How lovely is thy dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.
The deepest desire of the heart is expressed in Psalm 84. The lover of God “faints for the courts of the Lord” and longs to gaze upon the face of God in Heaven. It is what we are made for, since, ultimately, our calling in Christ is nothing less than to behold the Beatific Vision that this psalm foreshadows. And even in this life we desire some space in our hectic life where we can seek God, center our hearts in His heart, and be renewed in His love, joy, and peace. That is why we take vacations, go on retreat, stroll on the beach, go to a quiet chapel to pray, or do one of a thousand other things to clear our heads, listen to our hearts, and feed our souls.
Because of this, and because of the sin of the world that does so much to destroy our rest in God, one of the practices the Church has long recommended to us is the Holy Hour.
Lots of people are curious about this devotion, and the curiosity is basically twofold:
- What’s the deal with Holy Hours? What are they, where do they come from, what are they for, and what do they mean?
- How do you actually make a Holy Hour? Is there something in particular you need to do or say, some sort of prayer to memorize or posture to assume or book you need to read? Also, how do you beat logistical problems like finding time, or travel to your prayer location? How do you tell if you’ve done it right? As college students say, “Will there be a quiz, and will it be graded?”
Before we deal with practical matters, let’s start with some back story on the origin and point of a Holy Hour.
Why Holy Time?
One very basic question is: Why have Holy Hours at all? Isn’t God with us all the time? So why set aside an hour when you could be multitasking, getting a bunch of good done and praying while you do it?
The question is rather similar to the question, “Why go to Church when God is every place? Can’t I meet Him in the woods just as easily?”
The answer to both questions is, “We are not angels.”
That is, we are not pure intelligences living without bodies in a dimensionless void where we contemplate directly the face of God. We are human beings who live very concretely in the world of time, space, matter, and energy. What we do with our bodies has everything to do with what we do with our spirits. So though we may try to persuade ourselves that we can attend to God in our hearts while we immerse ourselves in an ever-swirling kaleidoscope of TV, work pressures, dirty diapers, neighborhood gossip, surfing the web, partying, shopping, fretting about oil prices, biting our nails about international tensions, getting cut off in traffic, worrying about junior’s grades, and trying to lose ten pounds, the reality is that this is a fine way to slowly choke our relationship with God to death. If getting to one hour of Mass a week is too much trouble, finding time to pray in a focused, attentive way throughout the week will be more trouble still. Suddenly we find a month has gone by and, truth be told, we haven’t given God a thought.
In short, relationships require cultivation. They have to be watered and nourished. That doesn’t change merely because one of the partners in the relationship is God, because we remain most emphatically not God. That’s why Jesus continually used agricultural imagery to describe the range of responses we humans can make to Him:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear. (Mt 13:3-9)
G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “All roads lead to Rome, which is why some people never go there.” We can take God’s omnipresence so much for granted that we never actually get around to listening to Him or obeying Him. Picture a family in which none of the participants actually talk to each other, spend time together, listen to each other, or share a meal for more than a few minutes a month. Doesn’t sound like a healthy family, right? It’s the same with our relationship with God. We need to set aside time and space to cultivate it or it will wither away or get choked by weeds. Holy Hours are one way to do that.
Sacred Space, Sacred Time
The need for a specific time and place set aside just for God and us was recognized from the most ancient times. In the Old Testament, the Jews were commanded by God to build a sacred tent called the Tabernacle. It was the place set apart solely for the worship of God. Once they settled in the Holy Land and made Jerusalem their capital, the Israelites built a Temple on the same basic plan as the Tabernacle, and it became their sacred space in which sacrifice occurred and prayer was offered: the Dwelling Place of God. It’s not that the Jews were under some primitive illusion that God was now confined to the Temple like a genie in a bottle. It is rather that they knew the Temple was the place God had set aside as the space where He could be encountered. As Solomon prayed when the Temple was dedicated:
Can it indeed be that God dwells among men on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built! Look kindly on the prayer and petition of your servant, O LORD, my God, and listen to the cry of supplication which I, your servant, utter before you this day. May your eyes watch night and day over this temple, the place where you have decreed you shall be honored; may you heed the prayer which I, your servant, offer in this place. Listen to the petitions of your servant and of your people Israel which they offer in this place. Listen from your heavenly dwelling and grant pardon. (1 Kgs 8:27-30)
The Jews knew perfectly well that God dwelt everywhere. But they also knew that we nonetheless require a place where we can encounter Him. That is what Psalm 84 is crying out for: encounter with God not only in the sanctuary of the Temple but in the sanctuary of the soul.
