This is the third post I have written explicitly about prayer. The first two posts were written about a year ago and were in direct response to When God Talks Back, an ethnographic account of prayer among charismatic evangelicals. To Dr. Lurhman (who wrote the book), the people she studied were purveyors of something very new and different from her previous experiences. For me, she was describing the people with whom I was (and to some extent, still am) in spiritual community.
The first post described Dr. Lurhman’s research and my concern that the specific form of prayer undertaken by charismatic evangelicals was only accessible by people of a specific personality type. And that I, not possessing the psychological ability to imagine God as if he were a person sitting next to me, would need to find a different model for prayer.
The second post described the way that I approach prayer. I described myself as a verbally processing INTJ (see Myers-Briggs) who makes sense of the world by imposing patterns of understanding on what, to others, may only look like disparate data. I said prayer, for me, was about sensing God as the intelligence that both immanates and transcends creation. Prayer was about attuning myself to the mind present in creation.
In this post, I want to explain more of the praxis around my form of prayer. Primarily, I pray the Canonical Hours.
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For the curious, the Canonical Hours is a collection of scripture (mostly Psalms), hymns, and ancient prayers that have been stitched together into (up to eight) different “hours.” The hours have traditionally involved matins (midnight), lauds (3 am), prime (6 am), terce (9 am), sext (noon), none (3 pm), vespers (6 pm), compline (9 pm).
Fortunately, in our day, the hours have generally been squeezed into four: morning (lauds, prime), midday (terce, sext, none), evening (vespers), and night (compline, matins).
Historically, monks prayed the hours in community with each other. At some point, secular clergy (parish priests) were required to pray the hours as well. This made the hours a more individualist habit, which it had not been before. Some traditions have recently (since the Reformation) made the Canonical Hours a feature of congregational piety, once again reflecting the communal aspect. Specifically, the Anglican Church has regularly had morning and evening prayers as features of congregational life. It has only been since the seventies that they expanded the hours back out to four (to include midday and night).
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Over the course of the last 2.5 years, I have regularly prayed the Canonical Hours. For the first two years or so I prayed the Catholic version (called The Liturgy of the Hours). I finally switched to Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours about six months ago. The main reason was that Tickle’s version provides the prayers in book form in a relatively cheap way while, to use the Catholic version, I had to use the app on my computer. But, frequently, I wished I could pray without having my computer with me. Additionally, Tickle’s version is based on The Book of Common Prayer (the Anglican prayer book), which I have more affinity for anyway.
I tend to pray regularly the morning and night prayers, occasionally the evening prayers, and rarely the midday prayers.
In my second post on prayer I mentioned that I pray the Hours because doing so enables me to graft my emotions and desires about/for God onto words. The Hours are like a skeleton on which I can add muscle and skin. Without the skeleton, I would have no idea what to say to God or how to say it. And this reason is a good reason, and is certainly true of me. However, there are other reasons for my use of the Hours (and appreciation for high liturgy in general).
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First (and this is the reason I first started praying the hours), I find the liturgy to be beautiful. My heart is drawn to old things. And quiet things. And ornate things. Architecturally, I much prefer a church that looks more like a church (and the older the better) and less like a warehouse. High liturgy is to prayer what a medieval cathedral is to churches. It is far easier to worship when I am surrounded by beauty—with what I draw meaning from. The same is true with the words of my prayers. The older and more ornate they are, the more I feel my soul drawn towards worship.
Second, the Hours contain within them deep riches. They are full of the full range of human emotion towards God. There are laments and there are praise songs. There are rebukes and there are encouragements. Praying the Hours takes the stress (and focus!) off of me. I no longer feel obligated to come up with “good” prayers. I can pray the words before me. Prayer is less of an obligation and more of a joy.
Third, the Hours, as a form of prayer, are very old. Indeed, the Jews prayed the Hours long before Christians appropriated the practice. And, historically, these prayers have survived for thousands of years across the generations. They are trustworthy because of their longevity. This form of prayer has a long history of spiritually forming people.
Fourth, the Hours humble me. I am required to pray the prayers of the church, not the prayers of my own devising. I am to submit myself to the bride of Christ rather than submit myself to me. The Hours are unpretentious. They don’t try so hard. They are not out to impress anyone. When I come across something in them that I do not understand or think is problematic, I pray the prayer anyway. In so doing, I cultivate submission, in my heart, to God and his church. And to the deposit of faith. Moreover, the Hours keeps me from focusing too much on my favorite prayers or my pet concerns. Much like the lectionary keeps pastors from preaching only on the easy verses (or their favorite verses) by compelling them to address the entire canon, so too the Hours draw me into the fullness of the church’s witness.
Fifth, and most importantly, the Hours draw me into the wider community of faith. By praying the same prayers as the church has done for 2,000 years, and by praying alongside my sisters and brothers the world over, I am participating in the body of Christ in a real and tangible sense. Historic continuity with the church is very important because it guards against reinventing the wheel, veering off in troubling theological directions, and practicing a form of faith that is resistant to finding common ground with other traditions. By praying the same prayers (and saying the same creeds) as the rest of the church, you draw yourself into the unity that Christ so earnestly desires and the Spirit so assiduously is urging. In participation in the wider community of faith, we guard against narcissistic spirituality, theology, and soteriology.
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None of this is, of course, a rejection or condemnation of Low Church, charismatic, or evangelical prayer praxes. On the contrary! I have benefited greatly from spontaneous prayer that addresses God in my own words. I have learned the value of being able to pray over, with, and for people. I still pray this way frequently! My adoption of the Hours is my attempt to discover a form of prayer that fits with the way I was made. There are plenty of other ancient prayer practices that perfectly jive with charismatic and evangelical praxes, especially contemplative prayer. The catholic mystics addressed God just as personally as do today’s evangelicals.
And, moreover, I completely understand the person who grew up in a liturgical church who learned the prayers and the forms growing up. This person, though, never opened a bible or understood that God actually heard them. Or, even worse, actually cared about them. This person came from a tradition that thought it knew everything about God. That it had God figured out. This person may encounter the charismatic, evangelical version of prayer and may, for the first time, realize that God is a person with whom we can relate. Thank God for such encounters!
However, I grew up being taught to figure everything out for myself. I grew up being told that God is a daddy who eagerly longs for relationship with his children, that I should talk to God like he was a friend. I was taught that God is mysterious and we will never understand him, but that we should trust him. What I was never taught was the history of the church. I was never taught anything resembling systematic theology. I was never taught that there were common prayers, accessible to people in all languages! I never understood the historic consensus of a church much larger than I am. And, so, I seek out liturgy and the Hours to fill that longing. To satisfy my hunger. The Hours help guard against the excesses of a “do-it-yourself” faith while charismatic evangelicalism can help guard against the excesses of a “we-have-it all-figured-out” faith.
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In the coming weeks I will be reflecting on the Nicene Creed. This creed has come to shape my faith in much the same way as it has shaped the faith of the historical church.
Following the lead of this article (recommended by a professor of mine), I will begin the process of slow-blogging.
Be at peace.