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.

The Divine Office

A few books for prayer…

Chapters 8 through 20 of the Rule of St Benedict are about the divine office. I am not going to discuss the details of how Benedict arranges the times of day to pray and the Psalms to be sung. It is interesting for those interested in the history of the liturgy of the hours, of course, but I am not sure it fits the purpose of my blog posts about St Benedict’s Rule for today.

Unless you are a Benedictine or other cloistered monk, I am not sure that you can achieve the lofty goals set out here. Besides requiring a certain amount of regulation and order, it also requires time. Now, we are all too busy not to pray. But we may be too busy to pray in this way as (post)modern lay people, many with demanding jobs and family demands. When we take ‘real life’ into account, we begin to see why monks imagine that theirs is the life most devoted to God.

That said, the inspirations for all monastic rounds of prayer are the same, and we non-monastics should take heed. The round of prayer in the monastic world (broadly considered) from Sketis and Tabbenisi to the Great Laura on Athos to the Jura Fathers to St Martin of Tours to Benedict to Columbanus to Mont St-Michel to La Grande Chartreuse to Assisi is founded primarily on two biblical texts:

Pray without ceasing. (1 Thess. 5:16)

Seven times a day have I praised you. (Ps. 119:164)

So, whether you are gaining inspiration from Benedict or Francis, from the Celtic world or the Athonites, ask yourself: How can I transform my life into ceaseless prayer? Can I find seven times to pray every day?

The answer to the second is probably yes, even if most of us have never given it much thought.

The answer to the first is to consider the office as a gateway to ceaseless prayer.

What office to pray? Where do I find the office? What is the divine office?

Well, the divine office or the liturgy of the hours is the round of prayer at fixed times that not only derives from these two injunctions but from the practice of the ancient church and synagogue. Maybe I’ll discuss its biblical foundations another time. Anyway, over the years, different ways and forms of praying the divine office evolved, some for public use in the local church (the ‘cathedral’ office), some for use by monks. There was cross-fertilization between the cathedral and monastic offices; in Byzantium the monastic office pretty much won, whereas in the Latin West it did not, although it influenced the Roman Breviary to a great extent.

I recommend starting with Morning and/or Evening Prayer at first before adding Compline or Midday Prayer, let alone Terce and None.

Here are some resources for you to start praying the office if you wish to.

  • The Witness Cloud! This is an endeavour started by my Anglican priest brother and I. Our dad and some friends are part of it. We have our own recommended prayers, derived largely from the Book of Common Prayer, but you can use a different text if you like. The point of the Witness Cloud is for us to know that we are all united in prayer with Christ our Lord. We recommend at least Morning and Evening Prayer.
  • As far as particular texts go, I always recommend Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.
  • A shorter office was devised by the Anglican Society of Saint Francis, called Celebrating Common Prayer.
  • You can also use the Church of England’s Daily Prayer site, available as an app for your phone. It has both BCP and modern options.
  • If you are a bit more gung-ho, you can try Benedictine Daily Prayer — it seems daunting when you behold the size of the book, but it’s pretty doable if you are looking for a handy way to pray all seven.
  • Verging back into more Protestant territory, my friends at Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey — a community that prayers the hours every day — have their own set. These are more modern than the other recommendations.
  • Some people also like the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer. I used it for a while but grew desirous of the regularity of the BCP.
  • Many people recommend Phyllis Tickle’s books. Although I dig her last name, I’ve never looked into them.

Prayerfully choose what can nurture your own prayer life. The purpose of the daily office, if you ask me, is to create space within the day to meet with Jesus, to encounter the word, and to start to transform our whole lives into prayer, cultivating prayerfulness and silence. I have found it beneficial in my life, as have many others.

‘Let … a two-edged sword be in their hands’ (Ps. 149:6)

Every day at Lauds in the Benedictine tradition, you pray Psalms 148-150; these Psalms, in fact, give this office its name of Laudes. These Psalms begin ‘Alleluia!’ and are filled with exhortations to praise the Lord — Laudate dominum in Latin.

In the midst of the praise, at Psalm 149:6, we meet this:

Let the praises of God be in their mouth, / and a two-edged sword in their hands;

For some reason, this image always sticks in me. Maybe it’s the rhythm of Coverdale’s verse. Arresting as it is, it’s not exactly the sort of thing Christians today are comfortable with, especially when we read that the sword is for vengeance. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mainline liberal Psalters have quietly expunged it along with the end of Psalm 137 (like Canada’s BCP).

