Praying the Hours: How We Mark Time
What is the first thing you do every morning, or the last thing you do every evening? What marks the passage of your hours and days? For most of us the answer might be: my cell phone. Often it’s the first thing I look at, and the last. And all too often my day is spent responding to it’s pings, bells, and chimes. But if I’m honest that isn’t how I want things to go. I don’t actually want my time to be dictated by a little digital tyrant who never gets tired.
There is an alternative. The great religious traditions of the world have for generations marked time differently, not with tasks, meetings and busyness but with reminders to pause and turn our attention to something else. Jewish practice includes prayers said on first waking, for washing, and eating, and most of the other parts of our day. Muslim practice includes active call to prayer five times throughout the day. The Christian prayer tradition includes the practice of praying the hours. (Also called the Divine Office, or Daily Office.)
The daily office varies among communities and traditions but historically there have been eight times set aside for specific prayer, some of them smack in the middle of the night. Which might be good news if you suffer from insomnia.
The Divine Office: Sanctifying our days and nights
Set daily prayer at specific times (or when we do things like waking and going to bed) crosses religious and spiritual traditions. No matter what your background or current practice you can practice prayer that sanctifies our hours.
When the first thing we do upon waking is look at our phone, with all it’s demands on our time and attention, we’ve already allowed our lives to be defined by our email list, todo list, and calendar. But something changes when our first act upon waking is a spiritual one. When we wake and immediately connect with God, pray for others, and give thanks for a new day, there is a shift.
When I stare at my phone until the last moments before sleep I set up myself to be unable to let go the day that is past. My brain doesn’t turn off, it keeps spinning, and spinning. When the last thing I do is meditation or prayer then my rest becomes sanctified. Even when I’ve stared at my phone through bedtime and find myself staring at the ceiling, night prayer (The Night Offices by Phyllis Tickle is a perennial favorite) can even sanctify my insomnia (and sometimes cures it.)
Hour by Hour: The gift of the pause
The Liturgy of the Hours isn’t just about how we start and end our day. One of the greatest gifts of the regular prayers in the world’s great religious traditions is the gift of the pause. If you visit a predominantly Muslim country or neighborhood you will find the whole simple stops five times throughout the day. Shopping stops, work stops, there is a pause that is shared by the whole community and then life picks up again.
The first time I did a weekend retreat at a monastery I found the bell announcing it was time to gather in the church for prayers to be intrusive. It interrupted my book, it broke up my walk in the gardens. But I noticed how one monk came in his gardening clothes, dirt still under his fingernails, another with an apron tied around his waist from washing dishes in the kitchen. Yet another with a frown vanishing from the email he was about to pound out.
The pause became a gift, the thing that reminded us that we were more important than our tasks, and that just about all our work could wait.
Outside a monastery the whole of your community might not stop with you, still, the act of pausing in the midst of our lives is its own gift. The Divine Hours is about that pause. For those who follow the liturgy strictly, stopping at set times to pray and meditate throughout the day often interrupts life. It pushes its way into our busyness and hurry, sometimes with surprise, sometimes it is annoying. And yet.
Rewiring our time
That pause helps us remember what is truly important. The tasks, and the packed calendar that normally fill our days aren’t really what we will be glad we did when we come to our death. It is the pauses that will matter to us, the times we spent with people we love, the play we took part of, the silences we rested in, the meditation, the prayer. And this is what praying the hours, in all our religious traditions is meant to remind us of. Praying the hours reframes our relationship to time, from a resource to be spent to a sacred gift to be cherished.
Baby Steps: Making space for prayer
Let’s start with the obvious, you are probably thinking “I don’t have time!” But you do. Every observant Muslim on planet Earth stops and prays five times a day. They are teachers, and CEOs, and cooks, and parents. And somehow they find ways to pause throughout their day for the prescribed prayers. The truth is we all have the ability to do the same, the question is if we have the will.
It’s about building a habit. You were probably raised to brush your teeth two to three times a day, and you find time to do that every day without fail? (Well mostly.) You eat meals, and shower, and dress.
The problem isn’t that we don’t have time for regular spiritual practice, it is that it hasn’t become a habit.
You don’t have to start by praying eight times a day, or even five. You don’t have to buy a breviary and say every part of the Daily Office without fail. Start small. Start small and offer yourself grace. Begin perhaps with a simple one sentence prayer when you first wake up (that’s Morning Prayer!). Or with five minutes of meditation as you fall asleep (it’s fine if you fall asleep during your meditation.)
The point is to begin, to do even the smallest thing to mark our time differently.
If you have never done the Daily office before here is an invitation: Set a repeating reminder for yourself (do it right now) every morning (you can make it part of your alarm or have it go off right after) and every evening (10 minutes before bedtime is a good choice).
Then use one of the short and easy prayers below for your tradition. (If you are looking for instructions on traditional office services skip to the next section!)
Jewish: I am thankful before You, living and enduring King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me. Great is Your faithfulness. (From the traditional Shachrit morning service you can find more information here.)
Christian: O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (From Morning Prayer Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer, available here in digital format.)
Anyone: Oh Holy One I give thanks that my eyes have seen another day. May it hold for me more joy than sorrow.
Anyone: Mother of All, you have given birth to a rich and wonderful creation. I give you thanks for my life, and for this new day. May I use it wisely.
Christian: Compline (prayer before bed.) Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen. (From the Book of Common Prayer, Compline)
Anyone: As darkness spreads across the sky I lay down the burdens and cares of the day. May I find peace for rest that I may rise again with joy in the morning.
Traditional Office Services: How To
Maybe you already have a regular prayer practice but want to incorporate the Divine Office into your life. You are in luck. It is simple to do. (Though like all habits it takes time and attention.)
What you need
There are a wealth of resources available to you. Some cost nothing at all. At a minimum for the Christian daily office I suggest that you begin with a copy of the Psalter (really any version of the psalms works, but here is a version with expansive language (not an affiliate link)), and a daily lectionary that will guide you through daily readings.
Daily Office Prayers
The Episcopal Church’s prayer book includes versions of Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. And you can find apps that will guide you through these daily offices, and an electronic version of them here. For a very simple experience try this site which builds the appropriate office (morning, noon, evening) based on the time of day you visit: Daily office. If books are your preference the Book of Common Prayer is widely available. But there are a host of other daily office books, from Celtic prayers to Phyllis Tickle’s comprehensive collection of daily office books.
You can do the daily office anywhere. Praying the hours doesn’t require a special room, or any fancy equipment. But I do suggest finding a place in your home (or even outside) that is peaceful, quiet, and free of distractions and making that your sacred space. Keep your prayer books, Bible, and Psalter there. Made it as inviting and easy as possible to actually do your prayer each day.
I love doing Compline curled up in bed, at the end I can switch off the light, close my eyes, and rest in the peace of that office. Morning Prayer is often easiest to do at my desk just before I start my work. Wherever you choose