2016-06-30
(RNS) It's been years since she worked full time, but Suzanne Kurtz still keeps office hours. That would be the divine office or, as it's sometimes called, the liturgy of the hours.

Four times a day--morning, midday, evening, and just before she goes to bed--the Lake Oswego, Ore., woman stops what she's doing, and prays. 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 Common Prayer. "The language is so beautiful," Kurtz says, opening her prayer book to the previous night's last prayer. Slipping into a quiet, reverent tone, 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 the ancient 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, who sojourned in several denominations before settling in the Episcopal Church. "They connect you to a tradition of hundreds of years of people praying these same words."

Christian fixed-hour prayer has its roots in Jewish tradition and Roman rule.

"We don't honestly know when Judaism had its fixed hours of prayer," says Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopalian laywoman, 40-year veteran of praying the office, and editor of "The Divine Hours," a three-volume manual designed to help laypeople adopt the practice.

She notes the reference in Psalm 119:164 to praising God "seven times a day" and adds that, by the beginning of the Common Era, Jewish prayer times were fixed in a schedule that coincided with a Roman timetable.

"By the time you get to the actual era when Christ is born, most of the Western world is Roman," Tickle says. "And every village had a forum or market, and every market had a bell."

The bells rang at appointed hours: at prime, the first hour or 6 a.m.; at terce, the third hour or 9 a.m.; at sext, the sixth hour or noon and so forth throughout the daylight hours. The evidence that Jews and early Christians prayed at those hours is in the New Testament, Tickle says, with its references to the apostles at prayer at 9 a.m., at midday and in the afternoon.

Fixed-hour prayer continued in the early centuries of the Christian church, 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 1 Thessalonians 5:17) to "pray without ceasing."

Shifts of monks, working like relay teams, took turns praying the entire book of Psalms in a 24-7 cycle, Tickle says. Eventually, as praying the office took more memory, more training, more printed texts and 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 of monks 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 is making a comeback. It may be, as Arthur Paul Boers observed in The Christian Century magazine, the logical next ripple in the wave of all-things-monastic that has proven so popular since Kathleen Norris wrote "The Cloister Walk" in 1996.

In recent years monasteries around the country have seen an increase in the number of laypeople taking associate, or oblate, vows to pray the hours.

The resurgence in fixed-hour prayer may be a logical outgrowth of Americans' interest in "exotic" spirituality, especially in the wake of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which brought so many Buddhists and so much Buddhist practice to the United States, says Tickle, 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 the mid-1980s and '90s. Some Christians, intrigued by the practices of Buddhism, 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.

"Mindfulness is the whole point of praying the hours," Tickle says.

David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk whose book about the hours, "Music of Silence," is in its second edition, says people are hungry for ritual and ways to incorporate it in their everyday lives. An awareness of the liturgical hours and the practice of stopping to savor them doesn't break up a day as much as tie it together, Steindl-Rast says.

Tickle wonders, too, if renewed interest in praying the hours may have something to do with September 11. As Christians learned that Muslims practice fixed-hour prayer, some have been inspired to try its Christian counterpart, she says.

Or it may be that fixed-hour prayer is proving popular again because it gives spiritual seekers who've lost the taste for watered-down spirituality something solid to sink their teeth into, says Eric Major, vice president of religious publishing at Doubleday. "One of the great dangers of Christian faith," he says, "is a tendency to leave it behind on a Sunday morning." Fixed prayer is a way of infusing a whole day, a whole week with prayer.

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