Sitting at my desk, I glance out the window at the sun and ponder where I am relative to the monastic hours. 7:30 a.m. is about halfway between Prime, the traditional morning prayer time for Christians, and Terce, which originally meant three hours after sunrise.
In ancient times, all the Abrahamic faiths recognized that timed prayer breaks away from the minutia of daily life were restorative and life-sustaining, particularly when done in sync with the cycles of the natural world.
The practice originated with the Jews, who set aside three times a day to pray. During the morning and evening services, people recited the Shema, considered the most important prayer in Judaism. It is the affirmation of faith in one God.
Early Christians adopted and amended the Jewish tradition, adding more prayer times. Saint Benedict’s Rule, a guidebook for monks written in the early 6th century, ordained eight prayer periods when monks would read from the Book of Psalms: Matins or Vigil, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Benedictine monasteries today observe an abbreviated version of the hours.
In Islam, the practice continues to thrive, as millions of Muslims throughout the world kneel and repeat prayers five times a day. Adhan, the call to prayer, sets the rhythm of the day for everyone in the community.
Following an Ancient Schedule
Modern laypeople in the West don’t live in monasteries or wear robes. Many of us lead frantic, anxiety-riddled lives where no one is encouraged to get up at 2 a.m. to chant, let alone leave a meeting at midmorning (Terce) or mid-afternoon (None) to pray.
Yet a couple of years ago, reading about the prayer times still practiced in Benedictine monasteries, I felt a sense of resonance with this ancient schedule and wondered what it would be like to live my life aligned with the daily cycles of the earth, like farmers or shepherds still do.
Together, the hours provide me with an unseen but deeply comforting sense of rhythm.
The Benedictine “Liturgy of the Hours” appealed to me because it offers a natural delineation of time based on the sun’s movements. What could be simpler than honoring the pilgrimage of the day in each of its phases: dawn, day, dusk and dark?
In her book Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Macrina Wiederkehr writes, “You can enter into the spirit of the hours wherever you are. No matter what you are doing, you can acknowledge the archetypal image of rhythm and movement of the day.”
While each day has its own texture, no matter what challenges or joys it presents, I find that keeping a gentle background check on the hours gives my life an overarching consistency and framework, especially in this surreal period during the COVID-19 pandemic, when I need a stronger sense of routine.
Here is how I observe the day’s transitions:
Matins/Vigil 2:00-5:00 a.m.
My body wakes naturally around 3:30 a.m. It’s my favorite time in the day. I feel in a private world all my own as I read inspiring literature and write in my journal.
Lauds (pre-dawn) 5:00 a.m.
My husband Barry and I meditate by candlelight at 4:30 a.m. After he rings our brass chimes, marking the start, I silently intone a line I learned at a retreat: “I consent to the presence and practice of God in my life,” the words wrapping around my heart even if I don’t understand them. Other times I repeat the haunting Rumi verse, “Come. Even if you have broken your vow a thousand times, come, come again, come.”
Prime (6:00 a.m.)
I stroll along the boardwalk near our home, watching the emerging light reflect on the waters of our bay.
Terce (9:00 a.m.)
By now, I’m well into my day, writing an article or developing material for one of the seminars I teach. I check in with myself: How’s it going?
Sext (12 noon)
Cooking a soup or a stir-fry for lunch makes me happy, thanks to the physical acts of chopping and sautéing and the satisfying outcome of creating something larger than its individual parts. Before eating, Barry and I “gassho,” a term in Buddhism which means bowing to each other with hands in prayer position.
None (3:00 p.m.)
By mid-afternoon, I’m prone to acedia, a Greek word meaning listlessness and ennui, a condition that also afflicted the monks. I work to overcome it by lying on the sofa and reading; taking a walk; or heading out on my paddleboard; physical activity was one of the remedies prescribed for acedia in ancient times.
In her book Praying the Hours, Suzanne Guthrie calls 3:00 p.m. “the grouchy hour.” Some sleep researchers believe, based on the tendency of toddlers and the elderly to nap in the afternoon, that we evolved to need rest during the day. Body temperature and cortisol levels, both factors in alertness, drop in the afternoon, and are made worse by overeating, sugar, sleep deprivation and stress. It’s no surprise in our modern world that many of us feel lethargic or grumpy in the afternoon.
Vespers (6:00 p.m.)
I’m ready for “wine o’clock.” I doubt the monks had this in mind for evening prayers (though wine-producing monasteries in the world abound!), but Barry and I enjoy a glass while we catch up on the day.
Compline (7:30 p.m.)
Compline, “complete,” was traditionally the last prayer service of the day, at 7:30 p.m., just before the monks entered the Great Silence, during which the whole community, including guests, observed silence until the morning service the next day.
I go to bed in stages. First, I doze on Barry’s shoulder while he finishes The New York Times crossword puzzle. Eventually I stumble off to “real” bed, feeling guilty at going to sleep so early (last night it was 8:30 p.m.). Why the guilt? After all, I wake up around 3:00 a.m.
It’s pride. I’m a Type-A who boasts about how little sleep I need. But to let myself go to bed when my body is tired … this is Compline’s lesson and gift. And so, like a contented child, to sleep I go.
A Comforting Rhythm
I began “keeping vigil” with Benedict’s ancient practice two years ago. Since then I’ve discovered that, as Wiederkehr observes, “each hour has its unique mood and special grace.”
Whatever is going on in my life — whether I’m writing, walking, driving, worrying, chatting with my frail and aging father — honoring the hours helps to calm me. Together, the hours provide me with an unseen but deeply comforting sense of rhythm.
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