The Essence of the Office

This post follows on the other on the Sacrifice of Praise and Thanksgiving to complete my thoughts on the Essence of the Office.


The essence of the Daily Office must be found on one hand in Paul’s exhortation for Christians “with gratitude in your hearts [to] sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Col 3:12), and, on the other hand, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). The two central themes here that we must keep before our eyes are the idea of the use of songs and poetic praises of God and also continuous prayer springing from deliberate acts of periodic prayer. As we consider the Daily Office and its various parts and acts, we will return time and time again to these two basic principles that form its foundation.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

The Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill (†1941) in her book Worship reinforces the poetic character of the Daily Office and the significance of that quality:

Liturgical worship shares with all ritual action the character of a work of art. Entering upon it, we leave the lower realism of daily life for the higher realism of a successive action which expresses and interprets eternal truth by the deliberate use of poetic and symbolic material. A liturgical service should therefore possess a structural unity; its general form and movement, and each of its parts, being determined by the significance of the whole. By its successive presentation of all the phases of the soul’s response to the Holy, its alternative use of history and oratory, drama and rhythm, its appeals to feeling, thought, and will, the individual is educated and gathered into the great movement of the Church. . . . Nevertheless since its main function is to suggest the Supernatural and lead men out to communion with the supernatural, it is by the methods of poetry that its chief work will be done. . . . [P]oetry still remains a chief element at least in the Daily Office, which is mainly an arrangement of psalms, canticles, and Scripture readings. (Worship, p. 119)

 She goes on to remind us of the interpretive errors that occur when we attempt to read poetry literally and miss its deeper sense and direction. As she sees it, poetry in the liturgy has three main purposes:

(1)    It is the carrying-medium of something which otherwise wholly eludes representation: the soul’s deep and awestruck apprehension of the numinous. . . .

(2)    It can universalize particulars; giving an eternal reference to those things of time in and through which God speaks to men. . . .

(3)    It is a powerful stimulant of the transcendental sense . . .

All these characters of poetry are active in good liturgy, and indeed constitute an important part of its religious value. Moreover, poetry both enchants and informs, addressing its rhythmic and symbolic speech to regions of the mind which are inaccessible to argument, and evoking movements of awe and love which no exhortation can obtain. It has meaning at many levels, and welds together all those who use it; overriding their personal moods and subduing them with a grave loveliness. (Worship, p. 120)

Great art—great poetry—is that which can capture our minds and hearts, and suffuse reality with a new light, a new perspective. It helps us see our ordinary, everyday world as not so ordinary, and cracks open everyday reality to help us see the beauty, the glory, and the wonder that is concealed therein. It helps us see new possibilities; it helps us see grander movements.

This is my best perspective on Scripture: it invites us into a different way of seeing the world and our relationships within it. It invites us to experience the whole cosmos arrayed around the throne of God as portrayed in the heavenly throne-room depicted in Revelation 4-6, and leads us to speculate about what it means to live in a world where justice, mercy, and loving-kindness are fundamental guiding principles. We are invited to recognize our own world transformed and suffused with the light of God and to function as mirrors, lenses, and crystals, reflecting—focusing—diffusing—the divine light, casting it through our facets upon the world and people around us.

The Office with its language of poetry reminds us and orients us to this level of understanding and reflection. Too, it can help us get beyond a literalism and dogmatism that can either frustrate or limit our sense of the holy and the divine. The Athanasian Creed can be a hard pill for many to swallow. On one hand, it’s chalk full of complicated and philosophical technical terms. On the other, it ends with a declaration of damnation containing a certainty that seems to arrogate to itself a judgment properly left with God alone.   The Episcopal Church has never been comfortable with it; Bishop Seabury (†1796), the first American Episcopal bishop, wrote that he was never convinced of the propriety of reading it in church, yet did want to include it along the same lines as the articles of faith to show that we hold the common faith of the West. Indeed, the 1979 revision is the only American prayer book to include it. Especially as modern people, we don’t know what to do with it—but the monks did! They sang it as a canticle complete with antiphons at Sunday Prime, the poetic and musical setting potentially subverting its dogmatism and softening its philosophical formality in song.

