Tuesday, October 11, 2011

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

The heart of the Daily Office consists of the Psalms and the Lessons. This is the “illuminative” face of prayer par excellence. When considering the vastness of the Scriptures, it can be daunting, though: “Where to start?” one might rightfully ask. A solution sometimes suggested is to start at the beginning of the Bible and go to the end. This can be useful for some people, but most find it impossible to maintain and/or mystifying in the extreme. It also means that one does not get to the Gospel for quite a while.

Fortunately, the Church has an easier and more practical answer available.

The Book of Common Prayer makes provision for an orderly and extensive reading of the Bible through use of a Lectionary, a table or program of selections from scripture appointed for each day of the Church Year. We first encountered the Daily Office Lectionary (BCP pages 934 to1001) when we dealt with the Psalms in the last section. Here we will use it again. This is why it is a good idea to keep this section marked!

The current form of the Daily Office Lectionary is arranged in a two-year cycle (we are currently in Year 1, which begins with the First Sunday of Advent prior to odd-numbered years). Taken together, it means we get to the vast bulk of scripture in two years. Some passages are omitted, while others (the New Testament, in particular) are read quite a bit more than once during that time. For most days, three readings (also called “lessons”) are appointed: one from the Old Testament (or the Apocrypha, as Anglicans use these books in our worship and faith life), one from the Gospels, and one from elsewhere in the New Testament.

Most people find having one or two readings per Office to be beneficial (two was the classical number in previous editions of the Prayer Book). Some will read all three lessons, especially if they know they will not be praying any other Office that day. My custom for years now has been to read two in the morning and one in the evening. Whatever you feel called to do, try to make it balanced. Avoid reading only from one Testament or the other. Anglicans value a balanced and integrated faith, and our scriptural diet should reflect this.

There are many online sources that can help you find which set of readings is to be used each day, but I think it valuable to learn how the Prayer Book works, so suggest some time spent with the Lectionary itself. If you get lost, you should try using Forward Movement’s Day by Day daily meditation (which lists the lessons), or seek the assistance of parish clergy or lay leaders.

You will find that for certain Holy Days there are special suggested lessons appointed at the back of the Daily Office lectionary. You may choose to use these lessons (and their accompanying Psalms) as you see fit. They break up the steady march through the scriptures in the main portion of the lectionary, but they deepen the experience of the Church Year. As one learns to use the Daily Office and Lectionary, you might try using more of these Holy Day lections. All of this seeks a balance between liturgy and scripture reading that the Church is always trying to get right… and never quite does.

Finally, some people will want to consider adding a reading from the Early Church (as made possible by Fr. Wright in his excellent Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church—a resource I cannot praise too highly) as part of praying the Office. This practice (explicitly suggested in the Prayer Book on page 142) originated in monastic worship but has since become known and used by Christians far beyond the walls of the monastery. It provides a way for us to enter into the vast and nourishing world of the Fathers and Mothers of the faith, whose writings in the first five centuries of Christianity crystallized the way we confess the faith and live it out. Anglicanism, together with other Christian groups valuing visible unity with the Ancient and Undivided Church, hold these saints and their writings dear. This writer often reads such a lesson before the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. Consider using them, even occasionally, in the Daily Office.

Anglican custom is to follow each lesson from scripture with a canticle or song. Most of these are taken directly from the Scriptures themselves, but a few (the Gloria in excelsis, the Te Deum) are hymns from the early Church. The Prayer Book has a table of canticles on pages 144/5. This table allows the user to vary the canticles by day of the week or season. I find this very helpful at Morning Prayer, but much less so in the evening, where the traditional canticles of the Song of Mary (Magnificat) and the Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis) seem to be much more natural and effective.

The canticles (often known in shorthand by their Latin openings) provide a response to the lesson just read. They remind us the scriptures are not “data” to be consumed but encounters with God, moments of transformation to be pondered and integrated into our full being. Finally, the canticles are poetic texts, often expressing intense experiences or deep mysteries in rich language able to bear the weight. Over time, Anglicans have such canticles as Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, and Te Deum committed to memory for times of prayer outside the Office. Many of us develop great associations with these poem-prayers (especially when some of the greatest composers in history of have set them to music). May it be so for you as you learn the deeper meaning and value of the Daily Office!

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