Thinking about the hours of prayer in the 21st century

‘Orans’ figure, Catacombs of Santa Priscilla. 3rd/4th c.

Prayer, I think, is the heart of the spiritual life. A certain breed of fellow Protestant may protest that fact, but I cannot help but think on the myriads of illiterate Christians in history and the world today whose only access to Scripture was/is in preaching, hearing others read, or looking at pictures. But any illiterate person can pray.

Moreover, I cannot help but think of the literate Christians who seem to know the facts about the Bible and have read the Bible but seem also to have little charity and grace in their dealings with others.

Third, and last, to get the most out of Scripture, before any of our methodologies or study guides, we need prayer.

So, of the two disciplines all evangelical children are encouraged to undertake — read your Bible, pray every day — prayer is at the heart of the spiritual person’s life. Of course, this probably makes too strong a distinction, for Scripture informs prayer, and prayer will lead the literate Christian to pick up a Bible and read it prayerfully, and (hopefully) better.

Anyway, although prayer is at the heart of the spiritual life, many of us seem to have trouble praying. Either we don’t make the time, which signals that we don’t really, truly believe it is worth the time (whatever our conscious minds tell us), or we have trouble going through with prayer when time is made. Our minds wander. Our lips are there, but our hearts aren’t in it. We race through our prayers (whether extemporaneous or written). We find ourselves saying the same things over and over and wonder if there isn’t more to it than this.

If God’s a person, then shouldn’t prayer be a conversation?

There are many ways to revitalise our prayer lives, as discovered through the ages of Christian belief and practice. Some are directly encouraged by Scripture, others come from the tradition, others are recommended by the experiences of particular Christians.

One that seems to arise in the tradition itself, and not amongst the monks, is praying at certain times of the day. I’ve noted it in relation to The Apostolic Tradition recently, as well as in relation to St Benedict, and as a general point of discussion, amidst other posts on the topic.

When I think about my own spiritual flabbiness in contrast to my high spiritual ideals, I wonder how this might apply to me. I used to own a copy of Benedictine Daily Prayer, but when we moved from England back to Canada, it was among many books left behind to lighten the load. I left it behind because I could never actually organise my day to pray most offices, so it was mostly dead weight or, to use an image of St John of the Cross, it was a symptom of spiritual gluttony.

In fact, since my first son was born, I have not really got into an ongoing, steady groove of devotion, including the Prayer Book office (once the heart of my daily prayer).

I think that many of us are spiritually flabby, and I also think that most of us do not have spiritual fathers like Archimandrite Sophrony to help us grow up, nor even spiritual friends like St Aelred of Rievaulx to encourage us to good deeds. Without guides, or in a world where our guides are books and blogs, how can we work our way to spiritual strength and fortitude?

Is it wimpy to suggest starting small?

The idea is to take the seven canonical hours and use them, but not to use the set liturgies. Or at least, not all of them. Take your phone or calendar on your computer and set reminders at the hours throughout the day. And then determine what sort of prayer will take up the different hours.

An example might be:

  • On waking: Thank God for day and commend it into His hands before getting out of bed.
  • Third hour (9 AM-ish): Arrow prayer (e.g.g. ‘O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me’; ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). Most people start work at 9 AM, so that may be all there is time for. Is there a better way to start work?
  • Sixth hour (Noon): 10-20 minutes of Jesus Prayer during lunch break (I think Dallas Willard would recommend a similar practice with the Lord’s Prayer). Or prayerful meditation on the Cross and its meaning since that is when Jesus died for us.
  • Ninth hour (3 PM-ish): The Lord’s Prayer.
  • Evening Prayer: Evening Prayer (take your pick: BCP, Celebrating Common Prayer, Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, Orthodox Daily Prayer)
  • Prayers before bed: Maybe Compline? Or time for prayer with spouse.
  • Middle-of-the-night prayers: Arrow prayer on the way to the bathroom to pee. Or more extended prayer if you’re involved in caring for an infant.

My two main thoughts are:

  1. Make sure there is a time for longer, undistracted prayer.
  2. Make sure the Lord’s Prayer is there.

Structure may not give the oomph! back to prayer life. It may not work miracles. But it will guarantee that we at least pray. And if we do it not because it is a duty or because we think it’s magical, God, Who is faithful, will turn up. Hopefully we’ll notice Him.

Sorting out a ‘Rule of Life’

One of the recommendations in the Catechism of the Canadian 1962 Book of Common Prayer is the creation of a personal rule of life. I’ve not investigated previous editions to know if they include this instruction. Nevertheless, I imagine few Canadians since 1962, let alone Anglicans at large beforehand, have followed through with this recommendation.

It is something that I have attempted before. I blogged about one attempt, and was told in the comments that I needed a spiritual father, otherwise I’d just fail.

As I reflect on the recommendations for individuals in The Apostolic Tradition as well as the reminders of asceticism for all believers that run through David W. Fagerberg’s On Liturgical Asceticism, I find myself musing on what my own ‘asceticism’, or askesis — the Greek word for training — or disciplina would look like.

As I sort it out, dealing with the passion of gluttony is one concern of mine, remembering that gluttony is not just eating too much (as yesterday here in Canada we celebrated Thanksgiving) but eating the wrong food and at the wrong time.

The other foundations must be prayer and Scripture-reading. I’ll post soon on the hours of prayer, I think. But I wonder if finding some way of praying at those times, as the ancient Christians and living monks do, might not be possible. Not a full-blown liturgy of the hours with set prayers, but times of prayer and remembrance, with maybe one or two offices proper mixed in?

What disciplines are you seeking to pursue in your own rule of life today?

On the Apostolic Tradition ‘by Hippolytus’

Now that I’ve written a few posts of reflections on The Apostolic Tradition, I think it a good idea to give a quick review of sorts. I read the second edition of the translation by Alistair Stewart-Sykes for SVS Press’s Popular Patristics Series; for some reason he goes by Alistair Stewart on this volume, even though I’ve only seen the double-barrelled last name on his other work, including the first edition.

One thing you may have noticed in my Apostolic Tradition posts has been a certain ambivalence as to its author. This text, which is not transmitted to us in its original Greek besides fragments, comes down to us anonymously in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic (three different dialects), and Arabic. In no manuscript is it attributed to Hippolytus. However, a text of this name is attributed to him elsewhere. Therefore, based on some similarity of ideas as well as fitting the highly reconstructed context of Hippolytus, in the early twentieth century it was attributed to him, and most people now taken is as uncontested ground that Hippolytus of Rome wrote On the Apostolic Tradition.

I think it is possible but not airtight. Stewart accepts the attribution and gives many reasons, drawing on the heavy reconstructions of third-century Roman Christianity conducted by Allen Brent. Brent and Stewart are both clever, so if I am skeptical of their conclusions, this doesn’t mean I am right. I think there are far too many unknowns and uncertainties to say for certain. Indeed, a colleague of mine is even uncertain that the person who lies behind the Hippolytean corpus even lived at Rome!

This should not keep you away from Stewart’s or anyone else’s translation, however. The text is probably of a similar age to Hippolytus, even if maybe it originated in Asia Minor as some believe. It represents the traditional form of many aspects of church life in a particular community in the pre-Constantinian age. For this reason alone we should give it some air time, regardless of authorship.

The Apostolic Tradition will appeal to people interested in the history of liturgy and sacrament and the history of church order. We have here what I think might be our oldest eucharistic and baptismal rites, which is very exciting. A number of other prayers and practices are also here — anointing the sick, blessing bread for those not present at church, personal prayer, communal teaching events, ordaining a bishop, the sign of the cross, and so forth. We see presbyters, bishops, and deacons doing their jobs, as well as catechists and other people with a largely teaching role.

I find it comforting to see the eucharistic liturgy’s similarity to the liturgies we use today, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans. There is a thread of tradition connecting this text and its community to us and our communities. A thread of faith in Jesus Christ and his precious death and glorious resurrection.

Besides the question of the catechumenate, I am also interested in the text’s promotion of ongoing teaching/learning and the rigour implied. Like some of the early Protestants, the members of this worshipping community are encouraged to attend a teaching session before work on weekdays. This sort of rigour is what I imagine myself liking and doing, even though spiritual laziness all-too-often wins.

The text is not long, so I do encourage you to read it.

Here are my other recent posts on The Apostolic Tradition:

‘Daily devotions’ in ancient Christianity (more on the Apostolic Tradition)

Someday I hope to be able to write a book about spiritual practices of the ancient church, so I’ve been in contact with people I know to see what they would like to see in such a book. One question that arose was: Did they have daily devotions? What would this look like?

A starting point: The sort of standard evangelical version today consists of daily prayer and Scripture reading and the reading of other Christian books along the way, whether labelled ‘devotional’ or simply theology or biblical commentary or the like. The shape of prayer, determination of readings, and relationship of the two to our Christian books vary from person to person and tradition to tradition.

The catechists, presbyters, bishops, monks, and learned believers who left us our vast body of ancient Christian literature expect a pattern of personal, daily prayer from the ancient Christians. Many of them give great advice about how to pray. The third-century Apostolic Tradition attributed to St Hippolytus gives us a daily round for the members of the ecclesial community that consists of these times for prayer:

  • Third hour (9:00 AMish)
  • Sixth hour (Noonish)
  • Ninth hour (3:00 PMish)
  • Bed-time
  • Midnight
  • Cock-crow (hopefully dawn, although roosters crow whenever they please, in my experience)

A little moment of liturgical history: The canonical hours of prayer clearly pre-date monasticism. These were handed down to the author of the Apostolic Tradition through tradition itself, so they are undoubtedly older even than the third century. Indeed, Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) in On Prayer 25 recommends the same round of prayer. I might even argue, if I were more acquainted with the context of the Apostolic Tradition, that the communal service of lamplighting gives us seven hours for prayer, which matches the monastic pattern of later centuries, but I do not know for certain that the service of lamplighting was daily or not.

