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Lord, Open Our Lips: A Manifesto for the Daily Offices

I have heard it said the monks of Mt. Athos, whose daily existence and lives are surrounded by the waters of the mighty Mediterranean Sea, understand their vocations, which spring forth from prayer, as releasing an intense concentration of the blazing warmth of God’s love as it spills outward and hovers over the waters and abroad to all the world. Similarly, I envision my parish chapel being a furnace of faith, spilling out the heat of prayer, providing the warmth of God’s love and presence to our surrounding community, often amid tumultuous and trying times in which people feel as though they are drowning in the waters. I know, I am a romantic.

Until recently, however, the chapel, just off of our Nave, has remained largely under-utilized, except for two liturgies and a children’s chapel service on Sunday (all of which are wonderful). During the week it sits empty, like a fireplace without a fire, and I have longed for it to pulsate with the heat of God’s presence of prayer working through his people. For this reason, among others, my parish is committing to praying the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer starting this Lent and lasting, I hope, until the kingdom comes.

Why would we do this?

Anglicans have always thought it not only salutary but necessary to breathe with both lungs of the spiritual life — the Bible and prayer — which are brought together in harmony in the daily offices. If our conversion extends throughout our lives, which I find to be tacitly true (we are saved on the cross, we are being saved, and we will be saved on the last day), then our imaginations and desires must be converted as well, and this happens through saturation in sacred Scripture and attentiveness to the grace of God and his gospel, unearned and unmerited.

To be sure, there are many expressions, gifts, and practices related to the entire body, as Paul uses the metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12, which are important for the church to be the church. However, these are all utterly dependent upon and governed by our encounter with God through Scripture and prayer (including the Eucharistic Prayer). Breathing with both lungs of Bible and prayer delivers the most spiritual oxygen and support to the rest of the bodily functions, making our corporal works of mercy, care for the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned effective and delivered with spiritual muscle and vitality. For Anglicans throughout history, the principal way we have breathed with both lungs of prayer and Scripture has been through inhabiting the daily offices. Inhabiting such patterns of prayer precedes the development of passions that fuel the rehabilitation of communities.

Prayer and study of Scripture stand theologically prior to other critical and missional expressions of the Body of Christ in the same way a fountainhead directs the movement and flow of water in a beautiful fountain. “Faith is the fountain of prayers,” St. Augustine said. Why then do our fountains run dry? Is it because we forsake the very practices of faith that ensure that channels of living water still flow?

The spiritual synergy formed at the intersection of prayer and Scripture was certainly a principal concern of the reformers’ vision, especially Thomas Cranmer, whose leadership and faithfulness is embedded in the prayer book tradition. This vision is evident in the Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:

There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which (in continuance of time) hath not been corrupted: as (among other things) it may plainly appear by the common prayers in the Church, commonly called Divine Service. The first original and ground whereof, if a man would search out by the ancient Fathers, he shall find that the same was not ordained but of a good purpose, and for a great advancement of godliness: For they so ordered the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over in the year; intending thereby, that the Clergy, and especially such as were Ministers of the congregation, should (by often reading, and meditation of God’s word) be stirred up to godliness themselves and be more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the truth. And further, that the people (by daily hearing of Holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.

It is, in part, this vision that fuels my desire to launch the offices in my parish. Now, to be fair, we have always been a praying parish, a community of people who care about prayer, and certainly long before I arrived. We have been a place fueled by programs on spiritual disciplines, which have given rise to evangelical fervor for Scripture, and a passion to invite others into being, as Søren Kierkegaard said, not merely admirers but followers of Jesus. However, in the last 14 months we have gone all in on our conviction that prayer is the fountainhead of our common life. We held a conference on prayer. I have written regular devotions on prayer. We did a small-group program on praying the Psalms, and a class on the Book of Common Prayer, and an Advent series on praying the offices. We held a women’s Epiphany dinner and a separate men’s gathering, both based on prayer. All of this brings us to the point of the divine offices and their shape in the Anglican tradition.

I suppose it is anachronistic to envision some golden age when all of England prayed the offices together. One will search in vain for such a moment, and we should be careful to avoid misreading the past. Anglican communities of prayer have always waxed and waned, depending on the fervor and faithfulness of clergy, lay leaders, and (throughout much of history) those in religious orders. How far we have come, however, from the days when all clergy were required to pray the offices by virtue of their vows, and to do so publicly so that laypersons had the opportunity to do the same. For approximately three quarters of the history of the church, praying the divine offices was an “essential function” of the job description for Christian leadership in the church in its Latin, Eastern, and English/Anglican iterations.

