By H.H. Pope Shenouda III.
The prayers in the “Agpeya” are the seven prayers recited at fixed different hours of the day. Each hour includes a general introduction, Psalms, intercessions, a few biblical passages, a closing prayer, and a general prayer to conclude all the prayers included at a specific time of the day.
Why do we use the Agpeya for prayer?
We use the Agpeya when we pray due to the spirituality and idealism of its contents, as well as for several other reasons, namely: It helps us to be in the presence of God.
A person may stand to pray and say only a few words after which the matter is over… he doesn’t find much to say. On the other hand, the worshipper using the Agpeya finds adequately nourishing matter for prayer. This enables him to stand before God for a quarter of an hour of more in His presence and for even longer than that. That is why it is possible to say that: It teaches us how to pray.
We need to learn how to pray. Remember how the Lord’s disciples asked Him: “Teach us, Lord how to pray” (Luke 11:1). By the assistance of the Agpeya we learn what to say in our prayers and what is the appropriate way to speak to God. Besides, our tongues and hearts become trained in conversing with Him.
A person who prays without the assistance of the Agpeya, will probably utter a few intercession and then close his prayer. Using the Agpeya, however, would make him realise that there are various types of prayers, such as those for intercession, for thanksgiving, for modesty and a broken spirit, for confession, and for repentance. Besides, there are prayers for glorification and praise, for expressing love, and for meditating upon the beautiful divine characteristics of the Holy One.
For example, when you recite the prayer: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are full of you honour and glory”, you are not asking/interceding for anything. Neither is this a prayer for thanksgiving or repentance, but you are here glorifying God. Besides, you are meditating upon His holiness and greatness. When you say, at the end of your prayers of every hour: “Christ our good Lord, the long suffering, exceedingly merciful, and extremely compassionate, who loves the righteous and is merciful to the sinners…’, you are, in this instance, meditating upon God’s beautiful characteristics.
It teaches us how to praise and glorify God.
It teaches us to glorify and meditate upon His beautiful traits, consequently, many of the Psalms contain the expression: “Praise the Lord” … “Praise, O servants of the Lord” … “Sing to the Lord a new song” … “Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God. For it is pleasant, and praise is beautiful” … “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem!” So what is the implication and meaning of all this praise? How can it be achieved? We learn that from the prayers included in the Agpeya.
It contains detailed prayers and supplications that help us.
Who of us remembers to pray, on his own, for the remission of sins: “those committed intentionally and unintentionally, in knowledge and in ignorance, in secret or openly?” All these, however, are included when we sue the Agpeya to assist us in our prayers.
Who of us, upon offering thanks in his personal prayers, remembers to offer thanks such as those included in the Agpeya which teaches us to say: “for He has sheltered us, helped us, preserved us, received us, defended us, had compassion upon us and brought us to this hour?!”
Who of us remember to mention all the details that the Agpeya helps us to say by including in its contents in the concluding prayer for every hour: “Sanctify our souls, cleanse our bodies, straighten our thoughts, purify our intentions, heal our sicknesses, forgive our sins, deliver us from every destructive grief, distress, and heartache, surround us by Your holy angels, that, guided and guarded within their camp, we may attain the unity of faith…”
Who of us asks, in his personal prayers, that he may be surrounded by holy angels to protect and guide him? … When we are assisted by the Agpeya, we remember all these details besides our intercessions for our basic needs.
The topic bearing on the details mentioned in the Book of Hours or Agpeya is a very long one and is loaded with illustrations. To summarize that briefly, we could say that the Agpeya teaches us to pray and to examine everything carefully. Such scrutiny allows us to involve God in the details of our whole lives since we leave nothing out in our dialogue with Him.
God desires that we pray from the Agpeya.
We often pray and receive no answer as our prayers are not in accordance with God’s will. That is why we say in our Lord’s prayer: “Thy will be done…”
All the prayers included in the Agpeya are in accordance with God’s will as most of them are Psalms which David wrote through the Spirit (Matthew 22:43), and which are a part of the Holy Bible. Therefore, when we use the Psalms for prayer, we are actually using God’s words to converse with him since they have been inspired by the Spirit and uttered through David’s lips. In this way, we guarantee that our prayers comply with God’s will.
The other prayers in the Agpeya have been set by the holy fathers, and they comply with the spirit of the Holy Bible.
It reminds us of important events throughout the day.
Probably we would not have remembered these on a daily basis had we not had recourse to the Agpeya.
- For instance, in the prayers of the “first hour” or “Prime,” we commemorate the eternity of God and His incarnation. Moreover, we admit that he is the True Light and we pray that he shines in us and enlightens our being.
- In the prayers of the “third hour” or “Terce,” we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, and pray that It may work within us.
- In the “sixth hour” or “Sext,” we commemorate the Lord’s crucifixion and all the emotions associated with this event…
- At the “ninth hour” or “None,” we commemorate confession of the thief at the Lord’s right hand, and the Lord’s death on our behalf.