The first three hours listed above are set aside because of their association with Christ’s passion, an association they will maintain throughout tradition. When we combine them with the Apostolic Tradition‘s teaching on the sign of the cross, we see regular, daily devotion to Jesus and the salvation wrought for us by his precious death and glorious resurrection.

The Apostolic Tradition also encourages the ordinary Christian to attend teaching in the morning if there is any. If not, then the believer is encouraged to spend time in personal study of a book.

There is no mention of the private, personal reading Scripture, although it is definitely part of the teaching and worship of the corporate church.

The only other personal devotional practice I have noted in this text is fasting, which people are encouraged to engage in at any time. One text may mean fasting before Holy Communion, but may actually mean having Communion before the love-feast (see Stewart-Sykes, 2nd ed., pp. 191-192).

These are the non-corporate devotions of the Apostolic Tradition. Can we live up to them or adapt them as we progress in piety?

The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.

In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.

At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.

I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)

But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?

I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:

  1. Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
  2. Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)

The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.

When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?

Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.

How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.

Ancient religion got me into this mess, part 2: Sacraments

I am in favour of forms of worship and devotion (liturgy) as well as church order (episcopal structure) that reflect the ancient church for reasons of doctrine, as discussed last time, as well as the sacraments and, more nebulously, devotion.

As a good Anglican, I believe that ‘There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.’ (Article of Religion 25) My understanding of the sacraments, as well as of ancient Christian history, leads me to embrace the liturgical life of the Church.

Holy Baptism

The sacrament of holy baptism is as old as Christianity. It is all over the book of Acts, and different angles on baptismal theology are found in the letters of St Paul. Baptism is biblical (so I guess the Salvation Army, for all its good, Christian service, is not?). Baptism is, in fact, part of the foundation of Trinitarian belief, as I wrote about in this blog post.

The Didache and the Apostolic Tradition show me a baptismal practice that is liturgical, from as early as the year 90. And it is from the baptismal liturgy that our rules of faith emerged. And from the rule of faith emerges the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.

To reject baptismal liturgy is to reject the foundations of my credal faith. And that faith is central to my self-understanding as well as to historic, orthodox Christianity.

More than this, however, I believe that sacraments are ‘outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace’ (Anglican catechism). Baptism, as Article 26 reminds us, is not simply a symbol. It is never treated as such in Scripture, and never by the ancient fathers. Indeed, in the ancient church, they took baptism seriously as the entry of a person into his’er new life in Christ and into the church, with a period of teaching, fasting, prayer, and discipline to precede the liturgical action. This makes sense to me — becoming a Christian is a big deal.

Historic baptismal liturgies take into account the ancient, biblical, patristic faith and understanding of the sacrament as a rejection of Satan, as a turning to Christ, as a grafting into the church, as either a seal (for adults) or a promise (for infants) of faith.

Baptism was handed down to us by the ancient church, who had a liturgy for it early on. How can I reject the baptismal practice of the people who gave us baptism?

Holy Communion

Of the two sacraments acknowledged by the Anglican Articles of Religion, the Eucharist is the only one that is repeatable. Once again, the ancient evidence shows a frequent celebration of Holy Communion as early as around 100, and this celebration seems to have been liturgical. If the Didache, Justin, and the Apostolic Tradition all use a liturgy centred on the death and resurrection of Christ and his words of institution from Scripture, why should I reject this practice?

Moreover, Holy Communion was believed by the ancients to be a potent reality. A true sacrament, whereby God communicates with us and is Really Present, giving us grace in a way that is distinct from his free-flowing grace that we may gain from silent, solitary prayer or word-centred preaching.

St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) calls it the medicine of immortality. St Ephrem the Syrian (4th-century) is similarly rich in his imagery for the Eucharistic feast. Holy Communion is a recapitulation of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is an idea find rich and running through St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180). Through the ritual action and the eating of the consecrated elements, we are participating in Christ’s death and resurrection. St Ephrem the Syrian would say that the eternal significance of Christ’s salvific death-and-resurrection penetrates our ordinary time, and that through the Sacrament we are actually participating in his one-and-for-all sacrifice (oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world).

Every Sunday, as traditional Presbyterians like to remind me, is Easter. So every Sunday should be eucharistic. This was the practice as far back as 150, and probably earlier (I think at Antioch, as far back as Ignatius, at least?) and right up to the Reformation.

As I stated in a recent post about liturgy, the Eucharistic liturgy brings forth the riches of the Gospel. A weekly, liturgical celebration of Holy Communion was the defining act of worship and, indeed, of corporate identity for the ancient church. And they did it using words you will still find in the BCP, BAS, Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Roman Catholic Mass, etc.

How can I be true to what I have learned over the past decade of study and prayer and struggle and spiritual growth and reject such worship?