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?

‘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 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

A “Sarum Use” church plant and why it wouldn’t work

Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe
Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe

A friend of mine once dreamt that I had started my own church following the liturgy according to the Use of Sarum. I’ve had a few encounters with Sarum Use, including translating some of its texts on this blog.1 I started to imagine what my Sarum Use church would be like. Obviously, despite my Protestant sentiments to the contrary, the liturgy would have to be in Latin. And it would have to follow the Use According to Sarum. This is not difficult to organise; the entire Missal and Breviary exist in modern printed editions. I would probably, however, print up glossed versions of the text for the congregants. Although it’s something that I’ve seen in Tridentine churches, it would be my first departure from the mediaeval liturgy. Nevertheless, this seems perfectly justifiable; the Middle Ages had a low literacy rate,2 so pew sheets would have been useless — plus, parchment and paper were rather more expensive then, and print was only around for a few decades before the Reformation, to boot.

Kitting out a full-blown Sarum church as recommended in the mediaeval sources would require no small sum of money — candles, censers, incense for the censers, vestments for clergy and the various assistants at the altar, altar cloths, banners for processions, chalices, patens (both plural, of course), monstrances, tabernacle for reserve host, etc, and more of which I am unaware.

The architecture of a Sarum church is important. I thought about this for a while — Romanesque or Gothic? Mosaics on the walls? I decided that, as much as I am fond of Romanesque and mosaics, it would have to be Gothic with a few carvings and frescoes because our sources for this liturgical use come from the period when Gothic in all its variety and Perpendicular reigned supreme in English church architecture. So it would only be fitting for my Sarum church to be Gothic. Unlike Victorian Gothic, however, the windows would be large, ablaze with stained glass telling the stories of Scripture and the saints, like Yorkminster (or, preferably, La Sainte-Chapelle).

This Gothic church would be cruciform in shape with the high altar just beyond the transepts. I would want a screen, but I’m not sure a. how authentic Late Mediaeval Rood Screens looked (besides Yorkminster) b. how much I want it to obscure the congregational view of the celebration of the Mass. My modern/Prot sensibilities intruding again!

The music for the liturgy is another question. When Sarum was last in use, it was blessed by the magnificent music of Thomas Tallis. But I am not sold on this sort of music for congregational use — I want the people of the congregation to engage with the words of the liturgy and recite/sing/chant as much as they can. This sounds very Protestant of me (because it is), but I’ve a feeling it would be in the spirit of the Dominicans and Franciscans, anyway. Perhaps a compromise with an ‘Anglican’ or Gregorian plainsong for most the liturgy, but then intricate choral singing while people receive the Mass?

Hymnody could come anywhere from the Latin tradition, I suppose. Perhaps restricting itself to hymns found in British sources? I wouldn’t want to restrict myself to pre-Elizabethan Latin hymns, though — I’d lose ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,’ in that case!

The lectionary would be based on the Sarum sources and the preaching in the vernacular based on the lectionary. That’s simple.

I think I would like to restore the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval ‘cathedral’ liturgy of the hours. That is, Morning and Evening Prayer, Monday through Saturday, instead of Mass every morning which is contemporary Roman Catholic practice. But, since this is a parish church, no attempt at the monastic liturgy of the hours. I think a modern practice that could be acceptable, however, is a mid-week, midday Eucharist.

Thus the liturgy. Anyone with enough willing bodies and money could reproduce the Use of Sarum in an appropriate space. There are probably more people willing to get involved with such an experiment than one would think.

But is that enough?

Can we transplant mediaeval liturgy into the modern world and touch modern souls in the same way? If we were to transplant it, would touching modern souls as mediaeval even be the goal?

The liturgical practice of the Middle Ages was part of a much bigger spirituality that a single parish could not recreate today. This was a shared spirituality that, with some variety of region or religious order (Dominicans, Franciscans, secular clergy, monastics), embraced Europe from Ireland and Iceland to the Czech Republic, from Norway to Sicily (and sometimes Cyprus and the Levant). For all that pilgrimage has always had a hint of spiritual tourism, people would still have taken pilgrimages to Durham or Canterbury or St Andrews or Compostela or Rome or Jerusalem as part of an international spiritual piety that bound them together in a way that modern spiritual tourism does not. In England they would have had the religious world of the miracle plays on their doorstep as part of the regular life of a city’s entertainment. Monks and anchorites were available to learn from as an integrated part of a spiritual community rather than oddities or perceived as relics of a bygone age.

Some of this could be mitigated in artificial ways in the parish life of the Sarum church, I suppose — study groups of the mediaeval mystical tradition, for example, or trips to living monasteries. But I don’t think the spirit of Sarum could ever be recaptured precisely because we no longer live in the Middle Ages. Christendom has been torn asunder over the past 500 years, and any attempt to integrate the mediaeval with the (post)modern must acknowledge that fact and realise that anything it does will be, inevitably, different from what they did, no matter how one might try.

1. In real life, I have, in fact, been to a service at St Thomas’, Huron St, Toronto, that used the Sarum liturgy (thoughts here and here); before that, I’d blogged about Sarum Use at least once. As well, in my ‘Classic Christian Texts’ on this site, I’ve got Mediaeval Vespers and the Order for the Consecration of Marriage: Sarum Use, both translated by me. Never having footnoted before, I give thanks to Karl Winegardner’s blog Compendiums for showing me how to do this.

2. According to one source, England had a literacy rate as low as 6% in 1300, but in the 1400s literacy steadily increased.

Happy Feast of St Benedict!

Monte Cassino, site of St Benedict’s original monastery

Today is the feast of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547) of the Rule of St Benedict fame, which is the backbone not only of the Order of St Benedict but of the Cistercians and their descendant order the Trappists (the two most enduring mediaeval reform orders), as well as being the rule of life for certain Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox monasteries.

Lots of people and blogs are going to be posting about him today, so, rather than add to the noise, I thought I would direct your internet journeys to Benedict instead.

Because all blogs are essentially narcissistic, you can start here at the pocket scroll:

Posted in time for the feast, Malcolm Guite has written a sonnet for St Benedict.

If you’re looking for fresh and brief tastes from this saint, there is the selection of posts of passages from St Benedict at Enlarging the Heart.

Also at Enlarging the Heart are the (more numerous) selections from St Bernard of Clairvaux, the paragon of mediaeval Cistercian spirituality (and saint of the week here).

At the heart of Benedictine spirituality (imho) are Lectio Divina and the Liturgy of the Hours. Here’s a video on the former, from Father Matthew:

A good resource for the Liturgy of the Hours can be found at Bosco Peters’ site, Liturgy as well as at the website Universalis.

Finally, if you’re new to Benedict, here’s a five-minute video telling the story of his life:

I encourage you to spend time with one or two of the links or videos above today, remembering Benedict, and then to draw near to the Christ Benedict points us all towards. He would wish to remembered thus best.