catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 16 :: 2003.08.01 — 2003.08.14


Sweet hour of prayer

In this slim, enjoyable book Arthur Paul Boers?a Mennonite pastor, oblate, and teacher?invites Christians to uncover the blessings and benefits of an ancient tradition: the practice of common daily morning and evening prayer.

Boers? comments are particularly relevant for a church culture that values spirituality and classical Christian practices. In addition to the recent interest in monastic communities such as Taiz?, Iona, and Northumbria, Protestant Christians are also looking for inspiration from Orthodox Christianity, Franciscan spirituality and Celtic Christianity. Phyllis Tickle, a contributing editor for religion for Publishers Weekly

notes that an unprecedented number of prayerbooks are now available, as readers are ?rapidly hastening toward the third century.?

The Rhythm of God?s Grace provides a thoughtful introduction to the background, logic, and theology of one such ancient practice. Boers writes, ?Given the long history of morning and evening prayer during most of church history and still predominating in much of the church?overlooking [fixed-hour prayer] is at the least a tragic disservice.? Throughout the book, he supports this conviction with biblical examples, stories and personal experience.

Boers begins by introducing the concept of fixed-hour praying (also known as common prayer, divine hours, or the Office), setting out the three-fold structure of offering praise to God, listening to God?s Word, and responding to God. Deeply rooted in Scripture, fixed-hour prayer incorporates Psalms, scriptural readings, silences, songs, intercessory prayers, and confession. Boers notes the sacrificial nature of the term ?Office:? as Christians pray, they offer not only morning and evening moments to God, but also all that happens between the times of prayer.

Though Christians from all traditions seek to dedicate their daily lives to God, many have never even heard of fixed-hour prayer. The practice is deeply rooted in Jewish and early Christian culture but it has been almost lost to many Protestants. Perhaps the most interesting part of The Rhythm of God?s Grace is its history of this loss and of the church?s changing views on prayer.

For fourth century Christians, corporate morning and evening prayer was a way of life. Churches offered accessible, engaging services several times a day, and many people attended regularly. However, devout monks slowly began to shape prayer services into long, inwardly oriented devotions with no role for laypersons. The familiar concept of ?personal prayer? began to develop and became stronger through the Middle Ages. Laypersons did not understand the Latin used during worship services and turned to private prayerbooks, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary as alternatives to corporate worship. Fixed-hour prayer, now practiced eight or more times each day, was feasible only for priests and monks.

Many Reformers, such as Luther and Zwingli, attempted to modify fixed-hour prayer into shorter, more accessible services. On the whole, though, Protestant devotions were relegated to pastors? studies, family prayers, or school chapels. Boers writes:

The Reformation took to new lengths emphases begun in the late Middle Ages: ?a trend to elevate individual, contemplative, and interior prayer as spiritually superior to the communal, external forms of the divine office, which it was thought could present a distraction to ?real? praying? (Paul Bradshaw, Two Ways of Praying).

This trend toward personal piety continued to grow through the industrial revolution and urbanization. Other factors such as individualism, a voluntaristic approach to faith, a resurgence of evangelical fervor, and the wide availability of private devotional material also rendered prayer a private, inward matter.

This leaves Christians today with some problems. Many struggle with prayer: what to say, how to feel ?inspired? or authentic, when to pray, how to feel connected to the wider church. Boers argues that morning and evening prayer can help solve many of these problems while strengthening the church and blessing its members. Morning and evening prayer unites Christians around the world and through the centuries as they offer the same words of praise and petition. Praying together, especially at similar times, can profoundly reverse unhealthy individualism in our prayer.

Morning and evening prayer provides Christians with a way to sanctify time: to make holy both day and night and all that happens within. Christians are able to make the most of their time, offering one of their most precious resources as a sacrifice to God.

Common prayer also reflects the truth of the gospel: ?Evening and morning prayers reflect a central Christian truth, the paschal mystery: Our life comes from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Evening prayer is a small death; we surrender ourselves into God?s hands. The morning is a small rebirth and resurrection.?

Perhaps most importantly, practicing daily prayer teaches Christians to pray. The words of the Office provide Christians with a language of praise and prayer?a language to be used through times of joy, grief, struggle, and doubt. Boers concludes, ?In a time of pilgrimage and seeking, when people look to ancient Christian resources?or elsewhere when we do not provide them?and struggle with deep questions, the church needs to provide refuges of prayer and help people by providing structures and support for prayer.?

The Rhythm of God?s Grace ends with several helpful appendices: tips for praying morning and evening prayer, an outline of the typical structure of each prayer, tips for preparing an inviting prayer space, and an extensive bibliography of recommended prayer books.

Though Boers points out that fixed-hour prayer is not for everyone, the book is thoroughly convincing and I couldn?t wait to try it. Following the traditional liturgy truly gave me, a life-long prayer skeptic, a language with which to commune with God; as Eugene Peterson says, ?Boers rescues prayer, probably the most important thing we do, from the trivializing tyranny of whim and feeling.? The Rhythm of God?s Grace is an accessible, understandable introduction to a beautiful tradition, and those who take its lessons to heart will gain a richer understanding of an important Christian discipline.

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