Praying the Divine Office
An age-old prayer tradition is finding new practitioners.
BY: Nancy Haught
(RNS) It's been years since she worked full time, but Suzanne Kurtz still keeps office hours. That would be the divine office or, as it's sometimes called, the liturgy of the hours.
Four times a day--morning, midday, evening, and just before she goes to bed--the Lake Oswego, Ore., woman stops what she's doing, and prays. Not the quick "memo to God" that sometimes passes for prayer, or even a personal plea for help, but the majestic and measured lines of the psalms and the lustrous, burnished prose of the Book of Common Prayer.
"The language is so beautiful," Kurtz says, opening her prayer book to the previous night's last prayer. Slipping into a quiet, reverent tone, she reads: "Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep tonight, and give Your angels and saints charge over those who sleep. Tend Your sick ones, O Lord Christ. Rest Your weary ones. Bless Your dying ones. Soothe Your suffering ones. Shield Your Joyous ones, and all for Your love's sake. Amen.'"
Kurtz is quiet for a minute. "That covers everybody," she says, closing the book in her lap.
Kurtz, 62, is one of a growing number of Christians reclaiming the ancient practice of fixed-hour prayer. The practice is one she mostly pursues in solitude. For others, fixed prayer is something to be shared in community. Both settings have precedents in the history of the office, which has flourished for centuries within monastery walls but has endured outside them, too.
"These prayers dip you into a sacred world," says Kurtz, who sojourned in several denominations before settling in the Episcopal Church. "They connect you to a tradition of hundreds of years of people praying these same words."
Christian fixed-hour prayer has its roots in Jewish tradition and Roman rule.
"We don't honestly know when Judaism had its fixed hours of prayer," says Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopalian laywoman, 40-year veteran of praying the office, and editor of "The Divine Hours," a three-volume manual designed to help laypeople adopt the practice.
She notes the reference in Psalm 119:164 to praising God "seven times a day" and adds that, by the beginning of the Common Era, Jewish prayer times were fixed in a schedule that coincided with a Roman timetable.
"By the time you get to the actual era when Christ is born, most of the Western world is Roman," Tickle says. "And every village had a forum or market, and every market had a bell."