A Brief History of Fixed-Hour Prayer

Written by Phyllis Tickle

The Age of the Apostles
Fixed-hour prayer, while it is with the Eucharist the oldest surviving form of Christian spirituality, actually had its origins in the Judaism out of which Christianity came.Centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Hebrew psalmist wrote that “Seven times a day do I praise you” (Ps. 119:164). Although scholars do not agree on the hours of early Judaism’s set prayers (they were probably adjusted and readjusted many times), we do know that by the first century a.d. the ritual of daily prayer had assumed two characteristics that would travel down the millennia to us: The prayers had been set or fixed into something very close to their present-day schedule, and they had begun to assume something very close to their present-day intention.

By the beginning of the common era, Judaism and its adherents, already thoroughly accustomed to fixed hours for prayer, were scattered across the Roman Empire. It was an empire whose efficiency and commerce depended in no small part upon the orderly and organized conduct of each business day. In the cities of the Empire, the forum bell rang the beginning of that day at six o’clock each morning (prime or “first” hour); noted the day’s progress by striking again at nine o’clock (terce or third hour); sounded the lunch break at noon (sext or sixth hour); called citizens back to work by striking at three o’clock (none or ninth hour); and closed the day’s markets by sounding again at six o’clock in the afternoon (vespers or evening hour).

Every part of daily life within Roman culture eventually came, to some greater or lesser extent, to be ordered by the ringing of the forum bells, including Jewish prayer and, by natural extension, Christian prayer as well. The first detailed miracle of the apostolic Church, the healing of the lame man on the Temple steps bySts. Peter and John (Acts 3:1), occurred when and where it did because two devout Jews (who did not yet know they were Christians as such) were on their way to ninth-hour (three o’clock) prayers. Not many years later, one of the great defining events of Christianity—St. Peter’s vision of the descending sheet filled with both clean and unclean animals—was to occur at noon on a rooftop because he had gone there to observe the sixth-hour prayers.

The directive Peter received during his noon devotion—i.e., to accept all that God had created as clean—was pivotal because it became the basis of the ecumenism that rapidly thereafter expanded Church fellowship beyond Jewry. Peter was on the roof, however, not by some accident of having been in that spot when the noon bell caught him, but by his own intention. In Joppa and far from Jerusalem and the Temple, Peter had sought out the solitude of his host’s rooftop as a substitute site for keeping the appointed time of prayer.

Such readiness to accommodate circumstance was to become a characteristic of fixed-hour prayer. So too were some of the words Peter must have used. We know, for instance, that from its very earliest days, the Christian community incorporated the Psalms in their prayers (Acts 4:23–30); and the Psalter has remained as the living core of the daily offices ever since. Likewise, by c. 60 a.d., the author of the first known manual of Christian practice, the Didache,was teaching the inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer at least three times each day, a usage that was to expand quickly to include all the offices.

From the Apostles to the Early Fathers
As Christianity grew and, thanks to Peter’s rooftop vision, as it spread, so too did the practice of formalized daily prayer. The process by which the fixed-hour prayers of the first century slowly recast themselves as the Divine Hours or Daily Offices of later Christians is blurred in some of its particulars, though we can attest to the approximate date and agency of many of them.

We know from their writings that by the second and third centuries the great Fathers of the Church—Clement (c. 150–215 a.d.), Origen (c. 185–254 a.d.), Tertullian (c. 160–225 a.d.), etc.—assumed as normative the observance of prayers in the morning and at night as well as the so-called “little hours” of terce, sext, and none...or in modern parlance, nine a.m., noon, and three p.m. These daily prayers were often said or observed alone, though they could be offered by families or in small groups.

Regardless of whether or not the fixed-hour prayers were said alone or in community, however, they were never individualistic in nature. Rather, they employed the time-honored and time-polished prayers and recitations of the faith. Every Christian was to observe the prayers; none was empowered to create them.

