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 the Judaism out of which it came. In the former case, the Passover meal became the Christian Eucharist; in the latter, Jewish fixed-hour prayer became the Daily Offices. In both cases, the change from Jewish to Christian practice was so gradual that few of the observants even noticed that one was becoming two.
Peter, for instance, had his famous vision of the lowered sheet while he was on Simon the Tanner's rooftop for noon prayers. Peter and John together healed the cripple as they were passing toward ninth-hour, or 3 o'clock prayers in the Temple. While these acts of the apostles may still have been Jewish 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 of Christian spirituality that St. Benedict could build his famous Rule around it, and the later Middle Ages could give rise to exquisite Books of Hours and elaborate breviaries just to enable it. Each Office has its prescribed set of Psalms, Gospel readings, hymns, and prayers.
Today millions of Christians--laity like me as well as the vowed and the religious--pray the Hours in one form or another. I have done so for well over 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 how little has changed for the soul over centuries of change for those who observe. 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. Only once in my 30-plus years has it been otherwise for me, and I remember those 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 my parked 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, "I thought so," and grinned. A Roman Catholic, he showed up the next day just before my watch could ding and closed the door for me. He had a breviary in his hand, and we kept sext together for almost six months before a shift in his schedule stopped us.
But even when one is alone within the Offices, as I have been most of the time since those good months, the flow of the ancient phrases, the Psalms that my God himself used when he was as I am, human, embrace the soul. "I have 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, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim."
"It is good for me to be near my God, I have made the Lord God my refuge and my shield."
The words appointed for the day's Offices flow on. Their very music lifts my own hands into all the hands that together are Christian history. And when the work of their saying is done, when the prayers are uttered, the praise and petitions offered, I go back to my temporal work. Shortly, other Christians in the time zone beyond me will take up the prayers from their own 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 constant cascade of prayer before the throne of God.
If for me that exercise is privatized, as it most certainly is when done in an empty office or the stall of a ladies' room, it is definitely not individualized. To keep the Hours is to enter with one's fellows into that which has been, which is, and which evermore shall be. Amen.
Phyllis Tickle has been reporting on religion for many years for Publisher's Weekly, where she is now a contributing editor. The author of more than two dozen books, including the recent "God-Talk in America," she is a frequent commentator on religion in magazines and newspapers and on television.
Originally published in Spirituality & Health--The Soul/Body Connection r. Online at http://www.SpiritualityHealth.com. For a free trial issue of the print magazine: http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/about/prmg.html.