Praying the Divine Office
An age-old prayer tradition is finding new practitioners.
She notes the reference in Psalm 119:164 to praising God "seventimes a day" and adds that, by the beginning of the Common Era, Jewishprayer times were fixed in a schedule that coincided with a Romantimetable.
"By the time you get to the actual era when Christ is born, most ofthe Western world is Roman," Tickle says. "And every village had a forum or market, and every market had a bell."
The bells rang at appointed hours: at prime, the first hour or 6a.m.; at terce, the third hour or 9 a.m.; at sext, the sixth hour ornoon and so forth throughout the daylight hours. The evidence that Jewsand early Christians prayed at those hours is in the New Testament,Tickle says, with its references to the apostles at prayer at 9 a.m., at midday and in the afternoon.
Fixed-hour prayer continued in the early centuries of the Christianchurch, both in homes and church settings, but it was the church's first monastics, the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries, who amplified fixed-hour prayer to fulfill St. Paul's admonition (in 1Thessalonians 5:17) to "pray without ceasing."
Shifts of monks, working like relay teams, took turns praying theentire book of Psalms in a 24-7 cycle, Tickle says. Eventually, aspraying the office took more memory, more training, more printed textsand more time, laypeople, pressed by the demands of work and family, let it go.
By the Middle Ages, the office became almost exclusively the work ofmonks and nuns, who prayed and polished it within their monastery walls. After the Reformation, Anglicans revised the office but did not give it up altogether. In the 20th century, in its Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church called all the faithful to pray the office as they are able.
There are a number of possible reasons that this ancient practice ismaking a comeback. It may be, as Arthur Paul Boers observed in TheChristian Century magazine, the logical next ripple in the wave ofall-things-monastic that has proven so popular since Kathleen Norriswrote "The Cloister Walk" in 1996.
In recent years monasteries around the country have seen an increasein the number of laypeople taking associate, or oblate, vows to pray the hours.