I learned a thing or two about the Islamic faith as a kid and thought it was cool that they made a point to pray five times a day every day. My question of, “Why don’t we Christians pray like that” was met with an answer of something like, “We pray when the Lord moves in our hearts,” or “They pray like that because of a tradition forced on them.” I accepted such explanations. But, it seemed that keeping such a practice every day by free will would be a great way to grow in God’s grace.
As I studied early Christianity and checked the scriptures, it seemed that the Jesus and His Apostles thought the same thing. Our Lord made it a point to pray alone early in the morning (Mark 1:35) and late in the evening (Matthew 14:22, 23). The Gospel writers took note of the Savior hanging on the cross and the world becoming dark from the sixth to the ninth hours when He breathed his last (noon to three in the evening, Luke 23:44-46). Peter, after receiving the Holy Spirit, preached the Pentecostal sermon at the third hour (nine in the morning, Acts 2:5-15) and made use of the sixth and ninth hours for public and private prayers (Acts 3:1, 10:9). He was even freed from prison as fellow believers prayed at midnight (Acts12:5-11). As Mark brought Christianity to Egypt, he taught the pattern of daily prayer called the Agpeya (this is the title of the Coptic Orthodox prayer book). No doubt the other Apostles and early Christians did likewise in other parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe.
As the Orthodox Church kept the Jewish tradition prayer at specific times during the day, worship services were developed at each hour. In predominately Orthodox nations such as Ethiopia or Serbia, some parishes have them daily. But, they are mostly done in monasteries today. For those of us who aren’t monks and nuns, public daily prayers are inconvenient and our society does not dictate us to perform them as in an Islamic country.
Observing the Hours is not mandated. But, it is a highly useful tool in our spiritual development and can be adapted to our needs and situations. We have brief traditional prayers that can be said within five minutes or less. If nothing else, the “Jesus Prayer” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) said a few times with attention and sincerity is sufficient as God judges our hearts rather than our words. For that matter, being silent in His presence is quite effective in seeking to be one with Him.
It is important to keep in mind the reasons for the Hours. Each of them represents a moment in the history of our salvation. The First (6 am) symbolizes the Son of God rising from the grave and giving us a new day. Third (9 am) is when the Holy Spirit fell on the Christians gathered in the Upper Room. Our Lord hung on the cross at the Sixth (12 noon) and died at the Ninth (3 pm). Sunset is a traditional time of prayer marking a new day. Compline is offered before going to sleep asking the Lord to watch over us through the night. As the day of judgement will come like a thief in the night, Midnight is also a time of prayer.
Unlike in Islam, praying the Hours is not mandatory to the Christian faith. Those who take up the practice do so on the advice of a spiritual father (or mother) and their own free will. Unlike in modern Christianity, the Hours is a practice to be seriously considered as a part of spiritual growth and development. I pray more of us in and outside of the Orthodox faith will take on this beautiful tool handed to us by Christ and His Apostles. Speak with a reliable guide, and begin where you are.