Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Praise of the Daily Office

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.


Undergroundpewster said...

Keep it up, a wonderful offering to the glory of God.

"Day by day : we magnify thee;
And we worship thy Name : ever world without end." (Te Deum Laudamus)

TLF+ said...

Beautiful post, Fr. Dan.

I recently read a piece by N.T. Wright in which he wrote of the value of the Offices - in a more insightful and elegant way than I can express, he said that we really enter the Biblical message better by the course readings than by "taking a class" or by bits 'n' pieces gleaned from Sunday sermons.

The Preface to the 1549 BCP gives us direct insight into the high priority placed on "Divine Office" by the Anglican Reformers. They express very clearly and passionately their conviction that Biblical course readings in daily liturgy would "enflame the hearts" of clergy and people.

Fr. J said...

A very fine post indeed. I too have come to value the Office tremendously. My seminary experience shaped me in it. Too few modern Episcopalians realize the wealth of what's contained in Morning and Evening Prayer.

The parish I currently serve was a morning prayer parish up until the interim before me. I've maintained the interim's work of re-focusing the parish on the Eucharist. I've also, like you, begun a habit of offering daily morning and evening prayer during the week. I'm usually alone, but at least the prayers are being offered. It's helpful to me, in my role as a pastor, to have a specific time set aside at which I can offer up all the prayers that I've been asked to make in the course of a day.

I fully believe in weekly Eucharist, and in the Eucharist as the standard for Christian worship in general. But I wonder, what do you think of the practice of occasional Morning Prayer on a Sunday as the main service? I don't like the idea of having a week in which we don't have the opportunity to receive the Lord's Body and Blood, but on the other hand, it also seems important for our tradition that we maintain at least some familiarity with the office. I am torn and have not yet made a final decision on the subject.

Dale Matson said...

Excellent Post Fr. Dan,
As you know we do morning Prayer and Eucharist Monday through Saturday. I began Evening Prayer on Wednesdays two years ago. I think most of us are willing to go it alone and sometimes almost resent it when others show up. I now have taken my turn in the morning lineup and as a rookie, find Morning Prayer followed by the Rite II Eucharist to be formidable. We include the lessons from lesser feasts and fasts in the Eucharistic Service. I needed to create an outline for the entire service to keep on track. We do the Psalms by Courses which is the way the Bishop prefers it to be done. What is much of this about for me? It is conversion of manners. Pax

Anonymous said...

Fr. Martins,

Thank you for sharing this tradition with me, it helps me to stay focused and on the right path.



Anonymous said...

Amen, and Amen.
Monday thru Saturday, 7:15am.
Normally with at least one other parishioner.
Tulare, CA, right on Hwy 99; if you are passing through come join us.

David Handy+ said...

I share your lament, Dan, that the Daily Office is so widely forgotten and neglected these days. But the sad fact is that it never has been very common as a DAILY practice for laypeople.

And one reason, I suspect, is because Cranmer's prescribed form of it is still so monastic in style, versus the older, more congregational "cathedral office" or what I prefer to call "the peoples' office."

The 1979 BCP did a lot to revamp the eucharistic and baptismal liturgies, but gave very little attention to reforming the daily office liturgy. That's understandable, for you can't (or shouldn't) change everything all at once. But I still think a basic overhaul of the daily office remains on the unfinished business agenda of Anglicanism.

FWIW, I love Gregorian Chant much better than "Anglican thump," and when I do the office (normally at home, alone) I normally chant the psalms and canticles to plainsong.

Anyway, thanks Dan for putting in a good plug for the importance and value of doing the office daily. In the CoE, I think doing the office is still mandatory, a matter of solemn, canonical obligation for Anglican clergy. But unfortunately, that has never been true in America.