Most of us are acquainted with prayer as conversation; embedded in this is the image of talking with God as a friend. Along with this long-standing tradition, there is another tradition of prayer in the church called common prayer. Common prayer is a form of prayer employed by God’s people to join hearts, heads, and voices in a unified and concerted way. This type of prayer has a long history.
For centuries Christians have stopped to pray at various points in the day for the purpose of saying their common prayer (also referred to as fixed-hour prayer). In the morning, at midday, as the sun sets, and before going to bed, followers of Jesus have joined their voices in praying a variety of written prayers, reading from Psalms, reflecting on a passage of Scripture, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer as a way to remember God, admit their dependency on God, and as an act of worship and devotion. Fixed-hour prayer finds its genesis in the practices of Israel, and evidence of it can be seen in the Old and New Testaments.
While fixed-hour prayer is not explicitly pointed out or taught, this practice of prayer is definitely assumed in the Bible. Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den for praying facing Jerusalem three different times each day (as is his custom). Many of the psalms specifically mention praying in the morning or the evening (see Psalms 5:3; 88:13; 92:2 for morning; or 17:1-3; 63:5-6; 141:2 for evening). New Testament passages also refer to the practice of common prayer. For example, Pentecost happens while the disciples are gathered for morning prayer (prayer at the third hour); Peter has his rooftop vision while observing midday prayer (prayer at the sixth hour); and Peter and John heal a lame man on the temple steps on their way to gather with other believers for evening prayer (prayer at the ninth hour).
Since that time, the practice has continued. From gatherings of the early church, to cloisters of monks, to the writings of reformers and down through our history, common prayer has endured as an heirloom that has been passed on to successive generations as a valuable Christian practice.
Common prayer (or fixed-hour prayer) is meant to complement our conversational prayer. When all we do is practice one form of prayer to the neglect of the other, our prayer lives suffer. Conversational prayer without common prayer can become isolated, self-centered, self-serving, and sometimes mere self-talk. Common prayer without conversational prayer can become a dead ritual, a recitation with little authenticity and art with little heart. We need both approaches to keep our prayers communal, meaningful, personal, honest, and appropriately God-centered.
Is common prayer a part of your prayer life?
At gatherings you attend, when it is said, “Let us pray,” is it more reflective of conversational prayer or common prayer?
Can you see value in the practice of common prayer? If so, what are the benefits and strengths?