Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Guide to Praying the Daily Offices

I originally posted this article five years ago on the Western Kentucky Anglicans blog. I have checked the links and replaced one of them. 

By Robin G. Jordan

In this article I offer a basic guide to praying the Daily Offices. The four offices with which Anglicans and Episcopalians in North America will be most familiar are the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, the service of Noon Day Prayer, and the service of Compline, or Prayer at the End of the Day. Some may be familiar with the Lucenary, or Lamp-Lighting Service, called the Order for Worship in the Evening in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer; others may be familiar with the Litany, or General Intercession, used as a separate service.

What to Pray. The Daily Offices do not require an ordained minister to lead them. They may be led by anyone.

Any individual, twosome, or group desiring to pray the Daily Offices will need to first decide what office or offices they will pray, how often, when, and where. They will need to decide what service book they will use. They will need to decide whether they will use music and if so what music and who will provide it. They will also need to decide whether their praying of an office will be accompanied by a Bible study, sermon, or teaching, and who will lead the Bible study, what Bible study materials they will use, who will preach the sermon, or who will give the teaching.

Where to Pray. The Daily Offices may be prayed in a wide variety of settings. They are not limited to use in church buildings. Some settings, however, are more conducive to praying the Daily Offices than others.

In the Medieval monastic church in which the whole cycle of Daily Offices was sung throughout the day and night, the congregation, which was also the choir, was divided into two sections who faced each other across a broad central aisle. The congregation was the monks living in the monastic community to which the church was attached. The Psalms of the Daily Offices were chanted antiphonally, from side to side.

The split chancel seen in a number of Gothic style churches with choir stalls that face each other across a center aisle is modeled upon the Medieval monastic church. It is not a good arrangement for corporate worship in the Twenty-First Century. The choir stalls clutter the chancel and form a visual barrier between the Lord’s Table and the congregation. Since the members of the choir are facing each other, they do not provide the kind of leadership and support that the congregation needs from the choir for congregational singing. The voices of the choir are carried away from the congregation. To compensate for this problem, some choirs may turn to face the congregation as far as narrow choir stalls and kneelers will permit them to do so.

The split chancel, however, is the best arrangement for singing the Daily Offices when those singing the Daily Offices are both the choir and the congregation. This is seen in English cathedral service of Evensong. The people sitting in the nave are not the congregation. They are not expected to take part in the service, except to join in the hymns, which technically are not a part of the service. They are simply an audience. The men and boys in the cathedral choir and the dean and any assisting clergy are the congregation.

The Daily Offices do not center upon the Lord’s Table. When the Daily Offices are prayed in the main body of a church and the chairs of the congregation are moveable, it is highly desirable to arrange the chairs in rows facing each other across a center aisle and place a reading desk and a lectern in the center aisle, facing each other. The rows of chairs should not be very long. Two or three short rows on each side are preferable to two long rows. The purpose is to create a compact worship space and to unite the prayer.

If the congregational seating is not moveable, it is preferable to find an appropriate size space in the church in which moveable chairs can be arranged in this fashion rather than sit one behind another in pews in the main body of the church. If the group praying the office has no choice but sit in pews in the church’s main body, the members of the group should sit closely together at the front of the church and not scattered around the room. A lectern holding a Bible may be set in the middle of the chancel or immediately front of the pews in which the group is sitting.

An alternative seating arrangement is to sit in a semicircle around a lectern holding a Bible.

In praying the Daily Offices with another person or in a small group in a private home or similar setting sitting in straight-backed chairs set out in one of these arrangements is preferable to sitting around a room on overstuffed armchairs, love seats and sofas. The latter tend to swallow their occupants and to hamper their breathing, reading, and singing. Some folks have difficulty sitting erect, the best posture for recitation or singing the Psalms and canticles, and other folks must struggle to extricate themselves from this type of seating. A few folks might doze off. The acoustics of sitting rooms and lounges are not designed for the Daily Offices and the scattering of the members of the group around the room exacerbate the problem. If only two people are praying the office together or the group is small, they may wish to sit at a dining room or kitchen table.

If the group has no choice but use a living room or lounge, they should sit on the edge of the arm chairs, loveseats, and sofas, and as close together as possible. I am not suggesting that everyone squeeze together onto the same couch rather that they sit near to each other. This contributes to the unity of the prayer. Squeezing together on the same coach would also impede breathing, reading, and singing. It might inhibit prayer in other ways. The study of proximics, the ability of people to tolerate the close proximity of other people, show that people vary in how comfortable they are with the close proximity of other people. Some need more space around them than do others. If another person moves into this space, their comfort zone, they experience anxiety and may become agitated. They will become focused upon the proximity of the person invading their comfort zone and not on God.

