It all started with Lauren Winner circa 2004. Her book, Girl Meets God, introduced me to a more traditional way of practicing Christianity. Lauren grew up Jewish, so this book, and Mudhouse Sabbath, take readers through her process of becoming a Christian, and living a new way. She explores her new church and its spiritual disciplines. She writes about the things of her Jewish faith she will miss. She mentions The Book of Common Prayer.
So I ordered this little book myself. When the green, hard-cover book with a gold embossed cross on the front arrived, it was the perfect size to fit in the palm of my hand. Pocket-sized. I thumbed through it, and had no idea what to do with it. Here are a few sections listed in the Table of Contents, "The Daily Office," The Collects: Traditional," "The Lectionary" and "Pastoral Offices." I felt uber-religious to be the owner of such a book. I placed it on my bookshelf, and never did a single thing with it after that. I had not a clue how or when people used the contents of this book.
Fast forward to this past fall. I knew a bit more. I'd read books about such things as Lectio Divina, Contemplative Prayer, The Divine Hours, monks and mystics. I still had a pretty foggy picture, but I wasn't as clueless. A Coptic Orthodox friend I met online sent me a package. It had a lovely note and a white, soft leather book with the words, Agpia: The Prayer Book of the Seven Canonical Hours on the front. It too is pocket-sized. Through a series of emails, my friend explained what I was holding. The prayer book Coptic Orthodox Christians around the world use to pray a specific set of prayers and verses everyday.
As she explained how to use this book, a clearer picture began to emerge. I knew about this! I had the Episcopalian version of this book. The Episcopalian book is used at many other times throughout the church year. Think of a book of worship you'd find in the little pockets on the back of a pew. I also had a book, Praying With The Church, by Scot McKnight, one of my favorite "theological explainers," about this spiritual practice. So I had the necessary background information I needed to investigate further.
The Liturgy of the Hours. The Divine Offices. Fixed-hour Prayer. Praying the Hours. Whatever you want to call it, this spiritual discipline doesn't have to be a mystery.
Quite simply, it's joining other believers in praying certain prayers at specific times each day. Many faith traditions have Prayer Books that list the recommended prayers. Methodists, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Lutheran. There are even a couple of popular prayer books assembled by writers (see a list below). The Divine Hours usually include The Lord's Prayer, a Psalm, and a New Testament reading. Often, they'll include prayers specific to the time of day or traditional prayers as well. Believers will pray using this practice anywhere from two to seven times each day. It doesn't replace the personal prayers we should be sending up as our heart needs to cry out to God throughout the day. Rather, it establishes set times each day that we intentionally turn our focus to God, and we can know millions of other Christians are doing so at the exact same time.
We see examples of this prayer practice many times in the Bible:
Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice. Psalm 55:17
Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws. Psalm 119:164
One Day, Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer - at three in the afternoon. Acts 3:1
I have found one of the best ways to reignite a passion for my faith is by trying a new-to-me spiritual discipline. This year for Lent, I decided instead of giving something up or adding a devotional reading to my quiet time, I was going to Pray the Hours. I'm four days in, and here are a few things I've discovered:
- I'm praying at certain times of the day, rather than a specific time on the clock. Sometimes, when it's around noon and I realize it's time to pray again, I don't feel like doing it. Discipline. Much like a runner will say they didn't feel like running, but once they did, and the endorphins start kicking in, they're glad they did. I am praying as a spiritual discipline, so I pick up the booklet and pray anyway, even when I don't feel like it.
- I'm using the Coptic Orthodox Prayer Book, but have yet to pray seven times a day. Wow, that's a huge commitment. My friend doesn't pray this often either, but when she does pray it usually takes her 7-9 minutes. I've found that about right for me as well. I've prayed from two to four times each day so far. Carving out the time during the day over the weekend was challenging.
- In my book, there are several Psalms listed during each hour of prayer. Like 19 Psalms for the First Hour of prayer alone. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to read each of these, but I don't. Here's my typical reading: The Introductory Prayer, The Lord's Prayer, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, Psalm 51, another Psalm, and a New Testament reading or a traditional prayer. The Absolution Prayers have been some of my favorites.
- I mumble read to help me focus. One of the big concerns about praying this way is a person will just recite the prayers without considering the meaning of the words. Admittedly, I'm not focusing on every phrase when I pray this way (that would take HOURS), but each time, different words jump off the page at me. It's bringing such depth to my thought process. Every time I read in Psalm 51, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow," I dwell on the imagery of that. My need for God to purify me and wash me clean, that only he can do that. I'm reminded right there in the middle of my day.
I'll be writing more on this spiritual discipline throughout Lent. I asked my friends on Facebook if they Prayed the Divine Hours, and a few had. Most were like me, they'd never even heard about it. Let's learn together. Here are some ecumenical resources:
The Divine Hours, Pocket Edition by Phyllis Tickle
Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, Enuma Okoro
Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through The Hours Of The Day by Macrina Wiederkher