Ruth Haley Barton, our guest preacher last Consecration Sunday, wrote a book in 2006 she called “Sacred Rhythms,” and subtitled “Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation.” It’s a book on the spiritual disciplines along the lines of Richard Foster’s classic “Celebration of Discipline” from 1978.
In her introduction to “Sacred Rhythms,” Ruth wrote about the importance of having “a rule of life.” She explained that as important as it is that we know what the basic spiritual disciplines of Christianity are – Solitude, Scripture, Prayer, Honoring the Body, Self-Examination, Discernment, and Sabbath are the ones she explores in her book – it is even more important that these spiritual disciplines be put together “in a patterned way so that we move beyond random, haphazard approaches to the spiritual life” (14). And one of the keys in helping me to do this has been learning how to tell time spiritually.
Keeping the Church Year
My introduction to “sacred time” came from growing up in the Episcopal Church. This is where I first learned how to tell time spiritually. The Church Year wasn’t something I was “taught,” it was something that I experienced. Being a “high” Episcopal Church, the congregation in Southern California that was my first church home loved the pageantry and aesthetics of worship. Every Sunday was a production, and the “script” was the church calendar. I learned the life of Christ in worship every year from the end of November through the beginning of the summer. The first half of the church year tracks the Gospel events:
- · Advent – The preparation for and anticipation of His coming into the world;
- · Christmas – The celebration of His arrival;
- · Epiphany – The exploration of who He really is and what it really means;
- · Lent – The spiritual struggles He faced and creates for His disciples;
- · Holy Week – The very heart of the Gospel: Christ’s death, burial and resurrection;
- · Easter – Why we believe that Christ is risen, and the difference that it makes;
- · Pentecost – The beginning Christ’s continuing presence in the Church through the Holy Spirit.
For six months every year in worship I prayed, sang, read about and ritually experienced the Gospel journey of the life of Christ from Bethlehem to Nazareth, and from. It taught me who He was, what He did, and why it matters. And then, for the rest of the year, the six months variously labeled “The Season after Pentecost,” “Kingdomtide” and/or “Ordinary,” our focus turned to what Christ taught, and in turn, what the church taught about Him. My knowledge of and love for Jesus Christ both “informationally and “formationally” is due in no small measure to the way that the church of my childhood and youth accentuated the sacred rhythm of the year, tracing the unfolding of His life in the progression of the seasons.
Praying the Hours
The second way that I tell time spiritually is by “praying the hours.” In addition to the service of Holy Communion, the Episcopal Church of my childhood and youth routinely conducted two other worship services – Morning and Evening Prayer. I didn’t fully appreciate what these services were about until I made my first visit to a monastery in 1966. It was on that weekend retreat that I was spiritually “awakened.” God in Jesus Christ went from being a reality in my head – something I thought about and believed was real and true – to becoming a reality in my heart – a personal encounter that was part of my lived experience. Because all of this happened in a monastic setting, I became especially attentive to monastic approaches to the spiritual life, and this is where I learned about and when first began to experiment with the “Liturgy of the Hours.”
Psalm 119:164 says, “Seven times a day will I praise you O God,” and it was based on this, and the Jewish pattern of hours of prayer (see Acts 3:1), that early Christians began to structure their days around specific, structured and scheduled times of prayer – seven of them to be exact –
- · Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at Dawn, or 3 a.m.)
- · Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = approximately 6 a.m.)
- · Terce or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = approximately 9 a.m.)
- · Sext or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = approximately 12 noon)
- · None or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = approximately 3 p.m.)
- · Vespers or Evening Prayer (“at the lighting of the lamps”, generally at 6 p.m.)
- · Complineor Night Prayer (before retiring, generally at 9 p.m.)
The Order for Daily Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer that we sometimes used for worship at the church where I grew up were just simplified and reduced versions of these monastic hours of prayer to the schedule of a local church. And I have been praying variations of them now for 46 years. My standard remains what’s in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1945 edition) – the very first source I ever used. But I am constantly experimenting and supplementing; changing things up to stay fresh and engaged.
