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Snacking on the Psalms
A Lesson in Praying the Divine Office with David Clayton
Today we celebrate the passing of St. Benedict—the traditional feast day for the patron saint of this challenge. Benedict of Nursia died around 545 AD. As we enter the latter days of Lent, I want to dedicate more attention to the spiritual practices associated with the founder of western monasticism, which will support us in the increasingly difficult discipline of fasting.
St. Benedict’s motto was “Ora et Labora”—prayer and work—but this phrase is somewhat redundant in that the way monks prayed back then was considered a kind of work. The Work of God was the highest form of labor, and while the prayer schedule observed in monasteries was meant to be an occasion for joy, the daily rigors of the Divine Office were indeed a labor of love.
Two years ago during Lent, I interviewed my friend David Clayton, author of The Vision for You: How to Discover the Life You were Made For, and the curator of the Way of Beauty, about the traditional monastic pattern of prayer and how people living outside of the monasteries can adapt it to our present circumstances. Just as a rule and structure is essential to our success when it comes to fasting, a regular pattern of prayer turns out to be a powerful aid to a vibrant prayer life. What follows is a condensed transcript.
The power of a regular prayer practice
Charlie Deist: Today we're talking about the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. Are those terms interchangeable?
David Clayton: Pretty much.
Charlie Deist: How old is this practice?
David Clayton: The earliest Christians continued the Jewish practice of praying at certain times of the day. Acts 3:1 mentions that Peter and John went to the temple at the third hour to pray the Psalms, as was the Jewish custom. The essence of our Christian monastic tradition is praying the Book of Psalms and marking the hours of the day for prayer.
Charlie Deist: So it's actually an ancient Jewish practice.
David Clayton: Yes. I once heard the Mass described as a jewel in the crown of the Church. The mass is the jewel in its setting, and the setting is the Liturgy of the Hours. It follows the pattern of the day and the seasons, reflecting the cosmos. The Liturgy of the Hours is similar in structure to Jewish prayer, though not identical. It was ready to receive us, shaped to sanctify time in some form.
So the mass has the highest importance. That is a weekly Easter, in a sense, the Passover, but also the celebration of the resurrection. St. Paul referred to all creation eagerly awaiting its destiny, the cosmos moaning and groaning (Romans 8:22), while we were really waiting for the mass to come, which is what it all points to. The Mass is the ultimate expression. The liturgy of the hours becomes a way to carry the graces received at Sunday Mass through the week and into each day. Thus, it allows us to cooperate continually with grace. There is a call to "pray without ceasing"—to pray constantly.
Charlie Deist: We know that fasting and prayer together are more powerful than fasting alone. Though the secular world sees fasting as a life hack or weight loss method, we aim to go deeper. We want to develop a habit of spiritual fasting, focusing on spiritual things and using prayer to resist temptations like snacking. I've been trying to pray more throughout the day with varying success. Mostly, I stick to morning and evening prayer, seeing anything else as a bonus. How has praying the Liturgy of the Hours benefited you?
David Clayton: One of the most important points in my life was my meeting David Birtwhistle, who showed me the power of a regular prayer practice. Through him, I discovered a simple morning and evening prayer, as well as praying throughout the day in times of anxiety, annoyance with others, or other struggles. Rather than following the Liturgy of the Hours, this was a more personal way to connect with God. These key moments and practices have shaped who I've become.
Charlie Deist: Don’t ever get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired (HALT, as the expression goes).
David Clayton: Hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. Right.
Then, a few years later, my spiritual director suggested I start praying the Psalms and following the daily prayer schedule. It's hard to point to a direct cause and effect, but as soon as I started, I never doubted that it was right for me. I felt the benefits—somehow, my days go better and life's challenges seem easier to handle when I stick to this routine.
The Monastic Observance of the Liturgy of the Hours
Charlie Deist: I want to discuss the Benedictines, the first monastic order. Though most Benedictine communities no longer follow their strict fasting rule, they likely still observe the Liturgy of the Hours.
David Clayton: The monastic tradition actually began with monks in the Egyptian desert before the Benedictines, who were one of the first Western orders. The Benedictines continued the practices of the early church, including praying the Psalms seven times a day—at midnight, dawn, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening—as the psalmist wrote, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.” The monastic pattern that developed was seven hours of prayer each day, followed by an evening prayer. The Benedictines brought these practices from the Middle East across to Christians in Europe.
Benedict quotes in his rule that the traditional pattern of monks is to pray the office, or daily prayers, at set times. The prayers follow a cycle: certain prayers are said daily at particular times, while the 150 Psalms are recited sequentially over the course of a week. Now, monastic prayer often combines these elements. Some prayers are said daily, while others are spread across the seven daily prayer hours and the nighttime prayer. (By "hours," we refer to the times of prayer, not their fixed durations.) The Rule establishes this pattern as the standard for monks. Originally, monks would pray the office together in cathedrals. But over time, the prayers have evolved into a combination of daily prayers and Psalms recited over the course of the week.
Remember, there were no clocks then. So you're talking about when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. Typically, between daylight hours, they would divide the day into 12 parts. So there was morning, then the first hour, the third hour, the sixth hour (around noon), the ninth hour, and then Vespers at the 12th hour (beginning of darkness).