For the same reason, God didn’t just make a sanctuary in space. He also made a sanctuary in time: the Sabbath. So important was that sanctuary in time that it is the subject of one of the Ten Commandments:
Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your beast, or by the alien who lives with you. In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex 20:8-11)
To be holy is to be set apart. God marked off one day of the week on which we were to pursue “holy leisure,” resting from all our work and devoting it to spending time with Him and His people.
Jesus Is Our Sabbath Rest
When Jesus came, He transformed the meaning of the Sabbath and showed that He Himself is our rest from all the work of striving to be good enough for God to love us. When Christ rose, His Resurrection day became the Eighth Day of Creation, and every Sunday became hallowed as a “little Easter,” reminding us of the ultimate rest into which Christ has entered and into which we too are called (Heb 3:7-4:11).
So the Church — while no longer observing the Jewish Sabbath that pointed to the “rest” Christ gives us by his passion, death, and resurrection — still recognizes that time and space are hallowed by God, since God Himself has taken on a body of matter and now gives us His very life through created things. That’s what the sacraments are: encounters with the life and power of Jesus Christ, most supremely in the Holy Eucharist where He is Himself fully present in His body, blood, soul, and divinity. The God who made space and time has now fully entered it to glorify it and us by His risen life.
The Sacramental Principle
When we really see that sacraments are the principal means of encounter between us and Jesus Christ, we can sometimes make the mistake of thinking they are the only means of encounter. But this is not so. Sacraments, though unique, are not given as the sole place of encounter with God, but as sure places of encounter with Him. They are not reducing valves designed to keep as many people away from God as possible. To be sure, we are bound by the sacraments and must do as we are commanded by receiving them, but God is not bound. He can and does give us grace in all sorts of ways beyond the sacraments. Indeed, part of what the sacraments do is point us to the fact that, in a way, all of creation is sacramental.
To emphasize this, the Church has always had sacramentals — little private ways in which we can draw on the grace given in the sacraments in a sort of minor key. For instance, holy water recalls our baptism, scapulars recall the garb of a priest, blessed oil recalls the chrism of anointing, and so forth.
In the same way, we can make time a sacramental with a Holy Hour. It’s not the hour in which Mass is celebrated, but it’s an hour of time we dedicate to the Lord and ask Him to bless with His presence as we make ourselves present and available to Him.
Why an Hour?
The image of an “hour” has been part of the Christian tradition since the very beginning. For instance, in the gospel of John, Jesus’ “hour” is a theme that resounds like the tolling of a bell. Again and again, we are told that His “hour had not yet come” (Jn 2:4, 7:30, 8:20). Likewise, in John 4:23, Jesus again says “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The hour is an hour in which true worship in the Spirit will finally take place. But Jesus’ hour is also the hour of betrayal and death.
Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress.
Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.”
He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? (Mt 26:36-40)
Similarly, He tells the soldiers and priests who come to arrest Him: “This is your hour, the time for the power of darkness” (Lk 22:53).
The Lord’s Day and the Mass are sanctuaries in time where we encounter Jesus Christ coming to us in the fullness of His sacrificial self-offering through the Eucharist. A Holy Hour is a sort of sacramental of this holy time, just as holy water is a sacramental of baptism. A Holy Hour is where we place ourselves before our Eucharistic Lord, fully present in the tabernacle or in a monstrance for our adoration. We do so in recollection of His desire that His disciples “watch with him for one hour,” doing with Him now what the Church did not do in Gethsemane, and joining our own prayers, works, joys, and sufferings with His. In doing so, we join ourselves to Jesus Himself and, “by the mercies of God, present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). By this offering with Christ, we also “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).
