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Reclaiming time

Time flows without order or structure in much of contemporary life. The growing prominence of shift work and telecommuting, the rise of on-demand entertainment, and the abundance of establishments offering meals at all hours encourage and force greater flexibility in the way we structure our waking hours. We have fewer commonly held assumptions about when things should happen, as scheduling a meeting of volunteers quickly reveals.

The Psalmist’s assumption, that “Man goeth forth to his work, and to his labour, until the evening” (Ps. 104:23), seems hopelessly antiquated to us now. While these changes have increased our economic productivity, they have impoverished us in other ways. Groups of all kinds, including the church, are harder to organize. Our common stock of cultural references has grown thinner. We’re much more likely to eat alone. And we say we can’t find the time to pray.

One of the more pressing spiritual dangers of this change is the temptation to order our time entirely according to our own desires. We are constantly assured that we have less time than we would like, and, indeed, leisure hours have consistently declined, even as we crowd our lives with labor-saving devices. Methods abound to squeeze every last second into some form of productive use. We are subtly encouraged to be frightened of time, tempted to treat reasonable demands as burdensome impositions. We long to escape into our “man caves” for some “me time,” to uncivilize ourselves, fleeing from the other.

A people oriented to the love of God and neighbor should be suspicious about such a selfish ordering of one of life’s chiefest gifts. The creation story tells us that the sequence of light and darkness is not accidental but “ruled” by the “greater and lesser lights” that obey God’s will (Gen. 1:16). As creatures made to know and love God, we use time best when we learn from its passage and punctuate it with praise. In an age when the motion of the clock seems increasingly “without form and void,” ordering time according to the rhythms of grace, marking it steadily with prayer, is a subversive act.

It may also be more important than ever before.

“Seven times a day do I praise thee; because of thy righteous judgments”, sang the Psalmist (Ps. 119:64). A single daily act of praise cannot do justice to a holy and faithful God. There must be a sequence of praise, a complete pattern, a shape that leads us through the hours, so that each part of the day can be savored and then offered back to its Giver.

The reciting of God’s “righteous judgments” prompts us to look at our own lives and turn anew to God, for “now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). John Wesley beautifully described the ascetical potential of the daily round in this way: “Our wise creator [has] divided life into these little portions of time, so clearly separated from each other that we might look on each day as a fresh gift of God, another life, which we may devote to his glory; and that every evening may be as the close of life, beyond which we are to see nothing but eternity.”[1]

The Liturgy of the Hours or Daily Office, developed from the domestic practice of the ancient Jews and the common life of the early Christian monks, has been the Church’s traditional means of “sanctifying time.” The Office’s constant element is the objective recitation of the Psalter, the common offering of praise. Arrangements for supplementary antiphons, lessons, canticles, versicles, and collects have varied widely. Some of the most beautiful and poignant of these have proclaimed God’s righteous judgments by orienting particular hours to events in the history of salvation or seeking, with Wesley, lessons for discipleship in the natural progress of the day.

The traditional hymns of the eightfold Western Office follow both these patterns, sometimes simultaneously. The liturgical day traditionally begins in the evening, and the ferial Vesper hymns recall the days of creation, allegorizing their spiritual significance. Compline’s hymn, with its appeal for protection from “ghostly fears and fantasies,” is refreshingly honest about our fear of the dark. At Lauds, Christ in glory is praised as the Earth’s true Sun, rising from the dead and returning soon from the rosy East. At Prime, we set off to work asking for God’s protection in all the challenges that the day will present, so that:

We when this new day is gone,
And night in turn is drawing on,
With conscience by the world unstained,
Shall praise His Name for victory gained.

Terce brings an invocation of the Holy Spirit, who came on Pentecost at the third hour. Sext’s hymn, sung in the heat of the day, asks for a quenching of burning desires. And the hour of None looks wistfully towards evening’s rest and asks for final peace, praying “that a holy death may be / The door of immortality.”

