Each year around Christmas time we look forward to the New Year in hopeful expectation. What will happen in 2017? Will it be better than 2016? Often we decide to take on a new "resolution" to correct an area of our lives that needs some work. It could be eating better, exercising more or simply spending more time with family.
One area that is always in need of growth is the spiritual life, but we often forget about it. So why not consider revamping that aspect of your life in the New Year?
A vital part of any spiritual life is the amount of focused time we devote to pray. One could say that "I never stop praying" throughout the day or that "my life is a prayer," and while that may be true, we still need a separate time each day to sit down and focus on God.
Think of it this way. In a marriage one does not need to say "I love you" to your spouse for them to know that they are loved. Doing acts of service or helping around the house can certainly communicate that love very effectively. However, even though you do not have to say "I love you" to your spouse, it greatly helps the relationship and confirms the love that you have for them.
Date nights further confirm that love and help solidly the relationship during the busyness of life. Married couples need time alone to communicate that love verbally and grow in their love of each other.
This same principle can also be applied to our relationship to God, which is often referred to in Scripture as a marriage (see Song of Songs and Revelation). While it is true that we can say "my life is a prayer," we also need that focused "one-on-one" time to develop our relationship with our Creator.
Have you ever wondered why many priests, nuns and religious around the world have a strict schedule of prayer where they constantly interrupt their daily activities to pause and pray to God? Besides the fact that they are following an ancient tradition of prayer that traces itself all the way to Jesus, the daily rhythm of prayer they live is meant to foster a deep personal relationship with God.
Let's first look at the origins of this tradition of prayer before we begin to explore its many spiritual benefits.
The Prayer Life of Jesus
As in all things in the spiritual life, we must look to Jesus to understand how to live an ordered life that deepens our love of God. Jesus, being a faithful Jew, would have followed the customs at the time and lived out the many traditions of the Jewish people. One of these traditions is the schedule of prayer that the Jews developed over time.
In particular, the Jewish people tried to fashion their daily prayer life to reflect the traditions of the Patriarchs. King David, who is believed to have wrote the Psalms, proclaims:
"Evening and morning, and at noon I will speak and declare: and he shall hear my voice." (Psalm 54:18 [55:17])
Besides King David, the prophet Daniel is shown in the Old Testament to have a similar set of times during the day for focused prayer:
“Now when Daniel knew this, that is to say, that the law was made, he went into his house: and opening the windows in his upper chamber towards Jerusalem, he knelt down three times a day, and adored, and gave thanks before his God, as he had been accustomed to do before.” (Daniel 6:10)
Over time the Jewish people then began a tradition of praying three times a day: in the morning, afternoon and evening. With the advent of Christianity, Jesus’ apostles at first continued to observe the traditions of the Jews and continued to pray at the appointed hours. For example, after the day of Pentecost we see the apostles remaining faithful to these three moments of prayer, "Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour" (Acts 3:1). Later on in Acts we see again how Peter, even while traveling, pauses to pray, "The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour" (Acts 10:9).
This daily rhythm of prayer has been adopted by many over the centuries and most recently by the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network (Apostleship of Prayer). More on that later.
As the centuries progressed, however, three times a day did not seem enough especially after St. Paul exhorted his followers to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:1 ). Christians then went back to the Old Testament for guidance and found this passage:
“Seven times a day I have given praise to thee, for the judgments of thy justice.” (Psalm 118:164 [119:164])
Seven is the biblical number for perfection and Christians saw this as the necessary number of times to pray. One of the earliest documents to have recorded these different hours to pray was the “Apostolic Constitutions” written in the 4th Century [As a note, even though it only records six hours and omits the final “Night Prayer” known as Compline, seven hours becomes standard shortly after this document was written up until the 6th Century]. In it is written,
“Offer up your prayers in the morning, at the third hour, the sixth, the ninth, the evening, and at cock-crowing: in the morning, returning thanks that the Lord has sent you light, that He has brought you past the night, and brought on the day; at the third hour, because at that hour the Lord received the sentence of condemnation from Pilate; at the sixth, because at that hour He was crucified; at the ninth, because all things were in commotion at the crucifixion of the Lord, as trembling at the bold attempt of the impious Jews, and not bearing the injury offered to their Lord; in the evening, giving thanks that He has given you the night to rest from the daily labours; at cock-crowing, because that hour brings the good news of the coming on of the day for the operations proper for the light.”
St. Benedict of Nursia (who lived in the 6th Century) built upon these seven hours and added an eighth hour, which occurs in the middle of the night. Eight is the biblical number of the “new creation,” as Jesus rose from the dead on the eighth day (the day after the Jewish Sabbath, which is Saturday). Here is the schedule of hours according to St. Benedict:
- Matins (during the night, often at midnight); also called Vigils or Nocturns (Night Office)
- Lauds or “Morning Prayer” (at Dawn, or 3 a.m.)
- Prime or “Early Morning Prayer” (First Hour, around 6 a.m.)
- Terce or “Mid-Morning Prayer” (Third Hour, around 9 a.m.)
- Sext or “Midday Prayer” (Sixth Hour, around noon)
- None or “Mid-Afternoon Prayer” (Ninth Hour, around 3 p.m.)
- Vespers or “Evening Prayer” (around 6 p.m.)
- Compline or “Night Prayer” (before going to bed, typically at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.)
Now all of this can look daunting and it is. This schedule of consecrated religious is not meant to be mimicked in the secular life. However, we can learn from it (as well as the earlier prayer schedule of Jesus himself) and adapt a version of it in our own lives in order to further develop our relationship with God.
Next week we will look at some of the specific benefits there are of having a daily rhythm of prayer and why it may be a good New Year's Resolution.