Praying the Divine Office

An age-old prayer tradition is finding new practitioners.

BY: Nancy Haught


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The bells rang at appointed hours: at prime, the first hour or 6 a.m.; at terce, the third hour or 9 a.m.; at sext, the sixth hour or noon and so forth throughout the daylight hours. The evidence that Jews and 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 Christian church, 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 1 Thessalonians 5:17) to "pray without ceasing."

Shifts of monks, working like relay teams, took turns praying the entire book of Psalms in a 24-7 cycle, Tickle says. Eventually, as praying the office took more memory, more training, more printed texts and 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 of monks 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 is making a comeback. It may be, as Arthur Paul Boers observed in The Christian Century magazine, the logical next ripple in the wave of all-things-monastic that has proven so popular since Kathleen Norris wrote "The Cloister Walk" in 1996.

In recent years monasteries around the country have seen an increase in the number of laypeople taking associate, or oblate, vows to pray the hours.

The resurgence in fixed-hour prayer may be a logical outgrowth of Americans' interest in "exotic" spirituality, especially in the wake of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which brought so many Buddhists and so much Buddhist practice to the United States, says Tickle, whose 14 books include "God-Talk in America" and "Re-Discovering the Sacred: Spirituality in America."

The influx of Buddhists, with their emphasis on meditation, Mindfulness, and living intentionally dovetailed with American curiosity about spirituality, a curiosity that peaked in the mid-1980s and '90s. Some Christians, intrigued by the practices of Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam, re-examined their own tradition to see what it might have to offer. One of the jewels they turned up was fixed-hour prayer.

"Mindfulness is the whole point of praying the hours," Tickle says.

David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk whose book about the hours, "Music of Silence," is in its second edition, says people are hungry for ritual and ways to incorporate it in their everyday lives. An awareness of the liturgical hours and the practice of stopping to savor them doesn't break up a day as much as tie it together, Steindl-Rast says.

Tickle wonders, too, if renewed interest in praying the hours may have something to do with September 11. As Christians learned that Muslims practice fixed-hour prayer, some have been inspired to try its Christian counterpart, she says.

Or it may be that fixed-hour prayer is proving popular again because it gives spiritual seekers who've lost the taste for watered-down spirituality something solid to sink their teeth into, says Eric Major, vice president of religious publishing at Doubleday. "One of the great dangers of Christian faith," he says, "is a tendency to leave it behind on a Sunday morning." Fixed prayer is a way of infusing a whole day, a whole week with prayer.

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