I’ve been thinking a lot lately about tightening up certain disciplines that I’ve been keeping with a little less discipline than I’d like. And so this week, I decided to be intentional about keeping one of these — praying the Morning Office — daily, upon waking. There was a season of my life, lasting about five years, in which this was a consistent discipline for me, and one in which I found great comfort and meaning. In recent years, it’s been something I’ve done on an ad hoc basis, whenever I happen to think about it when I have a few minutes to spare. So I was interested to see what it would be like to be more intentional about it again.
The first Christians inherited the practice of daily prayers from their Jewish religious forebears. The goal was to have prayer set the natural rhythm of the day; the things we often consider ‘real life’ were viewed as interruptions of the ‘normal’ rhythm of prayer. Christian daily prayer services, known as offices, developed into their canonical form with the rise of monastic daily cycles of prayer, known as the Hours. In both East and West, by the fifth or sixth century, a similar pattern of services developed, with eight daily services starting with Vespers at sunset and ending with mid-afternoon prayers. Obviously this is a very demanding schedule that was not practical for most Christians to join. And so many Christian traditions developed ways of adapting the basic themes and structures of the services of the Hours into a simpler system. In my tradition, the services coalesced into two main offices, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. It’s the Morning Prayer service that I committed myself to praying this week.
What is it?
Generally speaking, the morning office is comprised of prayers of invitation and invocation, psalms, readings from the Old and New Testaments, canticles (these are songs recorded in the Bible outside the book of Psalms), and intercessions. There are many orders of service from different traditions available online. I use the Daily Prayer app, produced by the Church of England.
Some ‘best practices’ for praying the offices include:
- Have a dedicated space in which to pray;
- Pray aloud;
- Find a consistent time to pray every day; and
- Don’t pick and choose what you pray: consistency and rote are part of the practice.
This was a hard week for me. It wasn’t the doing Ι struggled with, but the prayer itself that was difficult. There are three factors that contributed to this: First, while there was a long period in my life when prayer came easy to me, for the past several years now, prayer has generally ceased to be the place of ready and easy encounter with God it used to be. Second, I disobeyed my own best practices for the first half of the week: It took until midweek for me to actually pray aloud in my prayer corner. And third, my thoughts were distracted and racing most of the week; it was difficult to focus on anything, let alone ritual prayer, and so my notes this week were filled with things like “I got lost in the weeds of that psalm,” and “I was so distracted today; my mind was all over the place.” At one point I had to treat it like I would a meditation session and trust that continually and intentionally returning to the prayer or reading from my distraction could be part of the practice, a kind of letting go of the go in its own right.
Moreover, while I have tools and perspectives to ‘translate’ the messier passages in the Old Testament in a helpful way, they still do often bother to distraction, especially in the office, where there is no opportunity to consciously reflect on the readings (as opposed to last week’s practice of lectio divina). On Monday, I noted, “Why exactly are we calling for genocide here?” And on Wednesday, “I’m so sick of Psalms and Old Testament readings giving thanks for bloodshed.” On Tuesday I wrote about how this specific problem fits into a larger difficulty I have with scripture reading in the offices: “The problem with having so much reading in the office is that it focuses on quantity of reading over quality of reading. It’s just reading for the sake of reading; there’s no opportunity to reflect properly on the readings; it feels like a waste of time.” I’ll have more to say about this in my reflection below.
Things started to improve a bit on Thursday, when I returned to my best practices. Praying in a spot solely dedicated to prayer helped to wrangle my thoughts. It also made me more prone to pray aloud, which also helped with the distraction problem by creating a bigger separation between my thoughts and the prayers and readings.
All in all, I’d say it was a middling week. While my experience of praying the morning office this week was pretty negative, that doesn’t mean I necessarily feel negatively about the experience, or the practice. There are three major strengths I see in this practice: First, it creates a rhythm and structure for the day. Second, because so much of it is psalms, canticles, and scripture readings, it connects me to my tradition in a way very few other practices can. And third, in time, those words, phrases, and rhythms become part of me. I’d like to discuss each of these strengths now in greater detail, as they’ll provide a helpful context for fleshing out the difficulties I experienced this week. Because my experiences with praying the office are a little fraught, I asked my good friend, Rev. Andrew Rampton, whose heart takes to ritual like a fish to water, to offer his own reflections on the practice.
1. Rhythm and structure
Beginning the day with the morning office — in praise and thanksgiving — is simply a good start to the day. No matter what the day may bring, that good beginning matters. And even if I don’t begin my day with the office, I find I can use it as a helpful way of rebooting my day when things get off to a rocky start. Andrew reiterated this sense of structure in his comments: “My days play out very differently when I do and don’t start with morning prayer. … It seems to set and arrange my thoughts and planning of the day in a really helpful way. The day feels better organized, less chaotic, and more productive when I pray the morning office.” Andrew also helpfully pointed out, however, that individual mileage for this may vary: In discussing his own personality, he says: “Routine and structure are super important to me and are part of the way I encounter God.” Someone with a different personality type may find the same structure that Andrew finds so freeing to be inhibiting instead.
