I have always enjoyed rising early, even as a child. It is a new day, with new things to discover, and older good things to affirm. What is not to like? I now usually awake between three and four in the morning. The other day I was doing field work by five. In this fashion an entire day of work can be had by noon.
The most characteristic office of prayer for both faithful Jews and Christians is Vigils. At midnight I shall rise to give thanks… (Psalm 119:62). God is at work in wonderful ways at night, consider the Exodus, the birth of Jesus, and the resurrection of Christ to name the most historically powerful of these. Accordingly, early Christian liturgy often followed all night gatherings. In his Institutes John Cassian records attending night worship in darkened churches where Christians recited the Psalms by heart; these were Jesus’ prayer book and even his Gentile disciples saw transformative Christological significance in them, approaching them in a contemplative frame of mind, ready to imbibe the Word of God, and open themselves to passive participation with God in the work of the day that lay ahead of them by doing so.
The origin of the Divine Office emerges very early in the liturgical history of Christian people. This gave rise to community gatherings not only in the morning and evening, but also at the third, sixth, and ninth hours as well, which eventually was expanded to seven:
Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.
– Psalm 119:164
At Mattins bound, at Prime reviled,
Condemned to death at Tierce,
Nailed to the Cross at Sext, at Nones
His blessed side they pierce.
They take him down at Vesper-tide,
In grave at Compline lay;
Who thenceforth bids His Church observe
Her sevenfold hour always.
Anyone reading the Rule of St. Benedict looking for a theology of prayer is bound to be brought up short of one. But once again, the Rule is not an ideology, but a rule to organize genuine community life, a way to harmonize our internal love of God with our external circumstances in a common life in a way that is authentically in keeping with the witness of Scripture and is directly and voluntarily accountable to someone who has proven themselves in the common life.
The Rule’s chapters 8-20 deal with regular, community prayer. Many of these original arrangements have been modified by present-day communities, while others have been considerably expanded. And while Cassian’s promotion of continual prayer is admirable, even the most ardent of early risers find his advancements elaborate. Nevertheless, heartfelt devotion is both reflected in and nurtured by the consistent, formal exposure to and recitation of the Psalms.
What is most significant is that Benedict places his instructions on the Divine Office right up front, directly next to his instructions on silence, obedience, and humility. These are all passive practises, actions in which one allows themselves to be shaped by what they do not do, namely, talk, exert their egos, and advance themselves by their accomplishments, all the things with which the world is preoccupied. And as with these, so the recitation of the Psalms simply seeks to elicit an attitude that is ready and attentive to listening to the Word of God. This is different than doing something for God, which is most notably the dominant intent of church programs across denominations today. Instead, this approach calls for simple, passive reception of the Word, and the contemplative reflection on such, with an attitude of reception, and waiting, and expectation that in God’s time God’s will will come to pass. If this is not particularly logical to the Western mind, it is not supposed to be, and certainly not any more than the order of the liturgical chapters themselves are meant to be.
Purity, which implies intentional self-forgetfulness, is primary. This arises in direct proportion to learning silence, obedience, and humility, along with the repetitive reading and re-reading of the Psalms. It is that simple.