Christianity, the faith within whose ample arms I have lived my life, received the core of its liturgy and the central form of its spirituality from theJudaism out of which it came. In the former case, the Passover meal becamethe Christian Eucharist; in the latter, Jewish fixed-hour prayer became theDaily Offices. In both cases, the change from Jewish to Christian practicewas so gradual that few of the observants even noticed that one was becomingtwo.
Peter, for instance, had his famous vision of the lowered sheet while hewas on Simon the Tanner's rooftop for noon prayers. Peter and John togetherhealed the cripple as they were passing toward ninth-hour, or 3 o'clockprayers in the Temple. While these acts of the apostles may still have beenJewish in the first century, by the sixth century they were not. By then,the keeping of the Hours had so clearly become the living source ofChristian spirituality that St. Benedict could build his famous Rule aroundit, and the later Middle Ages could give rise to exquisite Books of Hoursand elaborate breviaries just to enable it. Each Office has its prescribedset of Psalms, Gospel readings, hymns, and prayers.
Today millions of Christians--laity like me as well as the vowed and thereligious--pray the Hours in one form or another. I have done so for wellover 30 years by observing the three so-called "Little Offices" [prayer periods during the workday] of terce [early morning], sext [midday], and nones [mid-afternoon], and the so-called "Dear Office" of compline [the last of the daily offices, at the very end of the day]. If those times are not convenient, I may have to slide to the next hour or half-hour, but I will observe. And if the place is not convenient, I may have to slip into someone else's office or even into some ladies'-room stall, but I will observe. When the digital watch on my wrist dings lightly, it calls me to terce or sext or nones as surely as cathedral bells used to call the Old World's laborers from their fields. Just as at least once a week, I eat the body of God and drink the blood of God, so four times a day I take into me the words of God.
Only rarely will that pattern be broken; and each day I am taught again howlittle has changed for the soul over centuries of change for those whoobserve. Unlike the medieval townspeople who went together to the cathedral for the praying of the Hours, many of us who keep them today pray in solitude. Onlyonce in my 30-plus years has it been otherwise for me, and I rememberthose brief months as ones of deep contentment.
I had just joined a rather large cookbook publisher as the director of trade publishing. All the offices near mine were busy, as offices tend to be in publishing houses, from sunup to sundown, with people trotting up and down the halls, chattering constantly. On my first few days after joining the firm, I tried everything for my noon prayers from the lounge to a conference room to myparked car. None was satisfactory. In a matter of a few days, I gave up and took to closing my office door for a few minutes. Nothing was said and no questions were asked until about two weeks later when the owner and CEO of the house knocked one noontime. "Come," I said. He stuck his head in and said, "Ithought so," and grinned. A Roman Catholic, he showed up the next day justbefore my watch could ding and closed the door for me. He had a breviary inhis hand, and we kept sext together for almost six months before a shift inhis schedule stopped us.
But even when one is alone within the Offices, as I have been most of thetime since those good months, the flow of the ancient phrases, the Psalmsthat my God himself used when he was as I am, human, embrace the soul. "Ihave said to the Lord, 'You are my God; listen, O Lord, to my supplication.'"
"Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, youthat are enthroned upon the cherubim."
"It is good for me to be near my God, I have made the Lord God my refugeand my shield."
The words appointed for the day's Offices flow on. Their very music liftsmy own hands into all the hands that together are Christian history. Andwhen the work of their saying is done, when the prayers are uttered, thepraise and petitions offered, I go back to my temporal work. Shortly, otherChristians in the time zone beyond me will take up the prayers from theirown place, as will the Christians beyond them three hours after that.Together, they and I and all of us are, each day, every day, a constantcascade of prayer before the throne of God.