Should I Pray with a Book or an App?
Occasionally I am asked for my opinion on whether we should pray the Liturgy of the Hours with a book or an app. I always preface my answer by acknowledging that there are some very good apps out there. In fact, I have a favorite that I recommend to people occasionally. The truth is that apps do have their benefits, especially for beginners or those in situations where carrying a book is not practical. So I would never say that it is wrong to use an app in place of the physical prayer book. However, in my personal opinion, I do think preference should be given to using the book when praying the Liturgy of the Hours.
I always liken the Liturgy of the Hours prayer book (or the breviary) to the beads we use to pray the Rosary. In a similar way, holding a book in our hands, flipping pages, adjusting ribbons, even the smell of the book… these all keep us engaged in prayer physically. I have never heard anyone boast of the latest Rosary app they found. I think this is because we know intuitively that you can’t separate the Rosary from the beads. This has become my experience with the breviary. It is even hard for me to use a prayer book that belongs to someone else. After a while, it becomes part of you.
Why is this so? Because human beings are created with a body and a soul, and this impacts how we relate to God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols (CCC, 1146).” In part, this is why the incarnation is so important. God became flesh not only to reconcile us to the Father, but that we might be able to approach the Father through the Sacred Humanity of Jesus! And it is His Sacred Humanity that we meet in the physical signs and symbols that Christ has left to His Church (namely, the sacraments) - physical signs and symbols that have been given to us in order that we might know God physically and not just spiritually.
In this sense, we really ought to see our breviaries as sacramentals. By definition, sacramentals are “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments… By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy (CCC, 1667).” What is a breviary, but a sacred sign of that prayer that not only disposes us to receive the effects of the sacraments, but even extends their graces to the time of each day? I know of some who, for this reason, even venerate the breviary after each hour of prayer. This is not uncommon to do after praying the Rosary, praying with icons, medals, etc. Why would it be any different for the breviary?
Lastly, I think it is important to separate the common, mundane, and everyday usage of objects like our electronic devices from that which has the specific purpose of placing us in contact with Christ and joining us to His prayer. We use our phones for business calls, to talk to family and friends, scroll through the newsreels, get on Facebook, check e-mail, look at the weather, etc. When we add praying the Liturgy of the Hours to this list, we risk making it one of many other mundane activities. In the words of Robert Cardinal Sarah, because these devices “are not instruments consecrated and reserved to God… [they] desascralize prayer.” Conversely, there is only one reason that I ever pick up my breviary. It is to pray with Christ and His Church before the throne of God interceding for the salvation of the world.
These are some of the reasons why I believe we ought to give preference to praying the Liturgy of the Hours with a physical breviary over an app on an electronic device.