Two years ago “fixed hour prayer” sounded like a terribly legalistic spiritual practice to me. I didn’t know what the words meant, and wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
But when I was assigned Phyllis Tickle’s seminal guide The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime for a Doctorate of Ministry class at Fuller Seminary, I began to tote her book around with me throughout my day.
As it turned out, the week I began to pray the Hours was also the week I went home to say goodbye to my ailing grandmother. I was assigned night duty while I was visiting: sleeping in a recliner next to her hospice bed, listening for quiet breaths and hoping for morning to bring another day to us both.
So it was in the sacred stillness of that room I began to pray Compline, the end-of-day prayer. Over her bed those nights I began to whisper St. Augustine’s ancient prayer:
“Keep watch, dear Lord, over those who wake, 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; all for your love’s sake. Amen.”
I had thirty wonderful years with my grandmother, but those nights remain some of the most poignant memories.
Tapping into Church History to Learn to Pray
Fixed hour prayer is also known as the Daily Office, the Divine Offices or the Liturgy of the Hours and actually predates the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the subsequent development of Christianity. The daily prayers of Jewish faithful found their root in the admonition of the Psalmist in Psalm 119:164, “Seven times I day I praise you for your righteous rules.” This Jewish precedent led the way in establishing multiple daily Christian prayers by the end of the first century AD. Two particular stories in Acts – Peter and John healing the beggar at the Beautiful gate (Acts 3) and Peter’s vision of the sheet descending onto the rooftop (Acts 10)—led to a belief that fixed hour prayer was still significant for the early church. 1
The development of monastic communities in the fourth and fifth centuries, which put a significant emphasis on Paul’s commandment to “pray without ceasing,” led to more formalized understandings of fixed hour prayers. 2 Clergy continued to lead the morning and evening prayers during the seventh and eighth centuries, but they lost popularity as lay people no longer spoke or understood Latin. 3 These prayer services were gradually replaced with a morning mass for ordinary parishioners.
In the twentieth century Roman Catholic Church, the changes of Vatican II (in 1971) brought about a renewed emphasis on the Liturgy of the Hours, particularly for laity (non-ordained members). 4 Vatican II taught that “Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sunday and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the Divine Office, either with the priests or among themselves, or even individually.” 5 The Council encouraged the prayers of the Divine Office “so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God.” 6
What Does Fixed Hour Prayer Look Like for You and for Teenagers?
While the times and formats of fixed hour prayers have changed through the centuries, the idea of the church continually coming before the throne of God has remained constant. Fixed hour prayer has played a significant, if quiet, role in the spiritual formation of generations of Christians.
Most popularly, the Divine Offices now usually consist of four prayer times: morning, midday, evening and compline (bedtime) prayers, said either individually or in a group. Liturgies of prayer vary depending on the resource used, but often include a call to worship, the recitation of a creed, the Lord’s prayer, readings from a Psalm, confessional prayer, readings from the lectionary and a benediction. 7
Particularly helpful to today’s adolescents, the daily practice of fixed hour prayer provides three unique opportunities: a reorientation of time, an opportunity to incorporate their prayers with the large, corporate church, and an introduction to reading scripture as prayer.
Opportunity #1: Reorientation and Stewardship of Time
The Divine Office provides Christians an opportunity to acknowledge the sovereignty and presence of God in our lives. Fixed hour prayer allows the believer to “see through the mundane reality of daily life to the benevolent, loving, personal spirit of God that permeated it all, to make every day Sunday and all of life prayer.” 8
For those who adhere to the hours, there is a necessary re-ordering of time and focus. While fixed hour prayer is still the foundation of monasticism, Christians who don’t adhere to monastic traditions have found themselves lacking a regular reminder that there was another way of existing in the world – a way of life continually interrupted by prayer. Fixed hour prayer offers that regular (and often needed) reminder.
For students, fixed hour prayer gives them a very concrete context for prayer: fixed times and fixed words provide teenagers with the ability to practice prayer in a consistent and guided way, giving them a language to talk with God at other times as well.
Opportunity #2: Connection with the Worldwide Church
Fixed hour prayer serves as the prayers of the corporate church, not simply the prayers of individual church members. 9 The words and structure of the Divine Hours have changed over the centuries that they have been practiced, but the purpose has remained the same.
