Sweet Hours of Prayer: How Fixed-Hour Prayer Nourishes the Soul
“At last I believe life itself is a prayer, and the prayers we say shape the lives we live, just as the lives we live shape the prayers we say.” –Ted Loder
The first time I participated in fixed-hour prayer, I felt like I had come home to a place I had never been and yet a place in which I truly belonged.
It was a simple evening prayer service signaling the beginning of a spiritual retreat with a few like minded souls. One of our group had experience with fixed-hour prayer and prepared a simple liturgy using prayers from the Psalms, a reading from the Gospels, and written prayers from the Book of Common Prayer and The Upper Room Worshipbook. We set aside a simple prayer space. We entered that space in silence. We lit a candle to signify Christ’s presence with us through the Holy Spirit. And then we prayed the prayers provided for us beginning with these words:
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
Let the name of the Lord be praised.
YOU, O LORD, ARE MY LAMP.
MY GOD, YOU MAKE MY DARKNESS BRIGHT.
Light and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord. THANKS BE TO GOD.
Some of the prayers were read in unison, some were read responsively—and I just lost myself in the beauty and simplicity of it all. Instead of having to work hard to think up some words to pray, I simply gave myself to the beauty of words that expressed deep longings and powerful praises that were true in me but I could never have found the words to say.
Instead of getting caught up in the ego’s attempts to say something profound to God (and to the people around me!), I actually rested from all of that and prayed. Instead of listening to someone else’s interpretation or application of Scripture, I heard Scripture read without comment and listened for what God was saying to me in the context of our relationship. Instead of having to endure an exhausting round of overly stimulating programming, this small group of us settled into a silence that was so rich and satisfying that I lost all track of time until someone finally nudged me to remind me that it was my turn to read Scripture!
That was fifteen years ago and perhaps you have already guessed that that little group of like-minded souls became the Transforming Center and we have been praying that way ever since!
A Surprising Affinity
This affinity for fixed-hour prayer came as a surprise. Up to this point I had been highly suspicious of what some Protestants would have called “rote prayers”— written prayers that we all feared would foster the vain repetitions that Jesus warned about. I was convinced that spontaneous prayers were the only real prayers because they came from the heart; only people who weren’t very spiritual and didn’t have much to say to God needed to rely on prayers that were written by someone else!
Or so I thought.
But I have discovered that there is another option: to pray the great prayers of the Church and to really mean them! Many Protestant traditions departed from fixed-hour prayer in “protest” of the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church and the spiritual numbness that the reformers were trying to distance themselves from. But it turns out that in distancing ourselves, we actually lost a rich avenue of prayer that is rooted in Scripture and in our very own tradition. Variously called “fixed-hour prayer”, the “daily office”, or “the divine hours”, these prayers are deeply Biblical. They express great spiritual truth and deep human longing in stirring language that has the potential to shape the soul. The Psalms, the Old and New Testament prayers (called Canticles), and the Lord’s Prayer all express the universal human experience of the soul reaching out to God. There is no better way to learn to pray and to actually pray!
The Gift of Fixed-Hour Prayer
Fixed-hour prayer has now become one of the richest aspects of my spiritual life, particularly my life in community. While I am not suggesting that we do away with spontaneous prayers—a very important aspect of the spiritual life—there are powerful benefits to fixed-hour prayer as well.
For one thing, it relieves us of the need to figure out what to say, which can be completely exhausting at times. It seems that the farther along one gets in the spiritual life the harder it is to articulate the longings that roil beneath the surface of our lives, the intimacies of our life with God, the questions and disillusionment that leave us speechless. When our own words fail us, the well-chosen words of Scripture or the prayers from the old prayer books help us to express the inexpressible in ways that are deeply satisfying and open us to an encounter with God. During moments when we might not even know how to approach God, fixed-hour prayer shows us the way.
Fixed-hour prayer also gives us a way to anchor our daily lives in rhythms of prayer, Scripture reading, and silence, ensuring that we do not get too far into any day without orienting or reorienting ourselves to the presence of God in our lives. “Living within the sweet caresses of the hours of prayer,” Scott McKnight observes, “is the simplest and easiest way to consecrate our entire day as service to God.” Praying at least some of the fixed hours in community can anchor and shape our identity as individuals and as communities of believers.
Spend time this week paying attention to your experience of prayer these days. In what part of the day do you feel most distant or dis-oriented from the presence of God? When is it hardest to know how to approach God or how to experience all of life as a prayer? Morning, Mid-day, Evening, Night? What is it about that part of the day that makes prayer seem so difficult, impossible or even irrelevant?
Then, consider adding some form of fixed-hour prayer to that part of your day, in a way that works for you. It could be a few minutes of silent prayer, to simply reorient yourself to God. Or you could use prayers from a source designed for this purpose such as The Book of Common Prayer by the Episcopal Church, The Upper Room Worshipbook by Elise Eslinger, Hour by Hour by Forward Movement, and The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2009. This article is not to be reproduced without permission.