As Catholics, we have a treasury of spiritual resources from which we may build a life of prayer, study, sanctification and penance that we can know, without doubt, is pleasing to God. As Catholics, we also have the freedom to pursue a spirituality that we find most edifying among the approved sources. What is most certain is that we are not asked by God to dream up our own plan for prayers as if we are spiritual orphans left to fend for ourselves in the world. The Lord is our Shepherd, and therefore we shall lack nothing.
The Divine Office
Throughout Church history, the foundation of the Church's daily life of prayer is the Divine Office. The traditional Divine Office is a comprehensive and intensive system of daily prayer and meditation that is not possible for laymen, but requires the order and tranquility of religious life. That is not to say that it is not permitted for laymen to recite the traditional Divine Office, it is simply not practical in most cases.
The Little Office
Throughout history and alongside the Divine Office, traditional Catholic laymen and even many religious, have made use of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is a simpler system of prayers contained in a pocket-sized book that may be more consistently recited by responsible laymen.
Resources for the Little Office of the BVM (coming soon)
The Holy Rosary
For many Catholics, the Holy Rosary has provided them with a daily routine of prayers and meditations and has been most highly recommended to all Catholics by the Church for centuries. It is recommended that one read "the Fifteen Promises of the Rosary" to understand its great benefits.
The Liturgy of the Hours
In recent years, the Church has published a simplified version of the Divine Office that is recommended to all Catholics--religious and laymen--which is called the Liturgy of the Hours.
Resources for the Liturgy of the Hours (coming soon)
THE CANONICAL HOURS
Today, we see time as an absolute quantity. The day is divided into twenty-four hours, each made up of 60 minutes, each made up of sixty seconds. The system, though good for many things (office work), doesn't work well for many others (farm/outdoor work), and so we use "daylight saving time" to make adjustments during the year so that the times on our clocks allows us to make good use of daylight.
In the past, the time of day was not reckoned so mechanically, and we might think more "naturally". The time of day was considered a relative quantity based on the rising and setting of the sun. The time of daylight was divided into 12 parts, called "hours" and named, simply, "First", "Second", "Third", and so on. The nighttime hours were divided into four parts called "watches", and named "first", "second", "third" and "fourth". Obviously, the daylight "hours" would be longer in the summer and shorter in the winter, and as most people were occupied in outdoor tasks, the increased time allowed for the increased work. You'd think God designed it that way or something. ;)
The Church, continuing the habit of the Jews, ordered its daily prayer life around this natural routine and, to fulfill the words of David, "Seven times a day I have given praise to thee." (Ps. 118:164) and St. Paul's words, "Pray without ceasing." (1 Th. 5:17). Thus the "canonical hours" were formed at which times the Church offered her common prayers to God.
The four basic daytime hours were these:
Prime - the first hour of daylight (morning)
Terce - the third hour of daylight (midmorning)
Sext - the sixth hour of daylight (midday)
None - the ninth hour of daylight (midafternoon)
Sunrise was celebrated with "Matins" or "Morning Prayer", and sunset with "Vespers" or "Evening Prayer". At bedtime, "Compline" completed the day. Thus, a total of 7 times a day for praising God, from "the rising of the sun to its setting".