One option that groups may wish to try is sitting or kneeling on the floor and praying the office Taize style. A cylindrical pillow placed behind the thighs can help prevent loss of circulation and “pins and needles” that accompany kneeling for any length of time. Alternately one can kneel astraddle a wedged shaped pillow or even wooden block. In a Taize style prayer service the service leader and any musicians sit in the midst of the group. At Taize the brothers kneel or sit in a block and visitors kneel or sit on either side of them.

When praying the office outdoors, a group should sit close together. On a windy day they will have difficulty hearing each other and even on a windless day the open space around them will absorb their voices.

Those praying the Daily Offices alone should find a quiet place where they can pray unhurriedly and undisturbed. When their circumstances do not permit them to do so, they should take whatever steps that they can to minimize distractions. A young Roman Catholic woman with whom I worked for a number of years locked herself in one of the men’s restroom in the back of the office building out of which we worked. There were two men’s restrooms in a back hall, which had locks on the doors. The women’s restrooms in the same hall had no locks. They had individual stalls with locks. The thick concrete block walls of the men’s restroom muffled most background noise. Few people used the hall except to go to the restroom or to leave the building. In some cases turning to face a wall to reduce visual distractions may be all that someone can do. Even in the midst of noise an office will help to create its own atmosphere.

I have prayed the Daily Offices, sitting at a picnic table in the open or under a picnic shelter, walking along a gravel road in the woods, or sitting cross-legged among the tall grass on an overgrown dirt road.

How to Pray. We should allow ourselves plenty of time to read each office. We should not rush through an office at a gallop or even at a canter. We should take our time. If we come to the conclusion of an office and we feel out of breath, we have rushed through the office. Our reading of an office should be prayerful and even meditative. We should provide time for the words to sink down into the deeper levels of our minds and into the depths of our hearts.

We are meeting with God and we do not want to rush into His presence, gabble our prayers, and then rush out again. Through Jesus Christ we are not just entering into the throne room of the King but into His presence-chamber, the reception-room where the King meets privately with His family members, friends and intimates, those closest to Him. This is a great privilege and we should take care not to squander it.

God speaks to us through His Word—through the Psalms, the lessons, and the canticles. He speaks to us through the prayers and in the silences. If we sing hymns or other songs, He speaks to us through them too. We need to be silent and still, as well as read, pray, and sing with a listening heart, open to His voice.

Even if we are praying the Daily Office alone, we should read the Psalms, the lessons, the canticles, and the prayers aloud. This was the practice of the old monks. When we read the Morning or Evening Prayer aloud, we are not only seeing the words as we read them but we are also hearing them. The old monks took with seriousness what the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ…” (Romans 10:17). We are listening to God with both our ears and our eyes. We are also listening to him with our heart.

Reading the office aloud also engages both sides of our brain while reading it silently engages only one side—the visual learning side. If circumstances do not permit us to read an office aloud, we should read it sub-vocally, under our breath.

My experience is that when I read an office silently, my mind moves too quickly and I adopt a hurried pace. I do not focus on God as well as I do when I read the office aloud. I am also less apt to pray the office from my heart. I do not benefit from reading the office silently in the same way that I benefit from reading it aloud. On the other hand, if I read the office very softly or in a barely audible whisper or even mouth the words, I pray at a slower pace and benefit as if I were reading aloud.

In A Priest to the Temple, or The Country Parson, His Character and Rule of Holy Life seventeenth century Anglican poet-priest George Herbert describes a number of ways a parson gains holiness in the character of his sermons. One of these ways has applicability to reading Morning and Evening Prayer and the other Daily Offices.
Secondly, by dipping, and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts, before they come into our mouths, truly affecting, and cordially expressing all that we say; so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is heart-deep.
We dip and season the words of the prayers of the office in the prayer of our heart and then pray them from the heart. This points to an important truth. Our praying of the Daily Offices must be a part of a life of prayer and not our prayer life in its entirety.

To this end a spiritual discipline that goes hand in hand with praying the Daily Offices is the practice of the presence of God. We live every minute of our lives actively mindful of God’s presence with us. God is for us not a remote figure in a distant galaxy that is light years away from us. He is our ever-present companion, always at our side. We share our thoughts and feelings with Him throughout the day. We enjoy constant fellowship and communion with Him. He is the loving Father to whom we go with our joys and sorrows, our struggles and our triumphs. He is the One to whom we pour out our troubles, to whom we admit even our most secret desires and urges. He is the One to whom we speak our first word upon rising from our bed in the morning and our last word upon going to bed at night. He is the One to whom we speak in the silence and the stillness of the night.

We should pause for self-examination after the Invitation to Confession. We should review the events of the day, and confess to God in the secret place of our hearts our offenses against him and against others, the things that we did, and the things that we did not do, the evil thoughts and the sinful desires that we entertained in our hearts, everything that comes between us and God. We should ask the Holy Spirit to show us those things that we may be hiding from our selves, those things that we did or did not do and which we do not want to admit even to ourselves, much less to God. We should unburden ourselves to God. When we pray the General Confession, we should pray it from a heart that is truly repentant and desirous of God’s forgiveness.

