Initial Thoughts on “Daily Prayer”

I’m still wrapping my head around the SCLM’s “Daily Prayer” offering in the Blue Book. My initial impression is: wow—have these folks ever heard of the concept of “stability” in prayer? I wasn’t aware that novelty was a theological virtue, let alone a guiding principle in liturgical composition!

I have to say I’m flabbergasted by the amount of variety here. I evidently misunderstood the title, first off. I assumed that “Daily Prayer for All Seasons” actually meant “[Stable] Daily Prayer for [consistent use within] All Seasons.” Boy, was I surprised. Instead, each liturgical season gets an entirely new set of materials. Everything is constantly changing and even the few elements that I’ve noted that are common—I’ve seen the Magnificat come up a couple of times—are in totally different hours as we move through the seasons.

When I look at it, it makes me feel anxious, reflecting what I find as a frenetic busy-ness.  To take a stab at it, I think the driving concern here is edification—the compilers wanted to stuff in as much different stuff as possible so that you would know more and better stuff. To me, this flies in the face of the principle of formation which occurs through patterned repetition. You learn something and live with something by repeating it again and again in similar times and places. Repetition gives birth to internalization—muscle memory.

I can’t help but compare what we’ve been given here with the prymers. The Little Hours of the BVM and even their protestant cousins in the Marshall Hours or the Prymer of Henry VIII are marked by their stability. They have the same words at the same time, day in and day out. What makes them brief offices for the people as opposed to the full breviary hours of the clergy and monastics is their constancy. How well did that work for them? Well, the books of hours arose in the mid 12oo’s or so and, in England, achieved a massive penetration among the literate public. Around the time of the Reformation, the Marshall Hours sought to subvert the prymer for the protestant cause and succeeded well enough that Henry VII put out an official prymer. Elizabeth released a couple and it wasn’t until the Preces Privatae of 1564 that we see a break from the prymer pattern and the Hours of the BVM.

And it was a return to this pattern that Cosin offered in 1627 going back to the Elizabethan Orarium of 1560. Cosin’s own work was one of the very first devotional enrichments put back into print by the Oxford/Cambridge Movements in the 1830’s and successive prymer type patterned Hours have floated around in Anglo-Catholic circles to the present day.

Does a 700+ year use pattern suggest that maybe it has something going for it…?

Oh well—more later.

12 Replies to “Initial Thoughts on “Daily Prayer””

  1. My wife wrote a cycle of 28 short piano pieces, each one preceded with by a reading of a selection from reading for that hour of that day from the book, A Book of Hours, where Kathleen Deignan, CND mined Merton’s voluminous writings, and selected mostly excerpts from poetry, and arranged them into prayers for Dawn, Day, Dusk, and Dark for each of the 7 days of the week.

    While beautiful, intriguing, challenging and meditative, it was not prayer per se, all crammed together in one sitting. It was art and music.

    Perhaps there is a confusion of categories for this work group. It does not appear they have produced a prayer book, but rather the book for tableaux of performance art, maybe liturgical performance art, performance art nonetheless. Was that the goal?

  2. My initial response is that the production of “Daily Prayer” was a reaction (not a response), to how the use of the Offices have dissolved as public worship, and thus as private devotion. (If the Church doesn’t teach her practices to the faithful, the practices will, of course, cease to continue.) The pattern of stability with seasonal variance isn’t followed, leading to a need to reinvent the wheel each season. Personally, I would grow quite tired of hearing the same passage of Scripture or mediation day in and day out, or singing the same hymn, especially in long seasons.

    However, the inclusion of passages from Anselm, Scholastica, and other spiritual fathers and mothers is encouraging. For most people, knowledge of Church history ends at Acts and picks up in a slip-shod fashion around the Reformation. Exposure to what they said or wrote might encourage people to investigate further. I’m not so sure about the longevity of some of the more modern quotes. The inclusion of hymns is also encouraging; even if not sung, to be read as poetry. The permissive rubric for a hymn’s inclusion is often one that is passed on as the BCP is currently written. Hymns are a way to add seasonal variation without too much complication.

  3. I’m with you, Derek. Liturgy has specific qualities and functions, and shoehorning all the catechesis and political formation one wants to do into a normative prayerbook will break the prayers and catechesis. Someone has gotten the idée fixe that variety will keep people interested (not ‘bored with the same old canticles’) and will demonstrate the Church’s balanced, supportive involvement with every sort of personal and political interest. Best of luck dislodging that.

