The previous sessions of this Lent Course have focused on both the physical and mental habits that, when developed, can become helpful as we embark on our journey of faith, but in isolation, the gestures we make, the pilgrimages we make or the thoughts of gratitude we cultivate are little more than self help – they must be rooted in daily prayer and daily scripture – and that is exactly what we are focusing on this week.
Let’s begin by delving into a brief history of daily prayer or The Office as it is called. The Office also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, is exactly that – a liturgical response to the passing of time. Various hours of the day are marked with periods of intentional prayer – that follow a similar pattern – a greeting to God, the recitation of a psalm, a potion of scripture and some additional prayers.
The custom of praying at particular times is not unique to christianity, and we have borrowed the practice from our Jewish forebears. In the psalms themselves we see exclamations that the author at least prayed at particular times – “I will meditate on thee in the morning” – “I rose at midnight to give praise to thee” and of course – “evening, morning and at noon I will speak and declare, and he will hear my voice” – we also see the Apostles in the book of Acts attending the temple at different times of the day – and as these customs became embedded in Christian practice they became the Office of terce, sext and none.
I could spend the next hour alone going through the historical developments of the Christian Liturgy of the Hours, tracing it through the monastic expression of life and then in the Anglican form through the Prayer Book and the genius of Cranmer in combining those multiple offices, some of which took place in the small hours of the morning or the darkest parts of the night, distilling them into Matins and Evensong. It is important to note that this distillation of prayer into these two bitesized offices was not an attempt to reduce the importance of prayer – or indeed to make a point in moving away from a more catholic expression – it was to encourage the laity, the regular christian to pray – not keeping prayer as the reserve of the monk, nun or cleric.
These condensed offices placed in the hands of the regular churchgoer the resources to pray – portions of scripture, a simple way to chant psalms and it gave us the words – we no longer have to rely on being erudite or having an imagination to conjure up images – everything is gifted to you.
A major feature is the use of the psalmody – these songs are a treasury of human emotion. The psalmist (often King David) pours out his soul on the page – speaking with God in a raw and honest way. Sometimes he is clearly overwhelmed by the beauty, majesty and awe of his Lord and Creator. Other times he rails against God, kicking and stamping in a poetic tantrum, questioning where God is, is He listening, why is He doing these things? Joy and sadness, pain and relief are all found within these psalms. And as we follow the lectionary – the appointed readings – we too recite them all over a period of time that is manageable for the secular life (monks recite every single psalm in a single week through their offices) the psalms are a school of prayer, and they teach us how to talk about God and, crucially, how to talk TO God.
It is why they are so central to the Benedictine Monastic tradition – as Benedict aimed to create a school in the Lord’s service.
Praying daily is a Christian imperative. it is our baptismal duty to be in right relationship with God. When we entered into the waters of baptism we (or our Godparents on our behalf) stated that we would take our place within the worship of the church. The Daily Office is the backbone of that worship – the great prayer of the Eucharist, is central, but the liturgy of the hours provides the skeleton that holds aloft the great prayer – shaping us as we pray it.
I once spoke with a young man training to be a priest and he admitted that he didn’t get much from daily prayer in its prescriptive form – my response was that this is not about simply having a quiet time or a time for personal prayer – for the priest especially this form of prayer is an offering for the church. The clergy are duty bound in canon law to pray these offices for the good of their parishes, for the people in their care and for the church on earth. It is not about my own personal development – of course any prayer is good for the soul and will draw the individual into a deeper relationship with Christ and that is the bonus of these offices.
So why should the lay Christian pray them? You are not duty bound by canon law and you may well find a form of prayer that more suits your temperament…
Firstly – temperament is exactly the thing to address – if we only prayed in a particular way that suited our temperament – there would be times when we would not pray at all. There are times when our daily lives would get in the way and we would be too busy, too tired, too upset, too annoyed to pray. Prayer would become something that fits in with life – rather than the building block around which life is built. Your life should fit around your prayer.
Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is not primarily a personal act – it is communal. Even if you are praying alone physically – as you speak the words you are joining in with the Church at prayer. Millions of people across the world will be praying using the same words, speaking the same psalms, reading the same scripture – it is worship of the community of faith.
