“From the rising of the sun until its going down, may the name of the Lord be praised” Psalm 113:3
By Julia Gatta
Christian spirituality encompasses the whole of life. Every facet of our lives, states the First Epistle of Peter, presents opportunities by which “God may be glorified in all things” (4:11). We cannot do this without daily prayer. Although Christ lives in us and we live in him, we easily lose awareness of the presence of God as we engage our daily activities. We can end up living for our own glory rather than God’s. Prayer focuses our minds and hearts Godward. Indeed St. Paul, reflecting on the Christian experience of prayer, teaches that the Holy Spirit activates both the desire to pray and prayer itself. We typically feel inept at prayer, at loose ends, but the Holy Spirit comes to our rescue by praying in us: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
People want to know how to pray. One of Jesus’ disciples came to him with that very request: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). Jesus replies with what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer, which begins by glorifying God and continues with petitions essential to our life, is so central to us as a praying community that it is included in every liturgy. French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil writes: “The Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer not already contained in it. … It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal perhaps but real, taking place in the soul.” If we do nothing else for daily prayer, we should try to punctuate the day with the Lord’s Prayer, giving its phrases the focused concentration Weil recommends.
Jewish piety evolved a round of prayer for the Temple, the synagogue, and personal use. Temple sacrifice occurred each morning and evening, and local synagogues arranged systematic readings of Scripture, together with psalmody and prayers. Devout Jews prayed on their own three times a day: “in the evening, in the morning, and at noonday” (Ps. 55:18). When St. Luke describes how new Christians were devoted to “the prayers” (Acts 2:42), he is probably referring to these practices inherited from Judaism. In the first centuries of the church, cathedrals and monastic communities devised their own schemes of Scripture reading, psalmody, hymns, and prayers based on these precedents: the origins of our Daily Office. The Office (Latin officium = “duty”) underwent considerable elaboration in the Middle Ages. Thomas Cranmer simplified these offices for early editions of the Book of Common Prayer to make them once again the daily prayer of the parish.
Ideally, the Daily Office is said each morning and evening in the parish church; this expectation undergirds various versions of the Book of Common Prayer. Since these offices may be lay-led, some parishes have a regular rotation of lay officiants who carry the Office through the week. A full congregation is not essential: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20). For many of us, the demands of family or work will prevent us from praying the Office with the gathered community. But even when we pray the Office on our own, we are still praying with the Church. It is the Church’s daily prayer, offered day in and day out for the glory of God.
There are many benefits to praying the Office. Like all liturgical prayer, it is objective; its performance does not depend on our mood or creativity. We may need instruction about how to find the daily readings and psalms (there is a lectionary in the back of the prayer book), how to interpret the rubrics, and how major feasts alter the usual pattern. But once we grasp the basic format, we need only a Bible and Book of Common Prayer to join in this great rhythm. The Office is available as an instrument of prayer even when we do not feel like praying. It can carry us through long stretches of spiritual dryness or days when we feel utterly uninspired. It can serve as an anchor when other aspects of our life are falling apart. It puts words around the mere desire to pray, to connect with God. We just have to do it.
The Office also places us in harmony with the cosmic rhythms of day and night, light and dark, as the earth turns on its axis and rotates around the sun in an annual cycle. The prayers of the morning are especially suitable for the start of the day with its promise and challenges. Evening prayers reflect with thanksgiving on the day that is past and ask for protection for the coming night. Special collects for particular days of the week bring us close to the great mysteries of the faith associated with those days: the resurrection (Sunday), the crucifixion (Friday), and creation (Saturday/Sabbath).
Praying the Office, together with faithful attendance at the Sunday Eucharist, situates us in the strong currents of the liturgical year. The readings and collects take on distinctive coloration in the various seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, and the long, slow growing season of “Time after Pentecost.” Like the seasonal changes in the natural world, these cyclical rhythms in the Church year are psychologically satisfying. Yet there is far more at work in the progression of the Church calendar.
While baptism initiated us into Christ’s own life, we grow as participants in that life through the annual celebration of its key moments: Christ’s birth, death, or ascension, for example. These events, while belonging on one plane to history, are considered “mysteries” — not because they are inscrutable, but because they have eternal significance and infinite depth. Precisely because the whole mystery of Christ is so vast and multifaceted, the major feasts and seasonal celebration of the particular events of Christ’s life are spread across the year.
Evelyn Underhill writes that “in that devout commemoration of the successive Mysteries of the life of Jesus, from Christmas to Easter and to their consummation at Pentecost, on which the liturgical year of the Church is based, all phases of human experience are lit up by the radiance of eternity and brought into relation with the inexhaustible revelation of God in the flesh.” Phillips Brooks captures this sense, in this case of the Christmas mystery, in the final stanza of his well-known hymn, “O little town of Bethlehem”: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” We pray that Christ will be born in us at Christmas; just as we pray that we will die and be raised in him through the liturgies of the Triduum; and that his Spirit will come upon us at Pentecost. The Eucharist and Daily Office, celebrated across the span of the Church year, thus bring us into harmony with the rhythms of nature, while making real in us the mysteries of the Incarnation.
The Rev. Julia Gatta is professor of pastoral theology at the University of the South’s School of Theology in Sewanee. This article was first published in the October 18, 2015 issue of The Living Church.