Thursday, February 19, 2009

Launch into Lent: Praying the Hours

For the next week, as Christians around the world prepare for Lent, I'm going to blog about some spiritual disciplines that you might want to think about, if you're thinking about adding a spiritual discipline into your life for Lent. At the end of each post, you'll find resources and links.

Today I want to write about fixed hour prayer (also called praying the hours, the divine office, the liturgy of the hours, and the canonical hours).

For years, I've been interested in the practice of praying at fixed hours of the day. I first became interested as I explored the worlds of monasticism, and I experimented on my own, and experienced it communally as I visited the monks at Mepkin Abbey. I find it much more satisfying to pray the Divine Office as part of a communal group committed to that spiritual discipline, but I don't live that kind of life yet.

So, I pray alone, and yet I'm not alone, because Christians across the globe are praying with me. We may be saying different words, but we're following a similar format. The simplest: a bit of the Psalms, the Lord's Prayer, a prayer of the day--all the rest are variations (maybe some other Scripture, maybe a Gloria, maybe a prayer of the Church, maybe a few more pieces of Psalms, maybe some spiritual writing/song that's not in the Bible).

Fixed hour prayer is different from personal prayer. We follow a format, with words that are prepared for us in a breviary or some other prayer book (those of us who are brave might make our own prayer books, but most of us don't have that kind of time).

Those of us who didn't grow up with that kind of prayer might protest that it feels impersonal. But fixed hour prayer doesn't have to take the place of your personal prayers. We're commanded to pray without ceasing, and so, there are plenty of hours in the day to fill with your personal conversation with God.

Those of us who often find ourselves at a loss for words when we approach God might be grateful for theologians who have done the work for us and all we need to do is to read the words.

When we participate in fixed hour prayer, we're part of an ancient tradition that goes far, far back, even before Christianity. The ancient Jews prayed seven times a day, we think. We're fairly sure that Jesus prayed these prayers too. Ancient monks in the desert prayed the daily office. We should do that too.

If you can't pray at all the times that your prayer book recommends, just do one or two offices. Monastics awake at early hours to get started praying (the Mepkin monks are awake at 3:20 praying), and they pray at fixed hours through the day: often at 6, 9, noon, 3, 6, and again before bed. If you're just experimenting with fixed hour prayer, you might decide to pray only the morning office and the office just before bed.

The benefit to returning to prayer throughout the day is that it reminds us that we're people of God. It reminds us that God's purpose for us is different than the world's purpose for us. Since fixed hour prayer is often composed of Scriptures, we sow those words deep in our souls if we pray them enough.

And of course, there's the benefit that comes from being in constant communication with God, praising and thanking and asking and glorifying.


--Robert Benson has just published a wonderful little book, In Constant Prayer (published by Thomas Nelson in 2008) about the practice of praying the hours.

--Fixed hour prayer books can be expensive, but luckily there are online resources. I go here when I'm away from my prayer books.

--If you want a prayer book, here are some that have been useful to me and to others:

--The shortest useful prayer book that I've found that I've liked is The Little Book of Hours: Praying With the Community of Jesus (Paraclete Press).

--My favorite book is a series by Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours. It's also online here.

--I've heard good things about Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings From the Northumbria Community (HarperOne), but I haven't used it.

1 comment:

Boy SCouts said...

Check out to learn more about another resource featuring Robert Benson called Daily Prayer: A Simple Plan for Learning to Say the Daily Prayer of the Church. It includes a breviary and a DVD to help you learn more about the history of prayer and the daily office, as well as how to get started.