We should pause for silent reflection and prayer after each Psalm, each lesson, each canticle, and each collect or prayer. God may speak to us through the Psalm, lesson, canticle, collect or prayer or in the silence that follows it. He may speak to us in response to our silent prayer.

When we pray the Daily Offices alone, we may wish to pray aloud after silent reflection during these pauses. Some people may be comfortable reflecting aloud too. When we read the Suffrages that precede the Collect of the Day, we may wish to pause after each Suffrage and then pray silently or aloud for whomever or whatever the Suffrage brings to mind.

God may draw to our attention a particular word or phrase in a Psalm, lesson, canticle, collect or prayer. The word or phrase will “shimmer” as those who practice Lectio Divina describe the experience. We mull over the word or phrase silently in our mind, turning it this way and that way as we might a gemstone, letting the light strike it at different angles. We may simply repeat the word or phrase over and over again in our mind, letting it wash over us. For those occasions we might wish to keep a notebook with us and to jot down the word or phrase in the notebook. At regular intervals throughout the day we mediate upon the word or phrase and then pray to God about whatever our meditation on the word or phrase brings to mind.

We should provide an opportunity for those present to share prayer requests and concerns and to offer spontaneous petitions and thanksgivings, either silently or aloud, immediately before the occasional prayers and thanksgivings or during them.

Whether we are praying an office in a small group, with another person, or alone we should observe a period of silence at the conclusion of the office. During this period of silence the Holy Spirit will minister to us. This period of silence may lead to further reflection and/or to further prayer.

The silence at the conclusion of Compline begins the Great Silence, which in monastic communities lasts through the night until the first word of the night office or the dawn office, depending upon the rule of the monastery. A group attending a weekend church campout and retreat would normally retire for the night after Compline. The campfire would be banked and the stillness of the Great Silence would settle upon the campers.

Praying on a clear night under the wheeling constellations in the night sky or in the very early morning, as the sun is rising, are experiences not to be forgotten. They are times when we see God’s handiwork around us and the words of the Psalmist are on our lips.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him? (Psalms 8:3-4)
Preparation. Praying the Daily Offices does require some preparation. How much preparation will depend on the office, the service book, and how the group plans to pray the office.

The different parts of the service will need to be assigned to different members of the group. The role of the service leader is to lead the service, not to do everything in the service. The readings should be assigned to other members of the group, as may the Suffrages, the Occasional Prayers and Thanksgivings, or the Litany, if the Litany is used. This assignment is not something that should be done at the last minute, grabbing someone as he walks into the room. Each person needs to be assigned his part well ahead of time so he can read it over before hand and practice it. The service leader needs to explain how each part fits into the whole service and how the group needs to work together so that each part flows smoothly out of the preceding part.

The lessons in the Bible need to be marked with a ribbon and a slip of paper with the verses on it. If the service is Morning or Evening Prayer, the Collect of the Day will need to be marked with a ribbon in the service book and two of the Daily Collects selected, traditionally the Collect for Peace and the Collect for Grace at Morning Prayer and the Collect for Peace and the Collect for Aid against All Perils at Evening Prayer.

The Occasional Prayers and Thanksgivings that will be used will also need to be selected. This should be done by the service leader in advance. Traditionally these Occasional Prayers and Thanksgivings are limited to no more than seven, the number of petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. Some care and thought should be used in their selection. The news web sites on the Internet can be helpful in choosing the Occasional Prayers and Thanksgivings: they draw to our attentions concerns for which we may wish to pray. One of the Occasional Prayers should always be for the mission of the Church.

If the group is using music, the service leader will need to select what music is to be used in consultation with the musician or musicians. If the group is using CDs, MIDIs, or MP3s, after making the selection of music, the service leader may need to assign someone to play the music at the appropriate times in the office and make sure that they have the recordings and the equipment to do so. The service leader may or may not be the person in the group who leads the singing. This will depend upon the gift mix of each member of the group. In some groups the same person may lead the service and the singing and in other groups two or more persons may perform these roles. The service leader, however, has overall responsibility for the service, which includes ensuring that everything done in the service contributes to the prayer of the group. Nothing should be left to chance.

The use of music in an office may also require the preparation of songs sheets, a song booklet, overhead transparencies, or multimedia slides.

A well-prepared group will pray with much more confidence than a group that does its only preparation a couple of minutes before it begins praying. The desire for spontaneity is not an excuse for failing to take the trouble to prepare ahead of time. The Holy Spirit, after all, brought order out of chaos, and the Holy Spirit is present in a well-put together, well-executed service. Advanced preparation does not stifle the Holy Spirit. Indeed the Holy Spirit works through careful and thoughtful preparation.