Daily prayer in his pattern and rhythm makes God central in our lives, not an afterthought, squeezed in when we have time or inclination, but able to seep into every moment of our lives. It is not always easy – but these offices are crafted in such a way as to give words that are timeless and not dependant upon anything else. 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening is not much to ask. 40 minutes out of a day. What is the excuse for not doing it?
The Ven. Fulton Sheen issues this challenge. “It is not particularly difficult to find thousands who will spend two or three hours a day in exercising, but if you ask them to bend their knees to God in five minutes of prayer they protest that it is too long.”
If you have never participated in liturgical prayer before – on a regular basis – I would encourage you to do so. One of the easiest ways I found to fall in love with the beauty of this form of prayer was through Night Prayer – also called Compline. It is a very simple, quiet liturgy and will take you around 10 minutes to pray. It is, as the name suggests, the last prayers of the day before bed, before rest, and it asks God to watch over us whilst we sleep. When I used to pray this daily at college I was reminded of the fact that just as I was chanting compline and going to be, someone would be rising on the other side of the world and starting the prayer office of Lauds or Mattins. As my words ended, theirs began. We would be strangers united in prayer – but together we fulfil that biblical command to pray without ceasing. It was a beautiful reminder of the interconnected nature of our church here on earth.
Finally, the last benefit that I wish to focus on is the fact that this form of praying is biblical. Not only, as i pointed out at the beginning, can we see the origins of this form of prayer in scripture but contained within it ARE so many scriptural references. Not just the psalms and the scriptural readings – but the words themselves. We pray the Lord’s Prayer, direct from scripture, Mary’s prayer – the Magnificat, Simeon’s song – The Nunc Dimitus – are all directly from the bible. So the very words that we say are scriptural words, direct from the source of our faith.
In the Roman Catholic Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours it states:
“Its readings are drawn from sacred Scripture, God’s words in the Psalms are sung in his presence, and the intercessions, prayers, and hymns are inspired by Scripture and steeped in its spirit”
And that brings us seamlessly to scripture and the importance of it as a daily habit.
As already highlighted if we participate in the liturgy of the hours we will not only be reading passages of scripture in the appointed lessons for the day, but also praying portions of scripture as we chant or recite the psalms, antiphons, Magnificat and so on.
But our relationship with scripture needs to go beyond this – else it becomes functionary. We need dwell in it, imbibe it, soak it in.
It is often said of those who have a more Catholic faith that we don’t know scripture very well. As one priest here in London famously retorted ‘I don’t understand the Bible, it is just the Missal all jumbled up’ and that can be the danger – because we DO have readings at morning and evening prayer and several passages read as part of our Sunday service we can feel that the job is done. We have got our dose of Bible for the day, for the week and we need no more. But whilst this does help with familiarity – it is not the same as getting into the story, getting our hands dirty.
First, this must come from an understanding of the Bible – not an academic study (though of course this is useful and we should engage with it in this way too) but an understanding of what it is for, how to treat it and the like. We must remember that this text, although a Holy Book is holy because of what it contains, the inspired word of God – it is not sacred by virtue of it being a tangible object. We don’t have to wash our hands before touching it, we don’t keep it covered on the highest shelf like other religions do with their text – this is the Christian manual for life – it belongs in the glove box of the car, so to speak, so that we can grab it and use it. There is an old saying that if your Bible is falling apart, your life probably isn’t – and while glib, there is some truth in that.
The Bible does contain what we need – to feed our soul, to get to know the character of Jesus, to understand better the nature of God, the story of His people – the relationship between Him and us. But is is not a substitute for a living sacramentally engaged faith. Not to labour the car analogue too much – but this is why we have both a theory and a practical portion of the test – reading the highway code doesn’t make you a good driver. Reading the Bible cover to cover doesn’t make you a good Christian – it helps, it enhances, but it cannot replace the need for practical.
