Write Your Own Book of Hours

The Book of Godless Verse is a project that invites us to look afresh at the every day, messy imperfect stuff we do: and witness and honour it because that’s living.

The idea started with my frustration as a lapsed Catholic. I wanted to pray for those moments that there were no prayers for like roadkill or my toddler having a tantrum, or finally getting pregnant after many years trying. I didn’t want it to be about god – worship, praise, perfection shame and guilt. I wanted it to be kinder, loving, little. I wanted to pray for and write about all of those things that felt too trivial and unimportant to write about. I wanted to punk prayer and that’s what we’re going to do.

Although I’m lapsed I still love the structure of prayer, the repetitions, the call and response, the language and the acknowledgment that humans need a time just for reflection – not work or duty just thought.

For this poetry exercise I’ve borrowed the structure of The Book of Hours. In its original form a Book of Hours offered a structure for daily spiritual life, essentially lessons for life.

It contained the eight canonical hours from Matins to Compline, observed by all devout members of the Church. The text could be personalised and augmented by gilding, miniatures, and beautiful illuminations. Readers turned to their Book of Hours to inspire meditation on the mysteries of faith, for the understanding of complex things, like sacrifice, grief and loss. So we’re going to take this structure as a concept and mess with it, wreck it and punk it to celebrate the small things and what’s important to us.

First we’re going to get down a rough draft of the poem by answering the following questions for each observance of the hours and you will create a stanza for each of the canonical hours. Allow 3 – 4 minutes to answer each question.

You’ll need:

  • Notebook
  • Pen
  • Plain paper
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • A4 card
  • Old magazines

Stanza 1: Nocturn

This is the prayer said during the night, in the watch hour. A time for vigil in that strange time between waking and sleeping where the boundaries between dream and reality thin.

What do you watch over? What keeps you awake?

Stanza 2: Matins

The morning service that ends at dawn and the day begins for work.

What is your daily morning ritual?

Stanza 3: Lauds (Morning prayer)

The office at daybreak. The first act of the day should be praise.

What are you grateful for?

Stanza 4: Terce (The little hours Midmorning prayer)

This is when we use prayer to invoke the Holy Spirit for strength in dealing with the conflicts of the day.

What are you willing to fight for?

Stanza 5: Sext (Midday prayer)

We should pray at noon, says St. Ambrose, because that is the time when the Divine light is in its fulness.

When are you at your most fulfilled? What does that look like? Are there signs of work on your body? Eg my stretch marks

Stanza 6: Mid-afternoon prayer (None)

At this hour we acknowledge our imperfection. As the sun sinks on the horizon at the hour of Nones, man’s spirit tends to lower itself also, we are more open to temptation, and it is the time the demon selects to try us.

What is your temptation? (Think of temptation as the thing you want mos but fear to take.)

Or

In what ways are you imperfect?

Stanza 7: Evening prayer (Vespers)

In English this hour is known as Vespers, however, the name by which it was most widely known was Lucernalis or Lucernaria hora. It was so called because at this hour candles were lit, not only to give light, but also for symbolical purposes. It is really the Office des lumières, i.e. of the lights.

As we live and learn we experience small enlightenments (like always packing wetwipes) we exchange innocence for knowledge.

What lessons have you learned?

Stanza 9: Night Prayer (Compline)

As Compline is the completion of the working day. Rest. The distinctive character and greater solemnity of the Roman form of Compline comes from the response, In manus tuas, Domine (“Into Thy hands, O Lord”)…

One of the greatest ways we can surrender ourselves is to allow ourselves to be held or to hold. Both physically and emotionally.

When was the last time someone held you and why?

Or

When was the last time you held someone and why?

Now you have your first draft it’s time to revise and cut.

You are aiming to reduce each hour to two lines (not necessarily sentences).

Start by underlining the most powerful sentences and images, the ones that give you that gut feeling of truth.

Next rewrite your underlinings as two lines per hour on a blank sheet of paper. So you end up with a 16 line poem.

Try to hold onto the strangenesses of the raw responses.

Next – illuminate your work by cutting out images from magazines that fit. Stick the images onto A4 card. If the images suggest changes to your text then allow for that.

Finally rewrite your 16 line poem on plain paper and tear into lines to stick over your images.

It should look a bit like this

When you’re done place your Book of Hours someone you’ll see it everyday to celebrate the beautiful messiness of your life.

Please do share with me @kalamene #bookofgodlessverse I’d love to see your hours.

Author: Carmen Marcus

As the daughter of a Yorkshire Fisherman and Irish Mother, my writing brings together the visceral and the magical. My debut novel #How Saints Die was published with Harvill Secker in 2017. It won New Writing North's Northern Promise Award as a work in progress and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2018. My poetry has been commissioned by BBC Radio, The Royal Festival Hall and Durham Book Festival. As a child of an 80s council estate I am an advocate for working class writers and stories. I’m currently working on my first poetry collection The Book of Godless Verse and my next novel. I try to live up to the words of my first critic and primary school teacher ‘weird minus one house point.’

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