Perhaps in response to this modern fluidity of time, there are some signs of increased interest in more complex forms of the Daily Office among Anglicans today. Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book radically simplified the Daily Office, condensing eight services into two, eliminating hymns, antiphons, and most festival variations, and reading the Psalter by an unvarying monthly pattern. The innovation had its advantages, especially with the inclusion of fuller Scripture readings and much more manageable rubrics. But the loss of the Office hymns and the nearly identical structure of Morning and Evening Prayer weakened their ability to mark the day with distinct aspects of the story of salvation.

English translations of the “Little Hours” appeared in the nineteenth century and have become part of the diurnal of many Anglican religious communities,[2] and some form of Midday Prayer and Compline have been included in most of the modern prayer books. A full set of Office hymn translations was included in The English Hymnal, where they were suggested as additions to the standard Prayer Book liturgies. These have been reclaimed also by Derek Olsen for his wonderful Saint Bede’s Breviary, which has made saying the Office simpler for so many. Rather more ambitious is the Anglican Breviary, a translation of the Pre-Conciliar Roman Breviary from 1955, recently republished in a handsome edition and newly made the subject of Kickstarter campaign by Derek Olsen for an online version.

The latest liturgical resource from the Episcopal Church’s Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, Daily Prayer for All Seasons very interestingly returns to the traditional eightfold office pattern. Its individual offices are quite short, mostly two or three pages in length, and change only by season. The resource seeks to connect the Office with what is traditionally called “mental prayer,” assigning a particular “spiritual labor” to each of the eight hours (praise, discernment, wisdom, perseverance and renewal, love, forgiveness, trust, and watching), with appropriate reflective questions. In keeping with modern schedules, the midnight office (Vigils or Matins) comes last instead of first in the sequence, the first liturgical concession I have seen to electric lighting. Daily Prayer also contains significant and troubling departures from historic practice, including a dramatically curtailed use of the Psalter and the inclusion of materials from non-Christian sources. It’s difficult for me to imagine using the resource continually, but for the occasional insight, it might be quite useful.

While the project of creating a unifying form of common prayer is as old as the Church, perhaps desperate times demand desperate measures. We may need to concede the impossibility of a truly common form of the Office in an age when our use of time takes such strikingly diverse forms. There’s fairly good evidence, after all, that common forms of the Office have only really existed in the blueprints of liturgical reformers. Some of us will sanctify time most usefully in the noble simplicity of memorized psalms, recited with reverent attention at fixed points in the day. Others will delight in the grand profusion of triple nocturns and Greater Doubles of the Second Class. I hope that amid that diversity, a common respect for the day’s natural pattern and the story of God’s “righteous judgments” will be among the cherished gifts that bind us together.

 


[1] John Wesley, “Sermon XXVI: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse VI”, in Wesley’s Works (New York: Emory and Haugh, 1831), p. 242.

[2] E. C. Trenholme, “The Lesser Hours,” in W.K. Lowther-Clarke (ed.), Liturgy and Worship (London: SPCK, 1959), pp. 688-9.

 

The image above is “Ramadan Prayer” (28 September 2011) by Thamer al-Hassan. It was taken in Riyadh and is licensed under Creative Commons.

4 COMMENTS

  1. This is splendid, and reminded me of two things. The first is the great bit in the Screwtape Letters where Screwtape is urging Wormwood to keep his patient out of the present moment:

    “He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time, which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which [God] has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity or with the Present–either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”

    The more present moments we choose to spend in intentional prayer, the further the Enemy recedes.

    It also reminded me of Michael Ramsey’s wonderful little chapter “Man of Prayer” in the Christian Priest Today – adoration turns to intercession: “We need to soak ourselves in this if our prayer is to be fully in Christ’s name and to his glory, and one with the redeemed people of God.”

  2. I welcome any and all conversations about the Office, because it was in seeking precisely what the Office provides that I felt called to return to the Church five years ago after 17 years away and become an Anglican. And particularly it was after spending much of the wee hours of the night five years ago researching Office and Breviary online options that my wife asked me, “Have you ever thought of seminary?”

