Thursday, February 3, 2011

Day by day we praise you: an introduction to the Daily Office

Morning Prayer: Opening Sentence, Confession of Sin

When beginning the Office, start out with a little silence, just listening and centering yourself before God. It is humbling and glorious to come before God, who really desires to engage with us. By entering into his silence, we are coming into his peace and presence. The Daily Office is not a time for “busy work.” It is a time to rest in God, being nourished in communion with him through purgation, illumination, and union. Some people find it helpful to say the following prayers as a preface to this or any Office:

Open my mouth, O Lord, to bless your holy Name; cleanse my heart from all vain, evil, and wandering thoughts; enlighten my understanding and kindle my affections, that I may fittingly recite this Office with attention and devotion and so may be fit to be heard before the presence of your divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

O Lord, in union with that divine intention wherewith you yourself offered your praises to God while upon the earth, I now recite this Office to you [with the special intention for _____________ (here insert any person or concern you wish to offer before God during this Office)].

Morning Prayer itself begins with one or more short verses (called ‘sentences’ in Anglican parlance) of Scripture. These short passages serve to locate us in the Liturgical Year and in the central themes of the Christian faith. This reminds us that whether said in the company of others in a church or chapel, or said alone in our home or other place, all of our prayer is essentially liturgical: it partakes of the great offering of prayer made by the whole Church throughout all times and places.

Each season has a group of sentences to choose from, some more appropriate to one part of the season than others. In Easter, the Paschal Greeting (“Alleluia! Christ is risen; The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!) is given as an option. That is a particularly joyful way to begin the Office, even when not praying in a group. The list of sentences ends with the section marked “At any Time.” These are for the many days of Ordinary Time, especially from Pentecost to Advent. Some of these sentences seem especially suited to particular days: the first one for Saturday, the second for Sunday morning (yes, it is wonderful to say Office before coming to the Eucharist… indeed, it is the classic Anglican pattern and expectation to do this), the third for Monday, and so on. Rotating them like this helps establish a rhythm of focus through the week.

After the Opening Sentence comes the Confession of Sin. Many people today find the idea of confessing sins in the morning to make no sense: “But, I haven’t had time to sin yet!” they might say.

The BCP makes using Confession here optional, in part because during Eastertide and at major feasts we tend to play down the penitential aspect of our worship and would not want to require its use for that season. But, I would recommend that normally the Confession is said in the morning and at evening. Here is why: The human heart and mind are very complex things. We need to make honesty and humility the bedrock of our prayer life. When we begin the two major Offices of the day, it is important to start with that purgative type of prayer (mentioned earlier on in this series) so that we may proceed from that solid foundation of honesty and integrity.

When confessing in the morning, it is helpful to focus on one’s besetting sins—our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses that we have come to know over time. By placing these before God at the day’s start, we acknowledge our dependence on God alone for grace and strength. We also are less like to fix on the “speck” in our neighbor’s eye if we are up-front with God about the “plank” in our own.

Another reason for morning confession is that we may have something serious to consider based on the previous night, its actions, thoughts, or fears. I remember a wise monk telling me years ago that one of the sins many people forget to bring before God is their cooperation in the night with dwelling on fears, anxieties, and grudges. We need to be honest before God about this, as well.

The Rite One Confession is a marvel of penitential insight and psychology, reflecting both the medieval and reformation mind’s care to examine the conscience in depth. The Rite Two form is shorter and less complex, but draws from a very solid source: The Summary of the Law. Either way (and you could always mix them… it won’t land you in jail), the Confession should be said slowly and with attention to each word, not “tossed off.” It is appropriate to kneel (as the rubric or service direction requires) or bow when saying the Confession in “private recitation” of the Office (remember: “private” is always relative in Christian prayer!).

The Confession is followed by what might be called the Assurance of Pardon. If said in a public service led by a priest, the priest stands to offer this assurance as part of the Priestly ministry of declaring God’s forgiveness. A deacon or layperson continues kneeling and changes the form from “you” to “us” and “your” to “our” where appropriate. This is how it should be prayed when said alone. It serves to remind us that we are part of a confessing, forgiving, and reconciling community of faith—the Church. The Sign of the Cross (a.k.a. “blessing one’s self”) is traditional here: it is through the power of the Cross that we are forgiven by God. This costly grace needs to be re-affirmed whenever possible, as humans are marvelous for deluding ourselves that we can self-redeem. Thus, we end off this first section of the Office with the universal sign of God’s power to love and save.

Shorn of delusion and arrogance, we are now ready to stand (if we have been kneeling or bowing) in honesty and purity of heart to raise ourselves in prayer and praise before God.

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