(Phyllis Tickle, the Lucy, Tennessee, editor and writer, has been keeping the ancient “divine office” for more than forty years. She has an alarm on her wristwatch that she sets to go off every three hours, every day, and when it rings, she stops whatever she is doing to go to a quiet place and read, often out loud, the Psalms and prayers designated by religious leaders for that hour. Once, such fixed-hour prayer was required primarily for Catholic monks and priests. Now, Tickle says, it is becoming common enough to have created a market for her revisions of the traditional breviary, the three-volume Divine Hours and The Night Offices.)
The divine office is a set of prayers, almost always ones of praise, based on the Psalms, that is offered by many Christians at a fixed hour seven times a day. It is the work of God. It’s the only work of God I know how to do. I do it five times a day.
I do this because we’re told in Christianity that there must be constant prayer in our lives and also that there should be a constant cascade of prayer offered before the throne of God. On the appointed hour, in my time zone, I offer my daily office for whatever time of day it is at that point, and when I finish that, I pass it on to my fellow Christians in the next time zone. It becomes continuous and uninterrupted. It’s not petitionary, unlike much prayer. It doesn’t ask for anything. It simply glorifies God and acknowledges him.
It’s also a way, I think, of remembering who it is I’m not and how very little I matter.
Certainly it roots me. It makes me part of a much larger communion. It removes the individuality that is so much a problem for contemporary Christians. There is not individuality in the divine office. There’s no inventing of prayers yourself. These are fixed prayers that have been used for thousands of years, so that you know that you are part of a continuous stream of the word of God. You enter it, swim in it, swim back out into your other life, and then you go back in three hours later.
I can’t imagine not doing it. Can’t imagine what life would be if I had to go more than three hours without approaching the throne of God.
Does it do something for me? Perhaps. But what it really does is give me something I can do for God. This is the context in which I am. This is what I understand the Christian life to be.
Discipline is growing a muscle. And this is discipline. It’s the growing of the spiritual muscle. It’s the discipline that allows you even to check out, sometimes, when you’re in the middle of a meeting, for instance, or in the middle of a high-pressure conversation and that watch beeps.
I drop back, and I’m doing two things at once. It’s a kind of schizophrenia. I’m praying. If I cannot get away from the physical situation, I’m praying and talking at the same time. So you never escape. Once you put that harness on in the morning at six o’clock, you never take it off ’til you lay it down at ten o’clock that night. It is there. And like every good workhorse, you know, you belong to the man who put the yoke on. And it is to be yoked. It is to be yoked to the chariot of God.
Keeping the offices – fixed-hour prayer – was originally a practice of all Christians in the first century. They all did this. They did it because they were Jews. And Jews were taught to do this. Every little town in the Roman Empire had a forum bell. And it was the duty of the bell keeper to ring at six o’clock in the morning, which was the beginning of the working day; to ring at nine o’clock, which for us would be a coffee break, but for them meant that they could cool it for a while; at twelve o’clock, which was lunch and a siesta; and at three o’clock, when you went back to work; and at six o’clock, when you closed the shops. This was secular timing.
Well, the first thing you know, by the second century, fixed-hour prayer in the emerging Christian church has become six o’clock, nine o’clock, twelve o’clock, three o’clock. The nine o’clock hour is terce. It’s the third hour. Twelve o’clock lunch is sext, the sixth hour, and three o’clock in the afternoon is none, the ninth hour. It’s a great story of secular time taking on a whole new life as liturgical time.
There are many effects of the divine office, one of which, of course, is the constant awareness of the presence of God.
Regardless of how I perceive myself, and of the mistakes I make, and the evil that I see in myself – greed, lust, all of those things – I’ve still got this core. I’ve still got, in the middle of my day, in the middle of all of my consciousness this one place that connects me with the divine that’s there, that’s solid, that says, “Are you distressed by all these things you are? Are you heartbroken about all these things you have just done? It’s all right. Come here.” When I’m standing in that one place that is the divine office, I know God’s in his Heaven and that I’m part of that Heaven.