Racing through a long string of collects with machine gun rapidity and without any real thought to what is read is not spontaneity or the Holy Spirit. It is also far from prayerful.

How to Recite. The Introduction to Celebrating Common Prayer offers these suggestions:

Whether singing or speaking, there are different ways in which psalms and canticles can be treated. Some of the psalms, such as the more personal or penitential ones, are perhaps best spoken by a single voice. Others may be recited antiphonally (different individuals or groups taking alternate verses). Other psalms may be recited together: this is particular appropriate for the canticles. The asterisk at the half-way point indicates that a short pause is appropriate.

An asterisk is used in the 1928 American Prayer Book, 1979 American Prayer Book, 1985 Canadian Book of Alternative Services, as well as Celebrating Common Prayer. In 1559 English Prayer Book, 1662 English Prayer Book, 1926 Irish Prayer Book, 1928 Proposed English Prayer Book, 1978 Australian Prayer Book, 1980 English Alternative Service Book, and 1985 Alternative Irish Prayer Book a colon is used in place of an asterisk. In reciting psalms antiphonally it is best to switch voices at the asterisk or colon: one side reciting the first half of the verse; the other side, the second half. The practice of reciting Psalms responsively with a leader and the group taking alternate verses or half verses is one of the most monotonous methods of reciting the Psalms and should be avoided.

Ideally the Psalms and the canticles should be sung. However, a group may not have the music leadership or the acoustical environment for good chant. One option is to sing metrical versions of the Invitatory Psalm and the canticles in place of the prose ones. Another option is to sing hymns or worship songs in place of the canticles. If hymns or worship songs are substituted for the canticles, they should echo the themes and imagery of the canticles. A third option is to sing responsorial settings of the Invitatory Psalm and the canticles. In a responsorial setting a cantor or small number of voices sings the verses and the congregation sings a repetitive refrain. All three options may be combined for variety.

In English village churches in the nineteenth and twentieth century the choral recitation of the Psalms and canticles was developed into a true art form. The first step to singing them to a plainsong tone, which is the simplest form of chant and which can be sung unaccompanied, is to recite them together. A group that regularly recites the Psalms and canticles together can over time learn to chant them together. Chanting the Psalms and canticles, however, does require a particular type of acoustical environment with just the right kind of resonance.

Groups that do not have musicians will find a number of CDs, MIDIs, and MP3s that are now available for small group worship. They include split worship tracks and accompaniment CDs. The Community of Celebration’s Come Celebrate CD set includes settings of the Invitatory Psalms and the canticles.

“Open Worship.” Some groups praying the Daily Offices may wish to include in an office a time of “open worship.” Appropriate places in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer are after the second lesson or the prayers or Bible study, sermon, or teaching. A Bible study that follows a service of Morning or Evening Prayer is technically not a part of the service. Depending upon the service book the group uses, a sermon or teaching may or may not be regarded as a part of the service. The rubrics of the service book will indicate where a sermon may be preached or a teaching given. In a time of “open worship” hymns and worship songs may be sung, testimonies shared, hands may be laid on the sick with prayer, spontaneous praise and thanksgiving may be offered, and so forth. It is a time of ministry and sharing as well as worship.

How a group prays the Daily Offices will vary with the character of the group. One group may recite the Psalms and the canticles and make considerable use of silence for reflection and prayer. Another group may sing a metrical version of the Venite or Phos hilaron and hymns or worship songs in place of the canticles and have a time of “open worship” after the prayers.

Anglicans and Episcopalians seeking to adopt a biblically faithful and authentically Anglican way of being followers of Jesus Christ and members of One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church will wish to adopt the Daily Offices, particularly Morning and Evening Prayer, as the basis of their daily prayer, not only as the basis for private prayer but also for public prayer as historically has been the tradition of the Anglican Church. The liturgical movement of the 1960s and the Prayer Book revisions of the 1970s undermined the historic position of the two services of Morning and Evening Prayer in the Anglican Church. If we desire to see a renewal of genuine Anglicanism in North America, we must work to restore the services of Morning and Evening Prayer to their rightful place as regular services of public worship in the Anglican Church alongside of the Holy Communion.

This Anglicans and Episcopalians desiring to recover this part of their Anglican heritage can do so in their own homes, if not in their churches, forming small groups for daily prayer. Lent and Easter are good seasons for launching these groups. If dozens of such groups spring up, more groups are bound to follow, and we may yet see a revival and reinvigoration of the Daily Offices in the North American Anglican Church. In time these small communities of prayer may become the nuclei of an entire new generation of churches—churches that have a renewed understanding and appreciation of the Anglican Way and of common prayer.


Julia Marks said...

I wish you had a like button for your posts.

Robin G. Jordan said...

I checked the settings of the Blogger template that I am using but it does not appear to have that feature.