“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws”: Psalm 119:164
The writer of wonders Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees, and other riches, both fiction and non-fiction) once offered a teaching on the ancient tradition of praying at specific hours of the day and night. She modeled her own creation, based on the medieval Book of Hours, with images of the life of the Virgin Mary. Traditionally the 24-hour day is divided into sections of three hours each. Sue Kidd designated each group of hours as times for work, or rest, or play, or study, or sleep. Not only does this practice allow one to regularize one’s endeavors, but also to dedicate them to a sacred, life-enhancing purpose.
This practice is part of a religious tradition of regular prayer at specified hours: sometimes one is asked to pray five times a day, sometimes seven, sometimes three, sometimes nine. And then there is the beautiful injunction to “pray without ceasing.” We live in a time when dedicated, potent prayer can’t help but prove both useful and healthful. And creating an individual version of a Book of Hours is a worthwhile enterprise. It reminds us that time is holy.
The medieval Books of Hours were elegantly illuminated books and included Psalms and other scriptures, teachings, and hymns, to be read and sung at the specified hours. The Christian tradition gives these hours Latin names. Here is one version:
Prime, the first hour, is at 6:00 am.
Terce, the third hour, is at 9:00 am.
Sext, the sixth hour, is at noon.
None, the ninth hour, is at 3:00 pm.
Vespers comes at sundown.
Compline comes at bedtime. (I like to think of it as the hour of completion.)
If one is awake at midnight, that time of prayer is called Nocturns or Vigils.
And the dawn, or pre-dawn prayer, sometimes said at 3:00 am. is called Matins or Lauds.
A Favorite Creation Story
Phil Cousineau, in a lovely book called Soul An Archaeology, describes an Egyptian Gnostic myth, in which creation is the result of God’s laughter. Seven times the God laughed. At the first “Ha,” Light streamed forth. When a second laugh sounded, everything became Water. At the third laugh, the Manifest World was created. At the fourth (this is my belief about the text) the unmanifest world, the Inner Worlds came into being. At the fifth laugh of creation, Fate emerged, and with her, Justice. The sixth laugh brought Time and Time’s Power. The last, the fateful seventh laugh included a drawing-in of the breath, and “while He was laughing, he cried, and thus the Soul came into being.”
God’s Words to the Soul
And God said to the soul, “Thou shalt move everything, and everything will be made happier through you.” With these words, everything was set into motion and filled with breath.
Thus, according to this story, the soul is made of both laughter and tears, and is the primary moving force in all things, as well as the element by which all things are made happier.
Appearing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland this season is a cherished and difficult play called Measure for Measure. It’s filled with souls moving everything, and each of the souls is embodied onstage in a character filled with laughter and tears. I believe, after many years of living with the question, “What is this play about?” that it is indeed about the salvation of the soul.
In Shakespeare’s day that soul salvation had a definite orientation toward Christian belief. That is not necessarily the orientation of today’s audience. But the labor of the soul, the questions about the soul, the desperate seeking of soul still play strongly in a production of this amazing work. And it ends, as many good plays do (this one more than most) with more questions asked than answers given.
Like most of Shakespeare’s work, and many of the works of all great artists, this play deserves to be seen and heard by audience members with questing souls. That moving part of all things, created of laughter and tears, the soul, will find its own special answers to questions that the cognitive mind can go crazy trying to solve.
The brilliant wise man Michael Meade says that the soul is delighted when our other parts find themselves in straits and difficulty. We lose our jobs, and fall into despair, but the soul shouts, “Hurray! Something worthy to be worked with. Finally!”
So in hard times, in times when we might usefully pray without ceasing, our souls rejoice, and move toward understanding and true aliveness. May we have the courage to move with our souls.
Making a Soul Journey
This website is “going dark,” in theatre parlance, for a few months, while I go on a journey called by my soul. I’m traveling in order to listen deeply, and to live again in wonder.
Two suggestions for joy:
A Movie to See; A book to Study.
The Swedish movie, “As It Is In Heaven”; and a new book by Gaye Hendricks, The Big Leap. The soul is alive in both.