Matins is prayed in the early morning, often around 2 AM. Lauds follow around dawn. Prime is the first prayer of the day, around 6 AM. Terce, Sext, and None are prayed at roughly 9 AM, noon, and 3 PM. Vespers are evening prayer, and Compline is a night prayer before bed.
The pattern, then, was the addition of certain canticles, like the Magnificat (every day) and Benedictus (every day). Hymns for feast days were also added. Gradually, more and more complex additions came in. Then, periodically, these additions would be stripped out, keeping only what was necessary: mainly the Psalms and some canticles said weekly or monthly. The specifics depended on the context.
Charlie Deist: So I have some thick, leather-bound Liturgy of the Hours books at home with tassels that mark different parts of the book. These books seem daunting to me because they appear to follow a strict formula. It’s not as simple as just reading from the Book of Psalms and noting where I left off. What else, besides the Psalms, is in these thick books? Do the books even contain hymns or just references to them?
David Clayton: Yes, the Psalms are included along with other content. The Psalms are at the core of it, but it's easy to lose track of that. Because for the feast of a saint, there'll be a hymn to the saint. When you're in the season, it's easy to forget that the Psalms are central. That's because there are so many additional things, like petitions, "Lord, have mercy. Please give us peace in the world".
Some of those also vary daily or by season. In Lent, there'll be certain prayers and hymns just for Lent. There'll be Christmas hymns too. So it depends on the season and feast day. You'll get many different hymns and meditations inserted. The simplest thing, I think, is to focus on the Psalms. Just observe that.
David recommends using the SingtheOffice website, which makes it easier to sing traditional Anglican Daily Offices by combining all the necessary resources in one place, creating an order of service that can simply be followed from top to bottom.
Get weekly resources throughout Lent on recovering the ancient discipline of One Meal a Day fasting:
Self-Discipline and Habits: Start Small and Grow
Charlie Deist: I like this model because it aligns with the concept of gradualism. I know that if I were to try praying with that large book, like seasoned monks do, I'd probably set myself up for failure. Yeah, that would be too much too fast. Whereas something simple, like this little book of hours abbreviated for personal use, says this would be a great way for me to get started.
It also mirrors my recommendation for fasting, which is to start off basically doing what you're used to doing, just without snacking. So start with three meals a day, if you usually eat three meals a day, but just define your first eating window and last eating window. Then from there, you can move on to other fasts like 16-8 or 16 hours of fasting.
But this makes a lot of sense for me and will hopefully be a way for me to actually adopt something that gives me time to pause throughout the day.
David Clayton: Yes, what worked for me was starting with aiming to pray two times per day, maybe in the morning when you wake up and at night when you go to bed. Then the key is to make praying at certain times a habit. Even if it's just something simple like an Our Father or Hail Mary. What happens is you get into a pattern of prayer, work, prayer, work. Gradually, you can expand some of those prayer times. What I found is that now, about 25 years after I started, I've ordered my life around prayer times. So I make decisions that allow me to pray the Divine Office, and I look for ways to organize my day so I know I'll be available for prayer.
The benefit of this, I think, is what you described - by starting a habit, even in a small way, it develops discipline. Then that discipline can be applied more easily to other areas you struggle with. And that has been the pattern in my life, gradually increasing self-discipline.
Charlie Deist: I suggest that rituals shape our identity in two ways. First, the rituals we perform reflect and strengthen our identity. Second, regularly engaging in rituals helps form our identity over time.
Prayer illustrates this well, even for nonbelievers. When we pray, we are acting as if we have a certain identity. If prayer is combined with other disciplines, like gratitude, we tell ourselves a story about who we are. That story becomes self-fulfilling; we will feel more abundant and blessed.
Not only is there a supernatural element to prayer for some, but there is also a psychological component. The identities we form through our habits and rituals profoundly impact us.
We take on the identity of a disciple in relationship to christ. We fast because the bridegroom is gone, and feast when he is here, or when he returns. The season of lent is about changing our identity and drawing us deeper into that reality - that relationship. This is more than just St. Paul’s idea of disciplining our bodies to gain mastery over them. It prepares us for the encounter with the risen Christ.
David Clayton: I think that's correct. There are two things happening here. I heard a psychologist from Stanford discuss this. She said she knew how to help people stop smoking and lose weight, which is what everyone wants to do, lose weight, but just couldn't. She said the way to do this is to introduce a habit, do something you can do to reduce that discipline, and then deny yourself something you like but can do without, without directly attacking the problems themselves. She said, in time, you'll find that that'll just happen, because deep down you want to change.
Now, this utilizes those psychological principles as well. But I also think, as you say, that if what we say is true, and underneath this, this is praying to God and God exists, we're, we're changing as a result. We become better able to do God's will; there's a supernatural impact of this, which goes above the natural psychological impact that's there too.
Charlie Deist: Right, that's a good place to stop for today. For those interested in learning more, you have many great resources on your website, The Way of Beauty. That's thewayofbeauty.org.
I'd also add that if you're accustomed to taking breaks from work for meals and snacks, adopting an "ora et labora" (prayer and work) rhythm can be a great alternative pattern. So I hope people will try this. I'm certainly going to try it myself. Focus on the Psalms—that's the idea.