by Phyllis Tickle
This talk is also available in audio
I've looked forward to being with you. What we're going to talk about is everyday spirituality. Forget all the bells and the whistles and the gee-gaws, let's talk about the thing itself.
When we talk about spirituality in 2002, we're talking about
a slightly different animal from what we would have been
talking about 10 or 15 years ago in American culture. Basically,
America was not given to spirituality or to much conversation
about spirituality from the days of our founding until about
1970 or 1980, when we suddenly discovered it. American culture
is a child of the Enlightenment—those who formed us, those who shaped us, those who settled us were Enlightenment thinkers. We are, in fact, a great living testimony to the good political philosophy that the Enlightenment blessed humanity with—may
God preserve our form of government and see it spread widely
across this world.
But at the same time that the Enlightenment was producing
very savvy political thinkers and very informed and adroit
politicians in terms of the social unit, the social contract,
it was not emphasizing—in fact, it was de-emphasizing—the world of the spirit. It was also primarily Protestant, and Protestantism lacks a certain sex appeal, or as my husband would say, “It has no bells and smells.” So coming out of a primarily Protestant and Enlightenment tradition, spirituality was not something we talked about.
We began talking about spirituality in this country for a number of reasons in the last part of the 20th Century. If you were going to be very simplistic (and for the sake of time I suppose I have to be), I would say that the one thing that tripped us over into an awareness of our lack of knowledge about spirituality was the change in 1965 of the immigration laws. In 1965 we opened our borders primarily to Asians. We had closed those borders to Asia very early in the 20th Century, because we became terribly concerned about the influx of cheap Chinese labor at the end of the 19th Century.
By 1965, we had fought three world wars that involved some commerce amongst American young men and young women with the Eastern area of the world. We had fought the Second World War, much of it in Japan, and it had involved some occupation of that area. We fought in Vietnam, and we fought in Korea. Those three wars, for all their horror, did, at least, get rid of our Asia-phobia and made it possible politically for us to open our borders.
When that happened, Eastern culture flowed in in a huge inundation, and guess what? They were all Buddhists! Big surprise. What they came with was centuries and centuries of comfort with and knowledge of the world of the spirit. They came in talking as easily about that world as Enlightenment folk talked about the world of politics. The problem was, we had very little understanding of their comfort, very little understanding of the disciplines that led to that comfort, and very little understanding even of the basic agencies of the spiritual world.
American religion boomed and blossomed in the last part of the
last century, primarily as a result of this inundation of information
about the other part of human existence—the spiritual world.
Those of you who are as old as I will remember what a wonderful
experience that was, what a blooming out of possibility. Some of
you who are younger, and who have come into adult consciousness
since 1965, will remember it in terms of history books.
But it was a wonderful thing, and all of a sudden, we discovered
all over again that as human beings we work in three spheres: We
work in the world of the body; we work in the world of the mind;
and we work and walk in the world of the spirit—mankind,
humankind, female and male alike. To be human is to have three
areas to which the consciousness may attend. That is, the consciousness may be focused in one of three places, and life, as we understand it, is a weaving together of those three. We call them body, mind, and spirit.
In the world of the mind, we come with all of the things that are emotion, what Freud played with. We come with all of the things that are the body and the spirit meeting together. In the world of the body, we know what we have. What we are just beginning to understand is what we have in the world of the spirit. The important thing is, however, that we human beings feel, as we move in these three spheres, that somehow there should be a union of them. There should be a coming together of them.
You may say, “I can take my deliberate intention, my consciousness,
and I can go over here into the world of the spirit, and I can
do Buddhist meditation, I can do Hindu meditation, I can do just
plain old commonsense pop psychology meditation and move in the
world of the spirit; or I can turn my attention to my psychologist
or my counselor or just my own head and live with what the Buddhists
call the chatterer. I can think in the world of my emotions all
I want to. My attention can be focused here, or I can go to a good
movie, or I can go and get deeply involved in my work. But somehow
there must be a way to bring all of these things together so that
I am once more complete.”
