By Phyllis Tickle
Fixed-hour prayer is the oldest form of Christian spiritual discipline and has its roots in the Judaism out of which Christianity came. When the Psalmist says, “Seven times a day do I praise You,” he is referring to fixed-hour prayer as it existed in ancient Judaism. We do not know the hours that were appointed in the Psalmist’s time for those prayers. By the turn of the era, however, the devout had come to punctuate their work day with prayers on a regimen that followed the flow of Roman commercial life. Forum bells began the work day at six in the morning (prime, or first hour), sounded mid-morning break at nine (terce, or third hour), the noon meal and siesta or break at twelve (sext, or sixth hour), the re-commencing of trade at three (none, or ninth hour), and the close of business at six (vespers). With the addition of evening prayers and early prayers upon arising, the structure of fixed-hour prayer was established in a form that is very close to that which Christians still use today.
Fixed-hour prayer is also commonly referred to as “the divine offices” or “the liturgy of the hours,” and from the time of the Reformation until very recently was held almost exclusively as a part of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican Christian practice. With the re-configurations and re-alignments within Christianity during the last years of the twentieth century, however, 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. As the service which was most completely the people’s service in first-century Christianity, the observance of fixed-hour prayer began to emerge once more as the desired discipline for more and more Christians.
Because of its long and elaborate history, Christian fixed-hour prayer has developed over the centuries a number of conceits. For example, within Orthodox and Roman Christianity, the hours until very recently have been more often observed by monastics and clergy than by laity, a direct violation of their origin as an office of the people, just as they have been as often chanted as spoken, a rich custom that is none the less not a liturgical necessity. In addition, over the centuries the keeping of the hours has also developed a now cumbersome number of tools and assists. For one not reared within the Orthodox, Roman, or Anglican traditions, these “books of hours” or breviary volumes can prove daunting. THE DIVINE HOURS offers a solution to all these problems by making the liturgy of the divine offices accessible immediately to anyone of any station or ability who wishes to assume its discipline.
The Differences Between THE DIVINE HOURS and Previous Breviaries
THE DIVINE HOURS is a breviary for observing the daily offices, but it is a contemporary one that differs from its predecessors in much the same way that a child differs from, but still resembles, its mother and grandmother.
Unlike the traditional breviary, prayer manual, or even medieval book of hours from which it comes, THE DIVINE HOURS reproduces in its entirety each of the prayers, hymns, responses, and readings used in every office, on the same page with that office. This change obviates the need for moving back and forth from place to place during the observance of an office. Not having to coordinate many sources for a single hour means that those who are not informed in the Christian spiritual discipline of keeping the hours can immediately begin to observe fixed-hour prayer without added instruction. The liturgical intricacies that for millennia have been part of the exercise of the offices are no longer obstructions, but are now enrichments.
THE DIVINE HOURS also recognizes the difficulties in contemporary life of corporate worship, especially during the working day. As a result, while it may be used for either small group or large assembly observance, THE DIVINE HOURS is specifically suited to individual and/or private use in much the same way that the earliest Book of Hours volumes were. As one critic has said, this alone means that saying the hours, which began as the people’s service, has been returned to the people at last.
THE DIVINE HOURS also employs, unlike older breviaries, the contemporary vernacular for both its rubrics and its content. This means, for example, that such liturgical terminology as invitatories and antiphons has given way to more accessible forms like “The Call to Prayer” or “The Refrain,” etc. Far more important, it means that the rhythms and poetry of ancient Christian worship have been recaptured in today’s idiom and have been translated into offices that are accessible and seem natural to today’s Christian worshipers.
Sensitive to the constraints upon contemporary lay Christians and to the publicness of their business-day lives, THE DIVINE HOURS provides a flexible and slightly abbreviated regimen of fixed-hour prayer that incorporates all of the established elements required for keeping the offices, while eliminating or diminishing the presence of some less essential or cumbersome parts. As a result, centuries of ecclesial elaboration and impedimenta have been cut away to reveal the sinew and bone of the original in a new and vigorous form.
Another obvious difference between THE DIVINE HOURS and its progenitors is the greater variety of selections it employs from Scripture and the tighter integration of them into the morning and noon offices. The Common Lectionary, which has not always informed breviary selections, appoints scriptural readings for each day of the liturgical year. Wherever possible, THE DIVINE HOURS uses the texts assigned by the Common Lectionary as propers for the appropriate office; but it strives as well to surround these lectio divina with the psalms, refrains, and traditional prayers of the Church that resonate the most with the office’s propers.
The result of these adaptations, modifications, and innovations is a breviary for our time and place, or more accurately a contemporary manual for exercising Christianity’s oldest form of worship in a manner that is true both to its origins and to its present imperatives.