Sometimes called "keeping the daily offices" or "observing the divine hours," fixed-hour prayer, together with the hallowing of the Sabbath and the celebration of Communion, is the oldest and most authentic form of Christian spiritual practice. Like Sabbath observance and participation in the communal Passover meal, it comes to us out of ancient Judaism and by way of the devout, practicing Jews who were first Jesus' disciples and then, after the Resurrection, His evangelists and missionaries.
Through them and through the early regimens of the Church, all three- Sabbath, Communion, and fixed-hour prayer-were passed to us and have remained with us as central, though adapted, parts of Christian discipline and Christian worship.
For me, and based on my own years of "praying the hours," fixed-hour prayer is best understood as a kind of free, widely windowed, and open passageway between two places-one very physical and the other very virtual. Put more concretely, observing the hours allows our human awareness or mental focus to move back and forth on a daily basis and in a disciplined way, from attending to the necessary bustle of each day of our lives to attending to the eternal timelessness and magnificence of divine life.
By the time of Our Lord, the hours for such praying had become "fixed" into a regimen almost identical to that followed by the Christian Communion today. The hours of six and nine in the morning, noon, three in the afternoon, sunset, retirement, and sometimes midnight were, as they still are, the ones when the faithful- either alone or together-stopped what they were doing, invoked the presence of God, praised Him with the beloved hymns of two or three appointed Psalms, meditated on a piece of holy scripture, sang another hymn, and returned to the workaday world aware of the God to Whom they belonged and of the privilege of worship that had just been granted them.
While we do not have in the Gospels any record of Our Lord's keeping fixed-hour prayer, we must assume that as a devout Jew He did. We certainly know that the disciples did. Thus, the Spirit fell as tongues of fire upon them on Pentecost while, as we are told in Acts, they were gathered for prayer "at the third hour of the day"-that is, at nine o'clock in the morning. Christianity spread beyond the confines of Judaism primarily because of a vision granted Peter early in the faith's history.
That vision involved a sheet filled with unclean or forbidden, but edible, creatures and a heavenly voice instructing Peter to kill and eat. Three times Peter refused, saying that he had never broken halakah or Jewish dietary law in his life; and three times the voice answered by saying, "What God has called holy, humankind must not call profane." Just as the sheet and voice withdrew for the third time, there came a knock at the door below. A Gentile, the servant of a Gentile, was there to beg Peter "to come over into Macedonia" and instruct them in this new way of salvation.
It is a story we all remember. What we often forget to remember is that the knock of Cornelius's servant came from downstairs only because Peter was upstairs. That is, the story says, he had gone up to the rooftop at twelve o'clock for what? For noonday prayers.
During the last decades of the 20th century, lay Christians of every persuasion started to reclaim the divine hours. This manual, like the larger ones from which it is abstracted, was born out of the urgency of that return. Using it requires no instruction beyond that printed on each page itself, save for three things.
First, many Christians-especially Protestant ones who are accustomed to singing the fixed words of their worship-find themselves more comfortable singing both the time-honored and fixed words of the Psalter and the beloved hymns of the vesper office. There is, in the midst of each line of the Psalms, a small asterisk that was originally set there as pointing in the Jewish psalter. On the last syllable before this asterisk, the singer will want to raise his or her monotonal pitch by a single note, just as the last syllable before the end of a line is lowered a note. Your ear will carry you from there to some of the nuisances that lie beyond this primary rule.
Second, a wise rabbi once told me that it is not how many prayers we don't say that matters to God, but rather how many we do. That is important for all of us, but especially for beginners. If this is your first attempt to return to this most ancient of Christian practices, it is wise to remember that you are entering into a discipline and that, like all disciplines, this one sits hard and heavy upon one at times. There are hours you will miss and/or some that you can't even begin to figure out how to observe. That is all right, for either the joy will carry you into greater joy and transmute the discipline into privilege, or you will find yourself simply the wiser and the richer for such experience as you have had. As the rabbi said, that is what matters ultimately.
And last as well as most central, perhaps, is this: Though most contemporary Christians of necessity will observe many offices alone-that is, without the participation in real place and time of other Christians-there are always those fortunate ones of us and/or those blessed occasions in our daily lives when the office can be kept in company with others. When that happens, the pronouns may, and should, be changed from singular to plural. Many of us make that change at all times, however, because (and this is perhaps the most obvious gift of the divine hours) when one prays the hours, one is using the exact words, phrases, and petitions that have informed our faith for centuries.
In addition, we are also using the exact words, phrases, and petitions that were offered just an hour earlier by our fellow Christians in the prior time zone and that, in an hour, will be picked up and offered again by our fellow believers in the next time zone. The result is a constant cascade before the throne of God of the "unceasing prayer" to which St. Paul urged us. The result also is the communion of the saints fully realized in words both horizontally through the ages and vertically within this day and hour.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus