"Some things", like prayer, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas remind us, "are too important to be left to chance." And so over the centuries, Christians have passed on ways to help build prayer into our days, and stop it being left to chance. That's what the Daily Office is — not simply a pattern for while we pray, but a pattern for a praying life.
The Daily Office might sound like an odd expression. In fact, you might well have encountered the Office without ever having heard it called that. I first encountered it while I was a university student. In the college chapel, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer were said or sung every day. Some days there was even a later service called Compline. At first I just thought of them as frequent church services. But, although they might sometimes happen to function like that, in places like college chapels and cathedrals, that's not really what they are at heart. Morning Prayer isn't just another name for a morning church service. The clue is in the name. It's Morning PRAYER. And you can pray it just as well at home by yourself as you can in church with a congregation. So, the Daily Office is something some of you might find quite helpful in this time of lockdown when none of us can get to church or meet with a congregation.
The point of the daily office is twofold: to root our lives in prayer, and to root our prayer in Scripture.
For me, that first point — the rooting of life in prayer — works like this: every morning when I wake up I say Morning Prayer, every evening when I finish work I say Evening Prayer, and every night before I go to sleep I say Compline. So my day begins and ends in prayer and God's Word, and my working day ends with prayer and God's Word as well. Sometimes the exact time I say each office differs (depending on what time I finish work, or what time I have to get up), but they always frame my day.
The second point — the rooting of prayer in Scripture — happens through the shape of the office itself. Each office includes Scripture readings (substantial ones from both Old and New Testaments at Morning and Evening Prayer, and a short Scripture reading at Compline), and well as Scripture songs or canticles, as well as some short prayers taken directly from verses of Scripture. So each part of the Daily Office involves reading the Bible, singing the Bible, and praying the Bible. But on top of that, the major focus in the Daily Office is praying the Psalms.
For Martin Luther, praying the Psalms was one of the seven signs that 'a holy Christian people of God are present.' While extempore prayer is important, Ian Stackhouse has reminded Evangelicals and Pentecostals that there is a danger that it "can often be self-indulgent and over-concerned with the immediate aspirations of the church," to which learning to pray the Psalms can act as a counter-balance "as acts of obedience, answering the God who has addressed us."
Stackhouse's book, The Gospel-Driven Church made a huge impact on me when I first read it as a graduate student, and drew me back to the Daily Office I had encountered as an undergraduate in the college chapel. In one section, he makes the case that Pentecostals and other Evangelicals need some form of Daily Office, pointing out that "outside of some set discipline of prayer, involving Scripture, it is becoming more and more apparent that prayer is unlikely to occur."
But Stackhouse points too to the praying of the Psalms at the heart of the Office as something Pentecostals need. This disciplined praying of all the Psalms "is the necessary corrective to a movement burdened by perpetual spontaneity." That might sound like a big claim, but I think these days of pandemic and lockdown help us to see how true it is. Depending on spontaneity isn't much help when spontaneity isn't possible.
Praying the Psalms means expressing the full range of human emotion in prayer, not just the ones we typically expect in a Sunday morning service or on the latest worship album. The Psalms can be prayed in the midst of a pandemic and in times of mourning just as well as they can be prayed on the happiest of occasions. As Stackhouse puts it: "Praying the Psalms routinely ... challenges a fundamental weakness of charismatic theology, namely its inability to embrace suffering and pain."
But praying the Psalms also forms us in Christlikeness. How? Because these are Jesus' prayers. Other than a few prayers recorded in the Gospels, we don't know much of the exact contents of Jesus' prayers, except for the 150 Psalms. Jesus, in his life on earth, prayed the Psalms. He even died with the Psalms on His lips. So every time we pray the Psalms, we joining with Jesus in His own prayers. As Bonhoeffer puts it, the Psalms are "prayers which we pray together with Jesus Christ, in which he accompanies us, and through which he brings us into the presence of God." As we pray the Psalms, we let Jesus lead us in prayer, and depend on Jesus in our prayer. It's no wonder then that Bonhoeffer writes that "whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power."
Anyway, this isn't a full explanation of the Daily Office, but hopefully it's enough to make you think it's worth giving it a try.
To help you explore the possibility of praying the Office and seeing what it's like, I'm trying to do a live audio of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline each day this week. It'll be live on Twitter/Periscope at roughly 8:30am, 5:30pm, and 10:30pm, and then I'll put the post on the blog Facebook page afterwards. I thought it would help to have someone to pray along with, rather than just looking at words on a page. I'll try and sing the Psalms and Canticles most days, but you don't need to be able to sing them to pray the office — you can just say them instead. [This has been replaced now with the daily podcast, see below.]
And, to be able to pray along, here are the words for each office:
- Morning Prayer: Foldover Booklet for Printing | Continuous for looking at on a screen
- Evening Prayer: Foldover Booklet for Printing | Continuous for looking at on a screen
- Compline: Foldover Booklet for Printing | Continuous for looking at on a screen
I'll explain a bit more about the full Daily Office in another post soon. But for now, why don't you join me in having a go at praying the Office this week and see if it might be a help to you in prayer.
P.S. Compline is pronounced Complin.
I've realised that, while I might be used to the old language, many of you might find it more helpful to have a modern language version. So I've put together modern language versions of Morning and Evening Prayer in booklet form, with everything modernised (Scriptures taken from the NKJV), except the Lord's Prayer. (Never confuse people by changing the Lord's Prayer — it's the one prayer nearly everyone knows!)
For simple Morning and Evening Prayer each day (in modern language) we've got a new podcast. Morning Prayer will be available from 7am each day and Evening Prayer from 5pm (UK time). The Psalms and Bible Readings will be going consecutively through books of the Bible.