Uncovering the Blessing of Fixed-Hour Prayer
Whether you call it the divine office, praying the hours, or common prayer, this ancient treasure of Christian heritage is hidden in plain sight. A feature story exploring the blessing of fixed-hour prayer.
When Arthur Paul Boers was in college, his 17-year-old sister (and only sibling) died of leukemia. Boers was devastated.
“And—this was particularly frightening—I found myself unable to pray and wondered whether I was losing my faith. At times I had nothing to say to God or did not know how to voice my prayers.
“Then a friend showed me a Taize prayer book, which gave me words to pray. It helped me voice laments and encouraged me to put my situation in a wider context. Slowly I learned to pray again. I relied on that book for many years,” Boers says in his wonderful book The Rhythm of God’s Grace: Uncovering Morning and Evening Hours of Prayer.
The Mennonite pastor and professor has since met others who felt cut off from God during depression or other hard times. He recommends trying fixed-hour prayer because it’s based on the “’fixed language’ of Scriptures,” through which God has spoken for years and continues to speak.
Though many Christians are only now uncovering the ancient discipline of common prayer, Boers says it’s rooted in the Bible, ultimately enriches Sunday worship, and is easy to begin.
Back to our roots
Addressing God with the same words that others pray at the same time is a discipline with many names. No matter what you call it, this type of prayer dates back to God’s chosen people.
Boers compares spotting biblical prayer references to birdwatching. He grew up in southwestern Ontario, known for its rich avian life. But until he used a friend’s binoculars while living in Indiana, he never noticed all the birds around him.
In the same way, you might feel surprised once you start researching prayer in the Bible. Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den for praying three times a day. Many psalms specifically mention praying in the morning (5:3; 55:17; 59:16; 88:13; 92:2) or evening (17:1-3; 42:8; 63:5-6; 119:55; 141:2).
Psalm 65:8b suggests that God sees morning and evening as times when it’s especially easy to be aware of God. As the New Revised Standard Bible (Anglicized version) puts it: “You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.”
“The psalms confirm that we know God’s presence at all times only if we set asidecertain times of prayer,” Boers says.
The Gospels and Acts refer to praying at the third, sixth, and ninth hours—respectively referring to about three hours after sunrise, noon, and three hours after noon. Pentecost happened at the third hour. Peter had his rooftop vision of clean and unclean animals while praying at the sixth hour. He and John healed a lame man on the temple steps as they all gathered for ninth hour prayers.
Because Jesus prayed the psalms, as did the disciples (Acts 4:23-30), they had the words of Scripture when they needed them. Hanging in agony on the cross, Jesus cried out the opening line of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was crucified at the third hour and died at the ninth.
Boers admits that as a pessimist, he doesn’t naturally envision his life and family as reliably held by God. But praying the divine office, he says, “keeps drawing and reorienting us to God’s perspective.”
Common prayer fills a gap
Early Christians prayed the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. Medieval church bells called people to common prayer. But as priests, monks, and nuns added songs, readings, and responses to each office, fixed-hour prayer became something ordinary people couldn’t do.
“The importance of individual subjective prayer (what prayer does for me) has increased in everyone’s mind. But my experience as a pastor is that people don’t actually pray much on their own,” Boers says. Nor do many people’s spontaneous individual prayers relate to the church as a whole.
He explains that common daily prayer provides a link between private prayer and corporate worship.
Setting aside time each morning and evening to pray reminds us that all that we have, including our time, belongs to God. Presenting Sunday morning offerings embodies the same truth. Boers likes theologian Heather Murray Elkins’ pun, “altaring time,” because it captures the ideas of offering our time to God and being altered as that sacrifice sanctifies our experience of time.
Knowing that you’re praying the same psalms, canticles, and confessions as other Christians are—even if you’re separated by time, geography, or denominational idiosyncrasies—“can profoundly reverse unhealthy individualism in our prayer,” Boers says.
Praying the same Scriptures throughout the years may seem tedious. Eventually, though, the words sink in and we get better at receiving the challenge and insight of Bible readings and sermons in church.
Finally, because common prayer follows the same praise-listen-respond pattern as Sunday worship, it makes church services feel more in sync with the rest of life. It’s very different from experiencing your life as something distorted by other people’s priorities, punctuated here and there by a quick prayer or an hour in church.
An easy start is best
Praying the hours makes us available to God, who is everywhere and always attentive to us. Yet work schedules, family situations, and life stages interfere.
Boers advises starting regular prayer just once a day, either morning or evening. “It’s doable. You know what you’re doing. There’s a time limit,” he explains.
It’s great if you can gather with others at church, school, or work to observe a daily office. In fact, Boers has noticed that people who normally don’t dare pray out loud in groups feel free to recite from prayer books.
If your only option is to pray alone, then you can buy a prayer book or use this free downloadable prayer book. Soon you’ll find that letting God take your moments and your days creates a life of endless praise.
Don’t miss these audio presentations or interviews with
- Arthur Paul Boers on “The Rhythm of God’s Grace”
- David Muyskens on how God leads people to different prayer practices
- Phyllis Tickle on how busy people manage to pray the hours
Gather a group to read and discuss The Rhythm of God’s Grace: Uncovering Morning and Evening Hours of Prayer by Arthur Paul Boers. Then commit yourselves to praying the hours for a specific number of weeks. Choose among prayer books suitable to your tradition, whether Anabaptist, Anglican/Episcopal, Catholic,Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, or Presbyterian.
Praying a daily office often requires juggling a prayer book, Bible, and hymnal. Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours series gathers the entire text (prayers, hymns, responses, readings) for each office in one space. Learn more about these highly accessible daily office books on Explore Faith. In November 2006, Oxford University Press will release the night time offices in Tickle’s The Divine Hours series. Phyllis Tickle says insomniacs and people who work through the night have been asking for these.
Great sites to help you pray the hours online include
- Ann Arbor Vineyard Church, which hosts Tickle’s Divine Hours texts
- Church of England Book of Common Prayer
- Mission of St. Clare, which also has the daily office in Spanish
- Morning and evening prayers for Generation X
- Universalis daily prayer feeds for handheld computers and mobile phones
The Iona Community’s many resources on prayer include books of daily prayers, such as Hear My Cry: A daily prayer book for Advent by Ruth Burgess and Each Day & Each Night: Celtic Prayers from Iona by J. Phillip Newell. The Northumbria Community in northern England compiled Celtic Daily Prayer, the night prayers of which are now available in Latvian!
Cynthia Bourgeault teaches Christians to chant. You can learn online or buy her audio CD Singing the Psalms: How to Chant in the Christian Contemplative Tradition.
Bookmark Wind & Fire, a prayer newsletter from the Reformed Church in America.
Make an actual or virtual visit to communities that offer daily prayers. Arthur Paul Boers’ Christianity Today account of visiting several will introduce you to several worth considering.
Start a Discussion
- What are the first or last words you read or hear each day—your email, a radio deejay, newscast, TV sitcom? How do these inputs frame your daily life and faith?
- In what ways does your congregation encourage people to pray at fixed hours? Would you like to take any next steps?
- What advantages or disadvantages do you see in practicing common prayer?
- Have you ever known of a church that remains open for anyone who wants to pray? When is yours open?
Share Your Wisdom
What is the best way you’ve found to help people add common prayer to the other essential strands of private prayer and corporate worship?
- Have you posted guides to daily prayer on your church website or opened your church so people can gather for morning, noon, or evening prayers?
- Did you develop an education series on the daily office or music series on Gregorian chant or ancient canticles?
- Have you found an effective way to encourage families to pray regularly together—using words they know other families are using?