Within the third century, the Desert Fathers, the earliest monastics of the Church, began to pursue the universal Christian desideratum of living out St. Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (I Th. 5:17). To accomplish this, they devised the stratagem, within their communities, of having one group of monks pass the praying of an office on seamlessly to another group of monks waiting to commence the next office. The result was the introduction into Christian thinking of the concept of a continuous cascade of prayer before the throne of God. That concept was to remain into our own time as a realized grace for many, many Christians, both monastic and lay.

Christians today, wherever they practice the discipline of fixed-hour prayer, frequently find themselves filled with a conscious awareness that they are handing their worship, at its final “Amen,” on to other Christians in the next time zone. Like relay runners passing a lighted torch, those who do the work of fixed-hour prayer do create thereby a continuous cascade of praise before the throne of God. To participate in such a regimen with such an awareness is to pray, as did the Desert Fathers, from within the spiritual community of shared texts as well as within the company of innumerable other Christians, unseen but present, who have preceded one across time or who, in time, will follow one.

From St. Benedict to the Middle Ages
Once the notion of unbroken and uninterrupted prayer had entered monastic practice, so too, almost by default, did much longer prayers enter there. Yet for all their lengthiness and growing complexity and cumbersomeness, the monks’ fixed-hour prayers became normative for the religious in both the Eastern and the Western branches of the Church. By the fourth century, certainly, the principal characteristics of the daily offices as we know them today were plainly in place, and their organization would be more or less recognizable as such to us today.

Meanwhile for secular (i.e., nonmonastic) clergy and for the laity, the prayers appointed for the fixed hours were of necessity much, much shorter, often confined to something not unlike the brief minutes of present-day observance. There were also many public churches or basilicas that, despite their uncloistered nature, were pastored by monastic orders, and in these there was some, almost inevitable, blending of the two forms—i.e., of the cumbersome monastic and the far more economical lay practices. St. Benedict, for example, fashioned his famous Rule after the offices as they were observed by monastics in the open basilicas of Rome.

It was, of course, St. Benedict whose ordering of the prayers was to become a kind of master template against which all subsequent observance and structuring of the divine hours was to be tested. It was also Benedict who first said, “Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.” “To pray is to work, to work is to pray.” In so doing he gave form to another of the great, informing concepts of Christian spirituality—the inseparability of spiritual life from physical life. He also formalized the concept of “divine work.”

“Office” as a word comes into modern usage from the Latin word opus, or “work.” For most English speakers, it immediately connotes a place, rather than an activity. Yet those same speakers quite as naturally refer to professional functions— political ones, for example—as “offices,” as in “He is running for office.” Most of them readily refer to the voluntary giving up of the product of work as “offering” or “an offering.” And those who govern or regulate work are routinely referred to as “officers” of a corporation or a civic unit. Thus in an earlier time that was much closer than we to the original possibilities of opus, it was entirely fitting that “office” should become the denominator for “the work of God.”

For Benedict, as for many before him and almost all after him, fixed-hour prayer was and will always be opus dei, “the work of God,” “the offices.” As for the hours on whose striking the prayers are done, those belong to God and are, as a result, “divine.” And the work is real, as fixed in its understanding of itself as it is in its timing.

Prayer is as variform as any other human activity. The Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Offices, is but one of those forms, yet it is the only one consistently referred to as “the work of God.” The Divine Hours are prayers of praise offered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and faith to God and as a sweet-smelling incense of the human soul before the throne of God. To offer them is to serve before that throne as part of the priesthood of all believers. It is to assume the “office” of attendant upon the Divine.

While the words and ordering of the prayers of the Divine Hours have changed and changed again over the centuries, that purpose and that characterization have remained constant. Other prayers may be petitionary or intercessory or valedictory or any number of other things, but the Liturgy of the Hours remains an act of offering...offering by the creature to the Creator. The fact that the creature grows strong and his or her faith more sinewy and efficacious as a result of keeping the hours is a by-product (albeit a desirable one) of that practice and not its purpose.

