Time flows without order or structure in much of contemporary life. The growing prominence of shift work and telecommuting, the rise of on-demand entertainment, and the abundance of establishments offering meals at all hours encourage and force greater flexibility in the way we structure our waking hours. We have fewer commonly held assumptions about when things should happen, as scheduling a meeting of volunteers quickly reveals.
The Psalmist’s assumption, that “Man goeth forth to his work, and to his labour, until the evening” (Ps. 104:23), seems hopelessly antiquated to us now. While these changes have increased our economic productivity, they have impoverished us in other ways. Groups of all kinds, including the church, are harder to organize. Our common stock of cultural references has grown thinner. We’re much more likely to eat alone. And we say we can’t find the time to pray.
One of the more pressing spiritual dangers of this change is the temptation to order our time entirely according to our own desires. We are constantly assured that we have less time than we would like, and, indeed, leisure hours have consistently declined, even as we crowd our lives with labor-saving devices. Methods abound to squeeze every last second into some form of productive use. We are subtly encouraged to be frightened of time, tempted to treat reasonable demands as burdensome impositions. We long to escape into our “man caves” for some “me time,” to uncivilize ourselves, fleeing from the other.
A people oriented to the love of God and neighbor should be suspicious about such a selfish ordering of one of life’s chiefest gifts. The creation story tells us that the sequence of light and darkness is not accidental but “ruled” by the “greater and lesser lights” that obey God’s will (Gen. 1:16). As creatures made to know and love God, we use time best when we learn from its passage and punctuate it with praise. In an age when the motion of the clock seems increasingly “without form and void,” ordering time according to the rhythms of grace, marking it steadily with prayer, is a subversive act.
It may also be more important than ever before.
“Seven times a day do I praise thee; because of thy righteous judgments”, sang the Psalmist (Ps. 119:64). A single daily act of praise cannot do justice to a holy and faithful God. There must be a sequence of praise, a complete pattern, a shape that leads us through the hours, so that each part of the day can be savored and then offered back to its Giver.
The reciting of God’s “righteous judgments” prompts us to look at our own lives and turn anew to God, for “now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). John Wesley beautifully described the ascetical potential of the daily round in this way: “Our wise creator [has] divided life into these little portions of time, so clearly separated from each other that we might look on each day as a fresh gift of God, another life, which we may devote to his glory; and that every evening may be as the close of life, beyond which we are to see nothing but eternity.”
The Liturgy of the Hours or Daily Office, developed from the domestic practice of the ancient Jews and the common life of the early Christian monks, has been the Church’s traditional means of “sanctifying time.” The Office’s constant element is the objective recitation of the Psalter, the common offering of praise. Arrangements for supplementary antiphons, lessons, canticles, versicles, and collects have varied widely. Some of the most beautiful and poignant of these have proclaimed God’s righteous judgments by orienting particular hours to events in the history of salvation or seeking, with Wesley, lessons for discipleship in the natural progress of the day.
The traditional hymns of the eightfold Western Office follow both these patterns, sometimes simultaneously. The liturgical day traditionally begins in the evening, and the ferial Vesper hymns recall the days of creation, allegorizing their spiritual significance. Compline’s hymn, with its appeal for protection from “ghostly fears and fantasies,” is refreshingly honest about our fear of the dark. At Lauds, Christ in glory is praised as the Earth’s true Sun, rising from the dead and returning soon from the rosy East. At Prime, we set off to work asking for God’s protection in all the challenges that the day will present, so that:
We when this new day is gone,
And night in turn is drawing on,
With conscience by the world unstained,
Shall praise His Name for victory gained.
Terce brings an invocation of the Holy Spirit, who came on Pentecost at the third hour. Sext’s hymn, sung in the heat of the day, asks for a quenching of burning desires. And the hour of None looks wistfully towards evening’s rest and asks for final peace, praying “that a holy death may be / The door of immortality.”
Perhaps in response to this modern fluidity of time, there are some signs of increased interest in more complex forms of the Daily Office among Anglicans today. Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book radically simplified the Daily Office, condensing eight services into two, eliminating hymns, antiphons, and most festival variations, and reading the Psalter by an unvarying monthly pattern. The innovation had its advantages, especially with the inclusion of fuller Scripture readings and much more manageable rubrics. But the loss of the Office hymns and the nearly identical structure of Morning and Evening Prayer weakened their ability to mark the day with distinct aspects of the story of salvation.
English translations of the “Little Hours” appeared in the nineteenth century and have become part of the diurnal of many Anglican religious communities, and some form of Midday Prayer and Compline have been included in most of the modern prayer books. A full set of Office hymn translations was included in The English Hymnal, where they were suggested as additions to the standard Prayer Book liturgies. These have been reclaimed also by Derek Olsen for his wonderful Saint Bede’s Breviary, which has made saying the Office simpler for so many. Rather more ambitious is the Anglican Breviary, a translation of the Pre-Conciliar Roman Breviary from 1955, recently republished in a handsome edition and newly made the subject of Kickstarter campaign by Derek Olsen for an online version.
The latest liturgical resource from the Episcopal Church’s Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, Daily Prayer for All Seasons, very interestingly returns to the traditional eightfold office pattern. Its individual offices are quite short, mostly two or three pages in length, and change only by season. The resource seeks to connect the Office with what is traditionally called “mental prayer,” assigning a particular “spiritual labor” to each of the eight hours (praise, discernment, wisdom, perseverance and renewal, love, forgiveness, trust, and watching), with appropriate reflective questions. In keeping with modern schedules, the midnight office (Vigils or Matins) comes last instead of first in the sequence, the first liturgical concession I have seen to electric lighting. Daily Prayer also contains significant and troubling departures from historic practice, including a dramatically curtailed use of the Psalter and the inclusion of materials from non-Christian sources. It’s difficult for me to imagine using the resource continually, but for the occasional insight, it might be quite useful.
While the project of creating a unifying form of common prayer is as old as the Church, perhaps desperate times demand desperate measures. We may need to concede the impossibility of a truly common form of the Office in an age when our use of time takes such strikingly diverse forms. There’s fairly good evidence, after all, that common forms of the Office have only really existed in the blueprints of liturgical reformers. Some of us will sanctify time most usefully in the noble simplicity of memorized psalms, recited with reverent attention at fixed points in the day. Others will delight in the grand profusion of triple nocturns and Greater Doubles of the Second Class. I hope that amid that diversity, a common respect for the day’s natural pattern and the story of God’s “righteous judgments” will be among the cherished gifts that bind us together.
 John Wesley, “Sermon XXVI: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse VI”, in Wesley’s Works (New York: Emory and Haugh, 1831), p. 242.