After speaking of the eight individual hours that formed the Daily Office in the West, Underhill draws them together and unites them with their purpose:

The complete Divine Office, then, . . . is best understood when regarded as a spiritual and artistic unity; so devised, that the various elements of praise, prayer, and reading, and the predominately poetic and historic material from which it is built up, contribute to one single movement of the corporate soul, and form together one single act of solemn yet exultant worship. This act of worship is designed to give enduring and impersonal expression to eternal truths; and unite the here and now earthly action of the Church with the eternal response of creation to its origin. It is her “Sacred Chant,” and loses some of its quality and meaning when its choral character is suppressed: for in it, the demands of a superficial realism are set aside, in favour of those deeper realities which can only be expressed under poetic and musical forms. (Worship, 124-5)

The more we sing of the Office, the more in touch we are with these melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of which she speaks. Yet, even if we are reading it alone in our rooms, we can still find the cadences there.

On a purely literary level, we can go through the Office step by step and note the presence of the poetry and music at every step. The psalms form the heart of the office. We respond to the Scripture readings with canticles, most of which are infused and inspired by the psalms—or songs like them. The suffrages themselves are verses of psalms recombined and related to one another in new ways. The collects and prayers speak in the language of the psalms and Scriptures.

As we pray the Office and sing it—whether aloud or in our hearts—we are incarnating the Pauline injunction to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God and to one another. As its poetry becomes more deeply a part of us, as these songs become more fully implanted within our hearts, they leads us to a more beautiful lens for locating God at work in our world.

To Pray Without Ceasing

This notion of having the songs and psalms implanted in our hearts and consciousness leads us in to the second principle, to pray without ceasing. If we wish to learning the meaning of this phrase, we must turn our eyes to the Desert Fathers and Mothers for it was they who devoted their entire efforts to live its meaning.

The fourth century was a tumultuous time for the Church as Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 meant an end to persecution and brought with it a tacit sign of imperial favor. (Christianity wouldn’t actually become the official religion of the empire until 380 under Theodosius.) While the easing of restrictions against Christianity brought in a wave of converts—some no doubt embracing it for political gain—this same easing equally triggered a crisis of spirituality. For decades, Christian authenticity had been bound up with martyrdom; fidelity to the way of the cross was identified with the willingness to die a martyr’s death. With martyrdom at the hands of the authorities no longer an option, where was an earnest Christian to turn?

The answer came in the form of the desert. Christians who sought to embody the commands of Scripture sold their possessions, renounced family life, and sought lives of prayer and austerity in the deserts, either on their own or in the company of like-minded souls. This way of life, which would flower into monasticism and feed the church spiritually for centuries to come, was popularized by bishops and theologians who wrote inspiring accounts of the lives of simple men and the spiritual riches they uncovered. The great bishop Athanasius (†373) penned the Life of Antony which chronicled the life and spirituality of one of the earliest desert saints and spread word of the movement across the Greek-speaking world. Not to be outdone, the ascetic and scholar Jerome (†367), living in a monastery in Jerusalem, wrote a number of lives that sought to supplement (or replace) the Life of Antony, bringing knowledge of the desert life to the Latin-speaking church. The first great systematic works of Western Christian spirituality, John Cassian’s (†435) Institutes and Conferences, were written for the benefit of his monastery in Gaul, containing remembrances of his youthful spiritual dialogues with heroes of the Egyptian and Palestinian deserts.

As we sift through the literature of the early monastic movement and the desert saints who founded it, we come back time and time again to this injunction to “pray without ceasing,” to praying of some form of the Daily Office, and a fundamental belief that the use of the Office was the key to praying without ceasing. The characteristic pattern of desert life is captured in a brief description of how Antony lived:

The money he earned from his work he gave to the poor, apart from what he needed to buy bread, and he prayed often, for he learned that one should pray to the Lord without ceasing. He also listened attentively to the Scriptures so that nothing should slip from his mind. He preserved all the Lord’s commandments, keeping them safe in his memory rather than in books. (Life of Antony 3, Early Christian Lives, p. 10)

