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Prayer in the Early Church

Patterns of prayer through the ages

PreachingIt might be assumed that worship in the early Christian Church was fairly spontaneous, used as we are to seeing perhaps the occasional poetic prayer attributed to St Patrick or his contemporaries. We might also think that set orders of service are a relatively modern introduction. Actually, this is not the case, certainly for congregational acts of worship.

We have to remember that the earliest Christians were Jews who were already familiar with a long tradition of worship which was liturgical in style (following a set order of service appropriate to the season). As time passed, and Christianity extended throughout the Roman Empire, approved liturgies were refined, albeit with a little local flavour added when used at a distance from Rome.

The influence of Rome is apparent throughout the early worship of the Church. This makes sense if you consider that the first Christians in Britain were probably to be found among the soldiers garrisoned in the country after it was conquered by the Romans in the first century, or among the traders from the lands about the Mediterranean who came here at that time.

So we find that Christians in the early centuries after the birth of the Church generally followed patterns of worship developed from those which they found within their Jewish heritage, although it was the Eucharist, or Holy Communion that was at the centre of Christian worship, following the pattern of Jesus himself at the Last Supper.

The earliest references that we have to a pattern of Christian daily prayer is that of praying three times a day, and it comes from the Didache , written toward the end of the first century. It states that the Lord’s Prayer should be said three times a day, but does not say at which times. Later, the pattern of praying at the third, sixth and ninth hour of the day became established (with arguments from Scripture). Origen, in the third century recommended another session or prayer in the evening.

It is likely that some rural communities followed the natural rhythm of the day, praying morning, noon and evening (their lives determined by the movements of the sun), whilst others in the towns kept more strictly to the third, sixth and ninth hours. Psalms and hymns if used were associated with communal meals.

By the fourth century the Church was praying together more often than individually and along with the prayers are found psalms and hymns. Psalms 148-150 are associated with morning prayers each day in the week and Psalm 141 in the evening.

A division of sorts is suggested between what is often called the ‘cathedral’ style of daily office upon which Catholic and Protestant churches still use today and that of the ‘monastic’ pattern of worship developed in the fourth century, as there are differences not only in the external form of worship but also on the spiritual emphasis of both.

The Lord bless you and keep you.
May He show His face to you and have mercy.
May He turn His countenance to you and give you peace.
The Lord bless you!
(A prayer of St. Francis)

Prayer in the Desert

Syrian desert

We have considered in the previous study the Christians who made their home in desert places and led an austere and monastic life. At the heart of monasticism was separation - surrendering of earthly riches and temptation and entering into a community of meditation and prayer.

Those who had committed their lives to one of monastic solitude in desert or wilderness places tended to favour a pattern of prayer which followed the Apostolic call in 1 Thess. 5:17 to ‘Pray without ceasing.’ And they took this literally, stopping only for the briefest time to sleep and eat. They prayed while the worked and worked while they prayed, from dawn until nighttimes, whether involved in daily chores such as milking cows, preparing meals, or tending crops. Columba had the reputation he would not spend one hour without including study, prayer or writing.

There is an apocryphal tale of Saint Cuthbert and some of his companions shipwrecked on an uninhabited beach. Beginning to fade of hunger, Cuthbert encouraged his companions to pray, saying “Let us storm heaven with prayers!” Soon after this they came across 3 cuts of dolphin meat, looking like they had been prepared by human hands, which they ate.

In their prayers Christians reflected on the mighty works of God and prayed for spiritual growth and personal salvation. They prayed using the Psalms, particularly when praying together. Listen to the words of St Patrick, whose background was in the monastic movement.

“I prayed frequently during the day. The love of God and the fear of Him increased more and more and faith became stronger and the Spirit was stirred, the Spirit was then fervent within me.”
Within the monastic communities rules of life were developed, such as that of the fifth century St. Benedict.

Traditionally, the daily life of the Benedictine revolved around the eight canonical hours. The monastic timetable or Horarium would begin at midnight with the service, or "office", of Matins (today also called the Office of Readings), followed by the morning office of Lauds at 3am. Before the advent of wax candles in the 14th century, this office was said in the dark or with minimal lighting; and monks were expected to memorise everything.

These services could be very long, sometimes lasting till dawn, but usually consisted of a chant, three antiphons, three psalms, and three lessons, along with celebrations of any local saints' days. Afterwards the monks would retire for a few hours of sleep and then rise at 6am to wash and attend the office of Prime. They then gathered in Chapter to receive instructions for the day and to attend to any judicial business.

Then came private Mass or spiritual reading or work until 9am when the office of Terce was said, and then High Mass. At noon came the office of Sext and the midday meal. After a brief period of communal recreation, the monk could retire to rest until the office of None at 3pm. This was followed by farming and housekeeping work until after twilight, the evening prayer of Vespers at 6pm, then the night prayer of Compline at 9pm, and off to blessed bed before beginning the cycle again.

A Celtic Liturgical Style?

St PatrickThose who belong to mainstream denominations may be used to following a weekly pattern of liturgy comprising at the very least of morning and evening prayer and the celebration of Holy Communion, and be familiar with the repetition of prayers, some of which we know have their roots in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. But as has been mentioned above, forms of Christian liturgy have been around since the early days of the church.

At Iona in the time of St Columba, Mass was said on Sundays and feast days, but by the 7th century we hear of priests celebrating twice on the same day.

The Bangor Antiphonary, a seventh century manuscript which is now preserved in the Ambrosian Library, Milan contains, among others three Canticles from the Bible; the Te Deum, Benedicitie, Gloria in Excelsis; ten metrical hymn ; sixty-nine collects; seventeen special collects; seventy ' anthems' or versicles, an unusual form of the Creed, the Lord's Prayer.

