The Divine Hours of Lent

Supposedly and by tradition, Friday is the day of the week set aside by Christians for thinking sober thoughts and considering holy issues. I’m all for that. Lord knows, we probably need a lot more Fridays, if that is the use to which we put them. A little discipline never hurt anybody pointlessly, though it can be bloody annoying while it’s in process. But not all “practices” or “disciplines” of the faith are burdensome. Some are actually the bringers of immediate, as well as permanent joy.
I was, as I mentioned the other day, in San Diego last week for the National Pastors’ Conference. It’s one of those annual gatherings that I just plain enjoy going to and being part of. A Conference Center full of thousands of preachers and pastors milling around just can’t be anything other than interesting and stimulating and, ultimately, re-assuring, as I also mentioned the other day. There are always differences of doctrinal opinion, of course, and occasionally some raised voices; but there’s also a lot of mutuality and swapping of ideas, lots of prayer sessions, lots of embracing and catching up across lines that might appertain elsewhere but not here and not now. Not at NPC.
The sessions—more than anybody could ever hope to attend—are lively and vary in size from huge plenaries to more intimate groups of fifty to a hundred folk. It was in speaking to one of these latter groups that I found myself wandering off on a familiar tangent…or at least down a line of thought that has been a sobering part of my Lents for the last several years.
The stated subject was fixed-hour prayer…or, if you prefer, keeping the divine hours or observing the offices. By any name, we were there to discuss not only the why and how of learning to observe the offices for one self, but also the why and how of pastoring other Christians into the same practice or discipline.
Fixed-hour prayer is only one of the seven ancient disciplines, or religious practices, that have informed all the Abrahamic faiths from the beginning and that still function as central and defining to all three of them. Islam folds the seven together to make four of its five Pillars. Observant Jews likewise are taught all seven from birth. Christianity, when it came out of Judaism, did the same; but time, that great leveler of all things, dealt some serious blows to Christian constancy where the seven are concerned.
The seven practices of the faith are: Tithing, Fasting, the Sacred Meal, Fixed-hour prayer, the Observance of the Sabbath, the Observance of the Liturgical Year, and Pilgrimage. I have rattled them off so many times to groups just like the one last week at NPC that I don’t even have to think about them anymore.
The first three of tithing, fasting, and a sacred meal are already as familiar to most of us as they could possibly be. They are also lumped together, because they all have to do with the body and, by means of it, the focusing of our self-awareness upon the sacred in a consistent and ordered way. We take the product of our work and return a set portion of it to God and to holy use. We deny ourselves from time to time of food and satisfaction that hunger may remind us both of our total dependence on God and of the needs of others for whom hunger is a constant not of their own choosing. We celebrate the sacred meal–be it the Passover, the eucharist, or the Id al Fitr–and thereby both replenish our bodies with God’s gifts, and also seal ourselves to one another as a community of faith bonded together by our sharing at a common table.
The other four practices discipline time itself, that turbulent river that flows only in one direction and on whose undulating surface we are carried for so long as we are here. The first, fixed-hour prayer, monitors or paces the day every day, by breaking it into three-hour units, each of which is begun with the prayers appointed for that day and office. The second, the keeping of Sabbath, monitors the flow of the next larger unit of time, the week. The third, the liturgical year, paces the year itself. And the last of the seven, Pilgrimage, gives focus to the individual lifetime, or put another way, it governs that unit of time that, experientially, is the largest any of us can know.
Over the centuries, as Europe became increasingly illiterate and as it slipped into the Dark Ages that would so devastate it, fixed-hour prayer more and more became the practice only of cloistered monks and of the very wealthy, both of those groups being by and large still literate and still able to afford the breviaries and prayerbooks required for keeping the hours. By the time of the Reformation, observing the hours had become so associated in the popular mind with wealth and/or Roman Catholicism as to make it anathema to the ways of Protestantism. Accordingly, it was, as a discipline, either ignored, or discouraged, or outright banned by most branches of this new way of being Christian.