Scripture should be engaged with – we should wrestle with it and delve into the understanding of it – it shouldn’t be something that we simple read, accept and never question. There are denominations within Christianity who do this – taking the Bible literally, never questioning it – and this runs the risk of raising it to idol status. Yes, it is the inspired word of God, Yes it is vitally important to our faith, but it is not the end of the story – it needs to be, as the prayerbook says, read, marked, learned and inwardly digested.
But why, other than it being informative for our faith?
We inhabit a world that is entirely formed by our imagination and this is fed or limited by the images that we hold in our imagination – essentially – we interpret the world with the material we have been given by intellectual and sensory experience. Part of the freedom we have in Christ, as followers of the Way, is the expansion and liberation of our minds – contrary to what society may say that in 2022 we don’t need the archaic limitation of religion – it is as Saint Paul says ‘the renewing of the mind. It is why – as the gospel spread – the imagination of the ordinary man was expanded. It allowed the mind to grapple with concepts outside of experience.
Saint Benedict was very clear, in his instruction to his monastic houses, that the practice of biblical reading was of vital importance. Between the liturgy of the hours, at set periods of the day, each brother or sister was expected to engage in a period of lectio divina – divine reading. This uniquely Benedictine practice was designed to aid the individual to engage with scripture – it is not about an academic assessment of the text, it is not interested in looking at the detail of different translations, it is about taking the cold, hard black and white words and making them vivid stories that teach by inhabiting.
The idea is very simple. Read the passage aloud. Just allow the words to form in your mouth and wash over you – then sit silently and think about what you have just heard. Read the same passage aloud again – or if you are with another person – have them read it – as a different tone of voice can often cause the ear to pick up something else. See what word jumps out at you. What does it do? How does it feel? Can you imagine yourself in the story? What can you see, feel, smell, hear?
Jean Leclerq, a benedictine monk and spiritual teacher writes:
“For the ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it “by heart” in the fullest sense of this expression, that is, with one’s whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.”
So this is not just learning particular verses as pithy replies to the problems of life, it is learning to live the Bible by heart – penetrating the heart.
This practice of dwelling in scripture can be very rewarding and a good way to ease into the habit of daily reading. It is something that can even be done on the go – with plenty of applications that will read the Bible to you – some even in the melodic tones of Poiroit’s David Suchet. Reading scripture does not need to be an arduous or dry occurrence – but it does need to be done. We need to grapple with the words of our faith.
Saint Augustine beautifully referred to the Scriptures as ‘letters from home’ – if you are anything like me, I love it when a card or letter drops through the door, rather than a bill or junk mail circular. I rip it open and sit down to read it immediately. Whatever else I am doing can wait. I want to see what it says, who it is from. Why is it then that I cannot do the same with my Bible? That I have to make myself sit down and read it.
That is where the development of a holy habit is needed. And some discipline is needed. The holy habits we have spoken about – liturgical gestures – are prompted by something external, our pilgrimages take us to physical places and have an air of adventure about them, gratitude is a response to what we have around us – to sit and delve into scripture can be a challenge.
Lectio can provide a good way in, but it does require time set aside to do it properly.
I am afraid that this is probably the least gentle part of this Lent Course – as over the weeks we have attempted to encourage participation in these various holy habits – but as we are now deep into passiontide and very close to Holy Week I offer this without holding back.
We must make time to read sacred scripture. We must.
Saint Jerome, one of the great fathers, said ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.
We need this instruction manual. We need to understand it.
One of the greatest problems with the way we handle scripture is that we like to make it much more complicated than it actually is. Because in doing so, we let ourselves off the hook, dont we? If we can say that the Bible isn’t clear on something, or that its complicated, then we buy ourselves time – we can wriggle out of following it.
My favourite philosopher, Soren Kirkegaard said.
“The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”
It is something we put off because – when engaged with – it will change our life. It has to.
So I will leave you with this plea, brothers and sisters, please read your Bible. Learn scripture. Delve into it. Ask questions. Seek to know more. Remember bits. Keep it close to your heart. And remember – when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness – to every temptation, what was his response? To reach for the Word of God as a retort.
It is our manual, our roadmap, our treasury of Gods wisdom. It is also our weapon and Our protection