Many of us may be familiar with the terms “Vespers” and “Compline,” used for special evening worship services. But these are actually just two of seven prayer times, or “offices,” that help us remember the events in Jesus’ life and ministry in worshipful observance throughout any given twenty-four-hour period.

This daily rhythm is called canonical hours, or the Liturgy of the Hours. I discovered them long ago while on retreat with what was then known as The Ecumenical Institute. Starting at midnight, every three hours around the clock, some of the participants would engage in a brief time of worship. Taken together, the full day and night reminded us of Jesus’ entire earthly life, death, and Resurrection.

In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes eight canonical hours this way:
1. Vigils – Night prayer
2. Lauds – Waking-up prayers
3. Prime – Prayers for beginning work
4. Terce – Giving-thanks prayers in mid-morning
5. Sext – Noonday prayer of commitment
6. None – Midafternoon prayer
7. Vespers – Evening prayer of stillness
8. Compline – Going-to-sleep prayer of trust.
Traditionally, these periods of prayer grew from the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at seven fixed times each day (See Acts 3:1; Psalm 119:164). Usually the Christian observance includes a hymn, psalm, scripture text, and prayer. Each portion from the Bible focuses on a key time in Jesus’ life, such as the crucifixion at noon, his death at 3 p.m., or the empty tomb at six in the morning.

These canonical hours are the backbone of daily life among members of the Roman Catholic religious orders, laid out by St. Benedict. But this daily framework can be a powerful experience for any one of us, for example while on a spiritual retreat. I have found this framework a great comfort and foundation for my days and nights, particularly at times of spiritual struggle. These reminders of Jesus’ own trials and overcoming can be a great encouragement in our own lives of faith. A four-volume set or pocket edition of The Divine Hours, by Phyllis Tickle, offers a guide to prayer for the entire year.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

See Also: Rhythms of Worship, Part 1