- At the “eleventh hour” or “Vespers,” we remember those who came to the Lord at the end of the day: at the eleventh hour.
- In the “twelfth hour” or “Compline,” we remember death, the transient world, and the final judgment; and how we should get ready for that day.
- At midnight, we mention the Lord’s second coming and what that involves in the way of vigilance, repentance and tears…
Who of us can remember all these occasions or enjoys all their spiritual implications unless he uses the Agpeya to assist him?
There is no doubt that through the Agpeya, we can remember all these holy events. Moreover, they could become an integral and unforgettable part of our feelings and beliefs.
They could have a strong impact upon our souls so hat a change would appear in our daily lives and dealings.
It helps us focus our minds on the Lord.
No more than three hours pass, between one prayer and another, before we are ready to start praying again. In this way, we are enables to lift up our hearts towards God all through the day and night. Our thoughts do not stop, neither do our hearts and souls cease from turning to God.
Thus we are able to carry out God’s commandments: “That men always ought to pray and not lost heart” (Luke 18:1) and to: “Pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17).
It is easy to observe these commandments by studying the Agpeya prayers and repeating them without referring to the book. We can do so throughout the day, by lifting our hearts in silence, and without drawing anybody’s attention, even for a few moments… we observe time in the presence of the Lord which fulfils an ultimate need within us.
Then the brain despises sinful or trivial thoughts since it is constantly preoccupied and engaged by the words of the prayers he has learned by heart, and which, consequently, are in his mind even when it is not prayer time. These shield the worshipper against many evils, besides being a source of meditation when we consider the positive aspects of the mind.
It helps to teach us about Dogma, or the Faith of the Church.
For example, in the prayers of the first hour (Prime) there is a passage taken from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians. in it, he says: “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life of worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace…” (Eph 4:1-3). This is a spiritual plan to follow throughout the day.
At the same time, the prayers include a Psalm which also offers spiritual advice to support us throughout our busy day: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners. Nor sits in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is the laws of the Lord, and in the law he meditates day and night.” The worshipper carries in his mind this Psalm which inspires him throughout his day…
He next finds Psalm 14: “Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in You holy hill? He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart. He who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbour, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend…” This is another doctrine which the worshipper needs to repeat in his prayers and to remind himself of as he deals with others.
In the prayer of the third hour (Terce), the worshipper receives another doctrine in Psalm twenty three, which says: “Who may ascend into the holy hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully…
In the prayers of the sixth hour (Sext), he hears the blessings and part of the sermon on the mountain and concludes the Psalms with the expression: “Holiness adorns Your house, O Lord.”
In the prayers of the ninth Hour (None), there is another doctrinal sermon on “mercy and justice,” which says: “I will walk within my house with a perfect heart I will set nothing wicked before my eyes… A perverse heart shall depart from me… Whoever secretly slanders his neighbour, him I will destroy…” (Ps. 100). Even if the worshipper does not face such a situation, the Psalm at least underlines the correct attitude.
In the prayers of the eleventh hour (Vespers), there are many doctrinal sermons. To mention a few, we can quote the following: “This is the gates of the Lord through which the righteous shall enter,” (Ps. 117); “I was glad when they said to me, let us go into the house of the Lord,” (Ps. 121); “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labour in vain who build it (Ps. 126).
In the prayers of the twelfth hour (Compline), too, there is a lesson on humility, (Ps. 130), in the words: “Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Nor do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me.” There are, also, lessons about church work and ministry which David, the prophet, expresses in his words: “Surely I will no go into the chamber of my house, or go up to the comfort of my bed, I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, Until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty God of Jacob” (Ps. 131). There is another lesson on prayer: “Behold, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, lift up your hands in sanctuary, and bless the Lord” (Ps. 133).
In the prayers of midnight, we receive a long sermon in Psalm 119 about our relationship with God’s Word, His commandments, and testimony. For example, “How sweet are Your Words to my taste. Sweeter than honey to my mouth!” and “Your Word is a lamp to my and light to my path…”
It helps us meditate and concentrate on the Word of God.
This is true as each hour includes a passage of the Bible. Thus a worshipper who uses the Agpeya find that he has studied ten of its passages to recite during different hours, besides the supplications of the three midnight watches, as well as the numerous verses contained in the Psalms.
Consequently, a worshipper who constantly has access to the Agpeya during his prayer tie, gets to know so many Biblical passages which assist him in his daily life and have a profound influence over his feelings and demeanour.
It preserves the unity of the Church.
Thus the same prayers are recited by all the children of the Church, all over the world: in Egypt, Sudan, Jerusalem, in the East and in the West. They are the same prayers as those offered in America, Canada, Australia and Africa. Everybody prays with one spirit and one mind. Consequently, the feeling of participation and holy fellowship pervades. The same applies to the prayers offered during the different holy mysteries: communion, marriage, etc… The same liturgies, benedictions, and sanctifications are offered everywhere.
Offering the same prayers unifies the hearts and feelings as well.
