A particularly modern folly is what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery. It’s the misplaced trust in only ideas and practices of our own day because those of the past are considered, like old milk or stale bread, past their “best before” date, dismissed as inferior simply by virtue of their age.
One of Lewis’ antidotes for chronological snobbery was to recommend that every third book you read be from another century (that’s why I think its life giving to read the wisdom of dead Christians). I’d amend that antidote for the Christian life and recommend that not only every book, but every third practice you live out be from another century.
Which is one reason why the ancient practice of praying the daily office has grabbed hold in me and why I wrote and compiled Seeking God’s Face. I love the vintage quality to this prayer practice, that I’m praying with a long historic community, trusting the wisdom of those who have gone before.
And there is a rich and lengthy history of praying the daily office to draw from. Our Hebrew ancestors of faith were shaped by this daily, regular pattern of prayer – it was a firmly established part of Jewish worship and practice. Psalm 119:164 reads: “Seven times a day I praise you …” While the seven could’ve likely meant seven actual times for prayer or it also could be a symbolic reference, representing all our time. Either way, it does refer to the practice of setting aside certain times throughout the day for prayer, a practice that probably reflects Paul’s command to “pray continuously” or “pray unceasingly.”
And this was also the practice of Jesus – as a good Jew, he practiced a pattern of regular worship and prayer. (Matthew 14:23, Mark 1:35). We find the prayer and worship practice of the disciples continued in line with the regular pattern of set times dedicated to prayer. Some understand the reference in Acts 2:42, where the church devoted themselves to prayer, as a devotion to the received form of prayer, the daily office.
The day was commonly divided into certain hours, times that were often set out for prayer. This practice of prayer was rooted in the incarnational reality that we are time-bound creatures. And so we repeatedly reading in scripture about the 1st hour (6:00 am); 3rd hour (9:00 a.m.); 6th hour (noon); 9th hour (3:00 p.m); 12th hour (6:00 p.m. dinner)
In the 4th century we read about monks in Egypt and Syria who have withdrawn to the wilderness and practice a form of the daily office, regulating their days around set times of prayer. There’s even an interesting historic suggestion that Mohammed learned his practice of regular daily prayers from a Christian hermit.
Probably the fullest development of the daily office was found in the monastic orders, primarily the Benedictines. In the Order of St. Benedict, 8 different offices we established to form the rhythm of the monk’s day. It was a rhythm of prayer and work, ora et labora. They included:
- Matins (from Latin for “morning,” held before dawn)
- Prime (first) observed at 6:00 a.m.
- Lauds – (praise) observed at dawn, the rising of the sun
- Terce – (third) – 9:00 a.m.
- Sext – (sixth) – observed at noon
- None – (ninth) – observed at 3:00 p.m.
- Vespers – (evening) held at dusk (evensong)
- Compline – (complete) said at night before sleep (I love how one writer calls compline “God tucking us in for bed for the night.”)
Now that’s pretty involved praying, apparently geared for those living a cloistered life which is likely part of the demise of the office as a sustainable practice – it just became too much for the ordinary Christian. How do you do that and hold down a job, raise a family, feed the poor, renew culture?
During the Reformation era, Protestants continued with a modified form of praying the office. Luther created small prayer books, simplified morning and evening prayers for home or individual use. Anglicans created a simplified daily office in the Book of Common Prayer, ordering it around Matins and Evensong (morning and evening prayer). And today we still have vestiges of a daily office; for example, meal-time devotions are a form of a daily office.
In the end, my own practice of prayer, largely divorced from centuries of Christian living and practice, didn’t create a life of prayer in me. So I got over my chronological snobbery and dusted off an old practice that stills holds out a lot of life for me today.