Much of human yearning is the need to find the union of these parts— that
time of harmony from which we feel we have been severed, the time
in which all of these areas function together. When this happens,
what we really meet is the mystery, the mystery of the harmony
that is the unity of life. That's what we are really looking for.
When we talk about everyday spirituality in 2002, what I think we are really talking about is the need to achieve some way of entering those places of harmony where all the parts sing, where we hear the music of the spheres and we engage God, that great luminous darkness that is complete light and complete joy. We are looking for the way in which to take the spiritual that we do not know and the corporal that we know so well, and to bring them together.
From the beginning of mankind, certainly from the beginning of Judeo-Christian religion, there have been a number of ways of creating those little interruptions in normal life, those places where we can engage the mystery, those places of harmony and integration. A good Jew two thousand years ago would have known that one of the ways of interrupting life and meeting with the spiritual was the Sabbath.
We used to keep the Sabbath. We used to set it aside and say, “Here is a time. Here is an interruption in one of the dimensions that informs life in which we will stop, and we will honor the Spirit of God.” As a Christian we would take the host and say to ourselves, believing it, “We're about to eat the body of our God.” And taking the chalice we would say, “We are about to drink the blood of our God who dared come among us and assume flesh and blood in order that that flesh and blood might spray out across all of human history and enter each of us.” We would honor the time before that consumption and the hours after that consumption by an interruption of all other habits. We would hallow the time around that event—the Eucharist or the Mass or the Communion. That's what the Sabbath was, and it had built around it time and place.
Because we are creatures of dimension, if we wish to integrate all of the areas of experience into one place to meet the mystery, we must interrupt the dimensions. We must carve out space within the dimensions of time and place for that to happen. The other great way that we met the mystery--by carving, if you will, a chaplet, created by interrupting time and out of it building a whole different space—was fixed-hour prayer.
The History of Fixed-Hour Prayer
The mass is as the mass is. We participate in it, some of us as often as once a day, sometimes twice a day, sometimes only once a week, but we spread around it enough words and enough time to set it off. We have lost the Sabbath wrap to it, unfortunately. It will come back, mark my words. As sure as I am standing here, I see a regeneration, a rebirth of an understanding of the Sabbath as a time that hallows that central act which informs it. Also coming back, however, is fixed-hour prayer. Both the mass and fixed-hour prayer come to us out of Judaism. Fixed-hour prayer informs, to some greater or lesser extent, all of the monotheistic faiths.
We know that the Psalmist says, “Seven times a day do I praise you.” (Ps. 119:164) We have no idea when those hours were, but we know that from the time of King David or before, good Orthodox Jews were interrupting their normal day at least seven times to stop and do fixed prayers—prayers of praise, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of adulation. They were not prayers of petition. They are prayers in which the creature approaches the Creator and says, “How privileged I am to be able to come before you, my Lord.”
That's what fixed-hour prayer is. We know that it was done seven times a day. We just don't know in ancient Judaism when those hours were. We know, for instance, that in one of the Psalms, King David says, “I rise at midnight to praise you.” Aha! The hour is called lauds, and in the Roman tradition it becomes the prayer of lauds, the prayer at midnight, the prayer of praise.
We know that good Daniel was thrown into the lion's den because he insisted on going up to the second floor of his quarters in Babylon and opening his window at nine in the morning and praying. Aha! The monastic hour of terse! That's why he got thrown in the lion's den. That's what Daniel was doing. That's what his insurrection was, he would not give up fixed-hour prayer. He was up there doing it, and the King could like it or not.
By 100 BC, 150 BC, the entire Mediterranean world was under Roman command, not necessarily serving Rome, but under the cultural and social and commercial implications of Roman civilization, which translates at a practical level to saying that every little town or village that wished to deal with the Empire also had to deal with the Empire's daily schedule.
