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Tweets of Common Prayer: an ancient practice on new technology

I was a Twitter skeptic before I was a Twitter convert. Why, exactly, do I need a more efficient method of delivery for the mundanities of other people's lives? I only got hooked on Twitter - which, for the uninitiated, is basically a mini-blog - through some of its other uses: dispensing quips, bookmarking links, following feeds (such as this one from ThinkChristian), making public service announcements, and even chatting with a group. It's not perfect for any of these functions, but it works. It's popular. And it's addicting.

Recently I've found one other use for Twitter, and that's prayer. That might sound strange: a reverent act on a tool built for trivialities? But it turns out that Twitter is helping me rediscover an ancient practice that so far I've failed to build into my daily life, and that's praying the hours, or fixed-hour prayer.

Praying the hours is the ancient tradition of praying set prayers at certain times of the day. It has deep Jewish roots, but probably its most famous Christian expression is the Book of Common Prayer. From the beginning, the biggest danger of this following this practice is that prayer can become mechanical, artificial, and hollow. But one of the biggest benefits is that the rhythm of the day can help us do what I often fail to do, in direct violation of 1 Thess. 5:17: "pray continually."

What does this have to do with Twitter? Soon after taking the plunge on Twitter I found a service called FutureTweets, where you can schedule posts, or "tweets," to appear on your Twitter page at a future time. This was another idea that seemed dumb at first but has proven useful. You can schedule a post to repeat daily or weekly, and that got me thinking about a set of prayers I came across a few years ago, attributed to John Chrysostom, which had one prayer for each hour of the day. How, I wondered then, did St. John ever pull that off without a watch? And without an alarm clock, how could I? But at FutureTweets, I scheduled one of each of Chrysostom's 24 prayers to appear on the hour at a Twitter page I set up, www.twitter.com/chrysostomhours. I liked it so much that I set up similar feeds for the Psalms and for this prayer book (view them all at prayerontwitter.net).

Now I keep an eye on Twitter on the Web, on a feeder, or on a phone, and a scheduled prayer arrives at the top of each hour. The computer, or the phone, becomes a prayer book. In my more sanctified moments (which are still too rare), I stop in the middle of whatever I'm doing and pray the prayer.

Prayer at its most vital is never private; it is the offshoot of the faith of the body of Christ. Twitter pages display a list of who's following each user, and I like to remember that the prayer I'm receiving is also being fed to that list of other people. (This is why Twitter could be used for church prayer request listings, though since Twitter is a public website, churches should never post last names of people being prayed for.) And the fact that the prayers are from Scripture and the history of the church, and not my own inventions, give me a sense of sharing in the church's prayer life rather than just quietly doing my own thing.

What Twitter won't do for me or anyone else is help me "mean" the prayers I'm mouthing. This is hardly a new problem - Jesus condemned insincere prayer right before giving us the Lord's Prayer (which, of course, is now constantly prayed on auto-pilot). Nor does the power of prayer depend on getting the right words - or any words at all, as we know from Romans 8:26. All Twitter can do is help call my attention, hour after hour, to the prayers of the psalmists and saints of centuries past.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Theology & The Church, Faith, Worship, Prayer