Prayer spreads over time

Religion: The hourly regimen of prayers that monks have followed for centuries is spreading beyond monasteries.

April 12, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

O Lord, open my lips

And my mouth shall declare your praise.

For centuries, monks have mouthed these words as they begin their daily regimen of prayer in the pre-dawn hours. The Liturgy of the Hours -- Psalms and prayers recited at set hours -- fixed the rhythm of their day, from rising to rest.

Also called the Divine Office, the prayers have for the most part been the preserve of Roman Catholic priests, deacons, nuns and brothers.

But the Office is being discovered by Catholic lay people, such as those who gather every day for Morning Prayer at St. Clement Mary Hofbauer parish in Rosedale, or for Evening Prayer at St. Benedict parish in Southwest Baltimore.

Protestants say they, too, are finding spiritual inspiration in coming together -- or in seeking solitude -- to recite the prayers known by Latin titles such as Lauds, Vespers or Compline.

For the average person, picking up a breviary, the prayerbook used in the Office, is a daunting experience. A half dozen colored ribbons mark the sections one must flip between during the prayer's various parts.

In response to the increasing popularity of the Divine Office, about a half dozen books have recently been published or are soon to hit print. The cyber world is weighing in, too, with Web sites -- www.liturgyhours.org and www.universalis.com springing up.

"I think there is a clear need, there's a hunger for Christian spirituality, Christian spiritual discipline," said Phyllis Tickle, the Publisher's Weekly religion editor who is compiling her own breviary, "The Divine Hours." Her first volume, "Prayers for Summertime," was released last month.

"We've gone from the ooey gooey to the importing to Christianity of disciplines from other faiths," said Tickle, whose watch alarm reminds her three times a day to pick up her prayer book. "Now, we have stumbled on the fact that some Christians would like to know what their spiritual traditions are."

Bonnie Shannonhouse has been traveling the world for six years to teach the Liturgy of the Hours to Protestant women -- Anglicans like herself, but also mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatics.

"When I discovered [the Hours], it pained me that the Protestants threw the baby out with the bath water at the Reformation," said Shannonhouse of North Baltimore.

She has written two versions of the Hours for lay people, which she calls "The Lost Coin" series, after Jesus' parable in the Gospels about the person who rejoices on a precious find. The Hours offer a bridge between what she calls the liturgical churches, such as Catholics and Anglicans, and the nonliturgical, evangelical Christians.

"We've lost a spiritual coin in our Christian hearts, and we rejoice because it is now found," she said. "It's breaking down barriers and prejudices and hatreds that have existed for the last 500 years."

Robert Benson, who was raised in the Nazarene Church, later became a Methodist and now worships as an Episcopalian, has prayed the Hours since he was introduced to them a decade ago.

"Because of my evangelical background, all I knew about prayer was the kind of extemporaneous, conversational prayer that's most common, almost exclusively used in evangelical settings," said Benson, who has written his own simplified Office, "Venite, a Book of Daily Prayer."

"I didn't know anything about corporate prayer, daily prayer, monastic prayer," he said. "This was prayer that was not dependent on my eloquence or my spiritual depth at a given point in time. It required simply faithfulness, not always an easy thing to do."

The benefit to praying at fixed hours is that "it keeps our focus on God during the day," said Etta Patton, who says morning prayer at St. Clement Mary Hofbauer and evening prayer by herself. The practice of the Office is rooted in the Jewish tradition of fixed hours of prayer and receives its Christian inspiration from St. Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing."

By the fourth century, monastic communities had set apart specific parts of the day for prayer, and between the fifth and the ninth centuries, the Office developed its form of eight hours: Matins and Lauds in the early morning; the Little Hours during the day of Prime (the first hour, before dawn); Terce (the third hour, 9 a.m.), Sext (the sixth hour, noon) and None (the ninth hour, 3 p.m.); and the evening and night prayers of Vespers and Compline.

Though monks can devote their entire day to prayer, the Christian in the world usually chooses a portion of the Office: just morning prayer or Vespers, or maybe just the Little Hours of Terce, Sext and None (Prime has been dropped).

Although the Office can include prayers, hymns and religious readings, the recitation of the Psalms is at its heart. They are recited or sung and are done in an antiphonal style, with one side of the congregation taking one strophe or stanza while the other listens, and then reversing roles.

Dale Dombrosky discovered the Office when she stopped at St. Benedict's in 1990. "I was going through a particularly hard time in my life, and the Psalms really spoke to me. Sometimes, they express praise, sometimes petition, sometimes anger. It's like a real conversation with God," she said.

"To me, this was a healing for me, to be able to speak to the Lord like that," she said. "That's how I came back to the church. Really, the Liturgy of the Hours has been a saving prayer for me."

Many who recite the Office have a sense of participating in a cosmic wave of prayer. "It's not just us here. People around the world are saying these same prayers," said Nancy Cappellini, who often drives from her Owings Mills home to morning prayer at St. Clement Mary Hofbauer in Rosedale. "You feel like you're in union with the whole church."

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