    For my own part, I would hope — perhaps the word is insist — that the voluminous writings about the Office by Martin Thornton would find a place in Anglican discussions of the Office. Because I am a scholar/devotee of Thornton’s theological corpus, I put together a short but I think meaty bulleted list of his primary theological insights about the Office, which of course overflow into practice. A longer treatment of this is found in the essay I wrote, “The Theology of the Divine Office.” The best treatment would require a book unto itself, for Thornton’s theological palette is as rich as an Anglican’s.

    The primary texts this following list is culled from are The Heart of the Parish: A Theology of the Remnant (also known as Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation), Christian Proficiency, The Rock and the River, The Function of Theology, and Prayer: A New Encounter.

    What reckoning with Thornton’s theology involves:

    (1) The Our Father prayer is the sole dominical basis for the Office; it establishes its corporate nature, its teleology, its disposition, its paradigm. Ps. 119:64 and the like are important, clarifying, supportive, but secondary.

    (2) The Office can only be understood theologically within the larger theology of Regula — Office-Mass-Devotion — which is the ascetical application of the doctrine of the Trinity: Office associates with the Father, Mass with the Son, and Devotion with the Spirit. This is not modalism but a framework for ascetical response to the “stupendously rich reality” of God (to quote von Hugel).

    Each dimesion carries a particular psychological/behavioral disposition that together and as a threefold whole of prayer constitute the basis of corporate response to God as well as the more developed answer to the question, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2.37b) that presumes baptismal status, repentence, the actuality of the Holy Spirit in our lives and builds upon Acts 2.42.

    Regula is also seen in distilling from the activity of Jesus a pattern. As I recently preached, the grace of Jesus spread through meals together, dining together, communing against the conventions of the day. This is Eucharist.

    The grace of Jesus also spread through his adoration of the Father; his perfect prayer. His Father, and through him, our Father. This is the Office.

    The grace of Jesus spread though his life lived with people, healing, teaching, listening, leading, breaking open Scripture in new ways. This is Devotion, the ministry of our baptism.

    Regula, then, is dominically instituted by Jesus. And regula is the “lifeblood of the redemptive organism,” the Church. It is the primary activity of the Remnant; those ordained, called, and predestined to practice the fullness of prayer as Jesus established it.

    (3) The Office is objective praise to the Father by the Body of Jesus (Saints, Angels) which despite our frailty we join by the help and grace of Christ; hence,

    (4) It does not “sanctify the time”. Sanctification of time is by the activity of the Holy Spirit whom we open ourselves to and invite not through the Office but through Devotion (our baptismal ministry rooted in Scripture) — seeking and serving Christ in all persons by means of the Holy Spirit.

    [I note Robert Taft completely agrees in his The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, pp. 357-9, that Dom Gregory Dix’s “sanctification of time” theology for the Office was erroneous].

    (5) Sober assessment of the pastoral situation today must conclude that the reason few people do the Office stems from the fact that the authorized Anglican Office today was crafted for a late-medieval society still well within Christendom; further, the vernacular Bible was new and there was real pastoral necessity to have people hear it in English; neither of which in any way holds today; and, so

    (6) The orthodox (ascetic correlating with dogmatic), and Benedictine (balance, stability, moderation), and for that matter Thomist (grace perfects nature) response to pastoral reality of our society is to accept the facts rather than deny them, and simply explore reform of not merely the Office but the entire Regula. Mass was reformed already in the 20th century; what remains is likewise rethinking the relationship between Office and Devotion.

    (7) Any reform must fundamentally be teleological: what, exactly, is the Office for? What, exactly, is Devotion for?

    (8) If Regula correlates with the doctrine of Holy Trinity, then regular use of scripture remains a form of necessary obedience but it is moved from Office to Devotion and changed from the current practice of bare recitation to one of open-ended meditation. Lectionary and consecutive psalter are two of many possible approaches, but devout experimentation, too, is important praise to the Holy Spirit, the basis for discernment.

