You may be surprised to know that the word “hour” in the Catholic tradition doesn’t mean sixty minutes of time. Our Tradition embraces a more qualitative sense of time or at least more general timeframes than we are used to in our world of time mastery and technical precision.
We’re familiar with this traditional way of reckoning time from scripture: the Gospel of John, for example, says that Pilate condemned Jesus at “the sixth hour” (John 19:14) –noon – a typical way of measuring time in the ancient world before the invention of the clock.
Of course, we conduct our lives in the world of chronological hours, but the concept of an “hour” in the Catholic mind is not really about time: it’s about prayer. Hours are more like sacred spaces in the day when we take “time out” to sanctify our work and daily lives by prayer.
The jewels of prayer that our title speaks about are based on this more generalized and qualitative concept of time, and we’ll appreciate them better with a little explanation of the system of prayer that produced them.
Saint Anne presenting a young Virgin Mary and Anne of Brittany to her patron Saint Claude.
From the Primer of Claude of France, ca. 1505
Hours and Prayers
First, the word itself. The English word “hour” comes directly from the Greek word hóra (Gk: ὥρα) with a hard “h” at the beginning.
The Latin language adopted the word directly, keeping the “h” but making it silent. So hóra is actually pronounced “ora” in Latin, which is precisely the word for “prayer” in Latin! (The verb “to pray” is “orare”.)
These two words – with and without the “h” – are fraternal twins, we might say. When the word is used to designate time, it keeps the initial “h”, which we see reflected in the uncommon English word for “schedule” (horarium). When it is used for prayer, it loses the initial “h” as in our word “oration”, etc.
The connection between the two words may be coincidental, but it is likely – very likely – that the ora for prayer came from the fact that the prayers were conducted at fixed hours of the day in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. There is some biblical precedent for this in the psalms:
“Seven times a day I praise you because your judgments are righteous” (Ps 119:164).
This scriptural witness for daily prayer is the basis of what developed over centuries in the Christian monastic Tradition.
St. Benedict (Again)
I’ve written in the past about the contribution of the amazing St. Benedict (480-548 AD) to the transformation of Western civilization. His feast day is this week (July 11th), and each time it comes around I always marvel that one man could have had such a great impact on history. His monks essentially saved the West after the fall of the Roman Empire, and they spread learning and culture everywhere they went.
The other aspect of the Benedictine influence on civilization was prayer. As part of their Rule of Life given by St. Benedict (in the year 516), all monks dedicate themselves to praying the psalms together with their community at certain hours of the day. This routine of monastic prayer is called the Liturgy of the Hours and is based upon the “seven times a day” reference from Psalm 119.
Then, the Benedictines went the extra mile and found another prayer reference in the same psalm which increased their prayer regimen to eight times a day!
“At midnight I rise to praise you because of your righteous judgments.” (Ps 119:62)
While St. Benedict did not invent this system of prayer, he certainly standardized it and made it a way of life for centuries of monks and, as we will see, for the laity as well.
The Horarium of Prayer
Monks pray at eight different “hours” of the day. This does not mean that they sit in a church for eight continuous hours every day praying! Again, that is the chronological meaning of the word hour. Still, eight different prayer times during the day is a lot of prayer.
It indicates that every single day, while the laity go about their business working jobs in the world, monks in monasteries and nuns in cloisters are doing their own “work” praying for the world in a formal way, roughly every three hours – including in the middle of the night.
This schedule of prayer is also called the “divine office”, and again, there is a very logical reason for that term: “officium” in Latin means “duty”. It is the duty of monks, nuns, priests, and religious to pray for us – how nice!