The Daily Office
The Daily office as we call it is the easiest form of prayer, so easy it may not seem like prayer at all – though if one thinks that, one is mistaken and the assumptions we make about prayer need to be re-examined. The office comes from the ancient Liturgy of the Hours, a form of prayer designed to encompass all the hours of the day and so fulfil our Lord’s bidding to pray without ceasing. The original genius of the Anglican Prayer Book is that it reduced the Liturgy of the Hours to Morning and Evening Prayer so that lay people as well as those in holy orders could manage these forms of prayer. Later and local revisions of the BCP varied this, adding devotions specific to times of the day. However the ‘bread and butter’ of the daily office remains Morning and Evening Prayer – and these are prayers that lay and ordained can easily say, whether together or alone.
The requirements are simple: a NZPB, a Bible, a lectionary and (ideally) a copy of For All the Saints. The lectionary reminds us that we are not praying or reading alone but are praying in accord with and as part of the whole church. The readings we use are not improvised but follow the church’s cycle of prayer and cover scripture comprehensively over a three year period. The Feasts or special days we observe (as today for Thomas Ken, Bishop) continue to remind us of the story of our faith and the tradition in which we follow.
‘Composition of Place and Person’
It is helpful to have one particular spot that you regularly seek to use for prayer. It may be in church but, if at home, it is useful to have something on which you can rest your eyes – a cross, an icon, a lighted candle. A comfortable chair is good (but not too comfortable!). The idea is that when you go to this spot in the house – prayer is the task in hand and the association between prayer and the chosen place becomes a habitual and embedded connection.
Then one needs to ‘quieten’ down. Become ‘composed’ in this place of prayer. The thoughts, the sounds – the ticking of the clock, the sound of the traffic, the birds – all this becomes part of the context of prayer. A few minutes of quietly breathing, consciously relaxing, allowing the ‘butterfly thoughts’ to come and then go – maybe using the Jesus Prayer if the thoughts become too obtrusive. Then – the sign of the cross – doing this is helpful as it makes the connection between mind and body (just as posture e.g. kneeling, or sitting with the hands open, palms upward, does).
For the same reason, when praying alone, I suggest NOT reading the words in the NZPB but saying them, at least forming them with your lips - this again makes the physical connection with the body, drawing it into prayer, and it slows the pace down so there is no skimming of the words as we often otherwise do in reading.
We Never Pray Alone
This morning I used the Daily Services option for Tuesday morning, NZPB p.69. Note how it begins with ‘We’. As I say, we never ever pray alone. The universal church is involved, so we use the ‘we’ quite deliberately and I think of priests and laypeople around the world doing this same thing; I also remember that the church is not limited by the dimensions of space and time – and I believe that there are others not in or of this world who join with us in prayer. (That is why we speak of the church ‘militant on earth’, ‘expectant with the Saints’ and ‘triumphant, in heaven’. Some of this language I would want to amend, but not the underlying ecclesiology.)
Using the Lectionary
The Day has a special commemoration and that is relevant when choosing the Collect (available in FAS) and the readings for Holy Communion. Some priests prefer to use the Communion Readings as those for the day and instead of Morning and Evening Prayer. I prefer not to do that so my eye runs across to the third column with the readings for Morning Prayer (MP). The first reading appointed is the Psalm. If a psalm is bracketed then it is optional.
Reading the Psalms
When reading these (again forming the words with your lips), pause at the colon before completing the verse. The pause at the colon usually marks a statement which the rest of the verse will complete or amplify; pausing at this place allows the statement to be ‘registered’ rather than rushed.
Psalm 50 is not my favourite and probably not the best example of how the psalms can nourish prayer – but as a general principle it is helpful to ‘pray’ the psalms – understanding them as prayers formed out of the inner life and out of the experience of a people with God. The emotions of wonder, awe, grief and anger they express can give voice to our own inner being and the way (as in this psalm) the psalmist sometimes has the voice of God ‘break through’ – can be salutary for us.
Reading the Scriptures
Again, it helps to form the words – otherwise we do tend to ‘read’ these in the usual superficial reading/skimming for information mode that we do most reading in. Particularly when we are reading passages familiar to us, the danger of skimming is not to be open to new aspects of the reading. The silence after the readings allows one to ‘take stock’ and let the text impress itself upon us.
I don’t always say this – but I feel a bit guilty if I omit it. The Creed is our (the church’s) response to the readings. My problem is that moving into the creed after the silence and the readings seems to shift me out of prayer into a different mode – and it distracts me. It does not need to, because the Creed itself can be and arguably is a kind of prayer. However I am merely reflecting on my own reactions and experience.
The order of beginning with the Lord’s Prayer is traditional and sensible. There is a whole literature upon the Lord’s Prayer as a complete form of prayer in itself – but mostly I say it, trying to say it sufficiently slowly that it is not a mere hurried formality. Yet even if it is hurried or I feel I have not made the points of awareness or connection as well as I might have - no matter, there are other times and this is inexhaustible.
The Collects for the Day, Week, Season
As said above – the lectionary reminds us and FAS supplies the collect for the Day. Then one usually has the Collect of the Week (Lent 2) and the Collect for Season (Lent – so we use Ash Wednesday).
Intercessions and Thanksgivings
I like a bit of silence here and then gradually (on a good day!) let well up from that silence those things that I am thankful for or those persons or matters that I want to hold before God. Sometimes it is helpful to have a list of those who have asked our prayers or whom we have promised to pray for. Just having that in one’s prayer book or bible becomes in itself a tangible expression of our seriousness in prayer and a discipline in focussing one’s care and concern. Sometimes just holding the list becomes a prayer in itself.
Always of course in the background is the pressure of time (the next appointment, the phone ringing etc) and this can sometimes be hard to manage – but one perseveres at it.
The various morning and evening collects that close off the prayers are classics and beautifully hold together the essentials of our life in Christ and our calling: just to pray them is to re-focus ourselves and our life in a single prayer. They are worth committing to memory.