Indeed, one could make the argument, as some have, that the offices stretch back to Jesus and even further to the patterns of Israel, whose rhythms of prayer were rooted in divinely mandated festivals, and set times of praying at morning, noon, and night (cf. Ps. 1:2; Dan. 6:10; Acts 3:1). We know that prayer was ordered, and done in common, as the disciples and apostles are cited as frequently praying “in one accord” (Acts 1:14; 2:42, 46; 4:24). Finally, we know Jesus was given to praying at both day and night (Mark 1:35; 6:46 Matt. 14:23). This cumulative weight of piety and history stands behind Cranmer’s vision for daily prayer, which is summed up by Bishop Anthony Burton:

Cranmer drew upon elements of the eight daily offices (chiefly the versions used at Salisbury Cathedral) but the project was more than a simplifying of what was already there. He believed strongly that holiness involved entering into the Gospel. So he set about to create offices at which people could drink deeply and systematically from the Bible. At the same time he also fashioned these offices so that people would worship God according to principles of worship he found in the Bible itself. While Cranmer possessed a vast patristic scholarship, he was more concerned with the substance of apostolic worship than its forms.

We are thirsty at St. Francis in the Fields for this cool, living, nourishing, unconquerable, and sometimes tumultuous water of the Word that I hope our people will taste in the offices. Thus, we find ourselves living out a soft launch of the daily offices in our parish. We have recruited ten lay leaders and additional lectors, along with our clergy team, and we are treating this almost like a church plant within our parish. Martin Thornton would have called this “the remnant.” Either way, our launch team is learning how to officiate, and we are working out the kinks of holding daily morning and evening prayer before we launch to the wider parish in the season of Lent.

Those involved love it, even if a few of them find it intimidating at first. Our officiants span a range of ages. More than half are younger than 45, and all identify as zealous converts to the prayer book tradition. In addition to our clergy team, we have a helicopter mechanic, a hospice chaplain, a salesperson, a tech consultant, an accountant, two doctors, a social worker, and several retired laypersons who are passionate about this vision, each being trained to officiate, and each possessing varying degrees of experience with the prayer book. Some have prayed the offices for decades, and some only for a few weeks. In a very real sense, the offices are becoming the training ground and laboratory for lay leadership development, creating space for some to test a call to ordained leadership, while affording others the opportunity to express the priestly call given to them simply by being made in the imago Dei, a call that has been vivified through their plunge into the baptismal waters.

At times the offices are accompanied with dinosaurs, or the scribbling of crayons on a page, simply another expression of ora et labora, as children come in tow with those who are training to train others to form a house of prayer (Luke 19). My hope is that amid roars of the T. rex and strokes of Crayola, they too come to know the mystery Hans Urs von Balthasar articulated:

We must be vividly aware of [this mystery] as we pray, contemplating the word of God: that the whole compact solidity of our creaturely being and essence, and of the everyday world in which we find ourselves and find our bearings, is afloat like a ship above the immense depths of an entirely different element … namely the unfathomable love of the Father. The person who prays must experience the freedom of this love; not only the freedom which corresponds to the non-necessity, the contingence of his own existence, but the much deeper and wholly new and different freedom which accords with the Father’s “good pleasure”: we, his creatures and servants, are to be regarded and “esteemed” as members of his household, as his children and “co-heirs” with his Son. From the very outset, the coherence, correctness and justice of this logic, this way of thinking and evaluating, presupposes and embraces the whole medium of ineffable grace, a presupposition shared by even the most formal grammatical component of God’s language. Anyone who has ever sensed this fundamental mystery underlying our existence will take the necessity of prayer for granted … (Prayer, p. 43-44)

May they take the necessity of prayer for granted as well. For we have stressed all along as a parish that prayer and praying together is not one program among many, but is instead the very wellspring of our common life together, the very waters upon which we are guided to God’s New Covenant shores. It is in praying where the habituated reception of the Spirit’s indwelling power and presence is unfurled into our lives. Like a sail catching wind for the first time, and every time, the offices allow us to hoist the sails, not to speed along in our own strength, but to be precisely those who are empowered by the apostolic wind behind (and ahead of) the ark of our parish, who are sent along the waves of God’s providential workings in human history, always aware that “the Lord sits enthroned over the flood” (Ps. 29).

