we have less to worry about when it comes to messing up the Liturgy of the Hours, because it is rare indeed to find any "average size" parish where that liturgy is celebrated at all, let alone celebrated as badly as the Mass is celebrated. Taft, unsurprisingly, believes that the hybrid monstrosity celebrated at Notre Dame is a good example of ways to "improve" upon the official Roman Office, and he also points to the practices of Anglicans and Orthodox, especially at Vespers, as paradigm cases of successful liturgical engineering, but it is difficult to see how such things could serve as anything other than examples of the typically bad sort of liturgics that folks like Taft have always preferred to the genuinely beautiful.
There is a curious claim in Taft's book that is worth examining. Taft is one of these people who scorns the idea of daily reception of the Eucharist, on the grounds that it has a tendency to teach people that the Eucharist is all there is to life as a Christian. As old fashioned as this kind of thinking is (it reminds one of the present day struggles to get the Bishops to make changes in the language of the Mass, with seemingly well-intentioned bishops making the rather mysterious argument that even simple changes, such as changing "And also with you" to "And with your spirit", will confuse and befuddle the simple-minded college graduates sitting in the pews), it nevertheless indirectly makes the very good point that, yes, there is more to being a full-bore Christian than just attending Mass every day, and it is worth learning a great deal about the history and theology of Christian practices to find out what else there might be. In this sense it seems to me that Catholics and Orthodox Christians have quite an advantage over the Protestant sects, most of which have a downright hostile attitude towards the role of history in the understanding of their own religion. Add this to the fact that they do not have a valid Eucharist even when they go so far as to celebrate one, and it grows ever clearer why one ought to stay away from such sects the way one stays away from people who play with guns or who drink absinthe.
Those of us not bound to say the "official" Roman Office are at liberty to say whatever form of prayer suits us, but in my opinion it is worth making the effort to pray with the Church. This may not entail prayer identical to that found in the Office, but I think that it does entail an effort to "pray without ceasing", and this can be marked symbolically by a special effort to pray at the canonical hours. If you are one of those remarkable people who is able to make every act of every day an offering of praise and thanksgiving, then perhaps further formalism is not necessary, but one begins to see the advantage of formal prayer when one engages in public, communal prayer. This communal act appears to be what Taft regards as the ideal, and I think it is probably true that there is much less of it than one could wish. The breviaries of bygone ages did tend to have something of a quasi-private, devotional character to them, even though the "monastic" elements they tended to privilege were communal by their very nature.
So more work needs to be done, in my opinion, in the domain of the Church's liturgy of prayer outside of the Mass. Given ever greater lay education in the history, theology, and liturgy of the Church, one may dare to hope for some progress in this area. One may also dare to hope to avoid guitar Vespers and dance at lauds, but perhaps it's better not get one's hopes up too high.