By John Bauerschmidt
The Daily Office is one of the acknowledged treasures of the Anglican tradition. In the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer combined the sevenfold medieval offices of daily prayer said by clergy and monastics into two offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, continuing the tradition of parochial and cathedral observance of Mattins and Evensong. These were the most popular of the medieval hours of prayer in England, when devout lay folk were most likely to be present.
As described by Louis Bouyer, one of the leading Roman Catholic authorities on liturgy and spirituality in the 20th century, Cranmer’s reformulation of the daily prayer of the Church — organized around psalms, canticles, and the reading of Scripture in these two offices, joined to concluding prayers and (from 1552) a penitential introduction — “made them a means of education by worship of which no Church, Catholic or Protestant, has the equivalent today” (Orthodox Spirituality and Protestant and Anglican Spirituality [Burns & Oates, 1969], p. 107). This is high praise from a significant source. Bouyer also noted that Cranmer’s recasting of the tradition, which was formative for Anglicanism, joined the more popular cathedral and parish observance to the monastic inheritance, though the regular recitation of the whole psalter and the reading of the whole Bible.
Paul Bradshaw echoes Bouyer’s point about the marriage of traditions when he describes the parallel development of daily prayer after the fourth century in churches and monastic communities. The “cathedral office” of prayer celebrated in cathedrals and parishes was marked by an emphasis on intercession and use of select psalms and canticles. The daily prayer regimen of the monastic movement, by contrast, emphasized the use of the whole psalter and the practice of lectio, reading and meditating on the Holy Scriptures.
Bradshaw remarks that Cranmer set out to reclaim for average Christians the ancient practice of daily common prayer, but ended up by restoring the practice of the desert fathers in an order of prayer more influenced by the monastic tradition (“Daily Prayer” in The Identity of Anglican Worship [Morehouse, 1991], p.74). In any case, as John Booty comments, “Thus was the asceticism of the monastery to be cultivated, day by day, by kings and commoners, landlords and yeomanry” (“Communion and Commonweal: The Book of Common Prayer,” in The Godly Kingdom of Tudor England, ed. by Booty [Morehouse-Barlow, 1981], p. 149).
The Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer is the longest standing ascetical commitment of my life in Christ. In the Episcopal Church this is the case for many of our clergy and not a few laypeople. I was initiated into the recitation of the Office as a layman, before seminary, when I began to pray it by myself, and have (with some notable times away) continued it since. In a way I consider myself bound by the practice: after all, it is the Daily Office of our prayer book, which seems to commend it to us as a daily practice. The language of obligation (“bound”) will only carry one so far when it comes to prayer, which is the fruit of loving relationship. Yet there have been times of spiritual aridity when the obligation to pray the Daily Office has been precisely the thing that has sustained my relationship with God.
For a goodly portion of my life as an ordained person I have been privileged to be able to pray the Office in public with others. At seminary I was part of a praying community that said Morning and Evening Prayer publicly together. I remember the day in my first semester when I realized that this opportunity to pray in common twice a day was simply too valuable to miss.
Later, as a graduate student, serving in the Church of England, I was part of a university community that prayed the Daily Office and celebrated the Holy Eucharist together each day during term time. This 19th-century pastoral ideal, derived from the successors of the Oxford Movement, of “Mattins, Mass, and Evensong” each day may be considered a wildly impossible feat for modern day folk, but is of course still practiced in actual real live parishes of our church, gathering together what are generally small groups of people within the parish (Martin Thornton’s “remnant”) in liturgical prayer.
As a priest in two different parishes, I have also been blessed in being part of the public celebration of the Daily Office on weekdays. In part I built upon previous parochial traditions, but in part this was the commitment of the new rector that gave opportunity for gentle teaching about clergy priorities and the centrality of prayer for the congregation. At the most basic level it required a commitment on my part, and of other clergy and lay leaders of the Office, to be present consistently at the same time in the same place, and inviting the congregation to pray.
Time management experts on various vestries sometimes questioned whether this was the best use of my time. Good heavens, was that a most teachable moment! Suffice to say that everything got done (in spite of this commitment to prayer, or perhaps because of it): hospital visits, sermon preparation, formation classes, spiritual direction and pastoral conversation, not to mention vestry, board, and committee meetings. Family life was not neglected and spiritual burnout did not ensue. Like the tithing of our treasure, this tithing of time actually made more useful the time that remained.
As a bishop my context is now much different. Bishops are idiorhythmic (what a great word!): that is, having their own rhythm or style, which in this case means their pattern of life is so varied that it scarcely constitutes a pattern. Another way of saying this is that bishops are irregular, in that whatever “regular” pattern attaches to episcopal ministry is largely indiscernible to outside observers. These commitments over space and time make bishops largely undependable when it comes to being in the same place at the same time with any consistency.
So for the last eleven and a half years of episcopal ministry I have been thrown back on saying the Daily Office by myself. In spite of this I’ve continued to grow in my appreciation of liturgical prayer. Reading the appointed lessons and saying the psalms each day has led me to more consistent study of the Holy Scriptures. Daily prayer, as well, has made me more mindful of my role as intercessor. This, after all, is the basic “priestly work” of the People of God. No matter where, and no matter how intractable the issue, at the very least the bishop can pray.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you pray the Daily Office:
Whatever form of the Office you are using, you are joining in the prayer of the Church. If you are a part of a regularly praying community, all the better. But even if you are praying by yourself you are still praying with “the whole company of heaven” and the Church throughout the world. The Office is objective, not subjective. It’s the Church’s prayer, not yours.
Because it is the prayer of the Church, the Office is really the prayer of Christ within us to the Father. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Christ’s priestly work is eternal, for he ever lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25). He is the head of the Body and we are the members. As Augustine once said in a sermon, “He prays for us as our priest, prays in us as our Head, and is prayed to by us as our God. Therefore let us acknowledge our voice in him and his in us” (Sermons on the Psalms 85.1).
The psalms are the heart of the Office. The Psalter was the first prayer book of the Church. St. Benedict knew this and made the recitation of the psalms the central act of his ordo. In the psalms the Word of God becomes our word. If you can pray nothing else from the Office regularly, pray the psalms.
Daily Prayer sanctifies time, and redeems our time. The very identifier daily is a marker of temporality. We are creatures of time who serve a God who intervened in history, in these times of ours. As we experience time we mark it with the sign of the cross, turning to God in the regular succession of time because it is the territory we inhabit and where we desire God to dwell with us.
The Daily Office is the “praise of the mystery” (Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety [Notre Dame, 1955]). Like the whole liturgy, it centers on the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The psalms, hymns, and prayers of the Church are lavish with praise because of what God has done in Christ. His life means life for us. Praise is the antidote to our spiritual aridity, and the Office keeps this before us.