There was in every village a forum bell, and the bell had to ring in accordance with Roman time. The first bell (considered the first hour of the Roman day, also called prime) was at six in the morning. It served as the signal for everybody to go into the forum and open the stalls. The second bell rang at nine in the morning. It was the third hour of the commercial and social and business day, and it was called terse, the Latin word for three. At that point, everybody was supposed to stop and, I suppose, take the equivalent of a coffee break. And then you went back to work.
The bell rang again at the sixth hour, which would be our noon, and which was called sext. It meant you closed the stalls and went home for a three-hour break. You have lunch, you rest, and you sleep. At three o'clock, the ninth hour of the day, none in Latin, the bell rang again. You came back, and you opened the stalls and you stayed there until dusk. Since dusk changes according to the sun and the season of the year, instead of giving it a numerical assignment, it was simply called vespers, the Latin word for evening.
Now, it didn't take long for the good Jews, who were being not only Hellinized but also Romanized, to begin to attach their fixed-hour prayers to those times. So by the time our Lord came along, those times were already established. That was when good Jews went and did their praying. They either did it at home at the domestic altar or they went into the Temple, according to whether they were near the Temple or not. Everything seems to point to the fact that if they were not actually in Jerusalem and fairly near to the Temple itself, they simply did it individually, or they did it as home units, but they observed those hours.
Now, we don't have a record of Jesus Christ keeping fixed-hour prayer. We do know that the disciples were gathered in an upper room at nine in the morning, the hour of prayer, when the Spirit came among them at Pentecost. Those watching them said, "These people are drunk," and Peter turned and said, "At nine in the morning? I don't think so." Why were they there? They were there keeping the hour of terse. They were gathered for prayer.
If you will remember also, good St. Peter, when he was in Joppa, went up to the rooftop of the house of Simon the Tanner at the hour of 12 noon to pray. While he was up there, he saw the Lord lower a sheet before him, a sheet filled with animals of all kinds, and the voice said, “Kill and eat." He responded, "“I cannot Lord, for I will not eat what's not clean." Three times the sheet came down before Peter said, “Oh, he's telling me something. He's telling me Gentiles are okay." That's why you and I are Christians. But my main point was that it happened at 12 o'clock, while Peter was on the rooftop observing the prayers of sext.
Remember the first healing miracle after the Resurrection? Peter and John were on their way up the Temple steps for three o'clock prayer when they see the cripple, and they stop and heal him. They were on their way to the service of none because they were in Jerusalem and near the Temple.
The fact that we don't read in Scripture about Jesus keeping fixed-hour prayers does not mean that he didn't. I think it's quite obvious he did, because he was a good, although unorthodox, Jew.
Christians and Fixed-Hour Prayer
The history of fixed-hour prayer, as it comes into Christianity, is something that should be of concern to every Christian. First of all, we need to remember that early Christians thought they were still Jews. It was not until about 100 AD that we get folks who began to understand, especially after the disruption of the temple in 70 AD, that they are not Jews, they are Christians. That name laid on them in Antioch means something. They are a fulfillment of Judaism. Their Lord is prophecy-realized. As that happens and Christians become more and more self-conscious about themselves as a different religion and of Christianity as not being a part of Judaism, they become more and more involved with the fixed-hour prayer. They also feel the need to move away from urban centers and dedicate themselves more and more to God.
By the Third Century, we are introduced to what we call the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers are, with all due respect to them, where we begin to lose this part of spirituality. Christian spirituality, from its very beginning, depended and focused on two things: the Eucharist with its Sabbath wrap and fixed-hour prayer. We did serious damage to the Sabbath wrap and we began to lose fixed-hour prayer with the Desert Fathers.
St. Paul wrote to the early churches, “Let there be prayer without ceasing.” (1Th 5:17) The Desert Fathers, in a fit of religious enthusiasm, took him literally and decided that you needed to have a constant cascade of prayer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So they had a choir of fathers who sang or chanted or recited the offices for three and four hours at a time, and then they turned it over to the next little choir, and so on. This became the Christian understanding of what fixed-hour prayer should be.