For several years now I have been mixing in Eastern Orthodox prayers and practices to my daily discipline. This is part of a larger spiritual trend in my life, but more about that another time. Suffice it to say that right now I have found that the Orthodox tradition of tying the daily hours of prayer to specific Biblical “moments,” particularly Gospel “moments,” to be wonderfully enriching. And the latest resource I have come across to guide me in this is the “Agpeya” of the Coptic Church (Egyptian Orthodox). Of course, as a Protestant Christian, not everything translates well into my faith and practice. But by being discerning, I have found the depth of these prayers – the “expositions” – on the hours to profoundly nourishing. The version I use is the one published by and distributed by the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii, that was edited by Fr. John Paul Abdelsayed and Fr. Moses Samaan. I have it on my Kindle, and I use every day.
1st Hour – Prime
Morning Prayer is designed to be prayed early coming of the true Light, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Prime is mainly associated with the eternity of God, His incarnation, His resurrection from the dead. It is intended to offer thanks to Him for having risen us from the sleep, beseeching Him to shine upon us, enlighten our lives, and grant us the power of His resurrection.
The Third Hour commemorated three significant events: Christ’s trail by Pilate, His ascension to heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit may cleanse our hearts and renew our lives.
The Sixth Hour reminds us of the crucifixion and passion of Christ. We pray that, through His life-giving passion, He may turn our thoughts to the remembrance of His commandments, and make of us a light of the world and salt of the earth.
The Ninth Hour commemorates the redemptive death of Christ in the flesh on the cross, and His acceptance of the repentance of the Thief. We pray that the Savior will, make us partakers of His grace, and accept our repentance when we cry out with the Thief, “Remember us, O Lord, when You come into Your Kingdom.” (Luke 23:42).
The Vespers (Sunset): Eleventh Hour, is associated with the act of taking down Christ’s body from the cross. At the end of the day, we give thanks for God’s protection, and confess our sins with the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31) that we may be counted among the laborers who were called at the eleventh hour of the day (Matt. 20:1-16).
The Compline (Retiring): Twelfth Hour, commemorates the burial of Christ. We remember the passing world and the final judgment. Mindful of our imminent standing before God, we ask forgiveness of our sins and protection through the night.
The Midnight Hour: commemorates the second coming of the Lord. The office consists of three watches, corresponding to the three stages of Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 25:1-13).
Marking the Days
The third way that I tell time spiritually is by marking the days. Again the Eastern Orthodox churches have a long tradition of doing this. It is traditional for them to meditate on and pray for angelic assistance on Monday, the life and witness of John the Baptist on Tuesday, the Passion of Jesus Christ on Wednesday, especially the betrayal of Judas Iscariot and our own failings, the faithfulness of the holy Apostles on Thursdays, the saving death of Jesus Christ on Fridays, both Creation and the state of the faithful departed in heaven on Saturdays, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ from that dead on Sundays.
But the way that I have marked each day as sacred time for years now has been with the use of John Doberstein’s Minister’s Prayer Book (Fortress Press – 1986). Designed with ministers in mind, this wonderful resource gathers together materials for prayer and meditation for each day of the week around some of the basic themes of the ministerial vocation –
- · Sunday – The Divine Institution and Commission of the Ministry
- · Monday –The Promise and Responsibility of the Ministry
- · Tuesday –The Minister’s Life
- · Wednesday – The Minister as Confessor
- · Thursday –The Minister as Pastor
- · Friday – The Minister as Intercessor
- · Saturday – The Minister as Preacher
This has been a constant companion in my prayer life now for the last two decades of my life, and one of my most treasured spiritual resources. Learning how to mark the days has helped me to fill each one of them with special meaning and focus.
An important part of my spiritual “rule of life” is learning the scared rhythm of how to tell time spiritually. Keeping the Church Year, praying the hours and marking the days have all contributed to my ability to do this. And I recommend them all as useful spiritual disciplines to you.