Note the way that work, prayer, and memorization of the Scriptures are interconnected here. This way of life is further clarified by an episode where a desert hermit was disputing with a group of uber-pietists called the Euchites or Messalians concerning prayer without ceasing:

Some of the monks who are called Euchites went to Enaton to see Abba Lucius. The old man asked them, ‘What is your manual work?’ They said, ‘We do not touch manual work but as the Apostle says, we pray without ceasing.’ The old man asked them if they did not eat and they replied they did. So he said to them, ‘When you are eating, who prays for you then?’ Again he asked them if they did not sleep and they replied they did. And he said to them, ‘When you are asleep, who prays for you then?’ They could not find any answer to give him. He said to them, ‘Forgive me, but you do not act as you speak. I will show you how, while doing my manual work, I pray without interruption. I sit down with God, soaking my reeds and plaiting my ropes, and I say, “God have mercy on me; according to your great goodness and according to the multitude of your mercies, save me from my sins [Ps 51:1,2].”’ So he asked them if this were not prayer and they replied it was. Then he said to them, ‘So when I have spent the whole day working and praying, making thirteen pieces of money more or less, I put two pieces of money outside the door and I pay for my food with the rest of the money. He who takes the two pieces of money prays for me when I am eating and sleeping; so, by the grace of God, I fulfill the precept to pray without ceasing.’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 120-1)

This blend of piety and practicality is found throughout this early literature. The life described is one filled with basic manual labor—weaving ropes or baskets made from the leaves of the desert palms or scratching out subsistence gardens from the rocky soil—suffused with constant prayer. Indeed, the Egyptian monks in particular were famous for prayers that were “brief but frequent.”

The prayer recited by Abba Lucius is an adaptation of the start of Psalm 51. Reading through the Life of Antony and the description that Athanasius gives of Antony’s struggles in spiritual travail, a pattern emerges. At a great turning point in Antony’s life, during a struggle with demons that left him both physically and spiritually battered he retained his faith and focus by ceaselessly chanting, “If they place an encampment against me, my heart will not fear” (Ps 27:3). When people came from the cities, hoping to find him dead, he would pray verses from Ps 68:1-2 and Ps 118:10. Throughout the literature, the words of the psalms are constantly appearing through their prayers and discussions. In truth their whole conversations are shot through with Scripture, but consistently the psalms predominate. In fact, the Egyptian “brief but frequent” prayers that appear in the corpus are almost always drawn from Scripture and the psalms. One of the works of Evagrius of Pontus (†399) consists entirely of one-liners from Scripture to be used for prayer in a host of situations organized in relation to the eight vices identified by the desert monks.

For these monks—many of whom were illiterate—Scripture came through hearing. Preeminently, Scripture was heard and memorized in the Daily Offices. The foundation of the Office gave them the words they needed to meditate in the midst of their work and to truly pray without ceasing no matter what they were doing.

Perhaps the preeminent connection between the Scriptures, the psalms, and praying without ceasing comes from the second conference on prayer recorded by John Cassian. Abba Isaac says that the whole goal of the monastic way of life can be summed up like this: “This, I say, is the end [goal] of all perfection–that the mind purged of every carnal desire may daily be elevated to spiritual things, until one’s whole way of life and all the yearnings of one’s heart become and single and continuous prayer” (Conferences 10.7.3). Cassian’s companion Germanus asks how this sort of focus can be achieved. The reply from Abba Isaac is that there is one particular formula for meditation that can secure this result:

The formula for this discipline and prayer that you are seeking, then, shall be presented to you. Every monk who longs for the continual awareness of God should be in the habit of meditating on it ceaselessly in his heart, after having driven out every kind of thought, because he will be unable to hold fast to it in any other way than by being freed from all bodily cares and concerns. Just as this was handed down to us by a few of the oldest fathers who were left, so also we pass it on to none but the most exceptional, who truly desire it. This, then, is the devotional formula proposed to you as absolutely necessary for possessing the perpetual awareness of God: ‘O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me’ [Ps 70:1]. (Conferences 10.10.2)

Yes, this is the line that is used as a verse and response to open each of the prayer offices. No, that’s not an accident.

