Desert Wisdom: Times for Prayer (1)

I’m reading Basil Pennington’s book Challenges in Prayer.  In it he says that the greatest challenge in cultivating a life of prayer is time itself.  The stewardship of time is the basis for so much that emerges in and flows from our spiritual formation.  Gabriel Bunge would certainly agree, and he confirms this view by turning next to the times of prayer (pp. 71-79).

In the most general sense, the early Christians developed their times of prayer in relation to the day itself.  They took a biblical understanding of time and translated it into a cycle of daily praying.

The creation story orders the day as “evening and morning,” not the other way around as we tend to do.  Accordingly, you will find in both ancient and modern devotional literature prayer “beginning” in the night—either with evening prayer the night before (as with Saturday prayers before Sunday) or with the pre-dawn Vigil—that is, praying which begins the day with God before morning comes.

In the first few centuries of Christianity this cycle was connected to the phrase in the Psalms “seven times a day I will praise thee” (119:164).  Here is another place where we can see the early Christians carrying forward a comparable prayer cycle from Judaism, but clearly giving to it (as the Liturgy of the Hours shows) a Christological emphasis.

Christianity teaches that the life of prayer follows the pattern of life we are given in the daily round.  Prayer is not to be separated from the rest of our life; indeed, it is a response to life as it unfolds day after day.  Christians only mark certain periods of time (e.g. morning, noon, and evening) to express their life commitment through conscious prayer.  But more, they are using the fixed times of prayer to train themselves in the art and act of “praying without ceasing.”

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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