It also became the death of fixed-hour prayer for laity. There is no female in the world who can do that, because the baby is going to cry, or the husband is going to complain. Even men aren't going to be able to support it unless they are on celibate terms, because the wife is going to complain. No, only a male devoted only to God, on some kind of supported situation, could do it.
There are also conventions to fixed-hour prayer. There were in Judaism, and there still are. One of those conventions is that there has to be a cycle for the Psalter. Every Psalm in the Psalter has to be repeated during the course of fixed-hour prayer on some sort of set regimen. Now if you use The Divine Hours, which is the compilation I put together a couple of years ago, the regimen is every six weeks. If you pray out of that manual, every six weeks you will have used every Psalm in the Psalter. For the Desert Fathers it seemed imperative that the Psalter, the whole Psalter, be repeated at least once every day. So they had to do the entire Psalter every day, they had to do the “Our Father” at every office, and they had to do the “Gloria” twice at every office. Before you know it, they had built this impossible thing that bore about as much resemblance to spirituality as does the Empire State Building.
At the same time that the Desert Fathers were doing their thing, the Roman civilization began to erode. This allowed for an influx of more and more folks from the country into the urban centers. These folks were basically illiterate, and did not come out of the Jewish tradition. They did not come out of the monotheistic tradition. They did not come out of any notion of spirituality. They came out of paganism. Many of them were converted into Christianity as illiterates with no liturgical background. They came bereft of all the things that had made fixed-hour prayer work.
By the Third and Fourth century--especially after Constantine made Christianity acceptable--the priests or monks were saying, “Come to the basilica [public church] at six in the morning, come at nine in the morning when you take your coffee break, come at twelve when you take your lunch, come at three when you go back to the shop, and the priests will say the prayers, while, good children, you all sit and listen.” You see? Now, you are not praying. You're just doing the market list in your head while the clergy is mumbling something you can't hear. We had developed the lectionary and the liturgical year and were also integrating the offices with all of this. This was a big difference. Spirituality had ceased and had become religion. The ritual had ceased to be the chaplet and had become the structure. The mystery was gone.
Then about 500 AD, there was a good man named St. Benedict, only he wasn't a saint then. He was just Benedict, a vowed celibate and a monk. He left the monastery in the morning, came in and ran the Basilica in Rome, and went back at night and was a monk again. He walked two worlds: the world of the laity who had no liturgical background, no religious heritage, who were illiterate but devout Christians now struggling to follow their Lord; and the cumbersome and monastic realities of the traditions of the Desert Fathers. He realized there had to be some way to put these two back together. By 525 AD he had fashioned his famous Rule that shows the church how to continue to keep the offices. But then the Dark Ages happened, and the laity lost the idea of fixed-hour prayer almost entirely.
Interestingly, Islam never experienced this decline. This has become much more apparent to us in the months since 9/11. We've seen on TV the Muslims praying their fixed-hour prayers on their prayer rugs in public settings. Because it didn't exist at that time as we know it, Islam missed all that period of Rome's decline, all that period of influx of paganism into a religion with no prior preparation in any way, all that illiteracy, the Desert Fathers. There was no interruption, and so the laity in Islam never lost fixed-hour prayer. It's been there from the get-go. It's only the Christian laity that lost it.
But times change. We became people of the Enlightenment, very heady, and very sophisticated, sharp thinkers. We were good at figuring out things—a people of science and rationality. But our spirits were starved, and we began to realize we were hungry for more. We couldn't live just in the world of the body and the mind; we had to get back to the spirit. Almost presciently, one of the changes that Vatican II effected in 1971 was the return of the liturgy of the hours, not only for the devout, cloistered clergy, but also for the secular clergy and the laity, spawning the wonderful four-volume Liturgy of the Hours.
With that, people began exploring once again what it means to govern their day by interrupting it every three hours with a moment of prayer—prayer that is not of their invention, not their petitions, not their intercessions, not their words, but the words that have informed the faith to which they have appended themselves. The words are fixed by the lectionary; they are the same words prayed by everyone. The words are being said simultaneously by every Christian who is keeping the hours in a single time zone. When Christian after Christian stops and reads the lessons in Psalms and the prayers appointed for that office at that day at that time, they read those words together. What we have once more is the Communion of Saints from the very beginning—King David and before—the same words that passed through the lips of Jesus Christ and the apostles and the Desert Fathers and of all of those who came after them.
