Coming at the tradition of historic Christianity as I did (from free-church evangelicalism) and when I did (in my early twenties, nearly four decades ago), it is interesting (providential?) that the parish in which I first worshiped regularly as an Anglican was a “Morning Prayer” parish. That was already a dying breed in the Episcopal Church even then, and now it is virtually extinct. We seem to have thoroughly recovered and embraced the ancient norm that the Eucharist is the principal act of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day, and this is, in my view, an overwhelmingly positive development. Yet, on a number of levels, I am glad I had the experience of All Saints-by-the-Sea in Santa Barbara in the early 1970s. It is where I first heard “O Lord, open thou our lips.” It is where I encountered the canticles (I remember especially Benedictus es, Domine sung to Anglican Chant in a manner that has been aptly called “Anglican thump”). It is where I first encountered Cranmer’s majestic liturgical draftsmanship, drinking so deeply as it did of the Benedictine spirit that underlies the Anglican ethos.
In time (and elsewhere), I learned that the purpose of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer is revealed most clearly when they form the foundation of a person’s (or, ideally, a community’s) daily prayer life. That foundation was eventually laid solidly in my own heart and mind and soul, and by the time I matriculated in a seminary that had monastic origins, it wasn’t that big a transition for me, just an intensification of something I was already accustomed to. More than 20 years after leaving Nashotah House, I still miss Michael the Bell calling the community to prayer.
I was blessed, upon graduation, to become a curate in a parish (St Luke’s, Baton Rouge) where Morning and Evening Prayer were read publicly, at stated times, seven days a week, thus extending the regimen to which I had grown accustomed in seminary. In the three congregations where I subsequently assumed the reins of pastoral care (in 1991, 1994, and 2007), I established this same practice. Much of the time I have been alone. Most of the time I have had one other person with me (usually another staff member, but still…), and occasionally a decent handful of co-worshipers. Unfortunately, my experience in this regard is quite atypical. Hardly any churches (of whatever stripe) recite the offices on a daily basis, a significant impoverishment to our common life, I would say.
As I mentioned upstream a few posts, I’m in the middle of reading a novel about a community of English Benedictine nuns that takes place around 1960. That narrative, to the extent that it wants to be authentic, cannot help but make frequent references to the daily liturgical life of the community, which spent several hours out of every 24 in the chapel, with some of them devoting even more hours to rehearsing for the chapel services. These comments, put by the author in the mouth of the novice mistress, particularly arrested my attention:
“This is our craft,” [Dame Agnes] said, using the word in its highest sense. “The craft of a contemplative religious, and as a good workman, an artist, loves his craft, we must delight in ours.”
I would not suggest that the majority of Christians, who, unlike these cloistered nuns, are “in the world,” can hone the same craft to the same degree of subtle and sophisticated beauty. But I am too formed in the same craft, albeit at a more plebian level, to easily let go of the notion that it is something worth doing more and doing better. For nearly the last two years, I have had a sort of apprentice in practicing this craft. As you might imagine, I have over the years acquired some opinions about “best practices” in praying the Daily Office from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and it has been a challenging and rewarding exercise for me to regularly be made to articulate why these practices are indeed “best.” I may not be a “contemplative religious,” but the daily office is part of my craft too, and it’s a craft in which I continue to delight.
Frankly, I cannot imagine trying to be a priest without these daily spiritual anchors. The practice consumes several hours a week when you add it all up, which is time that one could argue could be spent more “usefully.” But not really. There is no value I could ever place on the grooves that have been worn in my soul by more than thirty years of praying all 150 Psalms, the canticles and collects, the Old Testament narratives and prophecies, the gospel pericopes, and the passages from the epistles, Acts, and Revelation. The Daily Office is certainly not in itself a sufficient rule of prayer. But it is, I am persuaded, for most Christians who hang their hats in liturgical churches, a necessary foundation.