Liturgy for Lent: The Daily Office 

Mike: The Dean of my seminary, Ian Markham, used to tell a story about one of his former students, a Muslim woman studying at Hartford seminary. She asked him, “when do Christians pray?” As a practicing Muslim, she prayed salat five times a day, pausing in the midst of her work or play to kneel down and be with God. For Muslims, prayer is obvious. Prayer is physical. Prayer interrupts your day. When do the Christians pray? Dean Markham liked to tell this story and leave the Christians in the room uncomfortable. When do we pray?

Jason: For my Episcopalian friends, the jump from a discussion about liturgy to prayer may seem natural. This is not necessarily the case for Christians of other traditions. My experience with the Episcopal church has exposed me to a tradition that articulates a direct link between prayer and worship. The two terms are almost synonymous with each other. Similarly in evangelical traditions, terms such as “music” and “worship” become interchangeable. Now that I’ve clarified this, let me ask you, Mike: Why are prayer and worship tied together in this way?

Mike: Liturgy is the public dimension of prayer. Worship, in my mind, is a form of prayer, of communication with God. The liturgical tradition of the church has always imagined some formal pattern of daily prayer/worship. Monks and nuns still keep this liturgical tradition most fully alive. Since the early centuries of the Christian movement, monastic communities have interrupted their work and gathered to “pray the hours.” From early morning Vigils to Compline just before bed, monastic communities today still pray together in chapel, four, five, six, or even eight times a day. Every monastic rule is slightly different in the observation of the hours, but the result is the same. Day in and day out, in every season, the monks, nuns, and their visitors are immersed in prayer that breaks into their work. Historians even argue that the prophet Muhammad may have based his five-prayers-a-day rhythm on the Christian monks he knew.

Jason: Evangelicals have had an armchair fascination with monasticism for quite some time. No matter our background, my hunch is that most of us desire tools for making sense of our lives–of bringing some kind of order to our everyday chaos. Honestly though, this isn’t easy. My experience has been that liturgy as something we fashion our lives after, as opposed to an once-a-week event is difficult. It’s counter cultural. But Mike knows I kind of like that!

Mike: Interruption is one of those words that we don’t like generally. The Daily Office is meant to be a bit of a burden, a task. As you’ll see in the posts about Morning and Evening prayer, there are specific scriptures to be read, psalms to be recited, categories of prayer to remember. This gets us back to the idea that prayer is work, and our work shapes us. As the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr says, “We don’t think our way into a new way of living. We live our way into a new way of thinking.” It is in this sense that the Daily Office comes as an interruption. The rhythm of prayer pulls us out of the constant work and busy-ness that is so common in our lives. I admit, I struggle to maintain a practice of daily prayer. The interruption is often “too much.” The Daily Office seems to demand too much time. I have a hard time making room in my day, but I know that when I do make the time, my day tends to unfold with less anxiety. What is interrupted, for me, is the sense of urgency and hurry that often fills my day. I welcome that interruption.

Jason: It re-prioritizes things, doesn’t it? But we’ve lived with each other before. You and I both know that we are far from monks! While we value the monastic tradition, you and I both do what we do because we want regular people, like us, to experience the richness of the Christian tradition in their lives. I think that’s where my affection with the Book of Common Prayer begins; I like the idea of a prayer guide created for the masses.

Mike: Jason, indeed, we are far from monks. The beer we’ve brewed with housemates wasn’t nearly as good as the monastic beers either. Brian Taylor, an Episcopal priest in New Mexico, once asked a Benedictine monk at Christ in the Desert monastery what it was like to do eight offices a day, every day, the monk responded, “it is relentless.”  Indeed, eight services a day seems like a lot. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Reformation put together the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer. In the Prayer Book, Cranmer was working toward a form of “new monasticism.” He knew that when the monasteries were dissolved at the Reformation, the cycle of the Daily Offices could not be maintained by the people in their entirety. But Cranmer did imagine a daily round of prayer. Cranmer simplified the monastic services by combining the early day and late day offices into Morning and Evening Prayer. The invitation of the Prayer Book is that our weekly worship of Eucharist is shaped by a regular practice of the Daily Office. As such, Sunday becomes the summit of a week of liturgy, not an isolated weekly experience.

Jason: For many of us, there’s an attraction to the sights, smells and sounds–the aesthetics–of the liturgical tradition but there is much more going on here. It’s an open invitation to a way of life!

Let’s get into some of the nuts and bolts of how the Book of Common Prayer can help us with this way of life.

Mike: The Book of Common Prayer begins with the services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. In the next posts we will explore these services individually, but it is important to note that the liturgical tradition is not simply about what we do on Sunday morning. The tradition of the church is a daily encounter with liturgy. The liturgy of the church is a tool for interrupting our day with prayer. The services of Morning and Evening prayer can work for us like the chapel bell in a monastery, calling us out of the humdrum of our everyday life. Liturgy invites us to spend time each day with God. And, as we’ll see in the next posts, the Daily Office liturgies gives us some structure to lean on as we pray.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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