How Do We Do This?
There are lots of ways to make a Holy Hour. It requires no gadgets or techniques, no special spiritual exercises or disciplines, no mystical gifts or prophetic insights. All it requires is yourself, as present as you can be to God. When you do this, our Eucharistic Lord always does with us what He does with the Eucharist: He takes our lives, gives thanks to His Father, breaks us and offers us as food for the world.
At its most basic, a Holy Hour can be summed up in a simple story. A visitor to a Catholic parish noticed that an old man just sat in the back of the parish with his eyes on the Tabernacle. Finally, curiosity got the better of the visitor and he asked the old man, “What are you doing?”
The man replied, “I look at Him and He looks at me.”
Practicing Christ’s Presence
A perfectly good Holy Hour can be made simply by sitting in the Presence of God. Just pop down to your parish, place yourself in front of the Tabernacle or Monstrance, and be. Quietly allow the silence: just you and Jesus, sitting and looking at each other. Some Catholics have jokingly described this simple exercise as “spiritual radiation therapy,” because being in the presence of Christ with a heart open to His love will change and heal you.
You will find, for instance, that simply trying to be silent is something that is much harder than it may seem. A great many voices inside you will try to fill the silence. Talk to Jesus about them. Are they voices that need to be listened to or voices that need to hush for now while you listen to Jesus? As this process goes on, you discover the truth of something Pope John Paul II pointed out: that Jesus doesn’t simply reveal the Father to us. He reveals us to ourselves. As you continue this form of Holy Hour, continue to hand over to Jesus all the chatter inside of you while asking Him to make clear to you some simple, practical way you can obey Him today. Offer an act of obedience to Him, and ask Him to bless and guide it. If necessary, jot it down so you don’t forget it. When your hour is up, go and do it.
Note what happens. In the course of your conversation with Christ, you have offered yourself to Him. He receives you with thanksgiving, because you are the Father’s gift to Him. As He Himself says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him” (Jn 6:44). Then He breaks open your old life, helps you get rid of the distractions, gives you His new life, and sends you back into the world. The Eucharistic pattern is reproduced in your life!
Another way to make a Holy Hour is to set it aside for meditation on Scripture. One ancient and popular way is through Lectio Divina.
Lectio Divina consists of four parts:
- Lectio (reading)
- Meditatio (meditating on the Scripture)
- Oratio (conversing with God about the Scripture)
- Contemplatio (contemplating God Himself in light of Scripture)
There are, of course, lots of ways to do this. Some people will divide a Holy Hour up into four quarters of 15 minutes each. Others will devote a whole hour to one phase of lectio divina and then devote their next Holy Hour to the next phase.
The idea is simply this: As we meet Christ present in the Sacrament, so we can meet Christ present in the word. He is, after all, the Word made flesh — the Father’s definitive revelation of Himself to the world. So where better to ponder the word of God than in the presence of God the Word?
Very briefly, Lectio Divina goes like this: In the lectio portion, you read a portion of the word of God (say, today’s Mass readings, for instance), paying special attention to each word and looking for the connections between the passages you are reading. If you are using Mass readings, the connections should be fairly easy to find, since the readings are generally chosen because they relate to one another in some way. Think of lectio as harvesting the grapes.
In meditatio, you begin squeezing the juice from the grapes. One way to begin meditating on the Scripture is simply to begin committing it to memory until you can recite it perfectly. As you do, you will tend to notice the words and their connections more.
