I remember so clearly my first experience in the city of Istanbul — the sound of the call to prayer coming from the beautiful Blue Mosque as the day was done. Of course, my travel companion and I were sitting in a rooftop bar sipping from a glass of hot apple tea, having just arrived in the city and experiencing jet-lag beyond belief. But each and every day, five times a day, we were drawn by that sound — a sound simultaneously foreign and comforting to us . We laughed at the time, saying that we thought perhaps we should initiate a call to prayer from the bell tower at our church, the Calvary Baptist Church.
Maybe that was not a joke after all. At least, this many years later, it does not seem like a joke to me, because, it turns out that fixed hour prayer is, well, a Christian thing too.
If you continue to study the history of your Christian faith and of the earthly church, eventually you will encounter (more than once) the story of the of the practice of fixed prayer. And perhaps if, like me, your faith has been nurtured in that rich vein of church traditions built upon the history of the protestant dissent movement that was the Great Reformation, well, you might dismiss fixed prayer without consideration, you know, as something the Catholics do, in those silly and now historically irrelevant monasteries. Funny how seriously the property lust of one English king 500 years ago can continue to influence our theological understanding of worship.
But if you keep studying, maybe just maybe, that knee-jerk-learned-prejudice might just fall away. You might encounter Sr. Joan Chittister and learn more and more about the ways of St. Benedict and all that it has to say to our post modern culture. You might meet Dr. Roberta Bondi and hear first person testimony about the importance of fixed hour prayer in the face of a life filled with gender discrimination in the academy. Or you might meet Brother David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (the monastic order of the Episcopal Church) or Brother Emmanuel of the ecumenical community at Taize…and you cannot help but begin to question those old prejudices.
And then, you find the work of Glenn Hinson. Glenn Hinson, church historian and to some, a Baptist heretic (being part of the split in the Southern Baptist Convention that led to the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), produced an amazing book, Baptist Spirituality: A Call for Renewed Attentiveness to God (2013) in which he recounts the Baptist journey away from the contemplative formation practices of their Puritan forbears towards a type of conversionist spirituality based in the transactional nature of 19th and 20th century American business practice. He calls for a return to our contemplative roots and a spirituality rooted in attentiveness to God in our lives and not the numbers in our pews. While he proposes no specific spiritual practice, he too has been influenced by the teachings of St. Benedict and more directly, by the work of Thomas Merton, with whom he studied.
It was Phyllis Tickle who provided me with the final push towards the idea of fixed prayer as a possible practice. Tickle’s writing usually disrupts my theology (particularly my ecclesiology) so drastically that I find it difficult to complete whatever book of hers I am reading, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up one of the volumes in her Divine Hours series, a collection of books that contain reworked versions of the Benedictine prayer book. You may or may not know that Ms. Tickle is walking through a very serious illness right now and doing so as the beloved public person of faith that she has been for many of us. This news caused me to thumb through my collection of her works only to pick up my copy of her Divine Offices and begin to skim through the introduction.
Skimming turned to deep reading as I encountered ideas like these…that the practice of fixed prayer comes to us not from the Catholic Church and early monasticism but from our Jewish faith ancestors and the life of the Temple now destroyed and comes to us through the pages of the Bible which we dissenters hold do dear. And the other mind blowing concept for this Protestant? FIXED PRAYER IS A FORM OF WORSHIP. How often do we think of prayer and worship as separate activities? In truth they are not. In truth there are private and public iterations of both.
And so, my friends, here I am. Each day for a month, I have followed Ms. Tickle’s breviary, Prayers for Summertime: A Manual for Prayer (Divine Hours). No monastery, no habit, just me, my book, and a cup of tea. Not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but new to me and my lived faith. I am still failing at achieving the five-times-a-day pattern each and every day, but even with my human failing of irregularity, I feel the value of the practice. Instead of meaning less to silently recite the Gloria Patri or the Lord’s Prayer, it means more. The prayers begin to live in your bones, not just in the words. I guess that is the true meaning of practice.