Recently I read a book that was so good it made me resolve never to miss praying the hours of the church again. Its author, David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, does not attempt to guilt us into praying. He comes at it differently. Praying or not praying, for him, are not questions of guilt or merit. What is at stake is rather the poverty or richness of life. God does not need for us to pray, but we need for us to pray.
His book is entitled, The Music of Silence (San Francisco, Harper, 1995) and its thesis is simple: If we do not pray, at regular intervals each day, we will not meet the angel of each hour and our lives will be much poorer for that fact. How so?
Steindl_Rast begins by explaining the rhythm of the church’s liturgical hours of prayer. These hours, a combination of psalms, scriptural readings, and liturgical prayers, are the prayers that have been for centuries chanted by contemplative monks and nuns in monasteries and recited more simply by priests and other religious. In many Protestant traditions, some of these hours form the basis of church services and, more recently within Roman Catholicism, many lay persons have picked them up and begun praying them. While many of us have some familiarity with two of these hours, Lauds and Vespers, few of us are familiar with the others: Vigils, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Compline.
These hours form an ancient rhythm of prayer which, whether we are professional contemplatives or not, should be the essential prayer-rhythm of everyone’s day. It works this way: An hour, thus defined, does not mean a simple hour on the clock. A liturgical hour is more a measure of soul than of chronology. It is like a season of the year: spring, summer, fall, or winter. These, our seasons, are as much a feeling, a temperature, a shade of light, and a colour as they are a date on the calendar. Each is a mood and, mythically speaking, each brings its own particular angel.
But that angel can be missed. A moment can pass us by for nothing. All of us have had this experience. And how often it happens. Because of heartaches and headaches, the pressures and pains that so chronically plague us, we can miss a season. A summer, a fall, a winter, or a spring, passes and we never really attune to its mood. It comes and goes unexamined, unable to really give us anything. We never seize the moment, its colours, its smells, its temperature, its particular shades of light, and the moods these stir in us. We miss greeting its angel.
Thus, for example, we say things like: “Because of mother’s death we had no Christmas this year.” “This year, with all the moving we had to do, we had no summer really.” “I have been so preoccupied and stressed at work that spring has made no difference to me this year.” Seasons come and go and often we simply miss them.
Coupled with this is the effect of pressure and worry within us. After awhile, we have the impression that time is limited, that there is never enough time to do all the things we are required to do. Many of us live with a constant feeling that we must hurry, that we are behind, that time is running too swiftly. Because of this, we too rarely notice, really, the season and the hour of day, with its changes of light, colour, and temperature. We miss its particular mood, its angel.
The church invites us to say Lauds and Vespers and whatever other canonical hours we can manage, precisely so that we do not miss our mornings, our afternoons, and our evenings. We all know what is at stake here because we have all missed countless mornings, afternoon, and evenings precisely because we did not pray. If I do not begin my morning with prayer, with a Lauds, which receives what the angel of each morning brings – the gift of a new day, the dawn of new light, refreshment after sleep, time and space for a renewed innocence and enthusiasm. I will soon find that it is noon and I have missed a morning. I won’t feel particularly guilty about not praying. I will just have missed a morning. The same will happen to me if I do not, through some Vespers, greet the angel of evening. I won’t go to bed feeling guilty about not praying. I will though, mostly likely, miss the evening, for I will not attune myself to that particular kind of peace and feeling of neighbourliness that can be received only as the light of day is fading.
Without prayer, we hurry compulsively through our days, missing most of them because we are missing the angels that God is sending each hour.