Back in August, Fr. Clint Wilson expressed a hope that a rediscovery and proliferation of Evensong in highly concentrated population centers might serve to renew the spiritual lives of many:
I wonder, what would happen if churches near colleges and universities or in urban centers made an Evensong liturgy part of their outreach plan? Would our present culture — fatigued by polarization, weighed down by conflict, and untethered from the ancient — receive silence, beauty, and transcendence as a welcome gift from the Church, and thereby encounter anew the Triune God?
I think it is worth a shot.
I share this hope with Clint, and have enjoyed attending Evensong at churches nearby with professional and skilled volunteers in their choirs. It is beautiful. My soul sings with the choir, and even the most familiar prayers like the Lord’s Prayer and the Suffrages take on nuances they simply hadn’t in my spoken or solitary recitations of the Office.
In other words, I like it. A lot.
Furthermore, as a priest, my rule of faith involves saying Morning and Evening Prayer daily, and I’m successful at keeping this rule most of the time. Tools like St. Bede’s Breviary and the Episcopal Church in Garret County’s Morning Prayer podcast (goofy flute music, nature sounds, and pseudo-Marcionite, OT-free lectionary in the latter notwithstanding) make it easier for the days I cannot say the Office corporately, or need to do so in a place where I’m without the requisite two to three books. When I have the time, I’m a sucker for a good St. Augustine’s Prayer Book Litany.
I say all this as preface to establish my bona fides and Anglican credibility before my somewhat problematic thesis.
I don’t know what to do with Evening Prayer.
When exactly am I supposed to say it? Its traditional spot at the end of the workday comes at the absolute worst time for me, when everyone has already left the office, and I’m frantically trying to tie up the last few loose threads before heading home. Then, a toddler at home means that once my car pulls in the driveway, my hands are full until the kid nods off around 8 p.m. By that time, I’m anything but recollected, and I’m much closer to the hour of Compline than Vespers.
Compline I can commend. In a tight package of 5-7 minutes, it catches the spirit of the moment, and directs my heart to prayer, leaving me ready to retire to bed at peace. The Psalms are perfect for the end of the day, and the Scripture reading is short and ripe for reflection and bedside meditation.
I also have no beef whatsoever with Morning Prayer. Perhaps it’s my evangelical background, with its emphasis on the morning Quiet Time™ of Bible reading and prayer. This practice led me to the Anglican Daily Office as I sought a more structured form of prayer.
However, when it comes to guiding adult confirmands toward regular recitation of the Daily Office, I am often — whether rightly or wrongly — tempted to leave Evening Prayer out of the equation altogether. Too many times I have seen disbelieving looks from those eager Anglicans-to-be when I suggest that they should spend not one but two 30-minute portions of their day in psalmody, Bible reading, and prayer. Too many clergy have confessed to me their near-total truncation of the evening Office into a Magnificat, the Lord’s Prayer, and perhaps a collect or two.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against Evening Prayer in itself. In fact, I quite enjoy it, especially when I’m able to grant it the time and space necessary.
But I wonder whether Cranmer’s combination of the seven (or eight) liturgical hours into Morning and Evening Prayer, with lengthy Scripture readings in both, is now less advantageous to prayer as most modern Westerners are able to practice it, which is often alone.
Cranmer’s revolutionary act was primarily this: He introduced public reading of lengthy portions of Scripture in these services, thus exposing laity to the whole of the Scriptures in their vernacular tongue, in a time when the Scriptures were neither widely available nor widely known. In other words, the genius of the Morning/Evening Prayer Office scheme was that these were accessible public services.
For very good reasons, Anglicans have maintained this tradition in our Morning and Evening Prayer offices. In larger parishes and cathedrals, as well as collegiate and seminary chapels, daily or almost daily recitation keeps regular participation in the Offices possible for the praying public fortunate enough to live nearby.
I have sometimes benefited from such an arrangement. The highlight of my two weeks in the Canterbury Scholars Programme during seminary was our required daily attendance at Matins and Evensong in Canterbury Cathedral. In the afternoons, I would often make my way with a good book or a stack of postcards to a nearby pub for a pint of Kentish ale and a little American-style multitasking. I knew that when the cathedral bells rang for Evensong, I had just enough time to finish my pint, walk briskly to the cathedral, and arrive in time for the canon to intone the opening sentence. I felt the rhythms of life tangibly, and the town and cathedral around me cohered in a way that made prayer not only possible but the most common course of action for my day.
But conceived of as a service of solitary prayer, the regular recitation of Evening Prayer, with its requisite two Scripture readings, seems challenging at best, and perhaps even unrealistic as an introduction to a so-called Anglican way of praying. As a first or second step into ordered prayer, it is a lot to bite off at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday.
With the 1979 prayer book’s inclusion of Noonday Prayer and Compline, we Episcopalians have now become familiar with another form of ordered prayer, emphasizing psalmody and short, verse-long, readings from Scripture. In a matter of months, by regular recitation of these two services, one can memorize a psalm and reading from each, along with the collects, making solitary recitation not just possible but an internalization of the offices as a habitual form of prayer, with or without the requisite books.
Psalm 126 from Noonday prayer has become my subconscious meditation in difficult daytime work: “Those who sow with tears * shall reap with shouts of joy.”
Psalm 4 and the Antiphon to the Nunc Dimittis pour out automatically upon turning off the lights for bed:
Tremble then and do not sin; * speak to your heart in silence upon your bed. Offer the appointed sacrifices * and put your trust in the Lord.
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
On the other hand, the 1979 BCP’s “Daily Devotionals for Individuals and Families” seem to be a step in the wrong direction, pointing away toward a perpetually truncated Office. Church Publishing’s recent Daily Prayer for All Seasons takes this even further away from the prayer book tradition. One would be better served by Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours.
My proposal to those attempting to take up the practice of ordered prayer on their own is threefold:
- Begin praying either Noonday Prayer or Compline daily.
- Attend Evensong or a public service of Morning or Evening Prayer whenever available.
- Pray either Morning or Evening Prayer daily, with the goal of adding the other offices once the practice of the first is firmly established. This was the course of growth for my personal rule, and I suspect it could be helpful to others, to prevent overburdening oneself with too many new disciplines.
After all, it isn’t Evening Prayer that I’m against, but hurried, perfunctory prayers and Scripture reading taking the place of thoughtful, collected prayer that truly orients us toward “praying at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18, ESV).