From the Middle Ages to Us
As the keeping of the hours grew in importance to become the organizing principle of both Christian spirituality and the Christian day, so too did the elaboration of the offices. By the eleventh century, saying an office required a veritable stack of books...a Psalter from which to sing the Psalms appointed for that day and hour, a lectionary from which to ascertain the appointed scripture reading, a sacred text from which to read the scripture thus discovered, a hymnal for singing, etc. As the growth of small communities took the laity away from the great cathedral centers where such tools and their ordering were available, it also created a need for some kind of unification of all the pieces and parts into a more manageable and more portable form. The result was the creation of a set of mnemonics, a kind of master list or, in Latin, breviarium,of how the fixed-hour prayers were to be observed and of the texts to be used.

From the less cumbersome listings of the breviarium, it was a short leap to incorporating into a book at least the first few words (and sometimes the whole) of all the texts required by the listing. This the officiants of the Papal Chapel did in the twelfth century, and the modern breviary was born. Breviaries, or manuals of prayer for keeping the daily offices, have varied over the subsequent centuries from order to order, from church to church, and from communion to communion within Christianity. So too has the ordering and number of the offices to be observed and even, in some cases, the setting of the appointed hours themselves.

The Anglican communion, for example, as one of its first acts of defiance in the time of the Reformation, created a new prayer book to govern the thinking and the practice of Christians in the new Church of England. That manual was given the intentionally populist name of The Book of Common Prayer. More often referred to affectionately today simply as the BCP, the manual has gone through many updates and revisions that have adjusted its language and even its theology to changing times and sensibilities. Despite those changes, however, and perhaps as a result of them, the BCP still orders, through one edition or another, the spiritual and religious lives of millions of Christians, many of them not Anglican by profession and all save a few of them certainly not English.

As one of its more “reforming” amendments, the first and subsequent editions of the BCPreduced or collapsed the Daily Offices into only two obligatory observances—morning prayer and evensong. Almost four hundred and fifty years later, in 1979, the U.S. (or Episcopal) Church bowed to the centuries and the yearning of many remembering hearts by restoring the noon office to its rightful place in the American BCP. In doing so, the Episcopal Church in the United States also acted within another abiding consistency of fixed-hour prayer—the enduring sense that the so-called Little Hours of terce, sext, and none, even when collapsed into one noontime observance, are as integral as are morning and evening prayer to the offices and to daily Christian practice, be it private or public.

Episcopal practice was not the first to undergo restructuring in the closing years of the twentieth century. In 1971 in accord with the directives of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI issued The Liturgy of the Hours, which modified the offices to an ordering very similar to the one the American BCPwould assume eight years later. Four offices were now suggested to laity and required of monastics, secular clergy, and those under orders: a morning office called still by its Latin name of Lauds; a noon office that allows the individual Christian to choose the hour of his or her workday (either terce, sext, or none) in which to pray the office and, as a result of that first choice, which of the three possible texts will be prayed; the early evening office of vespers; and before retiring, the simple, consoling office of compline. Under Paul VI’s rubrics, there is also an obligatory Office of Readings that may be observed at any time of the believer’s day that is most convenient.

Despite all the diversity that centuries and evolving doctrine have laid upon them, the Divine Hours have none the less remained absolute in their adherence to certain principles that have become their definition. The Daily Offices and the manuals that effect them are, as a result of that defining constancy, dedicated: to the exercise of praise as the work of God and the core of the offices; to the informing concept of a cascade of prayer being lifted ceaselessly by Christians around the world; to the recognition for every observant of an exultant membership with other observants in a communion of saints across both time and space; to the centrality of the Psalms as the informing text of all the offices (a centrality made doubly intense by the fact that theirs are the words, rhythms, and understandings that Jesus of Nazareth himself used in his own devotions while on earth); to the establishment in every breviary or manual of a fixed cycle that provides for the reading of at least some portion of all save three of the Psalms in the Hebrew/Christian Psalter (the present manual employs a six-week cycle and some portion of every Psalm); to the necessity of fixed components like the Our Father; to the formal ordering of each office’s conduct; and to the efficacy of the repetition of prayers, creeds, and sacred texts in spiritual growth and exercise. It is on these principles and within the scope of these purposes that The Divine Hours is built.

Copyright ©2000 Phyllis Tickle. From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle. Reprinted with permission of Doubleday Books.

The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle

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