Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Reflections, 2014: Thanksgiving for the Daily Office

Among the welter of thoughts and experiences this Christmas has been a deep appreciation of the Daily Office. As we make our way through this season, with its procession of beautiful and (occasionally) sobering feasts, I feel the need to write these words as a kind of thanksgiving and testimony.

[Unless you like rambling lists of liturgies, I advise you to skip to the end of this. This blog post is more than usually abstruse.]

I’ve been saying Daily Office in one form or another since sometime in 1985. Over the years I have been blessed to experience it in a wide variety of forms. I first learned it using the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, then learned how to offer it using the 1928, 1896, and 1789 American Prayer Books. That took me to the 1662 BCP and then those prior. I gained much knowledge of Anglican history, prayer and practice along thee way.

My wife gave me a copy of The Prayer Book Office in 1986 or so, and that has been my regular form of Office most of the time (when not said in community) since. The variety of antiphons and seasonal enrichments has meant much to me over the years, and while I am at heart a Rite I pray-er (well, one of my majors in college was English literature, emphasizing, the 17th century, and the Bible of my youth was the King James, and my first brush with Anglicanism was the Preces Privatae of Lancelot Andrewes in a translation by Alexander Whyte, so I come by it honestly), this version of the Office has kept me connected to the prayer life of most of the people I serve and the wider Church. I only wish a good update could be had. Copies on the used book market are getting to be very dear, indeed.

For the Hours of Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Compline (when I say them which is not always), I have tended to use the Cuddesdon Office Book, with some additions from the Monastic Diurnal (mostly when wanting to vary the Psalmody). The version of Compline in the Cuddesdon book is still my favorite of the many others I have used.

I have tried using the Office from various contemporary sources, including the New Zealand Prayer Book, that of the Australian Book, South Africa, Scotland, and a few different forms available through the CofE. Being very much a product of the TEC experience, it seems right to try, for a time, the ways other Anglicans pray. While there have been some very interesting and valuable additions to my understanding of the Church’s wider life of prayer, I generally come back to feeling the 1979 BCP was a pretty successful adaptation of the Daily Office. One thing I did learn while wheeling about the Anglican Communion: there is tremendous value, especially in Ordinary Time, found in using the Monthly Psalter. That is really how I learned the Psalms. If you have a real calling to saying the Office, I would strongly recommend this form of Psalmody to others.

I’ve also used the Anglican Service Book when I want the Coverdale Psalter and the Jacobean form of English of older Prayer Books, but still desire to conform to the current 1979 Prayer Book’s liturgical year structure and collects. I do wish the Episcopal Church had done something like this at the official level, rather than leave it for others to do. It would have helped in the transition process from earlier Prayer Books to our own time in so many ways.

In addition to using a Prayer Book or similar text as a basis for Office, I have rotated through several translations of the Bible (currently having a good experience with the New English Bible). In addition, I have enjoyed reading extracts from the Fathers as an additional reading at the Office, often using Fr. Wright’s book through the year. What a wonderful way to grow in a deeper appreciation for the teaching of the Church and what it means to wrestle with faith in our Anglican tradition.

My spiritual director helped me get into the custom of reading a daily segment from the Rule of St. Benedict at the Morning Office. Doing that in conjunction with a commentary has immeasurably enriched my understanding of applied Christian spirituality and ethics. It has also be a great boon to my work as a parish priest.

I’ve said and sung Office in community many times. The first times I experienced this were in a parish church in my home diocese, a sort of home-spun Evensong. But a little later I had a semester abroad in England and there experienced Evensong in many a cathedral, minster, and parish church. That experience largely convinced me that Anglicanism was (and is) the form of Christianity to which I was called.  After that, God gradually revealed His sovereign will for my vocation…but the Daily Office was an essential part of that process.

Participating in a communal Office mostly took place back at General Seminary in the days when that school was committed to a rich use of the Office in particular, and the Prayer Book in, well, general. As a result of all those Mattins and Evensongs, I still chant the Office quite often, especially on Feasts. I also like to add various hymns, particularly the traditional Gregorian ones. Singing the Office is one of the joys of my life, and I learned it in seminary, where it was done with care and considerable authenticity. Even though I rarely get to offer the Office in community now, the experience never has left me, and I am very conscious when praying it that I am part of a symphony of prayer around this world and beyond, all praising God together.

I am deeply thankful for the vast amount of spiritual learning that came through the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General, especially in the daily recitation of Psalms. The Office teaches one to look deeply and honestly into the heart, from which we are to bring “treasures new and old,” but where there may also dwell terrible things that must be acknowledged in order to be released and offered up. Over those years I experienced the power of corporate prayer, the way it works like an anvil on which God uses ever more finely-graded hammers to turn the resistant metal of our will into the supple sculpture of a loving, responsive discipleship. There is no replacement for the kind of learning obtainable by commitment to a community at prayer over the long haul.

In recent years I’ve had occasion to use the Daily Office via my phone or laptop, sometimes using the Mission St. Clare web site or various others, but mostly now using the forms of Office available through the St. Bede Breviary online. It takes a bit of learning for those new to a more complex Office, but is worth it. I am glad there are those who make the sacrifice to answer the call to put some of the Church’s treasury of prayer online, though I personally don’t really like using electronic devices for prayer. I still like the incarnational solidity and ruggedness of a book (or, books, in my case).

I have tried (a few times) the Anglican Breviary, and remain interested in it, but do find it just a bit too complicated and removed from the rest of my liturgical life. I can see the attraction, especially if God grants me a period of retirement. The weekly Psalter sounds splendid.

[Here’s where to pick up if you skipped all the palaver in between…]

All-in-all, I have been blessed with a fairly wide experience of the Office. It took about a decade for me to come to a deeper understanding of why I say it. It is hard to put that into words, but I would say at this juncture that it has much to do with becoming grounded in the Sacred as apposed to the secular.

For me, life has gradually become based in the Liturgical calendar and its meaning for service, relationship, and the ultimate purpose of existence. The Office was very much at the heart of this gradual transformation. Day by day I have prayed the Psalms, prayed the Scriptures, prayed intercessions, thanksgivings, petitions. It has, along with the Holy Eucharist, been the most important and consistent laboratory for my spiritual life.

This Christmas, in amongst the many activities and responsibilities I know as a priest, husband, parent, son, brother, friend, and very wobbly disciple, I kept coming back to the Office in gratitude for its instruction, its peace, and its familiar voice of love, repentance, and hope. I am not always faithful to it, but God has shown such faithfulness to me through it for almost 30 years now.

The roots of the Office are in the Psalms, the offering of praise to God through thick-and-thin, the rhythm of nightfall and sunrise, the cycle of the seasons, and eternity experienced in and through time. In the fatigue and rush of the “holiday season” the services of prayer each morning, noon, and night both ground me in what is eternally true and open for me another room, a new possibility in this often too-worldly life. It is my earnest hope that these years of prayer will form me for better service to Our Lord in this life, and for eternal life with Him and all the saints at the end of the ages.

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