The Book of Mulling is an Irish pocket Gospel Book from the late 8th century. The text collection includes the four Gospels, a liturgical service which includes the Apostles' Creed.

There are others, including the Stowe Missal from the eighth or early ninth century containing variations of liturgy for the Mass, Baptism and Visitation of the Sick, and which contains non-Roman elements.

The Book of Cerne is a large early ninth-century manuscript collection of prayers, etc. made for Æthelwold, Bishop of Lichfield (820-40). It once belonged to the Abbey of Cerne in Dorset, but is Mercian in origin and shows Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian, Roman, and Byzantine influences.

These were not liturgies that could be undertaken within the space of an hour, in medieval Christianity it took up much of the day!

As you might have noticed, there seems to be the influence of Rome on the liturgy of the Church at this time, albeit with a local flavour. This is because the Church in the West generally had at its core an adherence to Rome and the Pope.

It is a little bit hazy as to the date when Christianity first made it to Roman Britain. The earliest support for the idea that Christianity arrived in Britain early is Quintus Septimus Florens Terullianus also known simply as Tertullian (AD 155-222) who wrote in "Adversus Judaeos" that Britain had already received and accepted the Gospel in his lifetime.

We know that in the year 314 three bishops from Britain were present at a council held at Arles in the south of France. During the rest of this century bishops from Britain were present at other ecclesiastical councils, showing that the British Church was in no way isolated but was in active communion with the rest of the Church in the Empire.

As Anglo-Saxon raids were increasing in England, Ireland was being evangelized by Bishop Palladius, sent by Pope Celestine I in AD431-2 and a Romano-British Christian called Patrick.
Augustine was the prior of a monastery in Rome when Pope Gregory the Great chose him in 595 to lead a mission, usually known as the Gregorian mission, to Britain to convert the pagan King Æthelberht of the Kingdom of Kent to Christianity.

Æthelberht converted and allowed the missionaries to preach freely, giving them land to found a monastery outside Canterbury city walls. Roman bishops were established at London and Rochester in 604, and a school was founded to train Anglo-Saxon priests and missionaries.

As a result of this contact with the rule of Rome and the missionary zeal of the Roman Church, worship in Britain and Ireland was always going to be influenced in style, organisation and pattern of prayer by that tradition.

The Gallican rite

is an early form of liturgy used in the West, originating in Jerusalem, established in Gaul in the 5th Century and known in Ireland, mixed with Celtic customs. The known elements are listed below – compare it with the liturgy that you are familiar with today:

- Introit

- The Ajus (agios) sung in Greek and Latin. Following this, three boys sing Kyrie Eleison three times. Followed by the Benedictus.

- Collect Old Testament reading

- Epistle or Life of the Saint of the Day

- The Benedicite and Ajus (agios) in Latin

- Gospel reading

- Sermon

- Dismissal of catechumens (baptismal candidates)

- Intercessions

- Great Entrance and the Offertory chant

- Kiss of Peace

- Sursum Corda, Preface, Sanctus, and Post-Sanctus Prayer

- Roman (Gregorian) Eucharistic

- The Fraction (the host is divided into nine pieces, seven of which are then arranged into the shape of a cross)

- Our Father

- Blessing of the People

- Communion of the People

- Post-Communion Prayer


The Celts were great collectors of books and knowledge. Their love of poetry and liturgy led them to add their own touches to the pattern which originated in Rome, but it is more in the area of private prayer and poetry that we see the real originality of Celtic thought.

Using the Psalms

Throughout the Scriptures we find the Psalms quoted, so it is quite understandable that the early Church should use them as part of their worship, perhaps a lot more so than we do today.
Ephesians 5:19 talks about believers ‘addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs...’

One of the earliest records of the Psalms being used as part of Christian worship comes from a fourth-century pilgrim Egeria who reports that on Good Friday in Jerusalem the readings ‘were all about the things that Jesus suffered: first the psalms on this subject, then the Apostles which concern it, then passages from the Gospels. Then they read the prophecies about what the Lord would suffer, and the Gospels about what he did suffer.’

It was with the Desert Fathers and the early monastic communities that psalms began to be used regularly within daily worship. They encouraged their followers to memorise the entire contents of the book and recite it during their waking hours. Some would spend the whole night simply reciting the psalms from memory.

The practice was to use the psalms as an inspiration for silent prayer and meditation. A psalm would be read, followed by a time of silence, and this pattern repeated. Why such an emphasis on the psalms? Possibly because the Scriptures see prophesies relating to the Messiah within them. The fact that the psalms were written in a way that made the singing of them possible was seen as God’s way of making learning more fun!

The fact that some psalms are more cries of desperation or anger than songs of praise did not deter them – it was the act of saying or singing them that was pleasing to God!

Over many generations the periods of silence between the singing of psalms grew shorter and shorter. An early monastic Rule of the Master says that this is to avoid the risk of anyone falling asleep or being tempted by evil thoughts!

Within the more formal ‘cathedral’ services the psalms were used as ‘hymns’ with a verse sung by a member of the clergy and the congregation repeating a refrain. Psalms such as 51 (‘Have mercy on me, O God...’) start appearing at the start of services as a act of penance. Psalm 116 was used at funeral services as the body was prepared for burial.


Bradshaw, Paul F (2009). Reconstructing Early Christian Worship. SPCK

Lizzi Langel, Celtic Christian Principles for a Modern Day Monastic Community, Field Assignment for SBCW , University of the Nations 2006

Mitton, Michael (1995). Restoring the Woven Cord: Strands of Celtic Christianity for the Church Today, Darton, Longman & Todd.

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