Now, I haven’t checked any of the Fathers or medieval exegetes on this, but — what do we think that two-edged sword is?

The patristic and, therefore, medieval principles of interpreting the Bible are that the Bible is always right. The Bible interprets itself. The Bible is always about Christ and/or His mystical body, the Church. The literal sense is never to be ignored, but we are called to dig deeper through allegory, typology, etc. And, which should be common to all Christian reading of Scripture: Jesus trumps all.

Attempting, then, to think like the Fathers, we should admit that executing vengeance is something many of them would be uncomfortable with. Are there clues in the verse as to what it means for Christians today? Unlike a modern(ist) reading, this verse cannot be left as a historical relic. It speaks today, to our situation.

Well, where else do we see a two-edged sword in Scripture? Hebrews 4:12:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

This immediately draws us to Ephesians 6:17, in the discussion of the full armour of God, where the Sword of Spirit is the Word of God. What we don’t always think on is Ephesians 6:18, which is what we are to do whilst wearing this armour:

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints

We’ll come back to this.

Revelation has a few relevant sword references:

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (Rev. 1:16)

Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (Rev. 2:16)

And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations (Rev. 19:15)

And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:21)

The Revelation verses are all about the two-edged sword coming out of the mouth of the visionary Christ, the Rider on the White Horse. It is not insignificant that the sword comes from his mouth — Christ is God the Word, after all. And our Ephesians and Hebrews verses refer to the word of God — in this case presumably Scripture — as being a sword.

What, then, is the two-edged sword of Psalm 149:6? It is the Word of God, being wielded by God’s people in battle against the Enemy — not men, but the world, the flesh, and the devil.

St Antony at prayer

And when do we take up this two-edged sword? According to Ephesians 6:18, in prayer. The battle for man’s soul (the Psychomachia) occurs on our knees. Do not forget Saint Antony (fourth-century) when he was confronted with all the denizens of Hell. He proclaimed Psalm 27:3:

Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear

John Cassian (d. c. 435) recommends saying over and over again Psalm 70:1:

O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me.

Let us, then, take up this two-edged sword in our hands, and get on our knees and fight.

Advent 4, Sarum: Raise up Thy power and come!

Walters Ms. W.34, Carrow Psalter (fol. 178r)

And so comes the final week of Advent. On Thursday, the season will climax and close with the arrival of Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity. Following the Use of Sarum, this Sunday’s collect is:

O Lord, raise up, we pray Thee, Thy power, and come, and with great might succour us; that whereas through our sins we are sore let and hindered, Thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us. Who livest …

This is what the Advent longing is about — the coming of the Lord. There is a straining and a wrestling in it. A struggle. We feel the ache of life without Emmanuel (God-with-us) in Advent. This year, I have found this particularly true not only reflecting upon these Sarum collects with their crying out for God to give us his aid and be ever-present to us in time of need and in the face of sin, but also in my daily readings.

Although I don’t pray Vigils, I started reading the lessons for Vigils from Benedictine Daily Prayer partway through Advent this year. The Old Testament lesson was usually from Isaiah, and usually about the dread day of the Lord’s coming, or a weighty pronouncement about judgement. The New Testament lesson was usually from the epistles, usually more cheery, about Christ’s fulfilment of the Old and future coming in glory.

When you read such Bible passages regularly, combined with the average sorrows of daily life and the great burden of a world torn by strife, the Advent ache for a Saviour becomes much more pronounced. You feel with the liturgist the request for the Lord to succour us with His great might!

But it’s not mere, run-of-the-mill suffering the Sarum points us to. It is about the suffering we inflict on ourselves — through our sins we are sore let and hindered. St John Cassian, joining the Stoic ethical tradition, argues that the only evil inflicted upon you is the evil that you yourself commit. When someone else wrongs you, if you do not sin, no evil has been done to you; that person has done evil to himself.

The phrase ‘through our sins we are sore let and hindered’ is Englishing the Latin, ‘nostra peccata prepediunt’, ‘our sins shackle/bind/entangle/fetter’. I like ‘fetter’, myself.

And is not the bondage of the will, this human shackling to our sins, precisely what Jesus came to unloose? As the angel said to Joseph, ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ (Mt 1:21; NKJV)

To turn from Sarum to Cranmer (who sourced the Litany from ancient texts; below is Canada’s BCP, 1962):

From all evil and mischief, from sin, from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from thy wrath, and from everlasting condemnation,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all uncleanness in thought, word, and deed; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Deliver us, O Lord.