“So, how’s your prayer life going?”
As a priest, as I meet with people to provide pastoral care, or spiritual formation, one question often comes up in the conversation: “So, how is your prayer life going?” Having asked this question to people for over 17 years now, I already know what the answer will likely be, something like “Well, it could be better.” and some answer quite honestly “Well, it’s basically non-existent.”
I understand all too well, I’ve been there myself. Sometimes we just get so busy, other times we are just struggling so much that, even if we had time to pray we don’t know exactly what we would say, words fail us. That certainly was true for me a few months after I lost my father. My spirit was world-weary, I had no words, I could not pray, and had but very little energy or desire to.
A while after losing my dad I discovered monastic fixed hour prayer while on retreat at a monastery. Set hours to pray intrigued me, so I became a student, and in the depths of inability to really want to pray, I found renewal in practicing rhythmic pauses during my day to refocus on God by praying the psalms, and perhaps also some prayers written by others who have gone before. Sometimes Saint Augustine, Francis, or Merton had thought and written already exactly what I felt in my heart. There were also rich examples of those who had practiced a daily rhythm of prayer in the Bible narrative, and in history.
Of Daniel it was said
“Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God”
– Daniel 6:10
Here is one of the earliest references recorded in scripture of praying at specific times of the day. Where might Daniel have gotten his idea for prayer? In the Psalms we see references to praying at specific times, here’s just a few:
- Morning Prayer:
In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly. – Psalm 5:3 (See also Psalm 55:17; 59:16; 88:13; 92:2)
- Evening Prayer:
On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. – Psalm 63:6
- Night Prayer: At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws. – Psalm 119:55
- Even 3 times a day-
Morning, noon, and night I cry out in my distress, and the LORD hears my voice. – Psalm 55:17
Historically speaking the Jews developed fixed hour prayer while in the Babylonian captivity, when they did not have access to the Temple. This is exactly what Daniel was doing. Because they no longer had the temple, the sacrifices, or their former rhythm of life, in efforts to maintain some sanity amidst the great changes in Babylon, the people of God developed the practice of keeping these hours of prayer.
The Apostles also observed this Jewish custom of praying at the third, sixth, and ninth hour, and at midnight as well . If you look through the book of Acts you’ll discover several references to this, though you may not have realized it for what it was.
- One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer–at three in the afternoon.-Acts 3:1
- One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said,”Cornelius!”- Acts 10:3
- About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. -Acts 16:25
A Historical Progression
So we see a historical progression from the Jewish culture, to the Apostles, to the early church practicing regular times of prayer throughout the day. The Fathers of the Church such as
- Clement (c.150–215 a.d.),
- Origen (c. 185–254 a.d.),
- Tertullian(c. 160–225 a.d.)
all reported adhering to the spiritual practice of regular hours of prayer.
As the early Christians continued the practice of praying at certain hours of the day or night, the development of The Liturgy of the Hours, or, Monastic Prayer, continued. By the time of Saint Benedict, (6th century) there were 7 times of prayer a day. Benedict added an 8th hour in agreement with the Benedictine motto “Ora et Labora” (pray & work) for the life of a monk.
The Monastic Hours of Prayer were as follows:
Prime – 6am
With the 8th office of prayer, the monks prayed every 3 hours. It may seem odd, but if you think about it, it is also comforting to realize that at all times, and everywhere, there have been, and are, people committed to prayer for the world around us, for centuries.
From the Monastery to the streets of your own city
There were three orders founded by Saint Francis: The Monks, The Sisters, The 3rd Order.
The third order, the story goes, was founded after Francis and the brothers were preaching to a village the words of Jesus “Go and sell all you have, then come and follow me.” The village of about 3000, after their preaching, basically said “OK Francis, we’re ready to leave all and come follow you…” Francis must have thought “Now what am I going to do with 3000 more people following me around in the woods” and thus the third order was born. The 3rd order was established for ordinary people who wanted to live a life of prayer, generosity, and pure love unto God and man. With the 3rd order established people could live and pray like a monk, without actually leaving all, and going to a monastery. They could raise their kids, work their jobs, take care of their family, and they could pray.
Later developments in fixed hour prayer gave us
- The Book of Common Prayer was originally written in 1549 A.D. and follows a monastic pattern of Prayer.
- The Ecumenical Taize Community, in France, where backpackers come and stay with the brothers simply to pray, was founded in 1940.
- The Northumbria Community, established around 1980, gives a celtic feel and take on keeping the hours of prayer. The other various Neo-Monastic Communities, and lay communities of the past decades have also given a rebirth to fixed hour prayer.
- The Divine Hours, a reworking of classic prayer offices by Phyllis Tickle, originally published in 2000.
Spiritual formation in difficulty
In pastoral care moments I often encourage people, especially in difficult times, to adopt keeping two or three small offices of prayer a day, I try to keep extra prayer books around to give away, as I see need. Often people will report back to me the benefit they received from fixed hour prayer in difficult times.
Law is death, but freedom is life
The idea with fixed hour prayer is to develop your prayer life, not to meet a requirement.
If you set your clock to pray, become a slave to it, and feel condemned if you fail to pray, then you’ve missed the point. The point of fixed hour prayer is to practice, to be intentional, and to focus on your conversation, thanksgiving, and listening to God. If it’s feeding your soul, then you look forward to taking two or three short breaks during the day to refocus on God, and to be in His presence. That’s what it’s all about!