In oratio, you let the juice you have harvested sit in the oak barrel of your soul and ferment. Like Mary, you “ponder these things in your heart.” You ask God questions, wrestle with the text, and try to wring out of it the meaning He put there. You may notice, for instance, that Jesus says or does something unexpected or strange, such as touching somebody’s tongue with spittle to heal them or answering some charge with a cryptic remark. Don’t simply let that go by. Ask, “Why would Jesus use spit when He could have just spoken and achieved the same result? Why does Jesus call the Canaanite woman a ‘dog’ but then commend her faith and answer her prayer? Why does the inspired writer choose this image of, say, a shepherd or a vine? Why would the psalmist say the Lord God is a sun and shield (two things you would not normally connect and two things that don’t seem especially connected to the rest of the images in Psalm 84)?” “Oratio” means prayer — talking to God about all this, expecting Him to give you insight both into the Scripture and into its application to your life.
Finally, there is contemplatio: Allowing the aged wine of reflection on the Scriptures to bring you face to face with God in worship and action. Worship, you will note, comes first. As God reveals Himself to us through the Scriptures, we are to be moved to both gratitude and obedience. Indeed, our gratitude is meaningless without obedience, and mere human busyness is empty without rootedness in the love of God. Contemplatio places us in the love of God that no human effort can earn, since God has both willed us into being and offered His Son for us with no merit on our part earning these unfathomable gifts. But contemplatio inspires us to act with the love of God for others — not earn our salvation, but to live it out in union with Christ.
Note again how Eucharistic all this is. The grapes of the word are crushed, poured into your soul, offered back in gratitude, and then shared with the world as you leave your contemplation to go live out your relationship with God in the love of neighbor. You come seeking the word in the Presence of the Word. You go transformed into an embodiment of the Word and a messenger of the word.
Another way to approach a Holy Hour is via Adoration and Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (ACTS).
We tend to think of “prayer” as “asking for stuff.” And to be sure, God hears our requests and grants or refuses them according to His will. But Jesus, in teaching us how to pray, does not teach us to pray by putting our needs first. He does not even teach us to pray by putting thanks to God first. Instead, He teaches us to pray by putting our confession of Who God is first:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus, in short, wants us to look at Who God is before we move on to anything else. We hallow His Name because He is good and holy and awesome and magnificent, but most especially because He is Father. We love Him because He is love and is beautiful whether He gives us stuff or not. Jesus teaches us this for the same reason we teach our children to honor people around them, even if they don’t give them the birthday present they wanted: because what ultimately matters is our relationship, not simply “what’s in it for me.” So we adore the Triune God with our bodies (say, by kneeling, or prostrating ourselves, or raising our hands) and confess His goodness with our lips (perhaps using a psalm, a hymn, or just words of our own composition) to offer Him the honor and worship due His Holy Name.
However, at the same time, God knows we have needs, and so we also give thanks for God’s goodness to us and make our requests known to Him. Some will naturally ask, “Why give thanks to a God who needs nothing, or make things known to a God who knows everything?” The answer is not that thanks and supplication is something God needs of us, but that He desires to share His life with us. In giving thanks, we grow larger, not God. In praying for our needs and the needs of those around us, we grow in dependence on God and in charity for our neighbor. Once again, we join with our Eucharistic Lord in offering thanks and praise to our Father, then break open our hearts and pour out our needs and the needs of our neighbor so that God can, in turn, pour out His grace on us and on the world.
Now Is the Time of Salvation
The Holy Hour is given us by our Mother the Church not as a law or a set of rules to keep, but as an opportunity for a free encounter with the living God. The suggestions given above for making a Holy Hour are just that: suggestions. There are lots of other ways to do it, such as saying a rosary, doing a Litany of the Divine Praises, devoting specific periods of prayer to particular needs or particular people, taking the time for “holy study” and simply finding a good spiritual writer to read (such as Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God), using the time before the sacrament to do an examination of conscience, singing God’s praises (if appropriate and not disturbing to others), or a thousand other ways you might meet with God.
What matters is the encounter with Him in the “sacrament of the present moment.” That is why St. Paul, citing the prophet Jeremiah, tells us, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).