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.

The Contemplative Writer by Ed Cyzewski

The Contemplative Writer: Loving God through Christian Spirituality, Meditation, Daily Prayer, and WritingThe Contemplative Writer: Loving God through Christian Spirituality, Meditation, Daily Prayer, and Writing by Ed Cyzewski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a concise, little book geared towards writers who wish to ground their lives and work in prayer. Personally, none of the prayer practices outlined by Cyzewski were new to me — but that’s not the point. Indeed, the brevity and clarity with which he quickly outlined these practices were truly refreshing for me. They were also a kick in the pants — I’ve read about this stuff before! Why don’t I practise it!?

The tips are practical and down-to-earth about how to incorporate some practices from the Christian contemplative tradition into your life, and how doing so helps your writing. The prayer practices that get specific attention are centering prayer, the Examen, lectio divina, and the liturgy of the hours/daily office — with a reminder that none of this will succeed without community and good habits as well as a chapter about free writing and how it is both important to the writer’s craft and spiritually rich.

I recommend this book to any Christian interested in starting out in these sorts of “mystical” practices — it’s only 47 pages long! And especially, of course, to writers.

View all my reviews

John Cassian in The Philokalia – Purity of Heart

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 1)First things first — my brother has blogged at our shared blog about how Cassian has shifted his paradigm for ministry as an Anglican priest. This is what these blogs are all about — that one is about our dispersed community that prays the office and strives for holiness. If you want to find at least a digital community that seeks prayer in these old ways, check us out — we’re called The Witness Cloud (and this link is our homepage).

Reading the Fathers, studying Scripture, getting down and dirty with monks, thinking through theology — the point of all this endeavour, as far away as it may seem sometimes, is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and to be converted, conformed to the likeness of the image of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Not that this is actually easy, mind you.

I am not a monk. I am not a priest. I am not, professionally, a theologian.

I am a classicist and ecclesiastical historian, an ancient historian. I interpret texts and study their manuscripts.

This is not the same thing as living them.

My job and my devotional life do overlap, but this means that sometimes, although I can wax poetic and prosodic about the spiritual world of ancient Christianity, and exhort my readers even to take up their challenges, much of the time the challenges are unmet — even unattempted — by me.

I first read John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus for a Master’s dissertation (I am, however, now reading them devotionally); saints’ lives were likewise for graduate study. My work brings me into contact with bishops of Rome from the fourth through sixth and seventh centuries — and beyond. For my research I read Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Severus of Antioch. For my teaching, I read Eusebius of Caesarea, the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the Acts of the Council of Ephesus.

It is easy for it not to change the way one lives.

To turn, then, to the second selection of Cassian in The Philokalia, what can this do for me, here and now?

It’s kind of like doing to Cassian what he claims to have done with the Desert Fathers — take their teachings from one setting, one time, one culture, one language, and transplant them to a new one. Adapted from the hot desert of Egypt to the somewhat colder world of southern Gaul to the long, dark nights of an Edinburgh winter.

Well, straight up, what does this selection present us?

Questions of our purpose, our goal, our end. For Cassian and Germanus, what is the purpose of the monastic life? For us, what is the purpose of Christian living, of my lay spiritual life in the 21st century?

Germanus says to Abba Moses: The Kingdom of Heaven.

Abba Moses says: But what closer goal can you reach?

That closer goal, in Cassian’s rewriting of Evagrius, is purity of heart.

I’ll leave this discussion here for now. But this moment in Cassian’s Conferences is one that has challenged me every time. What is purity of heart? How do I live it here, now? How much frivolity is too much? Is this life I’ve chosen really worth the effort? Could I make something more of my life for the sake of a pure heart, for the sake of the Kingdom of God?

New Testament Canticles

I recently wrote three pieces on the New Testament Canticles over at the blog my brother and I share. These are the Benedictus (song of Zacharias at the birth of John the Baptist), Magnificat (song of Mary), and Nunc Dimittis (song of Simeon upon encountering the Christ Child) — all known by their first word or two in Latin. All sung/recited during the daily office. All in the Gospel of Luke.

The reflections are devotional exercises considering the content of the canticles and their historical context. I hope they are a blessing to you:

New Testament Canticles 1: Benedictus

New Testament Canticles 2: Magnificat

New Testament Canticles 3: Nunc Dimittis

Living the Daily Office (a guest blog post)

A guest post from my brother Jonathan, an Anglican priest out in rural Sasquatchenon. You can find him blogging over at his parish’s blog as swiftcurrentparishrector. The stories of the people who are joined in the ancient practices today are as vital as the teachings of ages past. I asked him to write a post about his experience praying the office four times a day, which he said kept him running on a ‘more even keel’.

