Chapter 47: sounding the Hours of the Divine Office


For all things ought to be done at the designated hours.

When do things happen?

There is an organisational tool that I have found useful in creating spaces for creative conversations called ‘Open Space Technology’. I have described this many times over the last few years and have been exploring its uses in different practical contexts in my ministry. Within the world of Open Space there are some principles which guide people into more creative thinking; a narrative framework, if you will. One of those principles suggests:

Whenever it starts is the right time. The real impact of this principle is to serve important notice about the nature of creativity and spirit. Both are essential, and neither pays much attention to the clock. (Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology: a user’s guide (3rd edition),(San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008) p.93-94)

In the creative context this principles is true. If you say you’re going to begin a rehearsal at 3pm that doesn’t mean that the work begins at 3pm, you can’t switch it on like that. Creativity has its own time.

In this way the Divine Office is not a creative exercise. It is more about obedience to God than about creating some profound experience. We cannot put God on the clock but we can put our clocks on God, by which, I mean, we can give up our time for God and turn up whether he chooses to speak to us or not. A monk goes to prayers because he has given up his life to serve God in prayer to build his life around his times in prayer not the other way round. This life choice is so alien to us because we want to be in control of our lives, we think we know what’s best for us and we don’t like being told what to do, we don’t like being beholden to someone else. Obedience challenges us.

It has been interesting to witness how the above principle of Open Space comes undone when working with a specific group of people, namely in a community. I wanted to use Open Space Technology with a group on a weekend away to encourage a creative conversation about what lay ahead for us as a group. Several people were late for the start and so, as the leader, I had to decide when to start the introduction and explanation to the format and principles of Open Space. There were some who were keen to start without half the group but it fell to me to decide whether I prioritised another principle of Open Space Technology (‘whoever comes is the right people’) over the principle of starting, i.e. do we allow latecomers to control when things happen or do we set a rhythm which they chose to enter into or not?

I have heard the same conundrum occurring in creative communities such as a theatre company who uses Open Space in their process. If you are expected to be present at a rehearsal and you’re being paid to be there how far do you stretch this particular principle? One of the company suggested an amendment for occasions like the one described. They explain the principles as being ‘true’ within the world of Open Space, i.e. the normal world does not run on the principles stated in Open Space Technology. Once the community/company is gathered then the principles begin, outside of that context the principles are not lived by. There is something here about entering into the spirit of a different world.

The reality is, for life with others there needs to be agreed upon rules and regulations; why? It is because there are some instincts of our human nature which need to be disciplined and controlled. Obedience is a foundation to life together because it shapes our character to be one which looks beyond our own wants and desires. Open Space, I find, works best when the participants are committed to the wellbeing of the others. This is not to say it Open Space can’t work without this but it takes more time to see the benefits of Open Space without them. The principles shape the character of people but it helps speed up the process if the character is modelled. If used by an unbridled individualistic spirit then Open Space can quickly become ineffectual. All the principles require, I think, I genuine humility and commitment to the common good to work most effectively.

As I said when I spoke of latecomers, time-keeping is about ensuring no one controls his/her brother/sister by turning up when they feel like it. Lateness creates power play and it is unhelpful when sharing life with others. One must always be looking to prioritise the desire of others above one’s own. The time of another should be more precious then mine and if I waste it then I am not treating that gift with due reverence.


Within the life of a community there are some set times for certain activities, activities that everyone needs to be at. Setting the times for these activities can be impossible to ensure everyone can be there. As I continually wrestle with arranging gathering times for people I have come to realise that sometimes a time must be set and people choose to prioritise it or not. If they don’t then that tells you a lot about their commitment. This is not to say that some people have genuine reasons why they cannot be present but that there is often a sad realisation when people would rather be somewhere else and do not share your interest in the activity.

In the Benedictine community, prayer is an absolute must. If you do to turn up to it you are failing to see the centrality of prayer and are denying your vows of obedience to God. In any community there needs to be an articulation of the activities which are central and those which are more optional. To decide on which activities are central a community must ask itself; what is going to shape us into the kind of character we want to be (in Christian contexts this should read ‘the character God wants us to be’, to which the answer is always Jesus!)

In the busy-ness of life outside the cloister walls, community rhythms and times together are tricky to police. How many times must someone miss out on gathering together before it becomes difficult to be genuine community? What are non-negotiable activities and what are up to the free-will of the community members? How far does the abbot figure ‘force’ community members to participate for the training in obedience and character? Where is the role rebuking and challenging fit within a community?

Within parish churches, the Sunday services remain an open house event where anyone, whether they are an active member of the church community or not, can turn up and be present. I feel there needs to be another space which is for those who have expressed a desire to be more committed. This seems very clique-y and the establishing of a different class of membership but, through the experience of many monastic and new-monastic communities, the presence of overt and public statements of commitment is helpful in the transformation of a person. Baptism should be this action but, for many reasons, this is no longer the case in most Anglican churches. The point of these public commitments is the placing of one’s desires and wills under the authority of God, and therefore His Body, the Church. The community then is the place where you are discipled into the character of that community: Christ.

Loving Father, you call us to obedience within your family, the Church. Help us all to hand over our time and priorities to our brothers and sisters. May we learn through obedience to so shape our lives that we may be used by you as you see fit.

Come, Lord Jesus.