Praying the office: A wee bit of history

A monk at prayer, Bebenhausen, Germany (photo by MJH)

A monk at prayer, Bebenhausen, Germany (photo by MJH)

By trade, I am an ecclesiastical historian/classicist, so my devotional life tends to be shaped by questions of history, historical practice, historical theology, etc. I have found that knowing the history of current and traditional devotional practices can be very invigorating for the faith. It can inform one’s own approach to God. And, for those who have concerns, it can also legitimise something — like the daily/divine office/liturgy of the hours.

It is a common — and understandable — mistake to think that the daily office originated with the monks, whether the monks of Egypt, Syria, Palestine (the Desert Fathers) or the monks a couple of centuries later in Europe living under Benedict’s rule. And when you read the earliest monastic literature, it is clear that the monks prayed at set hours every day — called the canonical hours — at waking, mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon, evening, and at bed time, besides some sort of night prayer. This rhythm of prayer existed not only in the fourth-century desert but in the young monastic movement wherever it went — southern France, Spain, North Africa, Italy, Greece, Anatolia, Georgia and on to Ireland, Scotland, England, Rus.

It took a different shape in these places, but the main ingredients were focussing the heart and mind on God and singing the Psalms. Egyptian monks of the first generation would sit in the cells all alone singing Psalms and weaving baskets. At a certain level, that has been the mystic and ascetic dream in Christianity ever since.

And if the office had originated with the monks, if it had not had an earlier existence, this would not exclude it from ancient Christian practices worth adopting today. As Dalls Willard points out in The Spirit of the Disciplines, there exist a great many handbook about spiritual discipline and spiritual growth from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and they can be very helpful — they were all written by and for monks.

Nevertheless, the office does not originate with the monks and it is never their sole preserve.

According to Robert Taft’s excellent book The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, before the monks … monasticised … it, the round of daily prayer was already being practised in churches and Christian homes. And it continued its own separate existence in the churches and homes parallel to the monastic office. At times, the two mingled and blended to some degree — especially in the Byzantine use — at others, they had separate focusses.

This non-monastic office he refers to as the cathedral office. It was offered up in the cathedrals and public churches for the whole Christian community to come join in prayer together. And Christians were always praying in their homes — ca. AD 90, The Didache recommends Christians pray three times a day, using the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

And before this, Jewish people would pray ‘at the hour of prayer’ — we see this practice in the Acts of the Apostles, when Sts Peter and John go to the Temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer (Acts 3), and when Peter prays on the housetop at noon (Acts 10). The practice, if memory serves correctly, was to pray in the morning, at noon, and in the afternoon. I also recall a second- or third-century text exhorting people to pray in the middle of the night. (I’ve not read Taft’s book in 7 or 8 years.)

As I noted above, this pre-monastic practice of daily, private or corporate prayer is never lost. It exists both in what Taft calls the cathedral office and in the magnificent private Books of Hours from the Middle Ages. Edinburgh has some beautiful books of hours; one treat was Richard III’s at Lambeth Palace — he had his birthday included in the Calendar alongside the feasts.

Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer is part of this old tradition, shaped partly in the cathedrals of Europe, shaped partly in her monasteries, often looking across at the encroaching Egyptian and Judaean Desert, and looking at the prayerful example of the Apostles.

So when you pray the office today, do not think that this is something for ascetics or macho prayer warriors that has been plucked willy-nilly from the monastery to your living room. It is an aid, a tool, to help any ordinary Christian come to Christ. That is why it has existed in some form or another for the whole history of the church. That is why it will continue to exist for ages of ages.

~ MJH ~

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