First century Christians continued the public prayer patterns of the Israelites, praying at the temple multiple times a day. As Christianity separated itself, its own traditions were developed.
The Didache recommended praying the Lord’s Prayer three times daily. Within a century or two, this blossomed into seven times a day, and incorporated the Psalms and then hymns, etc.
My question is this:
The Daily Office today appears to be quite an elaborate undertaking with multiple books to refer to, with different schedules based on the time of year, the season, etc. Why has this specific tradition grown so complex? Why not just stick to the Lord’s Prayer? Why not just read from the bible seven or eight times a day?
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To answer this question I turned to the internet and ran several different searches, but settled on a few websites that provided ample information.
It appears the Divine Office originated directly from Jewish custom during the first century, when Paul was busy at work planting new churches, or shortly after his death.
There are numerous bible references used in support of the Divine Office, the capstone being, of course, Psalm 119:164, “Seven times a day I praise You, Because of Your righteous judgments.” Found then upon the “…Apostles and the Prophets…” (Ephesians 2:20), the first century Christians invoked Daniel 6:10, when Daniel… “knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days” and many others (Psalm 5:3; 55:17; 130:6; 141:2; Acts 2:45; 3:1).
From earliest of times of Christendom, believers were instructed to pray the Lord’s Prayer given to us by Jesus himself in the Gospels. In the Didache, it was prescribed thrice a day. Even the Apostles are recorded as having joined in corporate prayer at the set times already established by the Jewish peoples, at the tolling of the bells at 6am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm, and then also again at the end of the day (at dusk when applicable).
Added to this were prayers during the Night Watches (Psalm 63:6; 119:62, 147-148).
But, as the centuries passed and more and more complexity was added to the Divine Office, such work became unwieldy, almost unbearable from its first century origins of praying the Psalms or praying the Lord’s Prayer 3 times daily. It is tradition that each of the three daily prayers trace back to the three patriarchs: Abraham got up early to pray, Isaac went out at noontime, and Jacob in the evening, the three together fulfilling Psalm 55:17.
The second and third centuries saw the fixture of seven standard times of daily prayer, those we have today, rightly: Morning, Terce, Sext, None, and Evening.
Reforms in the Office began in the 1500’s which coincided with the Reformation, with Protestants developing the Common Book of Prayer, which held a great deal of trimming to make the daily practice more manageable.
It is reasonable to conclude the Divine Office grew in its complexity due to full occupation of the work (principle of praying without ceasing that developed in monasticism over several hundred years). Despite this, though, there is evidence that the times of prayer were cemented rather early on in Church history, and was quite extensive, even in its simplistic forms. Though the Didache recommended the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, early Christians, and especially the Desert Fathers, adopted from Judaism the recitation of the Psalms and other portions of Scripture, often completing the full text daily.
There is further speculation concerning the Greek word μελέτα (G3191) referring more to “recitation” rather than “meditation or contemplation.” There is also a practice that developed in Eastern Orthodox tradition where monastics prayed the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner.” This is repeated again and again, as a kind of mantra, during work, during times of quiet and solitude, during walks, when alone in their cells. By doing so, the practice becomes ingrained and was thought to fulfill the command to “pray without ceasing.”
It is said that some Desert Monks memorize large portions of the bible, some even to incorporating it in its entirety.
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