    (9) Because the Father Almighty is ontological and axiological Other — that is, immutable — then appropriate praise to this Person is immutable, strictly invariable; meaning, no lectionaries, seasonal antiphons, no consecutive psalter, no optional collects, no permissiveness whatsoever. The ideal is memorization of the Office, and no books. Again, the paradigm is “Our Father, who art in heaven ….” Something along the lines of a “pledge of allegiance” to God Almighty. Thornton tread carefully here, knowing that the Cranmerian Office functions as the Anglican “third rail.” He suggested experimentation along the lines of what I have put together here.

    There is more to say, but this comprises much of the basics.

    Now, Thornton is not infallible, and I am well aware that many people would want to critique these insights. THAT IS NOT THE POINT.

    (Sorry for the shout.) 🙂

    The point is Thornton cannot be ignored, as he largely has been for roughly the last 30 years, with some exceptions. Of all the areas of his writing, the Office received the most or nearly the most attention in his work. His theology of Regula must be reckoned with today in any writing about the Office; else it is like writing about the theology of the Eucharist and leaving out Aquinas, or writing about the Trinity and leaving out Augustine.

    The restoration of ascetical health in Anglicanism does not begin by ignoring our own — it begins with reckoning with our own, particularly the brilliant ones.

  3. As a supplement to the above, and because I am a scholar/devotee of the theological corpus of Martin Thornton (d. 1986), I put together a bulleted list of his primary theological insights about the Office, which of course overflow into practice. A longer treatment of this is found in the essay I wrote, “The Theology of the Divine Office.

    (1) The Our Father prayer is the sole dominical basis for the Office; it establishes its corporate nature, its teleology, its disposition, its paradigm. The Didache confirms its centrality to corporate set prayer. Recourse to Ps. 119:64 and the like are important, clarifying, supportive, but secondary.

    (2) The Office can only be understood theologically within the larger theology of Regula — Office-Mass-Devotion — which is the ascetical application of the doctrine of the Trinity: Office associates with the Father, Mass with the Son, and Devotion with the Spirit. This is not modalism but a framework for ascetical response to the “stupendously rich reality” of God (to quote von Hugel).

    Jesus is the source of it all: meals together, dining together, communing against the conventions of the day: this is Eucharist; His adoration of the Father; his perfect prayer to His Father: this is the Office. His life lived with people, healing, teaching, listening, leading, breaking open Scripture in new ways: this is Devotion, the ministry of our baptism.

    Each dimesion carries a particular psychological/behavioral disposition that together and as a threefold whole of prayer constitute the basis of corporate response to God as well as the more developed answer to the question, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2.37b) that presumes baptismal status, repentence, the actuality of the Holy Spirit in our lives and builds upon the praxis of Acts 2.42.

    (3) The Office is objective praise to the Father by the Body of Jesus (Saints, Angels) which despite our frailty we join by the help and grace of Christ; hence, it does not “sanctify the time”. Sanctification of time is by the activity of the Holy Spirit whom we open ourselves to and invite not through the Office but through Devotion activities (our “infinitely variable” baptismal ministry rooted in Scripture) — seeking and serving Christ in all persons by means of the Holy Spirit. See Robert Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, pp. 357-9; Dix’s “sanctification of time” theology for the Office is devoutly erroneous.

    (4) Sober assessment of the pastoral situation today must conclude that the reason few people do the Office likely stems from the fact that the authorized Anglican Office today was crafted for a late-medieval society still well within Christendom; further, the vernacular Bible was new and there was real pastoral necessity to have people hear it in English; neither of which in any way holds today; and, so reform is necessary.

    (5) Because the Father Almighty is ontological and axiological Other — that is, immutable — then appropriate praise to this Person is immutable, strictly invariable; meaning (against weighty tradition), no lectionaries, seasonal antiphons, no consecutive psalter, no optional collects, no permissiveness whatsoever. The ideal is memorization of the Office, and no books. Again, the paradigm is “Our Father, who art in heaven ….” Something along the lines of a “pledge of allegiance” to God Almighty. Thornton tread very carefully here, knowing that the Cranmerian Office functions as the Anglican “third rail.” He suggested experimentation along the lines of what I have proposed here with our need for regular Scripture immersion satisfied through daily Office of Readings: open-ended meditative reading of the Bible.