When Matthew first approached me and asked me to contribute to his blog, I wondered what I would have to add that has not already been said.  The Lord has moved me to accept that my voice – another voice than just Matthew’s – is contribution enough.  If all content is repetitive; if all insight is un-sight; if my words come across to you, the reader, as less-than-inspiring; yet, you will know that there is another who considers regular prayer a valuable discipline.  For all the words that may be written, if I can bring glory to God, and not to myself through some sharp wordplay or self-aggrandizement – if I can simply present the truth of my walk, and having done that to stand… that is enough.

I have been an ordered deacon of the Church for eleven years; an ordered priest for ten and a half of those.  Morning and Evening Prayer have been a regular part of my life for that time – though at times a more regular part than at others.  They were certainly a part of my daily discipline for the three years prior to Christ’s reception of me among the holy orders of His Church, while I was in seminary.  Even for two (or so) years prior to that, when I first began to step into responsible Christian leadership – which I was sometimes more responsible with, sometimes less.  Sixteen years is a short time, and I am no master of daily office prayer.

Certainly I can navigate a few good prayer books.  I can handle the lectionary charts printed in obscure locations throughout them.  But there have certainly been times my mind has wandered while I’ve been in prayer; there have certainly been times when I’ve found it difficult to find the words to pray (even when they’ve been printed on the page in front of me!) through my own weakness.  There have also been times when I’ve been powerful in prayer, when the devil has fled before me (because of Him in whom I stand), when the world has fallen away and God has granted me the serenity of stillness with Him – when I have been granted the grace to know not just that He is God, but to know Him as He is.  As the Greeks say, God grants the grace of the discipline of prayer to those who pray.  As the English say, Lex Orandi Lex Credendi Lex Vivendi.

First Steps

My first foray into daily office prayer began with the 1962 Canadian Prayer book.  A book of beauty and vision, a book of wisdom and Word.  At first I would seek the counsel of my father, in searching the lectionary and the psalter.  I found the prayers deep, uniting the words of Scripture from scattered and diverse locations into beautiful phrases and meaningfully complete thoughts on broad topics.  Still, I was not “of” the prayer book, nor “of” Scripture (in that same sense), and so I searched for other meaningful prayers to supplement my usage with.

I devised a series of dedications of my fleshly faculties to God, to be used each day: my eyes, to see and understand; my ears, to hear and know; my hands, to do what He willed; my feet, to go where He led; my mind, to perceive and discern; my lips, to speak Life.  I employed the Mid-day prayers of the prayer book, for Mission and Ministry, and added to them various topically related prayers from elsewhere in the book.  I had names of missionaries and missionary societies that I cycled through each week, with these prayers.  I always used the option to the Nunc at Evening Prayer, knowing that I would arrive at it by Compline.

Second Steps

In seminary we were challenged to pray the daily offices in community.  This was foreign to my practise.  We alternated months from the BCP to the BAS ([Book of Alternative Services, the Anglican Church of Canada’s modern liturgy].  I found it difficult to show up during BAS months (though I generally did).  I had met an incredible retired priest during a pastoral internship in the summer before seminary, Fr. Robert Lumley.  He wrote a book entitled “Finnegan’s Prayer Book” – a fascinating read, though I imagine it is very difficult to get hold of.  He would take me out in his yacht, and we would anchor in the middle of the lake, and we would read the psalter together, and pray.  I missed that, in seminary.  My consolation was that any month, any day, my fellow seminarians were up for going to the chapel for un-officially-sanctioned Compline.

But I learned to use and appreciate the BAS at that time, and I still can do so.

Ordained Life

As a clergyman, my preference and usual use has been with the 1962 BCP.  Except while I served at Holy Trinity Church in Calgary, where Stephen Hambidge and I would gather together on weekdays for Morning Prayer – alternating weekly which of us led the prayers, his week BAS, mine BCP – this standard has held true.  My experience has shown me that if I am not praying, I am not inclined to pray.  If I am praying, then I am inclined to pray.  In many ways, it seems to come down to the orientation of my life.  These things move in concert – my prayer life and participation in praying the daily offices is not dictated by the way life is going, any more than the way my life is going is directed by my prayer life and participation in praying the daily offices.  Nor less so.

What Matthew has really asked me to write about, then, is this: recently I have begun to pray four offices a day, rather than the standard two.  Why?

Every now and then I pull out an illustration which has particular resonance with me (whatever value it may or may not have to my congregations).  Perhaps you remember the toothpaste commercial that contained the tag line: “…helps you maintain a dentist-clean at home!”  Consider that vision for your dental health.  Dentist-clean.  Not just when you’re walking out of the dental office after a cleaning, but all the time in-between, leading up to your next visit.  Wouldn’t that be… awesome?  I’ve heard too many stories of hygienists who were disgusted by the mouths they’ve had to stick their hands into, to think that it doesn’t matter.  My tooth-cleaning routine involves rinsing, flossing, rinsing, brushing my wisdom teeth (end-tuft toothbrush), brushing my teeth (regular toothbrush, though gum massagers beside the bristles are a preference, and wedge-shaped bristles at the tip are a plus), brushing my tongue, rinsing with fluoride, scraping my tongue.  Extreme?  I suppose.  But the hygienists aren’t concerned about putting their hands in my mouth.  And they don’t find much that needs cleaning.