Fixed-hour prayer gives us the opportunity to have one brief moment where the mystery is there—where the worlds of the body, the mind and the spirit stop together, however briefly, and enter a dimensionless place in which time is interrupted and space is interrupted. I don't know a Christian who has practiced fixed-hour prayer for many years who is not acutely aware, first of all, of the privilege given the creature to be able to enter into the presence of the Creator. They are also aware of the presence of those other speakers' voices, spirits, souls, gathering in that little uninterrupted space. There is the Communion of Saints in a felt awareness, in a felt presence.
As the push from '65 to '75 to '85 in this country came along, we began to explore generic spirituality. We talked for years about ooey-gooey God, God by Wendy's, or generic God. Those were perfectly legitimate labels because once this thing, this cat was out of the bag, this wildfire was sweeping across the country, anything that looked like spirituality was wonderful.
By 1994 and 1995, however, increasingly the question in Christian communities was: Where is my spirituality as a Christian? I understand Buddhist principles. I got that, you know. I can meditate. I can do yoga out of the Hindu tradition. I understand how to go into the world of the nothingness where there is no desire. But where is my spirituality as a Christian? Where can I take this and find what it was that informed my Lord? Where is mystery for me as a Christian? These questions led a number of publishers to begin to ask the question, “Can we put together a prayer manual that allows folks who are not liturgically sophisticated to begin to lay claim to the fixed-hour prayer tradition?” My book, Divine Hours, was the product of Doubleday's attempt to create that.
Now there are whole organizations, Tapestry being one that comes to mind, dedicated to teaching Protestant men and women how to keep the hours using Divine Hours or other manuals that have been published. Any of them will work for you. One of the things that has given me the greatest joy concerning the publishing of Divine Hours is to see my growing stack of e-mails from Baptist and Church of God and Church of Christ members, all beginning to keep the hours, which is amazing.
If I could envision the next ten, twenty, thirty years in Christianity, I believe there will be an increasing awareness of the time wrap around the Eucharist that is the Sabbath. I also believe there will be the continuing growth of keeping of the offices. There's no question about that. If you look at most of the fixed-hour prayer manuals now, they are in first person singular. That is, they assume that you are going to be praying them alone. Hopefully, and I see evidence of this as I talk to people around the country, the pronoun will change back to we, and we will be seeing the growth in the domestic altar.
The home altar has got to come back, and I'm not talking about a physical spot with an icon or two on it. I'm talking about that sacramental business of religion within the home. It's especially important as we become more multi-faithed in this country. We are going to have to develop a religion of the public square or a civil religion that allows us to do business as people of many faiths and communions.
Interestingly enough, the Muslims are going to give us the courage of our convictions, Jews and Christians alike. As the Islamics demand the interruption of the day to throw down their prayer rugs and pray, we'll start praying our fixed-hour prayers. There's eventually going to be some space in every major plant in America that says, “Abrahamics here, only please don't all come at the same time.” As that happens, the importance of the domestic altar is going to increase, and one would hope that the pronouns of the fixed-hour prayers will indeed change back to the plural. It will be parents and children praying together.
Fixed-hour prayer is a discipline. Like any spiritual discipline, it can be very hard at times. It can be very demanding. But the point of this talk is that everyday spirituality requires the ability to integrate experience in the physical world and the spiritual world and the mental world into an act of worship and engaging the mystery. For Christians, the way to do that, traditionally, has been through the Eucharist and fixed-hour prayer. Those are the places in which, like the gateposts, we can open up space and time and meet our God. They are where we can bring the experiences of both realms into this realm, creating out of them a place of worship.
Copyright ©2002 Phyllis Tickle.
Peter's Catholic Church, Memphis,
January 13, 2002.