Sanctifying Time: Praying the Hours

Today Upper Room’s steering team was supposed to take a private retreat centered on spiritual disciplines.  The goal is to enrich the prayer lives of our members by spending time in prayer and discussing spiritual disciplines together.  For multiple reasons, the retreat’s been postponed.  But I still want to share some of the thoughts I’d prepared for the retreat.  So here we go . . .

I’ve been learning a lot recently about praying the hours.  Simply put, praying the hours is a way of maintaining a disciplined prayer life by pausing for short liturgical prayers at appointed times throughout the day.  The practice comes from Jewish tradition and has been practiced by Christians since the first century. By the time of Jesus, Jews paused at least three times a day to pray this way.  And you see Jesus-followers in the New Testament praying at the hours:  In the book of Acts, Peter’s praying at the sixth hour when he has his vision of the sheet with unkosher animals (Acts 10:9) and is on his way to prayer when he performs a healing at the ninth hour (Acts 3:10).  While the practice was maintained in more liturgical traditions over the centuries, the practice was lost among Protestants and modern evangelicals.  Thankfully, the practice is now being revived in those circles.

So here are three of the thoughts on praying the hours which I had planned to share with our steering team today:

Praying the hours is an experience of grace.  Those of us coming from low-church and evangelical backgrounds have trouble accepting the grace of pre-written prayers.  Extemporaneous prayer is good.  But truth be told, using written prayers is an experience of grace: the power of one’s prayer life doesn’t depend upon the work we put into struggling to find the words. For me, it’s an experience of freedom to have well-thought out pre-written prayers for use in praying the hours.  They usually say what I want to say better than I could say it on my own.  And with the traditional prayers this comes from the fact that they’ve been used countless times over the centuries.  They’re tried and true.

So a prayer book is appropriate for praying the hours.  My favorite right now is Phyllis Tickle’s compilation called The Divine Hours.  Thanks to Ken Wilson and the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, it’s available for free online at each hour of the day at  Ann Arbor Vineyard: The Divine Hours. The print version and the pocket edition have seven offices and is what we’ll eventually give to our steering team members when we do talk about this together.  As a Presbyterian I’ve also used the PC(USA)’s Book of Common Worship Daily Prayer Edition, which has offices for morning, midday, evening, and close of day prayer. 

Praying the hours recalls our attention to God and recenters us.   Psalm 119:164 : “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.”  Theoretically we can be aware of God’s presence with us at all times of the day.  But in practice, it takes discipline to remind ourselves of that.  So, pausing several times a day at different times functions as a reminder of God’s presence and the fact that God takes precedence over whatever other activity could be going on at that minute.  By pausing at fixed times throughout the day, we also can recall that others are pausing to pray at the same time and experience the grace of our communal existence in the Church. 

One of the interesting things to me about the way The Divine Hours are structured is that there are more “offices” of prayer for the nighttime and early morning than during the day.  Before the comforts of modern society, nighttime was a time of fear.  People were least secure in the night.  And they were also most alone with God during the night.  So after evening prayer, there’s “compline” office (prayed before bed), the midnight office, the office of the night watch (between 1:30 and 4:30am), and the office of the dawn.  It may not seem appealing to wake up multiple times a night to pray, but for those who can’t sleep, these offices can be times of comfort.  Young parents waking to feed babies at all hours of the night can pause and pray the appropriate office for the time of night.  I’ve also found that the night offices are times of comfort and peace when wrestling with insomnia. 

Lastly, praying the hours is a method of sanctifying or hallowing time.  Once in the habit of pausing at certain times to pray the hours, it’s interesting to think of major biblical events that happened at particular times of the day: at noon on Good Friday, Jesus was nailed to the cross.  At 3:00pm he breathed his last.  It was 9:00am when the Spirit fell upon the apostles at Pentecost.   But we can go further than that:  It was also noon when Jesus sat down at the Jacob’s well where he met and talked to the Samaritan woman (John 4:6), and three in the afternoon when Cornelius had his vision telling him to send for Peter (Acts 10:3).  Once we get in the habit of noticing these times of biblical events, the order of our day and the prayers we pray can be shaped by them.  For example, at 9:00 in the morning praying to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  At noon or 3:00pm, pray for God to let you meet someone from a different culture (as Jesus with the Samaritan woman and Peter with Cornelius).  With practice, this becomes a way of living into the story of scripture.

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