Christians, and other Faiths, have always found it helpful to have set prayers throughout the day. A number of these disciplines have developed within the church. They tend to be related to the time of day, and the season of the year. Generally included will be psalms, other passages of Scripture, and a set of prayers. Some call this a Liturgy of the Hours others, The Daily Office. In some traditions, the office is a religious duty. Saying the Morning and Evening prayer is required of Anglican clergy, for example.
I do not come from a prayer book, or Office saying tradition. Just before my entry to theological college I was sent to a remote desert town to "fill in" between minsters. I wondered what I would do if a funeral was required, and purchased an Anglican prayer book in order to have a funeral service with me. In this prayer book I found the Morning and Evening Prayer, which I had only ever read about. My tradition was rather dismissive of "read" prayers; we thought they were artificial and lacking sincerity.
I started using these services for myself. They seemed very traditional, but provided provided a framework for me to use as I was struggling to make sense of things in the pressure cooker of theological college. Sometimes our life task seems to be maintaining a kind of holding pattern while we work out, or wait out, what's going on in our life at the time. That's what that first encounter with the prayer book did. It gave me a place to be.
In all my stress and confusion it also gave me a sense of being part of a larger tradition, despite my lost-ness.
Since then the Office been the mainstay of my spiritual discipline.
What the Office has given me.
Saying the Office has enabled and assisted a number of things in my life.
It has been a place of identity. I observed people laugh at old aboriginal men or women who carried a bible or hymn book into church with them, unable to read, sometimes holding it open upside down, sometimes singing from a New Testament, (and from memory,) during the hymns. I understand now that those books were iconic. They were an icon of belonging. They were treasured, surviving camp life where there were no shelves or safe places for books. They symbolised much more than they were. It has been so for me.
The prayer book also offers me a framework for devotion. It enables a regular practice focussed around something which is more than the mindfulness raised by the pressures of the moment. This framework has measureable discipline. "You just do it." Saying the Office is not bound by feelings of good enough, long enough, sincere enough. The task of the prayers and the readings is clearly written out.
The prayer book has exposed me to the wider tradition of the church. I have been both excited and confronted nd repelled by scriptures I would not normally read. I would not normally read many of the psalms. I don't find Paul the apostle particularly attractive in some of his attitudes. The discipline of the Office is that these are brought before me, whether I wish it or not.
The result is that I sometimes discover real gems of insight that I have long forgotten. Or I see new things in scripture passages I had "written off." And constantly there is the reminder of the alien nature of some of our tradition; how much we have moved on. I am reminded how much we drift back to being pre-Christian; some of these readings alert me to the same under developed sense of God that I express in myself!
The prayer book ‘patrols the corridors of my mind' (George Guiver Company of Voices). I'm talking here of a different to exposure to the wider tradition. I'm talking about the reminder of things held dear; things I have forgotten in the pressure of the everyday. I mean the insights of value that I have not been letting feed me, and the of balance in life which I have lost. This is all brought to present-mind by the discipline of the set readings and prayers.
There is also an ethical challenge. Recently, as the readings moved through Hosea, I was constantly reminded of my calling to justice.
The prayer book also reminds me of my important memories. I placed one of my key life experiences, written down in the form of a psalm, in my prayer book. It is there to be read every Tuesday, reminding me of who I am. I have also included favourite readings and hymns, with all their associations of past times. I have a rota of these which I work through.
It takes time to read the Office. That slows me down. It means I am giving regular time to reflect and be confronted by ideas. And at a very simple level, it has me sitting and stopped, and disconnected from thinking about work. Of course, issues of work arise during the prayers, but they are "why" issues rather than the mechanics of "when" and "how" which our surface busyness so often focuses upon.
The prayer book also brings occasional extraordinary emotional comfort. I am still surprised by how often what is an unplanned, un-chosen set of text on any given day, relates so closely to where I am at. There have been times in this discipline where I have been deeply moved, and healed, and encouraged.
What helps saying the Office be an effective devotional aid.
A lot of this is influenced by our own personality and situation.
For me, a regular time really helps. I get up early, before the rest of the house, and spend that first half hour saying the office. It always feels compromised when I leave it until later. Later means there is a good chance it won't happen at all.
I find saying the prayers first thing in the day is helpful in another way. It seems to help set the mood for the day. There is a certain comfort and familiarity that reflects upon the rest of the day.
I find it helpful to read the prayers, canticles, and scriptures out loud. Much of the tradition is written for speaking. Silent reading is a relatively recent invention. Reading aloud also stops the mind wandering, or at least, lessens that. It helps the content of the words intrude into my thoughts. It lessens the tendency to race through the readings at speed.
Reading the text with as much expression as possible also helps slow things down. The very application of expression means I am exploring the text rather than reading "gabble and rote." All of this gives it more opportunity and time to speak to me.
The singing of prayer is immensely important and helpful. Song opens up a whole new part of me, letting the prayer speak to me, or letting my emotions be expressed. Some hymns and canticles have a set tune which I know. I often use the Tonus Peregrinus to impromptu chant psalms. It might horrify a good Anglican or Episcopalian, but it helps me!
Whilst community worship has an enormously important place, private prayers need to be private. It doesn't usually work to sing and pray out loud on the 7.30 city train!
There is a common flow to morning and evening prayer which it is important to maintain. It reflects centuries, if not millennia, of experience. This flow can loosely be described as Approaching God -> Praising -> Listening -> Responding -> Going out into the world. Within that flow we can introduce our own traditions. I have a rota of significant hymns, and some poems, which I use as a second canticle following the daily scripture readings. This list brings some of my personal tradition intothe process.
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