But the centuries have rolled on, and we have come to a new time and a new sense of what it means to be Christian. And as if there were some kind of remembering religious DNA buried in us, more and more Christians—especially young ones–are looking again at our traditions and history. They are looking in order to discover and reclaim those parts of the faith that made it worth dying for, that so enlivened men and women that they turned the world upside down in their ardor. And that has led to the re-discovery and re-claiming of fixed-hour prayer, which in turn has led to my speaking to clergy groups like the one last week.
But there is another of the seven disciplines besides keeping the hours that got lost in the shuffle of the centuries. Pilgrimage got lost. And until about seven or eight years ago, I had been willing to acknowledge it as still moribund and then go blithely on my way to other, more pertinent points. But even as I was standing at the white board laying out the seven, pilgrimage jumped up and slapped me in my attention center just as it has over and over again these last several Lents.
Pilgrimage, as defined by our tradition is that one trip-that one singular event in all of one’s life—when all one’s energies and resources are focused on being physically present in that one holy place from whose air and earth our faith has come. Pilgrimage is to be on roads and in buildings that have been made sacred by the feet and eyes, prayers and adoration, amazement and agony of thousands and thousands of the devout for thousands of years.
For Judaism, that place is Jerusalem…Jerusalem that was lost to Jews in 130 c.e. and that has variously been freed and then lost again over the centuries since. Jerusalem, the Holy City from which all Abrahamics come. And wherever they may be in the world, the unifying, concluding, Passover cry on every Jewish lip each year is always the same: Next year in Jerusalem!
For Islam, too, Jerusalem was briefly the Holy City. Now the sacred center is Mecca, with Jerusalem being revered as the second most holy site of the faith. For us Christians, it was Jerusalem also, right up until we too were driven out, despite the Crusaders’ questionable efforts to the contrary. After that, the center for Christianity shifted to Rome. After the Reformation, there was no center common to all of us.
Intellectually and objectively, I had, and have, known all of the above for my entire adult life. What I had not known until a few years ago was the emptiness in my gut because of it. And what I always forget, each Lent, is how that sense of homesickness in my soul can so abruptly and unexpectedly wash over me, even when I am standing in front of a group of unsuspecting people who, presumably, would be sympathetic, if they knew what was going on in my heart.
Christianity has compensated for the loss of a holy center over the centuries by various means, of course. Some divisions of the Church have offered substitutes sites like Canterbury in England or Assisi in Italy or Santiago do Compostela in Spain, all of which have by now picked up some of the rich patina of many devout feet and earnest prayers. We have also encouraged, especially in the last century or so, the substitution of retreats, usually at monasteries. But retreats, for all their benefits, are not pilgrimage, primarily because none of them is common to all of us.
Some of us have chosen, of course, to fight for the freedom of Jerusalem herself and for the opening of her walls to peoples of all faith without restrictions. Probably most dangerously, however, more of us have etherealized the concepts of pilgrimage and holy place. We have transferred our sacred center from earth to heaven, singing great, soaring hymns to one another as if thereby to reassure each other that we have not suffered loss, only a re-location. We have even transferred the energy and focus of pilgrimage itself into metaphorical talk; and we speak of life here as being a journey to that place of repose, as if we are here only as those who are passing through to somewhere else.
The truth is…or it becomes a brooding truth for me at some point in every Lent…the truth is that in our substitutions and maneuvering, political accommodations and delays, we Christians have lost the most important thing of all. We have lost our ability to confess the absence of an earthly center in our faith and to mourn for it. We have lost, thereby and without any deliberate intention, our will fully to live here…the will to be fully dwellers and servants of God in the here. Without the discipline and benefits of making pilgrimage, we have settled for a kind of tribal divisiveness and nomadic variousness, no longer even hoping ever to find within creation itself the commonality of earthly homeland and earthly reunion with all those who share it with us.
I am Christian, not Jewish. I can not entirely know what the Jew, of whatever division of his or her communion or of whatever place or nation, knows within his or her soul when the Passover cry goes up: Next year in Jerusalem!
I do not know, but I can observe. I can observe that in the uttering of those words, the life of every observant Jew and the life of observant Judaism itself are fused together and honed for another year. I can observe that, just as I can and must acknowledge my own and Christianity’s diminishment from the lack of it. And so, mid-way of this Lent, as of every recent Lent, I speak instead the great cry of our faith: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Amen.

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