Praying the Hours
For generations, people of the Christian faith have prayed in a way that is consistent and measured. In Psalm 119.164, the psalmist writes, “seven times a day I praise you….” This daily prayer of the psalmist has been formalized, and is sometimes called the “liturgy of the hours,” “daily office,” or simply “praying the hours.” This practice involves an official set of prayers marking certain times throughout the day as moments of praise and prayer. These times even have historic names: Lauds (dawn) Prime (6am), Terce (9am), Midday (12pm), None (3pm), Vespers (6pm), and Compline (9pm). From the psalmist to the Apostles, from the desert mothers and fathers to St. Benedict, from the Middle Ages to spiritual sages of today, these hours have been kept consistently and faithfully, helping Christians regularly re-center their focus on God’s presence.
Photographing the Hours
In the summer of 2019, I began a sabbatical as part of my ministry as senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kansas. This sabbatical, graciously granted by a congregation aware of the importance of rest and renewal, offered me an opportunity to develop a deeper faith through the spiritual practice of photography. Over three months, I was able to practice seeing God in new ways, including photographic adventures both in solitude and alongside of my family, both at home and on the road. One of the ways that I engaged in this discipline was a photographic practice of the Liturgy of the Hours. Each day for ninety days, I took six intentional “prayer photographs” (sorry, not seven…how am I supposed to rest if I am waking up at dawn every day to take a picture!?) At prime, terce, midday, none, vespers, and compline, I took a photograph on my camera phone. I then posted these pictures on my (newly created) Instagram account: @matthewbsturtevant. Oftentimes I took the picture at the assigned hour, but posted it hours or even days later when I had Internet accessibility. Six times a day I paused to ask myself “Where did I see God in that moment? Where was there beauty? What brought me delight? Was there a visual perception that brought an experience of praise? Of gratitude?” Some photos were of amazing sights and breathtaking views. Others were of ordinary objects and everyday miracles. Some photographs were of people. Most were not. Some locations are instantly recognizable. Many are not. Beginning when I woke up, continuing throughout the daily hours, and ending in the last hours of the day, I paused at regular intervals to pray, praise, and open my eyes to God’s presence.
When I returned from sabbatical, I found that I had begun a practice that I was not ready to let go of. This was a way that I could connect to God intentionally throughout the day, and a discipline that opened my eyes to the presence of the Divine in my ordinary life. If I could practice this discipline on sabbatical, why could I not throughout the rest of the year? To date, I have continued to pray—and photograph—in this way, and find myself blessed by the experience.
I discovered during this sabbatical experience that some of the pictures that I took were meaningful only to me, while some brought joy and deepened faith for others. The pictures that I post are an attempt to share with others this experience of prayer, and hopefully for others to open their eyes to God’s presence in their lives as well. The pictures are in order on my Instagram feed, beginning each day when I wake up (not always exactly at 6:00am!) with prime, and ending in the evening with compline. My guess is that some of the pictures will connect with some people, while others will cause them to ask, “why did he take a picture of THAT?” I made the choice not to over-explain my reasons for any of the photography, but instead let the pictures speak for themselves. Or more hopefully, let God speak through them to those who view them.
It might be helpful to remember that these photographs are all taken on a somewhat limited camera phone, some of them in the low light of morning or night. So there are a few grainy or blurry shots that might seem a little out of place next to so many beautiful photos on an Instagram feed. But again, the goal of this practice is to see God in the ordinary and everyday, not just in the “Photoshopped” and heavily edited moments of our lives. Perhaps it is in the grainy and blurry times of our lives that we best see God’s constant presence.
As well, some pictures might seem “off” from their appointed times or hours. Beyond the challenge of Internet access, there are often moments when I don’t have my phone with me, or when I look to up realize that the appointed time has passed. The more I practice this discipline, the more it becomes second nature, but there are still times when I have to “catch up.” When I miss taking a photograph exactly at a given hour, I try to offer myself grace, and begin again.
I owe a debt of gratitude to many wise souls who have inspired and tutored me on this journey. Below is a portion of the book list that I read during my sabbatical, in particular the books that discuss contemplative photography. The practice of photography as a spiritual discipline is not a new one, but has been practiced by many from whom I have learned.
Finally, it is my sincere hope that this serves as an inspiration for others to consider a practice of keeping a daily office, perhaps through the gift of photography or through another method. God has created an incredibly beautiful, awe-inspiring, holy world, and sometimes it simply takes a little intentionality to slow down and see it for what it is. The psalmist continues in Psalm 119.171–2, “my lips will pour forth praise…my tongue will sing of your promise.” May that be our daily work, and may that work be a blessing.
Rev. Dr. Matthew Sturtevant
Looking and Seeing: Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography, Vol. 1, John McQuade and Miriam Hall
God is at Eye Level: Photography as Healing Art, Jan Phillips
Eyes of the Heart and The Artist’s Rule, Christine Valters Paintner
The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Michael Wood and Andy Karr
Little Book of Contemplative Photography, Howard Zehr