Updated: Aug 21
In the last article on “Christian Standard Time,” we considered the spiritual practice of Sabbath- a way to try and incorporate the deep, weekly cycle of work and rest into our own lives and understanding. In this article, the focus shifts from the weekly rhythms to how the Christian tradition has historically marked every single day as part of God’s time to which we need to be present and attentive. While there are no doubt other ways to accomplish the daily reorientation of time in our lives, we will be considering one of the most fundamental and ancient: fixed-hour prayer.
Fixed-Hour Prayer: What is it?
“Fixed-hour prayer,” Phyllis Tickle writes, “is the oldest form of Christian spiritual discipline and has its roots in the Judaism out of which Christianity came.” While some scholars suggest we need to be humble about what we can really know about daily Jewish worship practices- particularly those apart from the Temple- even the most cautious can affirm that New Testament witness is clear about Christians meeting together in services that contained psalms, hymns, readings, instruction, and prayer. Further, it is safe to say that they did indeed have the practice of praying at set times throughout the day, with the most important being the morning and evening. This worship developed over time both in urban communities and more extensively among monastics, but the practice was certainly widespread. The early church fathers Clement (c.150–215 a.d.), Origen (c. 185–254 a.d.), and Tertullian (c. 160–225 a.d.) all mention in their writings that they adhered to this spiritual practice. Among the monastic stream the development of fixed-hour prayer was quite complex: by the time of Saint Benedict, there were 7 times of prayer a day. As a consequence of this complexity, and also of the theology of the Middle Ages, fixed-hour prayer began to be seen as something for only the “professionally religious,” and for many years it was not a part of an everyday believers life.
The Reformation- most notably Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer- attempted to remedy this by simplifying the daily prayer times, adding an educational element, and returning them to the parishes. As with many things in the Reformation, however, this was only partially successful. Where it was, it remained largely confined to religious communities, and to the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions. However, as Phyllis Tickle observes, that began to change in recent history:
… during the last years of the twentieth century…there came an increasing push on the part of many Christians from within every sectarian division of the faith to return to the liturgy, or work, of being Church on earth…the observance of fixed-hour prayer began to emerge once more as the desired discipline for more and more Christians.
While the practice continues in the traditional ways among the groups mentioned above, it has expanded widely- to Anabaptists, new monastic communities, and many others that are rediscovering its’ value. A four-fold pattern (Morning, Mid-Day, Evening, and Night) has developed alongside the older pattern and is perhaps more widely observed now- although Morning and Evening Prayer continue to be the times of most significant observance. This expansion also meant an expansion in terminology: fixed-hour prayer, the Daily Office, the Divine Office, and the Liturgy of the Hours all refer to the same thing.
Why is it valuable?
Anyone who has regularly practiced the discipline of fixed-hour prayer can expound on its many blessings. Here, however, we will just consider four:
A natural pattern. To mark the passage of daily time by starting the day, pausing in the middle, ending our work, and preparing to sleep is to live into the natural flow of our lives. To add prayer to these times is to invite God into our day and become intentionally aware of him as we live. It is not, therefore, so much an alien and forced pattern, as it is a way to add prayer to what we are already passing through.
Continuity with the past. As we have briefly seen, to practice fixed-hour prayer is to stand in the long tradition of those who have gone before us- Jewish and Christian. We are living a way of life that has been the practice of our brothers and sisters for millennia.
Commonality in the present. To pray the office in a group- together, online, or with our particular church body is to pray in common. This, too, is the long practice of the Christian community. As Neil Alexander writes:
Through the centuries, the spiritual masters of the tradition have taught us that the first practice of a disciplined life is common prayer, with other believers, in community. This is the source of all other prayer. Even when one prays alone… one is nonetheless participating in the common prayer of the church.
Freedom from “Originality." Extemporaneous prayer can be wonderful, but over the long-haul it can be hard to maintain as well. We tend to settle into forms and patterns whether we are aware of it or not. Praying the long-established words of the church can make sure the pattern is communal and universal, as opposed to individualistic. Far from being boring, it becomes liberating. Alexander says again:
We fear the inoculation of repetition until we discover the grace of holy words being so deeply implanted in us that they cannot be taken away. We resist one more round of the same old thing until it becomes the rich food for which our souls are in unrelieved longing. We search for our own personal ways to say it better, but eventually acknowledge that the church’s prayer has become our own.
How to begin?
Interested in trying this practice? Here are some pointers:
Start small. If you aren’t used to fixed-hour prayer, start with just one time a day (likely morning). Avoid the heroics of trying 4 or 7 times a day to begin with, as that is a good way to ensure failure. You can add more offices over time, if it seems to be a blessing to you.
Choose the right resource. Prayer books abound these days- get the right one for you. This may involve trial-and-error. A good place to start is always to use whatever your praying community or church tradition is using, rather than striking out on your own.
Persevere. As Bishop Alexander said above, it may seem rote- or even boring- for awhile. The point is to stick to it until the treasures of repetition and sanctifying our days begin to reveal themselves.
Here is a very partial list of resources you can consider as you start the journey of fixed-hour prayer:
- Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book- two volumes by Herald Press, also available as an app. A simple, lovely cycle of Morning and Evening prayer that is very user-friendly and good for Christians from the Protestant traditions.
- Celtic Daily Prayer. ( www.northumbriacommunity.org/offices/how-to-use-daily-office ) The very popular offices of the Northumbria Community in the UK. Website is listed above, also comes as printed books.
- Church of England, Daily Prayer. You can find app, podcast and paper versions of the daily office according to the Anglican tradition at www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/join-us-service-daily-prayer/daily-prayer-app- and-podcast
- The Roman Catholic tradition has the very popular and extensive Universalis app: see it at www.universalis.com
- Lutherans might want to check out the book Treasury of Daily Prayer or the app version which is simply known as PrayNow
These selected resources are English-language. Other resources abound, and in a variety of languages.
Looking ahead: Having covered the practices of sabbath and fixed-hour prayer, the final article in the series will turn to the concept of the liturgical calendar, and how we might reorient our understanding of the seasons of the year.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
- https://www.phyllistickle.com/fixed-hour-prayer. Accessed 6/26/2021. - Taft, Robert. (1986). The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: The Origin of the Divine Office and its meaning for today. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, p. 3. - https://www.phyllistickle.com/fixed-hour-prayer. Accessed 6/26/2021. - Alexander, J. Neil. (2014). Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks, and Seasons. New York, NY: Church Publishing, p. 54. - ibid.