I was born into a family where my mom was Roman Catholic and my dad was United Methodist. While I normally went with my mom & brother to our Catholic church, (I was even an altar boy for a few years) on the big holidays, we would usually go to the Methodist church with my dad’s family. (Liz & I got married in the chapel of that church!)
Although those two churches were very different from each other, looking back on my childhood, they were similar in a lot of ways. When walking into those churches there was the sense that God was really big…And there was a sense of awe when walking in there.
One of the other things that those two churches had in common was how they handled prayer. In general, prayer was saying something someone else had written or prepared.
At age 12, when my uncle “got saved” during the whole Jesus people movement in the mid/late 70’s, we started going to non-liturgical churches. Obviously there was a lot that was different about this new church…not only were the prayers spontaneous, rather than written by someone else, we were told praying those other prayers were bad. In fact, I was thought that that was what Jesus was talking about when he mentioned “vain repetitions.”
For the next 15 years of so of my life I considered that transition from liturgical church to pentecostal/evangelical church as the point in my life when I came to Jesus. In large part because as a young adult, I was continually told that all that stuff from those other churches didn’t really count…that it was totally unhelpful, and probably even harmful.
It was probably in my early 30s when I really began to see, not only the value in my time in both the Catholic and Methodist churches, but just as importantly, realized that my time there was very important for the formation of my faith. I was an altar boy, not because I had to be, but I liked hanging around the church. I loved being involved in the service. It was there that I really began to love God.
However, for years, I still had a bit of a hang up about pre-written prayers. Which brings us to the Divine hours. The divine hours, are basically portions of scritpure, poetry and prayers written by others.
As I mentioned, the church my mom started taking me to after that was very anti-ritual. And they would refer to some of the rituals, and prayers that were practiced in the Catholic church as vain repetition. They’re just empty words. But I always thought what if when we spoke them we meant them…and we actually prayed them to God?
Think about it, we sing songs all the time that someone else wrote and somehow they help us connect with God. Why would prayer be so different than worship?
Have you ever prayed the Breast Plate of St. Patrick…i could work my whole life & not utter a prayer like that…I sense God’s presence every time I pray it.
So when you practice the divine hours, read them as your own.
One last thought on this. I just finished reading Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner, which I loved. It is she goes through the practices and rituals that she misses from growing up Jewish. I really liked what she said about prayer:
“Liturgy can be dull, and it’s dullness distracting…But it roteness is a danger, it is also the way liturgy works. When you don’t have to think all the time about what words you are going to say next, you are free to fully enter into the act of praying; you are free to participate in the life of God.
Put differently: I have sometimes set aside my prayer book for days and weeks on end, and I find that at the end of those days and weeks on end, that I have lapsed into narcissism. Though meaning to commune with or reverence, or at least acknowledge God, I wind up talking to myself about my emotions du jour. I worry about my mother’s health, or I stress about money, or (more happily) I hop up and down with excitement about good news or sunshine or life in general, but I never get much further than that.”
She also makes the point that when we are going through difficult times, it is often more difficult for us to focus on the greatness, and awesomeness of God. But by praying the prayers of the the church, we are far more likely to focus on much more of God than when we are guided solely by our emotions & current situations.
(this is part 2 of a series of posts on the divine hours. you can find the first post here)