ancient prayer for the ancient of days

The Christian church is grounded on the practice of daily corporate prayer.  The Sunday celebration of the resurrection is certainly the primary occasion for worship, and our own private prayers are deeply interwoven into our everyday lives.          

But there is another beautiful and life-giving form of prayer that has sustained the church through its many centuries, one that has largely fallen off the radar: the Daily Office, the saying of Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayers.  The saying of the office – whether in a chapel with 5 or 10 others, or in the quiet of one’s home, or even in the unexpected sanctuaries of doctor’s offices or afterschool carpools, can be a life-changing practice of prayer and connection to God.

So why haven’t we been taught to do it?

Daily prayer didn’t begin with the Christian church – we read in the psalms that it was a part of Hebrew practice:  psalm 119 proclaims, “Seven times a day will I praise your name.” The practice of daily prayer shaped their lives and helped to form their identity as the people of God.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read of disciples whose daily lives revolved around visits to the temple to pray at a specific hour.  As the persecutions plagued the early church, the daily prayers – often said in secret – strengthened and sustained the faithful.   Yet when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the state religion in the 4th century, the practice of fixed hourly prayers (like many life-giving disciplines) began to fade. 

The daily office survived for many centuries through the devotion of monastic communities, and in the Middle Ages was again offered in churches so that laypeople could reclaim this ancient gift.   In post-Reformation Europe, some Church communities regarded the saying of the office as a provenance of “professionals” (clergy, monks, and nuns) but many held onto this as a practice that was meant to shape and sustain all the faithful.

And yet, Robert Benson writes, “once the Church crossed the pond and entered the New World, the whole notion of the responsibility for offering the daily prayers, at least as far as the American Protestant world was concerned, got left behind somehow. These things were still in the prayer books but not on the radar.”

I believe that reclaiming the gift of the daily office (or perhaps, re-claiming the responsibility of saying the daily prayers that marked Christian discipleship from its very beginning) lies at the heart of renewal.  Whether we are speaking of the renewal of the church, or of the renewal of our relationship with God, we are speaking of something “too important to be left to the professionals.” (Robert Benson, In Constant Prayer, p. 25).

I hope you will join me in exploring how we can integrate the practice of the Daily Office into our life at St. Andrew’s. We have started simply – with a weekly service of Morning Prayer at 7:30 am in the chapel on Thursdays.  I hope you will join us each week in prayer, and help us to expand this practice throughout our weeks.

 

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About bernardowens

I am an Episcopal priest who serves St. Andrew's Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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