In fact, this helps to create a spiritual unity too. This is achieved through the use of the same expressions in prayers, sermons, and spiritual doctrines which occur in the Agpeya. It is also attained through the participation in the meditations and emotions inspired by the wording of the prayers in their consequent effect of the feelings of the whole congregation.
In all these ways, we form one church: not only due to shared dogmas and rituals but due to shared spiritual features as well.
This cannot be realized, ever, if we confine ourselves to individual worship where everyone follows his own whims and thought…
It helps us attain the pure prayer handed down to us by the Holy Fathers.
In so doing, we preserve the holy traditions and ensure the unity of the Church through all the ages and generations, besides the unity of the Church in our own generations; and which is based on shared dogmas, rituals, and spiritual matters. We shall elaborate upon these points in future articles.
It instils the Christian faith in our hearts.
Every time we pray, we also recite the Creed of Faith which inculcates its teaching within our soul. Through it, we also gain spiritual feelings. In the prayer “Holy, Holy, Holy” we further commemorate the Holy Trinity.
In the “Prime,” we commemorate the eternity of the Son, His divinity, and incarnation. We remember that he is the Only Son enfolded in God’s embrace.
In the “Sext” and “None,” we commemorate His crucifixion and death.
In the prayers of midnight, we pray for His second coming.
In the “Terce,” we commemorate the Holy spirit.
In more than one prayer, we commemorate the eternally virgin mother, Mary.
The Agpeya, moreover, carries an exhaustive repertoire of the holy names and features of God.
Finally, through prayer assisted by the Agpeya we gain communion with the holy angels.
It regulates our prayer time.
It reminds us to observe the hours and encourages us to pray. Thus, we feel guilty when prayer time passes by without due observation. Probably, we would neglect prayer or observing it regularly, if we were left to our own estimation and freedom.
It contains the whole spectrum of human emotions.
They are prayers that express love, faith, respectful homage, consolation, joy and rejoicing. Each of these require a further elaboration.
The Agpeya and the Faith
The Holy Church does not differentiate between prayer and faith. Since we believe in God, we speak with Him in our prayers. This belief is revealed as we pray and use the Agpeya which included multiple ways whereby we confess our faith. Consequently, the worshipper who is assisted by the Agpeya constantly deepens his faith in God through prayers.
1) The Agpeya leads us to recite the Creed of Faith as part of our prayers:
By reciting the Creed of Faith we announce the Person to whom we are praying… thus ensuring that our prayers arise from sound faith. This procedure is observed in all our liturgies and not only in “the Prayers of the Hours.” Thus it is recited every time incense is raised, as well as during the observation of each of the seven divine mysteries. In this way the principles of the faith are engendered with the spirit of the worshipper. The Creed of faith is, moreover, recited by our children in Sunday school for the same purpose.
2) The same procedure is observed in the prayers of the first hour (prime):
We read a chapter from the Epistle to the Ephesians, where we say: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5).
3) In the Prayer of Thanksgiving, we mention the facts of our faith:
Thus, at the start we say: “ … the Father of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.” We also repeat this expression at the of our prayer. Moreover, we mention that “glory, honour, dominion and worship” are due to “You” (the Father) with Him (the Son) and “with the Holy Spirit, the life giving and consubstantial”
4) We announce our belief in the Holy Trinity in several prayers:
Thus in the prayer “Holy, Holy, Holy” we say: “O Holy Trinity have mercy upon us .” At the beginning of our prayers, we always say: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.”
We then pray to every One of the holy Trinity separately: to the Father the Pantocrator in the sixth and ninth hour, as well as in other parts; and to the Holy Spirit in the prayers of the third hour.
5) When we are assisted in our prayers by the Agpeya, we express our belief and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ:
We confirm that He was born of the Virgin, was crucified on our behalf, arose from the dead and ascended into the heavens. He is the Holy Mighty One … the Immortal [the Trisagion]: thus we commemorate His eternal presence, divinity and incarnation. In the gospel of the first hour we glorify Him as the Creator of the universe. We confirm that He has carried the sins of the world, and that He is the True Light , the Saviour, and the Holy Word (Logos). We also indicate His priesthood “ according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110). We remind ourselves of His second coming in the night prayers.
6) The Agpeya helps us to express our beliefs in the Holy Virgin:
Hence we always state that she is “the ever Virgin Theotokos, the mother of Christ … the intercessor”; “… the honoured mother of the Light,” to whom “from sunrise to sunset the faithful offer her praises.” She is the “second heaven” who is “full of grace”; “the true vine bearing Christ, the fruit that gives life”; and the most able intercessor.
7) Prayer assisted by the Agpeya stresses our fellowship with the angels:
We join them in offering praise to God, and we commemorate their song announcing the birth of Christ. Moreover, we pray that we might be “guided and guarded within their camp.”
8) The Agpeya is abundant with our beliefs concerning intercession:
There is, however, specific stress on the intercession of the holy Virgin Mary and the angels.
The facts of our faith as illustrated in the Agpeya or the Book of Hours deserver elaborate research. However, we cannot deal with them all in the present article.