Pray Without Ceasing

TELL US ABOUT YOUR OWN PRAYER LIFE. When did you start doing fixed-hour prayer?
Although the roots of regular daily prayer go back to my college years, it wasn't until I switched from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism that I started fixed-hour prayer. That was when I was in my late 20s, although everything prior in my life had led me toward that discipline. I think my vocation is to prayer, and so my life and prayer life are in essence the same. And although fixed-hour prayer is important in my prayer life right now, it's not the whole of it. I also offer up innumerable "prayers on the fly"—everything from the Gloria to the "Please help me's" of daily life.

But back when I started teaching at the college level, I got regular breaks and I was enough of an Episcopalian that I was saying morning prayer, vespers, and compline. By the time I started teaching in Memphis, I was keeping fixed-hour prayer, doing it in the faculty lounge or faculty bathroom. That was the only place that was safe from undergraduates; they'll find you anywhere else. But I was jury-rigging the words. I didn't actually own a breviary until I was about 32. I knew what one was, but it never occurred to me to buy one.

What exactly is a breviary?
A breviary is a very specific thing. It comes out of the monastic tradition, and Catholic priests are still enjoined to say the breviary every day. The breviary itself as a form didn't begin until the 11th century, when one of the popes could no longer juggle all the books required to keep the Hours and asked his librarian to put together what were essentially Cliff Notes, just the opening six or eight words of each part of each service, so he would have a road map himself. The Latin word for short things is breviarum, and so it became in English breviary.

What I did with each volume of The Divine Hours is refashion the breviary into a manual that I hope is more accessible for contemporary usage. One of the imperatives that Doubleday, my publisher, laid down was that everything in The Divine Hours had to be immediately accessible, so there would be no need for prior understanding. And the accessibility had to be not just for Roman Catholics but for other liturgical Christians—Episcopalians and Eastern Orthodox—and for more liturgical Protestants like Methodists and Lutherans. What I think nobody counted on was the tidal wave of other Protestants buying the book.

Did you ever think that you would be compiling a modern-day breviary?
When my agent first approached me, I said, "No, I can't." Prayer books—whether they're manuals or breviaries—are made by 70 little old men sitting in a dark room for 70 years, right? Some lay woman from Tennessee doesn't just go cough one out.

I'd like to say that I prayed about it and got directed, but that's not true. What I thought about was how irritated I have always been by all the breviaries I've used. Every time I think I've found the perfect one, it picks up a flaw, usually somewhere around the 23rd Sunday of Pentecost. Because I began my professional life as a poet, I was especially annoyed by the disrespect for the poetry of the psalter and in some breviaries for the cacophony of the collect prayers. So the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "Yes, I would love to do this."

Never before have I felt such union with what I was doing, such total lack of self-awareness for hours and hours. I used to say that the seven little Tickles were what I came to earth for. But now I think this may really be what I came for.

Do you think fixed-hour prayer works well for people who need structure?
Some people might say they would rather pray from their heart.Well, do it, pray from the heart, but just don't do it on fixed-hour prayer time. Fixed-hour prayer means that you are doing the same thing your fellow Christians have just done or are about to do or are doing in your time zone. Everybody's praying the same thing. You are part of a choir, and no one likes an off-key soloist.

Certainly, there is a rigidity that is more comforting to some personality types than to others, but there is more than comfort involved in fixed-hour prayer. People who go into fixed-hour prayer to "achieve" something miss what it's about. It's about joining the communion of saints from the church's beginning until now, which is a privilege. When I finish the 12 o'clock prayers, I finish what somebody back in the Eastern time zone began at my 11 o'clock and passed on to me.

What about those books of daily meditations?
Meditation books certainly play to some of the same things—they're daily and build a routine. But they're distinctly different from fixed-hour prayer. Fixed-hour prayer is to join the fixed words of a tradition, to join the whole community at praise and worship.

With those meditation-a-day books, you aren't doing the same words as others are and you're not doing praise. You're basically doing internal housekeeping, and fixed-hour prayer isn't internal housekeeping.

Some of us try to do it for a while but keep forgetting and then feel guilty...
No, no, no! Fixed-hour prayer is as old as Judaism, and Judaism says it's better to pray some than not at all. If you can only do one office, do one office. If you can only do one office on Saturday, do one office on Saturday. Join the communion when you can. Don't feel guilty.

Fixed-hour prayer is really as old as Judaism?
That's where both Islam and Christianity got it. Nobody is quite sure when, but certainly the psalmist says of himself, "Seven times a day do I praise you" (Ps. 119:164). The prophet Daniel is thrown into the lion's den for doing fixed-hour prayer, for example. So there's a tradition.

There's nothing that says that Jesus did fixed-hour prayer, but we have every reason to assume he did because he was a good Jew. We definitely see it in the apostolic days. The first post-Resurrection healing miracle happens as Peter and John are going into the temple for 3 o'clock prayers (Acts 3:1).

Phyllis TickleWe also know that the forum bell controlled every part of life in the Roman Empire. It rang at 6 o'clock in the morning (which we call prime) to tell people to open the shops. At 9 o'clock (terce, or third hour), it meant take a coffee break—or if you were a good Jew, a prayer break. The sixth hour of the day (sext) was what we call noon, and it meant to close the shops and go home for the siesta.

