From The Attentive Life
Matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline – that your hours will pierce me with arrows and sounds of praise.
Time is not our enemy, nor is it a hostile place from which we must flee. It is a meeting place, a point of rendezvous with God.
(Dorothy Bass, Receiving the Day)
Seven times a day do I praise you.
Long centuries ago a young poet recorded praise to God that rose up in his heart seven times a day. We can surmise that he was young, because the very long psalm he wrote (the longest of all the psalms) records the longing of a young man to keep his way pure by paying attention to the words of God.
Could it be that this young poet, like David the shepherd boy, was an outdoorsman – or possibly even David himself? If so we may imagine that he was accustomed to tell the time of day by observing the angle of the sun, and evening time by the rising of the moon.
In those long-ago days, time was measured by positions of the Heavenly bodies, not by mechanical devices. The young poet marked the segments of his days by the seven times he stopped to lift praise to the Creator, whom he knew as the God who separated light from darkness, who called the light Day and the darkness Night.
This poet may have been one of the very first of our human race to observe specific hours of the day as times to lift up his heart in prayer: surely at dawn and midday and sunset, at the times he gave thanks for his food, and perhaps when he rose at night. Others whose stories are told in the Bible followed this example with their own set hours of prayer; Daniel, for example, knelt down three times a day to give thanks to God, (Daniel 6:10).
So “the hours” early became reminders to pay attention to God.
The Benedictine Hours
Centuries passed, and another young man began looking for a way to order his life toward God. Born in Italy in A.D. 480 to a noble Roman family, he was a student tin Rome in his late teens when he became dismayed by the dissolute lives of his fellow students and gave up the wealth of his father’s house, desiring only a serve God.
Leaving Rome, he settled in a hill village about forty miles away and became part of a community of men who shared his view of life. Then for three years he lived as a hermit, alone in a cave by a lake, where it was reported that he was fed by ravens.
At last an abbot, impressed by his devotion, asked him to lead a nearby community. There this young man became a shepherd of souls, founded a monastery that became the center of his life’s work, and eventually became known as Saint Benedict. He wrote a “rule of life,” a guideline we choose to regulate our lives in order to facilitate our spiritual growth. Benedict’s rule could be summed up in three words: “Pray and work.” The Benedictine Rule included his own version of “the hours.”
The Divine Hours
The “divine hours” as traditionally practiced by religious orders usually include the following:
- Vigils, about 3 a.m.
- Lauds, greeting the beginning of the day
- Prime, the start of the day’s work
- Terce, the third hour, perhaps midmorning
- Sext, midday
- None, midafternoon
- Vespers, as the day is over and evening comes
- Compline, when the day is complete and sleep begins
The hours were not a ritual to be mechanically observed. They were meant to be an attentive path leading to a new version. “Apertis oculis nostris,” Benedict said at the start of the Rule. “Let up open our eyes.”
Benedict’s prayer hours began with Lauds in the morning and carried through Compline at the end of the day. His cycle became the widespread practice of the church through the centuries, a tradition that is carried on today especially in religious orders and communities and by clergy as part of public worship services.
My first experience of the hours came during a retreat at a lovely monastery in the low country of South Carolina. Growing up in the Protestant evangelical tradition, for many years before that I had been unaware of the hours. In more liturgically aware churches, on the other hand, the hours have sometimes been regarded as the obligation of the clergy and not for ordinary people. In fact Benedict wrote his Rule for laypeople, not clerics! His original purpose was not to organize an order of clerics but to provide a guide for ordinary laypeople who wanted a lifestyle of following Christ day-by-day.
While religious orders around the world observe these specified hours of prayer, originally they were meant to call all Christian believers to pay attention to God throughout their days – as was the case with the well-known Angelus at noontime. In the late Middle Ages, when printed books became widely available in Europe, there was a great production of beautifully illuminated manuscripts known as Books of Hours. Although written in Latin, they became bestsellers and were tremendously popular as prayer guides for the ordinary everyday people.