Four times a day--morning, midday, evening, and just before shegoes to bed--the Lake Oswego, Ore., woman stops what she's doing, andprays. 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 CommonPrayer."The language is so beautiful," Kurtz says, opening her prayer bookto the previous night's last prayer. Slipping into a quiet, reverenttone, 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 theancient 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, whosojourned in several denominations before settling in the EpiscopalChurch. "They connect you to a tradition of hundreds of years of peoplepraying these same words."
Christian fixed-hour prayer has its roots in Jewish tradition andRoman rule.
"We don't honestly know when Judaism had its fixed hours of prayer,"says Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopalian laywoman, 40-year veteran ofpraying the office, and editor of "The Divine Hours," a three-volumemanual designed to help laypeople adopt the practice.
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."
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.
The resurgence in fixed-hour prayer may be a logical outgrowth ofAmericans' interest in "exotic" spirituality, especially in the wake ofthe Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which brought so manyBuddhists and so much Buddhist practice to the United States, saysTickle, 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 themid-1980s and '90s. Some Christians, intrigued by the practices ofBuddhism, 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.