How much more, as God’s people, should we devote ourselves to spiritual growth – to the process of maturation whereby we move from being spiritual infants to being saints?  If baptismal vows involve commitment to arriving at the fullness of the stature of Christ (which, I don’t know about yours – but mine sure do!), then why would we placate ourselves with barely moving beyond conversion?  Have I been gathering to worship God in the company of His faithful people for thirty years, or have I only gathered with them once – and been doing it every Sunday for the last thirty years?  Yet how many of us content ourselves with the idea that Sunday worship refills us spiritually for what has been drained over the past week?  When the means for maintaining a dentist-clean at home are available, why would I let my teeth rot the entire time between dental visits?  Similarly, when the means for growing in love and grace with God and humanity is available, why would I expect to simply maintain the level I am at through such infrequent worship as once a week?  Even occasionally supplemented by a weekend retreat that “boosts” the level of status quo, why would I be content with this?

My point is this: we all know that spiritual formation is a long, gruelling work that is not likely to be completed in this life (though the Wesley’s believed it could, and the witness to some of the Orthodox hesychasts is that it was); we also know that spiritual formation is not something that we’re particularly good at (tell me otherwise, and you stand self-condemned).  Why, then, would we put off for tomorrow what we could do today?  Why would we hesitate to push forward towards the fullness of the realization of God’s grace and the Spirit’s fruit and gifts in our lives?  Love of the world?  Love of reputation?

At the time of writing this, I have been contemplating a move from four to seven daily offices.  We must move as the Lord grants us grace to move – otherwise discipline, because in our own strength, can be destructive.  What difference has the move to four offices, from two, made for me?  I find my days are structured in a more fruitful way, to encourage the development of faithful (and faith-filled!) trust in God.  Morning and Evening are rather ambiguous.  They are am and pm.  Those are twelve hour blocks each day.  But when broken by Mid-day, and expectant of Compline, and attempting to keep them at some kind of equidistant time-spread from each other – these four provide necessary structure that keeps my heart ever-near to His.  These four create the contextual space in which I abide in Him, and He in me.  And Sunday worship doesn’t refill what has been depleted throughout the week – every time dedicated to prayer is a time of growth.  Subtle growth.  And that’s enough.

Pentecost!

Because I’ve been wanting to pray the office more frequently anyway, and because I need to become acquainted with Latin Vulgate, especially the Psalter, I’ve been praying the Roman Divine Offices of Lauds and Vespers (although today, actually, Terce) every day for about five days now.

The Office hymn for Pentecost, as it turns out, is a famous one:

Veni, Creator Spiritus,
Mentes tuorum visita,
Imple superna gratia,
Quae tu creasti, pectora.

Qui diceris Paraclitus,
Altissimi donum Dei,
Fons vivus, ignis, caritas,
Et spiritalis unctio.

Tu septiformis munere,
Digitus Paternae dexterae,
Tu rite promissum Patris,
Sermone ditans guttura.

Accende lumen sensibus:
Infunde amorem cordibus:
Infirma nostri corporis
Virtute firmans perpeti.

Hostem repellas longius,
Pacemque dones protinus:
Ductore sic te praevio
Vitemus omne noxium.

Per te sciamus da Patrem,
Noscamus atque Filium,
Teque utriusque Spiritum
Credamus omni tempore.

Deo Patri sit gloria,
Et Filio, qui a mortius
Surrexit, ac Paraclito,
In saeculorum saecula. Amen.

This is a ninth-century hymn composed by Rabanus Maurus. You probably know it best in this English translation, here sung by St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir:

This translation is by far my favourite, even if it’s not the most ‘accurate’. It is the most poetic and beautiful:

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our blinded sight.

Anoint and cheer our soiled face
with the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far from foes, give peace at home:
where thou art guide, no ill can come.

Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along,
this may be our endless song:

Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Pentecost, the so-called ‘Birthday of the Church.’ It is a time for us to look back upon that day, fifty days following Christ’s Resurrection, ten following his Ascension (leave-taking?) from Earth (in bodily form, of course, for now He is everywhere). On that day, the Holy Spirit came and gave his gifts to the Apostles, empowering St. Peter, the man who denied his Lord three times, to preach before a crowd and bring thousands into the new faith.

As the Roman Breviary says, ‘Today the days of Pentecost are fulfilled, Alleluia! Today the Holy Spirit in fire appeared to the disciples, and bestowed upon them charismatic gifts; he sent them into the whole world, to preach, and to bear witness, ‘He who believes and has been baptised will be saved. Alleluia!’