    Primary for Thornton’s theology of Office/Regula is The Heart of the Parish: A Theology of the Remnant (also known as Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation), Secondary are Christian Proficiency, The Rock and the River, The Function of Theology, and Prayer: A New Encounter. Of all the areas of prayer life, Office/Regula received the most attention in his work. His theology of Regula must be reckoned with today in any writing about the Office; else it is like writing about the theology of the Eucharist and leaving out Aquinas, or writing about the Trinity and leaving out Augustine.

  4. As a supplement to the above, and because I am a scholar/devotee of the theological corpus of Martin Thornton (d. 1986), I put together a bulleted list of his primary theological insights about the Office, which of course overflow into practice. A longer treatment of this is found in the essay I wrote, “The Theology of the Divine Office.

    1) The Our Father prayer is the sole dominical basis for the Office; it establishes its corporate nature, its teleology, its disposition, its paradigm. The Didache confirms its centrality to corporate set prayer. Recourse to Ps. 119:64 and the like are important, clarifying, supportive, authoritative, but secondary.

    (2) The Office can only be understood theologically within the larger theology of Regula — Office-Mass-Devotion — which is the ascetical application of the doctrine of the Trinity: Office associates with the Father, Mass with the Son, and Devotion with the Spirit. This is not modalism but a framework for ascetical response to the “stupendously rich reality” of God (to quote von Hugel).

    Jesus is the source of it all: meals together, dining together, communing against the conventions of the day: this is Eucharist; His adoration of the Father; his perfect prayer to His Father: this is the Office. His life lived with people, healing, teaching, listening, leading, breaking open Scripture in new ways: this is Devotion, the ministry of our baptism.

    Each dimesion carries a particular psychological/behavioral disposition that together and as a threefold whole of prayer constitute the basis of corporate response to God as well as the more developed answer to the question, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2.37b) that presumes baptismal status, repentence, the actuality of the Holy Spirit in our lives and builds upon the praxis of Acts 2.42.

    (3) The Office is objective praise to the Father by the Body of Jesus (Saints, Angels) which despite our frailty we join by the help and grace of Christ; hence, it does not “sanctify the time”. Sanctification of time is by the activity of the Holy Spirit whom we open ourselves to and invite not through the Office but through Devotion activities (our “infinitely variable” baptismal ministry rooted in Scripture) — seeking and serving Christ in all persons by means of the Holy Spirit. See Robert Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, pp. 357-9; Dix’s “sanctification of time” theology for the Office is devoutly erroneous.

    (4) Sober assessment of the pastoral situation today must conclude that the reason few people do the Office likely stems from the fact that the authorized Anglican Office today was crafted for a late-medieval society still well within Christendom; further, the vernacular Bible was new and there was real pastoral necessity to have people hear it in English; neither of which in any way holds today; and, so reform is necessary.

    (5) Because the Father Almighty is ontological and axiological Other — that is, immutable — then appropriate praise to this Person is immutable, strictly invariable; meaning (against weighty tradition), no lectionaries, seasonal antiphons, no consecutive psalter, no optional collects, no permissiveness whatsoever. The ideal is memorization of the Office, and no books. Again, the paradigm is “Our Father, who art in heaven ….” Something along the lines of a “pledge of allegiance” to God Almighty. Thornton tread very carefully here, knowing that the Cranmerian Office functions as the Anglican “third rail.” He suggested experimentation along the lines of what I have proposed here with our need for regular Scripture immersion satisfied through daily Office of Readings: open-ended meditative reading of the Bible.

    Primary for Thornton’s theology of Office/Regula is The Heart of the Parish: A Theology of the Remnant (also known as Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation), Secondary are Christian Proficiency, The Rock and the River, The Function of Theology, and Prayer: A New Encounter. Of all the areas of prayer life, Office/Regula received the most attention in his work. His theology of Regula must be reckoned with today in any writing about the Office; else it is like writing about the theology of the Eucharist and leaving out Aquinas, or writing about the Trinity and leaving out Augustine.

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