5. The “Logic” of the Daily Office
The Daily Office is built on an underlying foundation of spiritual logic. If we know this, the various prayers, options, and traditions found in these services are much less confusing and dizzying. Anyone undertaking the Office needs to keep this underlying logic in mind as he or she learns it.
It has long been observed that the life of prayer passes through three general stages: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. Each of these stages is found in the Daily Office to one degree or another. Thus, when we pray the Office, we are being tutored in the full life of prayer, receiving (if you will) a “balanced spiritual diet,” leading to a whole and nourishing prayer life that can grow in the knowledge and love of God. Let’s examine these three stages in a little detail:
Purgative Prayer: the way of repentance
The opening message of Christ in the Gospel according to Mark can be summed up in one word: “Repent!” To change direction, reverse course, “go full steam in reverse” because the current direction leads to disaster—this is always essential in the Christian life, but it is usually a dominant element of the beginning levels of discipleship. For a long while—until we learn to put Christ at the center of our life rather than at the periphery—the Christian life contains many repentances! This is reflected in the Office by a general confession of sin found at the beginning of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline (prayer at the end of the day), as well as a number of lesser acknowledgements of our sinfulness and the brokenness of the world in later parts of these services.
Some people find all of this talk about sin to be overly-negative and a general “downer.” The rubrics (directions for conducting services in the Prayer Book, printed in smaller-font italics) acknowledge that the confession of sin may at times be omitted, but on the whole, the Office maintains a regular dialogue about this matter. Why? Because sin is more than just a “downer:” it is a complete disruption of our communion with the Holy Trinity and cannot co-exist with God. Christ Jesus was like us in every way except for sin—because sin was not God’s will for us from the beginning. So, the Daily Office keeps this “inconvenient truth” before us honestly, but without excess. The point is found in a growing humility, being rooted in reality rather than delusion. As we progress in the spiritual life we become more accustomed to repenting, gradually understanding it as the means of accepting our freedom in Christ; the Purgative elements in the Office helps us measure this with objectivity and clarity.
Illuminative Prayer: the way of wisdom
God desires so much more for us than simply repenting. While an essential start, we cannot leave matters there. The Gospels themselves, while always showing the centrality of repentance, also are full of teaching, spiritual knowledge and practice, and the wisdom of God. Indeed, one of the names for Christ is the Holy Wisdom of God. After the initial general confession, the Daily Office opens in prayerful acclaim and praise to God… and proceeds immediately to immersion in that Holy Wisdom through an encounter with God in the Scriptures, illuminated by the action of the Holy Spirit.
Anyone who thinks that Anglicans are “soft on Scripture” should look at the Daily Office: Scripture abounds! In addition to an opening verse at the start of most services, we read from the Book of Psalms, from the Old and New Testaments, and respond to each reading with a song (called a Canticle), usually drawn from the Scriptures. Indeed, most of the additional prayers in the Prayer Book are simply a collection of passages of Scripture sewn together into a tapestry or quilt of spiritual meaning and practice.
In reading all of this Scripture over the course of a lifetime, we are illuminated on all levels of our being: our soul, will, intellect, and emotions. We are nourished in that wholeness and integration which is the catholic faith, and gradually go deeper and deeper into the mystery of God. This leads us to the next “stage” of prayer.
Unitive Prayer: the mystical way
Just as purgative prayer is not the end of prayer, neither is illuminative prayer. God created us for more than this. We were created to share in the Divine life itself (2 Peter 1:4). Coming to this experience of God in prayer is the supreme gift of divine love. As we live more and more in the mind of Christ, this state of peaceful communion with God will pervade us.
The latter parts of the Daily Office point to this unitive state of prayer, beginning with the Apostles’ Creed itself, wherein the mystical doctrine of the Christian faith is re-affirmed each Morning and Evening, and continuing on through the Lord’s Prayer, suffrages, collects, and additional prayers on to the end. The Office also permits a variety of options for music, intercession, and thanksgiving, encouraging us to rise further and further into communion with our God. While the Daily Office is no substitute for recollection, meditation, or contemplation, it contributes to our understanding of these types of prayer by bringing us to their very edge each time we say the Office.
I shall always remember an Evensong (sung Evening Prayer) at Westminster Abbey many years ago now. It was a rather dank late fall afternoon, cold and forbidding. Inside that extraordinary place of prayer were gathered “all sorts and conditions” of people from many places in the world. Using the Elizabethan rite, we started out the service together, as one penitent people, on our knees confessing our sins. Receiving the assurance of God’s pardon in Christ, we rose as one person to praise God. The choir sang the Psalms and Canticles, leading us all in the prayerful “beauty of holiness.” One of the lessons from Scripture was read by an Englishman, another by a visiting dignitary from the Ugandan Embassy. As we came to the end of the service, just before the concluding prayers, the choir sang an anthem of such searing beauty that I found myself tearing up. The power, depth, and breadth of the Office was revealed: purgation, illumination, union.
While I have rarely experienced such beauty in worship since, I have often tasted of that same joy in praying the Office over the years… for that joy is found in the very fabric of these venerable services, no matter where they are said.