Tickle writes that while “other prayers maybe petitionary or intercessory or valedictory or any number of other things, the Liturgy of the Hours remains an act of offering…of the creature to the Creator.” 10 As adolescents engage in fixed hour prayer, they are invited into a rich history of prayer throughout the life of the corporate church as well as engaging with modern day Christians practicing fixed hour prayer around the world.
Opportunity #3: Reading Scripture as Prayer
Lastly, fixed hour prayer provides adolescents a concrete way of dealing with the Bible. Most fixed hour prayer liturgies consist almost exclusively of scriptural text. Leonel Mitchell writes that the “organizational principles [of fixed hour prayer] are the recitation of the entire Psalter and the continuous reading of the scripture.” 11
For students seeking a deep immersion in scripture, fixed hour prayer is a particularly helpful spiritual practice as it provides concrete text to pray. Depending on the resource, many prayer books set forward a schedule that leads students through all of the Psalms and much of the Old and New Testaments.
Fixed Hour Prayer in Action with Students
My first use of fixed hour prayer with adolescents was at a middle school winter retreat. Our theme that January was “Rhythms,” so we listened to a lot of really great music, talked about life’s natural patterns and gathered three times a day to pray together. The Hours have been an integral part of the annual retreat ever since.
I’ve also prayed the Divine Hours with high school students on a summer mission trip. That week the Morning Office was mumbled through half-chewed granola bars and Compline was spotty at best, but we gathered, together with each other and with Christians across the globe, and we prayed.
Today, like every day, the organization I work for ended our meetings and stepped away from our emails at 11:45 to offer Midday prayers together before lunch. Each day we read and sing and listen to remember that we are stewards; stewards of our time, stewards of this ministry, stewards of grace.
Like any spiritual practice, fixed hour prayer has the potential to become rote and insignificant. Prayers penned by others – whether the Lord’s Prayer or one written by a saint of church history – can either be vain repetition or become so engrained in our minds that they become a part of who we are. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about the effect of the daily discipline of prayer in his classic Life Together. “Has [her prayer] transported her for a few short moments into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns,” he asks, “or it has it lodged the Word of God so soberly and so deeply in her heart that it holds and strengthens her all day, impelling her to active love, to obedience, to good works? Only the day can decide.” 12
Perhaps the ancient practice of fixed hour prayer can help “lodge” the Word of God in the hearts of the students we care for to strengthen and deepen both their prayer life and their action.
If the Daily Office is intriguing to you, grab a prayer book or app and begin to pray. Don’t jump into it with your youth group right away. Leading others in a spiritual practice you haven’t tried on your own is generally pretty risky. In fact, you may want to invite other adults in your ministry to join you in praying this way for a month and then gather to share reflections on the practice.
Introducing fixed hour prayer to students usually works best when you have control of your group’s schedule for a significant amount of time like a weekend retreat or week-long trip. Consider what the best context might be for experimenting with this kind of prayer with your group.
Projecting Fixed Hour prayer on a screen might make you tech-savvy, but printing out the pages allows those in your group the opportunity to bring the prayers home and continue the practice. Consider how you might make the practice something students can do both together and on their own.
- Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime (New York: Doubleday, 2000), ix. ↩
- Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime (New York: Doubleday, 2000), ix.) ↩
- Greg Dues, Catholic Customs & Tractions : A Popular Guide (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2009), 38-39. ↩
- Tickle, xii. ↩
- Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy, 100. ↩
- Ibid., 84. ↩
- For specific fixed hour prayer liturgies, check out Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime, Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals or the Anglican Book of Common Prayer or the “iPray” app. ↩
- Richard Ostrander, "The Battery and the Windmill : Two Models of Protestant Devotionalism in Early-Twentieth-Century America," Church History 65, no. 1 (1996): 3. ↩
- Leonel L. Mitchell, "Theology and Praxis of the Daily Office," Anglican Theological Review 66, no. 1 (1984): 3. ↩
- Tickle, x. ↩
- Mitchell: 5. ↩
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together , [1st ed. (New York: Harper, 1954), 48. ↩