A growing number of Christians are adopting Liturgy of the Hours – ‘It’s like spiritual yoga’
Last summer, Bob Bonomi’s priest handed him a prayer book and told him, “I think you’d like this.”
“I looked at the book and thought, oh, this is nice,” Mr. Bonomi recalled. “But the results have been beyond my wildest dreams.”
The prayer book contained the Liturgy of the Hours – traditional Christian prayers recited at fixed hours up to eight times a day. Mr. Bonomi, a Catholic, set aside 15 minutes every morning and evening to say the prayers, and soon was hooked.
“It’s like spiritual yoga,” said the Plano systems consultant. “I compare it to setting your mirrors and adjusting the radio in your car in the morning before you start driving.
“It puts you in a really good spiritual frame of mind for the rest of the day.”
Mr. Bonomi is among a growing number of Christians who are discovering a practice that, for centuries, was largely relegated to Catholic monasteries. Now it’s showing up in popular books, in Protestant evangelical churches and, of course, on the Internet.
The Hours consist of specific Scripture passages – drawing heavily on the Psalms – combined with hymns and traditional prayers for each time of day and each day of the year. (While there are eight specific times for prayer, most lay practitioners pray less often, maybe once or twice a day.)
The Hours predate Christianity, having evolved out of the Jewish practice described in Psalm 119:164: “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.”
St. Benedict wrote a manual for monks in 525 A.D. that explained the practice of praying the Hours. When the Vatican wrote the first official breviary, or prayer book, in the 11th century, the Hours became popular among literate medieval Christians.
In ancient times the prayer bells rang at 6 a.m. (the first, or prime, hour of the day); at 9 a.m. for the mid-morning break (terce, or third hour); at noon (sext, or sixth hour); at 3 p.m. when trade resumed after the lunch rest (none, or ninth hour); and at the close of business at 6 p.m. (vespers). With the addition of evening prayers (compline), midnight and early morning prayers (lauds and matins) the structure was established in a form very close to what’s used today.
Author Phyllis Tickle has been saying the Hours five times a day for 20 years. Her watch beeps a few minutes before the appointed hours – 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. (The fifth prayer is said at bedtime, rather than at an exact hour.) If she’s in a meeting, she excuses herself and finds a quiet place.
While sometimes inconvenient, she said, being scrupulous about the times adds meaning. She said she is keenly aware that “everyone else in the time zone” who is praying the hours “is doing the same thing, the same general words, at the same time.”
Her latest book, Eastertide: Prayers for Lent through Easter from The Divine Hours (Galilee, $9.95), was released earlier this week. It’s the fourth in a series that, for prayer books, has sold briskly. Another book on the Hours, The Glenstal Book of Prayer, topped the best-seller list in Ireland in 2001.
Ms. Tickle said renewed interest in the Hours began after the Catholic Church, at the Second Vatican Council, required the prayers of all priests and nuns, not just monastics. The devotion has since caught on with laypeople.
“I see a considerable movement in American and Western Christendom, back to a more disciplined, more liturgical form of worship,” she said.
“Of all the Abrahamic faiths, only in Christianity was this form of daily, fixed hour prayer lost to the laity,” Ms. Tickle said. “Muslims pray five times a day. In Judaism, the Psalms speak of praying at seven hours of the day. And Jesus likely prayed the Hours because he was a good Jew.”
Traditional Jewish practice today is to offer specific prayers in the morning, afternoon and evening.
Praying the Hours doesn’t replace unscripted, personal prayer, adherents said. Rather, it adds a dimension of communion with other Christians. The Rev. Josef Vollmer-Konig, director of vocations for the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, remembers a visit to Honduras, where he heard the prayers on the radio at 6 a.m. “Praying the Hours ties me to the whole church around the world,” he said.
Formal prayers “help lift us out of our purely personal concerns and agendas,” said Lynn Witherspoon, a member of the Benedictine Community of the Holy Savior. The ecumenical group meets twice a month at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral, on Ross Avenue at Henderson, to chant portions of the Hours.
Martin Guerra, who teaches English at Mountain View College, picked up the habit of praying the Hours while attending Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving. He has kept the practice for the past ten years.
Mr. Guerra said he’s involved in a 12-step recovery program that calls for daily prayer. He gets up at 5 a.m. to pray.
“Sobriety is made possible one day at a time through the grace of God if I, immediately upon waking up and having coffee, offer my will and life to a higher power,” he said.
Until recently, praying the Hours could be daunting to newcomers. The prayers involved unfamiliar terms like “invitatories” and “antiphons.” Ms. Tickle’s books, however, employ more contemporary vernacular, such as “the Call to Prayer” and “the Refrain.” The series also puts each day’s prayers on a single page; in earlier books, readers often had to flip around to various prayers, hymns and readings, sometimes in different volumes.
The Web is another useful tool. The sites www.universalis.com and www.missionstclare.com allow visitors to click to links for each part of the day’s prayer and download them onto a personal digital assistant. A Protestant evangelical church in Michigan offers the Hours from Ms. Tickle’s book at its Web site, www.annarborvineyard.org.
While the technology has changed, the discipline remains one of Christianity’s oldest.
“We are saying the same historic prayers that have been chanted for 1,500 years,” said Mr. Witherspoon. “Because they are rooted in the Psalms, they cover all human conditions and human emotions. They never get old.”
For more information on the Dallas Benedictine Community of the Holy Savior, visit www.Spiritu.info/oBC.htm
The community will host its annual Dallas Benedictine Experience retreat June 18-22 at the Catholic Conference and Formation Center, 901 S. Madison. The four-day silent retreat includes the chanting of three offices daily and daily Eucharist.
Click on “fixed hour prayer” for explanation of the prayers.
Detailed history of the breviary in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Click on “features” and “Angels of the Hours.” For each of the eight Hours, there’s an explanation of its significance, accompanied by art and music.
The Little Book of Hours: Praying with the Community of Jesus (Paraclete Press, $13.95)
This modified version of the Liturgy of the Hours provides four weeks of services, with three services for every day.
Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day by David Steindl-Rast (Ulysses Press, $12)
Music of Silence shows how to incorporate the sacred meaning of monastic living into everyday life by following the natural rhythm of the hours of the day.