As I flip through my new copy of Benedictine Daily Prayer, called a “short breviary” even though it weighs in at just over 2,000 pages, I’m immediately stricken by one thing: the Church’s life of prayer calls out for community.
Growing up in the “General Protestant” world and in less liturgical environs, I was constantly encouraged to engage in the practice of “quiet time” — which, despite sounding like the build up to a preschool’s nap period, was really a time set aside for the study of Scripture, personal prayer, and silent listening (contemplation, discernment, and for those less afraid of sounding like hippies, meditation). Free from the constraints of a lectionary or a set pattern, we were told to do “what works.” Journaling? Sure? A reading plan? Go for it. A 365-day devotional book? Absolutely. Quiet time is all about how you find ways to listen to God.
Making space for prayer and Scripture is a good thing. I hope that mainline liturgical Christians will rediscover some of this quiet zeal.
But there is a sharp distinction: liturgical daily prayer turns us away from private acts and the self towards community and the Body of Christ.
The liturgical tradition has a profound history of daily prayer: litanies, canticles, silence, Scripture, the psalms, and the wisdom of our ancestors in the faith come together into a beautiful tapestry. To put it bluntly, quiet time has nothing on liturgical daily prayer.
Here’s my confession: I’ve never been very good at daily devotions. I wish I was. I’ve prayed to be more steadfast. I’ve tried and tried again. Sometimes I’m better at it than other times. But for whatever reason, I constantly struggle to maintain an ongoing pattern of prayer.
I’ve tried numerous different approaches. As a teenage, I tried the read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year approach. I have a copy of My Utmost for His Highest gathering dust somewhere. When I started moving towards the liturgical tradition, I gravitated towards the ancient canonical hours, and I have prayer books from the Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions, and a few contemporary takes (plus the orders printed in Book of Common Prayer and Lutheran hymnals).
One constant catch is how complicated these prayer books are. Taking up the hours ten weeks into the Season after Pentecost is sort of like trying to start watching a play at intermission. You get dropped into the middle of the action with the expectation that you know what’s going on. And if you miss a day, it can be hard to catch up. The pattern I’m following goes through books sequentially and reads through Psalm 119 a few verses at a time. It takes a while to get used to the pace.
And even if you start at the beginning of Advent when the cycle restarts, it can take a few days or weeks to get used to the flow and structure — when to turn to what page, figuring out what material is where, when to pull out the Bible and where the verses for the hour are listed. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you might spend more time trying to find the right material than actually praying. I compared the liturgical hours to a tapestry, and it’s true: on one side is an image beautiful to behold, but on the other is a complicated web of threads difficult to decipher. (I finally got tired of spending so much time flipping pages and just put labeled tabs in the prayer book I use most frequently. It saves so much time and mental effort.)
The most comfortable I’ve ever felt in daily prayer has been at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. There, visitors sit in the choir with the monks. A monk greets guests and helps them set up the numerous binders needed for the office. If the monk is busy helping another visitor, he may come back over — but as often as not, a lay person familiar with the set up will offer to lend a hand and guide you through the service.
The liturgy can be intimidating and complicated, and prayer books have a lot of moving parts. Novices need liturgical guides, a community to show them the way.
That community also brings regularity. It can be so easy to get caught up in work or play that we don’t make time for prayer. In the monastery, the entire day is guided by the hours of prayer, and bells call the monks and faithful to the chapel. Oh that this were so even in the parish office!
To be certain, I could easily set an alarm on my phone. I could probably even find a ring tone of peeling bells followed by chanted prayers as a specific reminder that this alarm means it’s time to pray.
But there’s one more stumbling block.
As I think through the many times I’ve taken up the daily offices, I remember just how often I’m struck by one recurring theme: praying the liturgy alone feels weird. I know, it’s not the most profound way of putting it. But think about it. The Church’s liturgy is participatory and communal. How do we begin prayers?
L: The Lord be with you.
C: And also with you.
The liturgy, literally the “work of the people,” is participatory. The people are involved. Praying liturgically means praying with other people. Asking that God “bless us and direct our days and our deeds in peace” rings hollow when “us” is really “me.”
When we pray, we join with the entire Church on earth across the ages. No Christian ever truly prays alone.
At the same time, though, our physical bodies, our tangible connections to our sisters and brothers, is vital. It is a blessing from God to hear another person’s voice join in prayer or read Scripture or sing praises. Our faith is incarnational; we believe that our bodies were made in the image of God, that the Image of the Invisible God took on human flesh, and that Christ rose physically from the grave.
Praying prayers written for community while in physical solitude is still good, but this is not what God intends. This is not what the Holy Spirit had in mind when she guided the Church in prayer.
We were meant for community. We were meant to live in physical communion with one another through the Triune God, the type of communion that can be established through shaking hands, and hugging, and hearing each other as we exchange signs of Christ’s peace. This communion is meant to point towards that Holy Communion with the Body of Christ at the Altar.
Pray. Read Scripture. Do it frequently; get into the habit of it. But do not forsake the importance of community, and take every opportunity to pray with each other.