Tuesday, 28 May 2019

The Hours are for everyone

“I can’t find time to pray” is something you hear constantly during confession. Working people, particularly those who also have young children, often struggle to find time in the morning to complete the 20–30 min Morning Prayers one finds in most Orthodox prayer books; in the evening before bed, some might have the time, but often are simply too exhausted. The common advice “Do as much as you can” is sound enough, but not particularly helpful when what they can normally find time for is nothing at all.

The Church, of course, does not centre its formal prayer around getting in and out of bed, but spreads the services out throughout the day — approximately every 3 hours, if the services are not amalgamated. During the average working day, the Book of Hours, which is the prayer book of the Orthodox Church, provides us with four short services — the 1st, 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours (6am, 9am, 12noon, 3pm). These involve no singing, almost no variables (only the apolytikion and kontakion of the day change), and only take about 10mins to read. In short, they’re perfectly suited for modern, busy working people who want to participate in the Church’s daily cycle of prayer, but who struggle to find time at home.

I consider it unfortunate that the Book of Hours is virtually unknown even among pious Orthodox laypeople. Moreover, those laypeople who do show an interest in the Hours are told not to bother: they are only for monks! 

First of all, recent scholarship seems to discredit this idea. The Orthodox liturgical scholar Stig Symeon Fr√łyshov of Oslo University, for example, has demonstrated that the Hours were not a monastic feature later imposed on the “cathedral rite”, but actually belonged to the cathedral rite of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. The same goes for the various other features of the daily office often deemed “monastic” (click here for more info).

But let’s assume it is the case that the Hours strictly speaking are monastic offices: so what? The “parish services” of Matins and Vespers are very long (even in heavily abbreviated “non-monastic” form), almost entirely sung, have a complex structure with countless daily and seasonal variables, and require a whole series of different liturgical books. They also include various elements that assume the participation of a priest. They are not services one can realistically expect anyone to do outside of a church setting. In the past, daily attendance at Matins and Vespers may have been the norm (at least, it was expected), and the rhythm of life allowed for it. Today, however, who has the opportunity to attend Matins and Vespers on a daily basis apart from monastics? The so-called “monastic services”, on the other hand, are short and require only one little book (or app!), no knowledge of ecclesiastical music, and no particular understanding of the Church typicon. They do not presuppose the participation of a priest, and, more importantly, afford a degree of flexibility in terms of when and what to pray. In other words, they are services laypeople can realistically make use of on a daily basis. Why deny them that opportunity?

Redeem the time, because the days are evil
(Eph. 5:16)

The Small Book of Hours