2. Connection to the tradition
The second aspect of praying the office I want to reflect on really has two sides: unlike most sacred practices, it de-centres me and my own experiences and feelings; and it centres the experiences and narratives of the tradition in their place.
The first of these is interesting; because most sacred practices are all about dealing with my Stuff with God, the office is refreshing in its lack of concern for what’s going on with me. The Orthodox begin their prayers with “Glory to you, O God, glory to you” whether they have just got a raise at work or whether they’ve just be fired. In this way, the office offers some semblance of objectivity to balance the chaos of our subjective experience of life. Anything that de-centres the ego is helpful. Andrew echoed this in one of his comments: “I find [the psalms and canticles] call out like reminders of aspects of God that I know about, but don’t always think about on my own, because I so seldom get out of my own head.” And yet, while this is a strength of this practice, it can also be problematic if it is our sole or primary sacred practice. We all have Stuff we need to deal with with God; as important as it is to forget ourselves and be reminded that we are situated within a broader story, we also need to have a place where we can honestly deal with our Stuff.
The flip-side of pushing our own narratives and concerns to the side is centering the narratives and concerns of our tradition. This is very powerful. As Andrew eloquently put it: “When I sing the Benedictus in the morning, I sing it with Zechariah and all of the people since him who have sung it in their own worship and prayer. When I sing psalms about the horse and rider being cast into the sea, I sing it in chorus with Israel delivered from Egypt. When I sing Psalm 79, I sing it in solidarity with Huguenots who sang it as they were being executed. Singing the sacred texts of the universal Church is always a congregational experience for me, even if I’m alone in the apartment.”
In this way, the office reminds us that salvation in the Christian tradition isn’t only about me-and-God, but is also about community, a community that extends through time and space, incorporating all the faithful who have ever been and who ever will be.
I admit, however, that this experience is more ambivalent for me than it is for Andrew. While I love the sense of connection to the past, as I mentioned above, I’m also aware that this connection connects me to the unsavoury parts of that history as much as the good. I can celebrate Israel delivered from Egypt, but what about that rider cast into the sea, who was in all likelihood himself caught up on the wrong side of systems of power and abuse? I can sing Psalm 79 in solidarity with the Huguenots, but should it not give us pause that their persecutors sang it too? There are good ways of handling difficult or abused texts, of including-and-transcending them in a healthy way; but the morning office is not the place to do that, as it offers no space for reflection and theological reasoning. Yet as messy as I find this, I wouldn’t want to excise difficult texts from our liturgies either, as they often express deep and raw emotion that we need to process and deal with, not push deeper into the shadows. I don’t really have a solution to this problem, but will simply leave it as a consideration when evaluating the practice.
3. Words on our lips
One of the benefits of the office containing so much scripture is that over time, the words of the psalms and canticles become second-nature to us. In fact, some have argued that this is entirely the point: there’s no way you’re going to be able to take in and contemplate all of the psalms and other readings; the goal rather is simply to let them wash over you, so that in time they become a part of you. It’s a helpful image and it works too: Years after I stopped praying a morning office that included Psalm 51, its words of repentance, offering, and hope still come easily to mind. And I really like that. But in a sense, this only makes the concern I raised above even more pressing: if these words wash over us and become a part of us, we need to be very mindful of the words and attitudes we are reciting. As Christians, our Gospel insists that we love our enemies, ‘turn the other cheek,’ and forgive those who have harmed us. Why then would we want to be washed in words advocating revenge, bloodshed, and a long remembrance of wrongs? Again, these are important human emotions that need to be brought into the light and addressed; but I don’t want them on my lips.
And so, what to make of all this? Praying the morning office is a helpful practice, but mileage will vary, depending on your personality. If the structure and rhythm of the practice frees you to go about your day in a more intentional way, then I would encourage you not only to add this practice to your daily routine, but also to think of ways you can address your subjective experiences with God too. Likewise, if the structure feels more like a straitjacket to you than a helpful rhythm, or if you are troubled by the content in some of the texts, then by all means don’t pray the office; however, I would encourage you to think of alternative ways you can de-centre your own concerns for a few minutes a day and bring to mind the stories and concerns of your tradition.
It’s been an interesting week and this practice has certainly given me lots of think about and pray through. If you pray the daily office regularly, I’d love to hear your comments on what keeps you coming back to it.