What is Universalis and how did it happen?
Mention the Liturgy of the Hours to almost any Catholic and you'll get a blank stare. Mention its other name the Divine Office and you might get a dim recollection that it's something that priests are supposed to do and that fat books are involved: breviaries, in fact.
The Divine Office consists of celebrations for seven different times of day, from dawn to night: the "Hours". An intricate pattern of psalms, prayers and readings means that it is forever refreshed and never goes stale. As the Apostolic Constitution Canticum Laudis puts it, "the purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify the day and all human activity... it is the prayer not only of the clergy but of the whole People of God". Except that the clergy never tell the people of God about it. I have heard priests in private and in public, expatiating on virtually any subject: but the Liturgy of the Hours is never mentioned.
The clergy's diffidence is understandable when you realise that the very richness of the Office is also its biggest problem. Each volume of the Breviary is twice as thick as the thickest daily missal and it still only covers a third of the year. Buying three gigantic and expensive volumes and learning to navigate them (airline timetables are easy by comparison) is too much of a commitment or so most priests seem to think. It's certainly true that spending over £100 on a set of books is quite an undertaking, but I wonder sometimes if our shepherds are so scared of over-burdening their sheep that they end up starving them instead.
Easter Sunday at Downside is a day when one puts aside ordinary prudence, and one Easter, as I reeled into the Abbey Bookshop still drunk on the glory of the Resurrection, there was a three-volume breviary on sale second-hand and cheap. I didn't stop to think that I'd probably abandon it after a week and that the breviary would join the other books on prayer, exercise, and cookery that occupy reproachful corners of my bookcase. I didn't even stop to consider the dangers of enthusiasm: Thomas Merton started doing the Divine Office and a year later he was a Trappist monk. I ignored all the risks. I just got the books.
The Office turns out to be glorious and quite addictive. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (cousins of the Anglicans' Matins and Evensong) have the most beautiful psalms; the Office of Readings has the most turgid ones, but it also has extracts from the Fathers of the Church, writing not very long after the Incarnation had turned everything upside down: it is thrilling to see them still trying to make sense of what has just happened to the world. Best of all, the whole thing changes daily.
Of course the old difficulties remain. The Office is still complicated, as a four-week cycle of psalms interweaves with Christmas and Easter and the feasts of the saints. The Office is still big, with different readings for each day of the year. And, being big, the Office is still expensive.
I have worked with computers for years. Computers calculate in an instant, so complication is no problem. Computers store vast amounts of data, so size is no problem either. And so Universalis was born.
Universalis is a project to make the entire Liturgy of the Hours available in electronic form. So far, it contains Morning Prayer (Lauds), the Office of Readings (Matins), Evening Prayer (Vespers) and Night Prayer (Compline), plus the readings at Mass for each day. You can get to any of these on the Web by going to www.universalis.com and clicking on a link: the web site does all the calendar calculations for you and presents you with the text of the Office you want. You can store a week's worth of Universalis on your palmtop computer and take it with you wherever you go; and you can even get the psalms for the day on your mobile phone. If you're feeling rich, you can download the whole of Universalis to your PC or palmtop for £30 and never need to go to the Web site again.
Universalis has never been advertised, but over three and a half thousand people a day visit the site, reading a daily total of fifty thousand pages. The visitors include Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists. They come from all over the world, including a nun from Hong Kong whose work takes her on journeys "to a country where religion is very much controlled by the government", where it is risky to carry a breviary but a laptop computer arouses no suspicion; and in Belgrade one user found time to email us a question as the NATO bombs were falling. There are Universalis users to be found in U.S. missile sites and at the BBC; even in seminaries it is used surreptitiously by people who find the tuition they receive incomprehensible. Parish groups and pilgrimages print out pages for collective prayer. The blind and almost blind print it out in half-inch-high letters or in Braille. Altogether, it is alarming and rather humbling how what started as a semi-private devotion has become so important for so many people.
Not everyone loves Universalis. Some sticklers complain that the psalm translations are not officially approved ones; but this is the fault of the Church for giving away too many rights to commercial publishers and of DD. Laurence and Denis for teaching me Latin too well. At least the scripture readings are all from the Jerusalem Bible, which makes them very official indeed. The time may not be far away when the rustle of missal pages turning during Mass is replaced by the subtler sound of Page Down buttons being clicked on a hundred palmtops.
In conclusion, all I can say is try it. Universalis is not only addictive but also liberatingly discreet. You can always avoid satirical comments from your friends by pretending you are surfing for something quite different.