Walking into a board of directors meeting, I noticed that one of our board members, a Methodist, was holding a book bound in brown leather with ribbons trailing from pages. It looked like a Bible, but was a bit too thick.
When he saw me looking with a quizzical expression on my face, he held up his book and explained, “It’s the Book of Hours. I’ve been praying the Hours for some years now.”
And then the meeting started. But I filed away his words and retrieved them a year later.
The Book of Hours, more accurately the Liturgy of the Hours, is an ancient approach to daily devotions modeled after the way prayer was practiced among the Jews in Jesus’ day.
God commanded the priests to offer a morning and an evening sacrifice each day (Exodus 29:38-41). Elsewhere, Scripture says, “Seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119:164). By the first century, in addition to the morning and evening prayer that accompanied the sacrifices, Jews gathered for prayer at the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day. That meant prayer at dawn, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon and sunset.
The book of Acts indicates that the early Christians followed the same established patterns. Peter and John healed the lame beggar near the Beautiful Gate of the Temple as they went to prayer at three in the afternoon, the ninth hour (Acts 3:1). Cornelius the Centurion had his vision of an angel as he prayed at “about the ninth hour” (Acts 10:3). Peter received the vision that told him to respond to Cornelius when “he went up to the housetop to pray, at about the sixth hour” (Acts 10:9).
The practice continued as monks and hermits set aside times for prayer throughout the day, prayed through the Psalms in a weekly cycle. In about 550, Benedict of Nursia wrote in his Rule for monks:
As the Prophet saith: “Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee” (Ps 119:164), this sacred sevenfold number will be fulfilled by us in this wise if we perform the duties of our service at the time of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline….Benedict of Nursia, Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Trans. by Rev. Boniface Verheyen, OSB of St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, Kansas Electronic text (with added scripture references).
Since the Holy Rule of St. Benedict became the standard handbook for monastic life, prayers would be said at:
- Sunrise – Lauds
- Early morning – Prime
- Mid-morning – Terce
- Midday – Sext
- Mid-afternoon – None
- Dusk – Vespers
- Before bed – Compline
To these was added Matins, a service of readings during the watches of the night at 9:00 p.m., midnight, and 3:00 a.m.
Over the years these have been abbreviated to Readings, Morning Prayer, Daytime Prayer (that can be prayed once, twice or three times a day), Evening Prayer and Night Prayer.
Each “hour” includes a hymn, psalms, a Scripture reading, canticles (Bible prayers not from the Psalms) and prayers along with features specific to the time of day. The two Readings for each day are a Scripture reading and a spiritual reading from Christian history.
Most of the spiritual readings come from writers prior to the Reformation. They’re people we Evangelicals for the most part have never heard of, but are suspicious about anyway. While we should be discerning as we read any author, between the apostles and Martin Luther the church saw many great minds and warm hearts in love with God. Their writings are a gift.
All this is collected in four volumes that I understand are standard issue for Catholic priests, bishops, monks and nuns.
Caveats for Protestants: The Liturgy of the Hours is Catholic and reflects that fact. Protestants need to be charitable, flexible and make adjustments. When the book says we pray for “our pope,” I do pray for Benedict XVI, but I add pastors, elders and other Christian leaders as well. Every evening there is a prayer for Christians who have departed this life. I pray for those who are dying rather than those who are dead. Prayers addressed to Mary I just skip.
Finally, some of the Scripture readings come from the Apocryphal books. Catholics accept these as part of the Bible, and Protestants do not. I treat those readings as wise words from a believing source — not unlike the way I would treat Benedict of Nursia, Benedict XVI, Augustine, Calvin, C.S. Lewis or J.I Packer. They are not authoritative like the Scriptures, but they’re helpful in the spiritual journey.
That being said as background, this summer, my daily devotions got stale, and stale devotions led invariably to no devotions. That led to a sub-optimal (at least) emotional and spiritual life. Something needed to change.
When I thought of ways to jump start my devotions, I remembered my conversation at the board meeting and went out to find a copy of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The 2,000-plus-pages in each volume are not only daunting, they’re extremely confusing. But with a little help from the Internet, I got going on the “Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time” which this year was Aug. 6 with outstanding results.
One concern I had was that the project would be burdensome. After all, I was having enough trouble trying to have one “quiet time” each day, and now I wanted to have five. Strangely, I’ve found five easier than one. Once I started, I’ve found that praying the Hours slipped comfortably into my schedule.
The Readings, Morning, and Evening Prayer take between 15 and 20 minutes each. Daytime and Night Prayer take no more than 10. That is, the time commitment is quite reasonable.
I do the Readings and Morning Prayer before I leave for work. Daytime Prayer is around lunch time, and it serves as a welcome reminder of what I’m doing at work. One daytime prayer reads:
God of mercy,
This midday moment of rest is your welcome gift.
Bless the work we have begun, make good its defects
and let us finish it in a way that pleases you.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.The Liturgy of the Hours IV, Ordinary Time Weeks 18-34. Trans. by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Catholic Book Publishing Corp. (1975). Page 722.
Why didn’t I ever think of praying something like that? Because I need to learn to pray, and the best way to learn is to pray prayers, including the psalms, that are beyond my spiritual maturity and skills. In the Hours, I do that.
Before I leave my office for the day I say Evening Prayer. The work day is done, and I put my efforts into God’s hands. It also puts me in a better frame of mind for my commute and arrival at home. Finally in bed before turning out the light, I pray Night Prayer.
May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.Ibid. Page 638.
Praying the Hours gives me the sense of praying with and for the church around the world. My Methodist board member and I join thousands each day praying the same psalms and prayers. Even though I pray alone, I’m never praying alone.
Praying the Psalms has been part of my devotions for years, and I’m reminded again how they direct me to pray for my brothers and sisters who are victims of tyranny and persecution. I pray that God would protect them in Psalm 17:8-9:
Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings from the wicked who assail me, from my mortal enemies who surround me.
I pray that God’s justice will vindicate them in Psalm 35:1-2:
Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and buckler; arise and come to my aid.
The Psalms lift me out of my daily and often petty concerns and turn my mind and heart to loving my neighbors by praying for them.
But the greatest benefit I’ve discovered is that since I’m already praying multiple times a day, I catch myself praying all day long. I’ve always admired people who say they pray naturally without thinking about it throughout the day, but I’ve never done that until now. The Hours have done for me what St. Benedict hoped they would do for his monks: They structure and permeate my day with worship.
Coming out of the spiritual rut I’m increasingly grateful for the spiritual treasures Christians of the past have left for us to discover, enjoy and use as we grow in our awareness of and love for our Triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — Hour by Hour.
Copyright 2008 Jim Tonkowich. All rights reserved.