Fixed-hour prayer is not something I grew up with. We prayed at meals and bed time but not much else was fixed unless it was related to our public worship on Sunday. The fact is that fixed-hour a practice that I did not understand or embrace until more recently. Yes, I knew what the Scripture said about prayer, recalling numerous texts even as I write these words, but I was rooted in an anti-Catholic bias that kept me from the rich treasures of the historic church. For this reason texts like “Seven times a day do I praise you” (Psalm 119:164) were clearly known to me well but went unheeded in my practice.
Reading a biography of St. Benedict first opened my eyes. I began to understand the importance and place of such prayer. Not only did Judaism have an ancient practice of fixed-hour prayer (likely they adjusted them and then continued to adjust them over many centuries), but we can see glimpses of this same practice in the New Testament. We do know that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the discipline of fixed-hour prayer are the two oldest surviving forms of early Christian spirituality. Phyllis Tickle suggests that these prayer rituals “had been set or fixed into something very close to their present-day schedule . . . and present day intention” by the late first century or early second. That may be a stretch historically but the earliness of this practice is not seriously debatable.
An indication of this practice occurs in Acts 3 when Peter and John were going up to the temple to pray at 3 p.m. And Peter’s great vision of the descending sheet came at noon, another fixed hour for prayer. You soon discover in the New Testament that there was a readiness to accommodate circumstances so the devout could stop and pray throughout the day.
Given the cultural collapse of Christendom, and the ever growing presence of Islam and a host of other religions in our midst, I wonder seriously if the Christian church should place a serious emphasis on the recovery of this ancient practice of prayer. It would make a huge statement to those around us and it would also alter the way most of live our lives day-to-day, rushing here and there every moment of the day as if prayer can wait and everything else is much more important. I can testify to the great value such prayer is having upon my life even though I am not yet able to keep all the fixed hours with the discipline I desire.
The Divine Hours, prepared by Phyllis Tickle (New York: Doubleday), lays out in three large volumes a simple guide that one can follow at four set times each day: The Morning Office (Between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.), The Mid Day Office (Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.), The Vespers Office (Between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and The Night Office, or Compline (Before retiring at the end of the day). I read throughout the day, and I pray at many different times, but this discipline is helping me focus on the living, ever-present Christ like few I have undertaken. Try it for one month and see if it helps you too. At first it will seem odd to you but the discipline begins to take hold and then you long for the hours to come so you can stop and seek God again.