The ninth hour of the day (none) was 3 o'clock—time for the shops to open again—and then at 6 o'clock (vespers) the shops closed. There were also prayers for retiring and midnight (compline and lauds).

At some point, probably around 100 B.C. or thereabouts, the fixed-hour prayers became attached to those forum hours and nighttime events.

Fixed-hour prayers were said in families, but at some point during the first two centuries of Christianity it became customary for several families to go to what was essentially a church. The Hours began to be seen as something one did with fellow Christians.

So in the beginning it was for the laity—not just for priests?
Yes, but the clergy, forgive me, were a greedy lot. They were just as territorial as bears in summer. Increasingly fixed-hour prayer got to be seen as something you had to have clergy to do. As that happened, there was less and less sense of its applicability for ordinary folk.

Also, as illiteracy increased after the fall of Rome, it became nearly impossible for unlettered laity to do the prayers individually. You'd have to have a huge memory.

Then you get the Desert Fathers, bless their little hearts, who got the notion—and I think they're right—that Paul meant it when he said "pray without ceasing." So as one of their disciplines they reinterpreted fixed-hour prayer and required a choir of monks to read the Psalter for the whole three hours before passing it on to the next choir who picked up the prayers for another three hours.

Now, obviously that's something that few laity can do. No woman with a baby can do such a thing because the baby is going to cry or dirty a diaper or something else. So fixed-hour prayer, in that form, became totally impractical for laity, especially women. By the time you get to the Dark Ages, it has essentially disappeared from lay life entirely. The only residual is the Angelus, which is said at 9 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.

How did the practice return to the laity? Priests alone haven't made The Divine Hours a bestseller. Does it have something to do with the current spiritual revival in this country?
Well, the Reformation introduced a new prayer book, which does have the lay offices. That historically was the beginning of the move back to the laity. Vatican II, of course, came along and really kick- started it again in this century. But it has been a gradual return and is definitely tied to the return of literacy.

As for a return to ancient spiritual practice and to an increased interest in religion, I don't think there's any question we're in a major paradigmatic shift in those directions.

When did this spiritual shift begin?
Any good sociologist of religion, I think, would say that it began in 1935 with the establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA talks about a generic god, a greater spirit you don't have to name or put a label on, but who saves you. It says, unlike 200 years of American Protestantism, "Friend, if you're hurting, that doesn't prove God doesn't love you or you aren't right with God. It just proves you're hurting." And that was a real blow to the traditional stances of American religion.

AA also said that two adults working together as fellow sufferers were of more benefit than an adult and clergyman. We've always been very anticlerical in this country—you don't leave home and go 2,000 miles on a floating tub if you're happy with the powers that be. But AA is the beginning of an overt manifestation of truly modern anticlericalism in this country. It's also the beginning of the small group movement.

When AA's Big Book went on sale in 1959, the cat was out of the bag because then the bookstore began to become the new pastor's study. In 1987—and this was one of the few times I've ever been prophetic and smart enough to get it down on paper—I said for the first time that books are "portable pastors." They are.

What do you think about this explosion of interest in spirituality—in books, on Oprah, everywhere?
I used to say that if one more person tells me, "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual," I was going to throw up. But I've changed my mind. There is increasingly a legitimate distinction in the popular mind between the two, and I think you have to honor the search.

A lot of this change goes back to the influence of Eastern spirituality in the second half of this century. And, of course, the electronic media. Before mid-century, popular culture didn't really matter. Now Godtalk is being done in the populace. It's vox populi. Not vox ecclesiae. It's being formed in the streets and at watercoolers.

When people say they're spiritual, are they talking about a level of authenticity they don't find in religious experience?
You see, it's the institution and its political and social ramifications that are troubling. There are also doctrinal positions people say they can't possibly believe in. I think also that religion bears with it the stench of social expectation. If you're religious, you're supposed to be somewhere between Pollyanna and Goody Two Shoes. And if you're spiritual, you're human.

Also, increasingly, religion is seen as theory and spirituality as practice. If I'm a God-fearing person, I want both, but I'll probably put more energy over here in spirituality.

What would you do if you were a pastor?
If I were a pastor, I'd shoot myself (laughs). But seriously, one of the things that's happening right now is that the ordained are coming back into their own in a way. There is an increasing sense, especially among the X and Y generations, that when you lay hands on a man or woman, you do indeed enter a mysterium. What we're seeing in the culture now is older Ys and younger Xs who, because they do, indeed, live in cyberspace, have no problem believing that two contradictory things can be true and that there is a mystery in life to which they must return.

But if I were a pastor right now, and I had to make a choice between the two, I would forget my old people and worry about my 4- to 10-year-olds. Statistics show that if you let a child go to age 14 without introducing her to religious impulses, she's gone. You've got about a 1 percent chance after that. But if you can catch a child from 4 to 10, you've got him.

So I'd put computers in every single church school classroom, because if you don't have computers, you don't have kids' respect or the tools they're familiar with. And computers allow for instruction in a non-hierarchal way. You do a search, and you don't organize it hierarchically, you organize it by relationships. The minute you start lecturing, however, you're back to hierarchal and youngsters will tune out.

I'd also be doing anything that plays to mystery and to the visual—the flannel boards of Grandma's parish church, the icons, the banners. In fact, I'd also hang a banner from every post that had a nail on it or could support a nail. This is a very visual generation

All active news articles