Home > Brian's Blogs, Prayer > Praying without Ceasing, part 3

Praying without Ceasing, part 3

Saying prayers at fixed hours throughout the day may be one way to pray without ceasing.  It has a long and significant history that is unknown to a lot of us low-church, free-church types.  So what is the history of fixed hour prayer?

The history of fixed hour prayer actually begins before the advent of Jesus Christ.  Although there is some debate about the actual structure of Jewish prayers, it is not debated that there were fixed times for prayer and worship.  This is most visible in Acts 3:1 when “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer (the ninth hour).”  This is likely the time of the afternoon sacrifice, around 3:00 pm.  NT scholar FF Bruce (p. 77) says “the two principal daily services accompanied the offering of the morning and evening sacrifices.”  So there were at least two, though others argue for more than two and up to seven as taken from Psalm 119:164: “seven times a day do I praise you.”  It is possible that Peter saw his clean/unclean vision of Acts 10 during a noon (sext or sixth hour) prayer (see Acts 10:9).

One thing that certainly helped religious fixed hour prayer was Roman fixed hour commerce.  Phyllis Tickle (p. viii) notes, “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.”

As we enter the Christian era, we see both fixed days for fasting and fixed hours for prayer in the Didache: “But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday). Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this…[insert Lord’s Prayer here]…Pray this three times each day.”  Tickle notes similarities in a number of early Christian theologians including Clement, Origen, and Tertullian.

But the standard for fixed hour prayer came from Saint Benedict and his rule.  As Tickle notes, “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.”  For those who have a copy of Benedict’s Rule, this is outlined in chapters 8 to 20 (I highly recommend the translation and commentary by Joan Chittister).

As noted in the example of a morning prayer yesterday, these fixed hour prayers are “scriptural rather than personal.”  They focus on praying the Scriptures regularly and often.  As Chittister (p. 78) summarizes, “Benedict introduces…what is central to Benedictine spirituality, immersion in the Scriptures.  He wants us to do more than read them.  He wants us to study them, to wrestle with them, to understand them, to make them part of us, to let them grow in us through the work of traditional and contemporary scholarship so that the faith can stay green in us.”  As an example, the morning prayer on Sundays include praying five Psalms: Psalm 67, 51, 118, and 148-150.  In fact, to follow the Rule is to pray Psalms 67 and 51 every single day.  More than that, to follow the Rule is to pray every Psalm – 150 of them! – every single week.

Fixed hour prayer continued through the Middle Ages and was implemented by Reformation churches, notably the Book of Common Prayer.  The BCP had two daily offices, but it was modified in 1979 to include the mid-day office.

So fixed hour prayer, primarily composed of praying the Psalms, has a long Christian tradition.  It is not a new fad that will come and go, but it has been the essence of Christian spirituality since the founding of the Church.  To view things historically, it is not radical to engage in fixed hour prayer, but it may be radical to not engage in fixed hour prayer.

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