The Place of Fixed-Hour Prayers

John ArmstrongSpirituality

I was interviewed by a reporter for the Chicago Tribune yesterday who is working on a story about “fixed-hour prayers.” She discovered my interest via this blog site. Having just begun my day with fixed-hour prayer I want to comment on this ancient Christian discipline again.

Phyllis Tickle, who authored a useful three-volume series called The Divine Hours, notes: “Like a double helix rendered elegant by complexity and splendid by authority, the amalgam of the gospel and the shared meal with the discipline of the fixed-hour  prayer were, and have remained, the chain of golden connection tying Christian to Christ and Christian to Christian across history, across geography, and across idiosyncrasies of faith. The former is known as the food and sustenance of the Church and the latter as its work.” It is as if there is a two-fold strand—the sacrament of the holy meal and the daily prayers.

What surprises many Protestants when they first encounter this idea of fixed-hour prayer is that the practice is deeply rooted in both Judaism and the work of the earliest Christians. Consider Psalm 119:164, “Seven times a day I praise you.” This is not an accident of once-a-day devotion. It is a practice the Psalmist plainly followed. Scholars do not agree on the exact hours that the Jews followed for their set prayers (they likely altered them through their history and cultural contexts) but there is no doubt at all that they prayed in this ordered way.

This Jewish practice carried over into the early record of the Christian Church. You can see this plainly in the book of Acts. The first apostolic miracle occurred when Peter and John were on their way to the afternoon prayers at the Temple at three o’clock. And Peter’s vision of the descending sheet came at noonday on a rooftop where he was praying, observing the sixth hour prayers. We also know the early Church quickly incorporated the Psalms into its daily prayers according to Acts 4:23-30, demonstrating that from earliest remembrance the Psalter was at the core of fixed-hour prayer. (Evangelicals get this partly right by encouraging daily reading of the Psalms.)

By the second and third centuries many Church Fathers (Clement, Origen and Tertullian as examples) encouraged such fixed-hour prayer and viewed them as normative in the life of the Church. Though these prayers could be said alone these early Christians never thought of themselves as praying alone since they were following a pattern employed by Christians everywhere and at the same time. This, in fact, was part of the genius of the practice—it united Christians before God as a community of faith and prayer.

In my background evangelical Protestants never practiced such disciplines. It was, well to put it simply, “too Catholic.” We were mistaken, for sure, but ignorance is never so invincible as when you are certain that you know all the facts. And we knew for sure that anything ordered like this could not be the work of the Holy Spirit. And we were quite sure our prayers should not written, set, fixed or ordered in any way. This would cause prayer to become rote and thus lead to meaningless babble. Such practice would destroy the spontaneity of prayer, which we saw as essential to real prayer.

The problem with all of this reaction was that our prayers were very fixed, often once a week on Wednesday night at “prayer meeting." They were also very predictable. If you heard one deacon pray you had heard them all pray. And in terms of impacting the community these prayers were generally very inconsequential. If truth be known most of us were disinterested and bored. (I was a restless kid who wondered why prayer was so meaningless to the adults around me.) We talked a lot about prayer but we did very little of it and it had nothing at all to do with building a community of faith and practice.

Today fixed-hour prayer is making a comeback, not only among Catholic and Orthodox Christians where it was never lost, but among evangelicals, especially younger evangelicals. This is a good thing and can only mean further reformation is on the way.

When I was asked by the reporter, “Where did your interest in this begin?” I answered, “By reading a biography of St. Benedict.” My journey was different than most, or so I would guess, but once I began to study spiritual formation seriously, and then taught it  as a course at Wheaton, I had to deal with St. Benedict, one of the greatest Christians who ever lived. His disciplines and practices deeply impacted my own life and still do. Check him out, you will likely be forced to grow in ways that you may well need and may not have known you needed. There are plenty of places to start, several mentioned above. And the Internet has a wealth of information on this subject if you begin a search. The important thing is that you pray, and pray with discipline, as part of the Christian community and the holy tradition.