Breathing with both lungs of Scripture and prayer in the offices allows us to not only be inspired (inspirited) by God, but to die to ourselves daily, to be expired, so the Spirit, the breath of God, might flow out of us over the waters around us, bringing order out of the chaos of our communities.

So many of our people ride the week like a white water rapid while awaiting the lazy river that is the weekend. Nevertheless, we are testing a different approach in recognizing that each morning and evening are like the eddy of a river, where — if only for a moment — we rest in the swirling currents of grace, in order to be thrust back out again into the stream of carpool lines and surgeries, grocery shopping and conflict resolution, board meetings and Netflix. For these activities also empty into the sea of God’s purposes, who is working in all things for the good of those who love him. Conceived as such, the offices are then not a departure from how we normally live, but are a glimpse into how we should always live, attuned to the God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

In other words, we who are incurvatus se — the grain of whose hearts runs against the hard wood of the cross — are being tutored in being fully human before God. The cross is our rudder through these waters, Christ himself being bound to the mast, fully God, fully human.

The world has long forgotten how to be, yet alone how to be human. We are seeking to sit still, and to remember the echo of Eden. We hear it chiefly in Scripture, the lessons, and especially the Psalms. Our hearts burn within us as we see full humanity shot through with full divinity on every page of sacred writ.

As we recite the Psalms, they form within us the habits of placing ourselves fully before the God who is already present to us. Indeed, the Psalms invite us to place even those unsavory bits of our being before the God who knows about them anyway. The Psalms remind us that we were once naked without shame before God, even as we stand stripped bare before God again, as we hear in the Collect for Purity within our eucharistic liturgy: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (BCP, p. 323).

We are formed, therefore; disciplined, one might say, by the lectionary. We learn to hear passages sing together as a chorus of the saving works of God. Moreover, we learn how to feel, how to love, hate, lament, cry, remember, long, delight, listen, repent, exclaim, forgive, fume, and rejoice; in short, how to be alive to what resides under the dark waters of our souls and subconscious selves.

Of the Psalms, the 17th-century Anglican dean Thomas Comber wrote:

They are called the instrument of virtue, the marrow of divinity, the storehouse of devotion, the epitome of Holy Scripture. They contain excellent forms to bless the people, to praise God, to rejoice in his favor, to bewail his absence, to confess our Faith, to crave pardon of our sins, deliverance from our enemies, and all blessings for the Church of God. In the use of them we ought to exercise all graces, repentance and faith, love and fear of God, charity to all men, and compassion to the miserable. The composition of them declares they are fitted for men of all ages and degrees, in all estates and donditions, young and old; kings, priests, and people; in prosperity and adversity; here they may find that which so exactly suits them all, as if their condition had been foreseen and particularly provided for. (Prayerbook Spirituality, p. 153)

We are learning how to be honest about our darkness, and honest about the tragedies of our lives. I once heard Oliver O’Donovan address the moral challenge resident in Psalm 137, a psalm of mass slaughter and forgiveness. O’Donovan said, “If one has never burned with terrible loss, one can never know what it feels like to be relieved of it.” The divine offices take us there, among other destinations of the soul that stands at full spread before God.

For when we pray, we are standing at the threshold where heaven meets earth; the place where God’s kingdom is coming on earth as it is in heaven, the nexus where this inbreaking reality takes hold of our hearts (as we feel), our minds (as we know), our bodies (as we kneel), and our souls (as we give ourselves fully to God). We may feel that nothing is happening, or we may, like the Narnian children, step into the magical wardrobe and discover the life that is more real and holistically nourishing than the fumes that fuel our mechanized, excarnate and increasingly disembodied existence.

So as the church spins about creating social collaboratives, and food truck ministries, which may have their proper place, I am convicted and convinced we can grow a healthy, humble, and faithful church that changes its community most effectively by refusing to reinvent the wheel. The gifts for our renewal lie within our own tradition — ad fontes! If we have the courage to forgo the “shiny new thing,” we may just find our Lord himself, waiting in the boat, ready to take us to sea, ready to take us fishing once again; ready to take us to his fireside meal, where, having worked in the waters all our long days, we may know also the blazing warmth of his Communion, even amid the coldness and the darkness of the night.

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