  4. ‘Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best – if you like, it “works” best – when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we are almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

    ‘But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshiping…

    ‘Thus my whole liturgical position boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit…’

    C.S. Lewis: ‘Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer’, ch. 1.

    I know Lewis’ observation is not true for everyone. It is certainly true for me.

  5. My favorite approach is the one in “Celebrating Common Prayer,” which was part of the run up to the CofE’s “Common Worship.” It had a basically stable format, but with significant seasonal and daily variations (a small set of psalms and canticles repeated daily throughout the season). It seemed quite complicated at first, but if you prayed it for a few years you got a nice sense of “coming home” with each seasonal change. The BCP version is flexible enough to add some of this, but then you’re praying your own version of the Office, instead of what everybody else who uses the BCP is praying (which is part of the point of using a BCP).

  6. Thanks for the C.S. Lewis quote, Tim, that’s a work I haven’t read before.

    My sense is that for liturgy to “work” we have to have a balance between what is Ordinary and what is Proper. I also believe that the balance is different for different cultures and for different people. That is, a complete static and therefore completely Ordinary Little Office seems to have worked for our Reformation-era lay ancestors. I think culturally we’re conditioned to expect quite a bit more variation than that—or we will get bored and stop using it. But if the prymer was all “Ordinary,” this work is all “Proper” by season. I think that’s one of the things that bugs me. While the ordo—the event list—may stay the same for each office across the year there are no elements that remain Ordinary across the year and, at least from an intellectual analysis (as opposed to a full-on trial use), that concerns me greatly.

    Too, I see the inclusion of consistent and Ordinary elements as a spiritual challenge to the freneticism that characterizes our culture.

  7. Prayer has now become a reflection of our American general society or social world, our culture and sociality rather than being rooted and at the same time preparing us for being culturally-transforming and culturally-critical in Jesus Christ. Busyness is a sure sign of this. Busyness is the bane of our existence and it makes us crazy.

    My original dissertation proposal was to be on “content matters” because “ordo” has become a cipher for folks to do anything with the filling. That was too touchy a subject. So, I did it roundaboutly by studying some of our prayers.

    This is the best line in a while: “stuff in as much different stuff ”

    I might add that newness, the novelty of life and creation, only stands out as newness if we are immersed in a stable pattern of prayer. Only if what we pray daily is stable can we notice and respond to the intricate uniqueness of an earthworm, the glory of a man begging for change on the sidewalk…

    I err on the side of the same day in and day out, season in and season out, which is my response to being overwhelmed by too much information and busyness.

  8. As I said in my own rant, the context I can see this being used in is something like a weekend retreat. It’s either too little or too much for someone who does the office every day. It’s not really a liturgy. But at any rate the mangling of the texts puts it beyond the pale for me, whatever the context.

    What would actually be helpful would be something which gave a more definite pattern to matching up the daily devotions already in the BCP with the office lectionary. Doing so, however, would require so little of the creative impulses of the liturgists, and offer so little opportunity to theologically enlighten us, that I can’t see them being interested.

  9. “They asked the abbot Marcarius, saying, ‘How ought we to pray?’ and the old man said, ‘There is no need of much speaking in prayer, but often stretch out thy hands and say, Lord, as Thou wilt and as Thou knowest, have mercy on me.'” Sayings of the Desert Fathers
    “Reading, vigils and prayer—these are the things that lend stability to the wandering mind. […] But all these practices are to be engaged in according to due measure and at the appropriate times.” Evagrius Ponticus
    Our ancestors in the faith teach us to keep our prayers focused and in due measure. Too much is too much.

  10. Thanks for this review, Derek. “Frenetic busy-ness” is a very apt description.

    I’ve heard the modern practice of frequent switching between different devotional practices compared with repeatedly digging up a bush in order to transplant it in different places: it’s not a good idea if you want the thing to grow.

  11. I agree w/ Mark–Celebrating Common Prayer is my favo(u)rite Office book b/c it seems to strike the right (for me) blend of variety within order. I cannot abide Daily Prayer for All Seasons. Even when used in non-daily settings I found bits of it very un-Anglican in their shape.

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