The Divine Hours of Lent

Someone asked me the other day what the “The Divine Hours” part of “The Divine Hours of Lent” meant. It struck me as a singularly appropriate question and one that I should have answered without having to be asked.
In truth, the title of this blog was not of my making, but it did, and does, delight me, particularly because of my penchant for good word-play. The tease here, or the implication, is that all the hours and days of Lent should be divine, or at least in some way hallowed, by our increased attention of the Christian story and to the conduct of our lives within it. But the other thing being referenced is the ancient, Judeo-Christian discipline or practice of “fixed-hour prayer” or “keeping the offices” or “praying the hours” or “observing the divine hours,” whichever one prefers to call it by.
From the beginning of recorded Judaism, Jews and Christians [and Muslims, too] have taught the faithful to stop for prayers at set times during each day. We are more aware today, probably, of Islam’s practice of offering prayers five times a day than we are of the discipline in the other two faiths. But whether we are aware of it or not, in contemporary Judaism, the established pattern is now three times a day, though originally Judaism practiced fixed-hour prayer seven times a day,. Christianity still adheres to that seven-times-a-day pattern, although far and away the majority of devout Christians do not observe the hours any more. There are reasons for that shift, reasons buried in western history and primarily in the Reformation’s need to interrupt as completely as possible the patterns of the Roman Catholic Church in order to make way for the new, Protestant way of being Christian.
In the last decade or so, however, there has been a surge of interest, primarily among younger and middle-aged Christians, in returning to the practices of the early Church and to the disciplines of our forefathers and foremothers as they engaged and then passed on the Christianity of the first and second centuries. For that reason, a number of breviaries or manuals for keeping fixed-hour prayer have been published in the last dozen years, including a series of ones that I compiled and that is now marketed under the general title of The Divine Hours, thus the punning or word-play in this blog’s title.
But having gone this far, I must finish the tale. The Divine Hours and all the other breviaries that have been published are for adults. In fact, it takes a fair amount of literacy and intention to keep fixed-hour prayer and to use any of the provided manuals. It would never have occurred to me, therefore, that one might ever have need of a prayer book for children….or it would not have until the day I got a call from Sarah Shumway at Dutton Children’s Books. What she wanted to publish, she said, was a prayer book for little fellows from three-and-a-half to five years old. It seems, she said, that more and more parents are keeping the divine hours and want an age-appropriate tool by which to train their children in the practice.
I was charmed by the idea–amazed, but charmed–and said yes, I’d take that project on. The result is now a handsomely illustrated volume, complete with its own place-holding ribbon, and published under the title of This Is What I Pray Today – The Divine Hours Prayers for Children. What I did not perceive, however, was the agony that lay between my being charmed and the book’s finally being ready for ribbons and illustrations. The longer I worked, the longer the laundry list of specifications seemed to grow.
First, there were to be only three prayers each day for these little ones, but each one of the three did indeed have to be age-appropriate and…the catch…theologically appropriate or accessible. Each had to rhyme as well, the better to make them memorable or “memorizable.” Because all three Abrahamic faiths keep the hours, this prayer book had to be acceptable to the children of all three, which meant no mention of any of the faith-specific names like Jesus or Mohammed. Because all breviaries and all fixed-hour prayers are Psalm-based, each of these prayers must likewise depend from a Psalm. The prayers had to be gender-inclusive, and they could not assume a nuclear family, since slightly more than half of us in this country no longer live in that traditional model.
Before all was said and done, I felt as if I were playing a game of triple-deck chess. Every time I fixed one thing in a prayer, two others fell into some form of disrepair. But at last it was done, the poem-prayers edited and assembled, and as the saying goes, my joy was complete…or I thought it was, until Sarah called and said she needed one more prayer…one to open the little volume and give the children some understanding of what they and God are doing each day as the hours are observed. So I wrote that one, too, but I am also re-printing it here, because it seems to me to be age-appropriate for every single one of us who is old enough and literate enough to have made it this far in this blog:
Three times each day,
Little children like to pray.
It is God we thank for the morning sun
And for the brand-new day that has come.
Before we take our mid-day rest,
It is God’s most holy name we bless.
And when the long, long day is done
And before the starry night has come.
It is God we ask to take our hand
And guide us gently into slumber land.
And if you yourself are curious about keeping the Divine Hours of Lent in more ways than one, go to and hit the tile marked “The Divine Hours.” The correct office for the time zone from which your computer has linked in will come up; and in praying it, you will be joining briefly the company of many other Christians in the same time-zone and across the ages who are creating a constant cascade of prayer before the throne of God.

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