John Cassian makes the explicit connection between the Daily Office and the continuous prayer of the Egyptian monks in his other big book, the Institutes, but he does so by framing it in the midst of one of the disputes about monastic practice. By the end of the fourth century, there were two major centers of monastic practice—the deserts of Egypt and the deserts of Palestine. They had different ways of praying the Daily Office. The Egyptian model was the same in format as what appears to have been done in many of the early cathedrals of the period—one public service in the morning and another in the evening. Twelve psalms were sung, then there was a reading from the Old Testament, then one from the New Testament. That was it for the day. The Palestinian model was to gather more frequently. Jerome, writing from his monastery in Bethlehem, advises this:

Further, although the apostle bids us to ‘pray without ceasing,’ and although to the saints their very sleep is a supplication, we ought to have fixed hours of prayer, that if we are detained by work, the time may remind us of our duty. Prayers, as everyone knows, ought to be said at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, at dawn and at evening. . . . We should rise two or three times in the night and go over the parts of Scripture which we know by heart. (Letter 22. 37)

and instructs the parents of a young virgin dedicated to the church to train her in the same way: “She ought to rise at night to recite prayers and psalms; to sing hymns in the morning; at the third, sixth, and ninth hours to take her place in the line to do battle for Christ; and lastly to kindle her lamp and to offer her evening sacrifice” (Letter 107.9).

The Egyptians responded rather harshly. One characteristic response comes from the Egyptian-trained Epiphanius:

The Blessed Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, was told this by the abbot of a monastery he had in Palestine, ‘By your prayers we do not neglect our appointed round of psalmody, but we are very careful to recite [the prayer offices of] Terce, Sext and None.’ Then Epiphanius corrected them with the following comment, ‘It is clear you do not trouble about the other hours of the day, if you cease from prayer. The true monk should have prayer and psalmody continuously in his heart.’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 57)

Thus, he suggested that by having more set hours of the day, the monks were neglecting this continual prayer of the heart and instead were satisfied only to pray when the clock told them it was time to do so. Frankly, this is kind of a cheap shot. An argument could equally be made that since the Palestinian monks were hearing the psalms more, they had better opportunity to memorize them and keep them always in their hearts—but the (Egyptian) sayings don’t see fit to give us the Palestinian abbot’s response!

In light of this argument between the two parties, John Cassian tries to take a middle path. After explaining the Egyptian system, and before talking about how to pray the day hours, he says this:

For, among [the Egyptians as opposed to the monasteries of Palestine and Mesopotamia] the offices that we are obliged to render to the Lord at different hours and at intervals of time [i.e., the day offices of Terce, Sext, and None] to the call of the summoner, are celebrated continuously and spontaneously throughout the course of the whole day, in tandem with their work. For they are constantly doing manual labor alone in their cells in such a way that they almost never omit meditating on the psalms and on other parts of Scripture, and to this they add entreaties and prayers at every moment, taking up the whole day in offices that we celebrate at fixed times. Hence, apart from the evening and

Morning Prayer for 6/13/2024

gatherings, they celebrate no public service during the day except on Saturday and Sunday, when they gather at the third hour for Holy Communion. For what is offered [freely] is greater than what is rendered at particular moments, and a voluntary service is more pleasing than functions that are carried out by canonical obligation. This is why David himself rejoices somewhat boastfully when he says: ‘Willingly shall I sacrifice to you.’ And: ‘May the free offerings of my mouth be pleasing to you, Lord.’

 So, John Cassian is, in essence, admitting that the Egyptians have a more perfect practice: the two Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer give the stern Egyptian monks all they need in order to pray without ceasing for the rest of the day. But then he goes right ahead and tells his monks to do the three day hours in Palestinian fashion! The Egyptian way may be better, but the Palestinian is easier—and is likely better training for those still needing to learn their psalms.

In essence, we can say that these two groups show us two different ways of using the Daily Office to learn how to pray without ceasing. The “Egyptian” model is to only have two long Offices with psalms and readings at both. The “Palestinian” model is to have shorter and more frequent Offices with psalmody, leaving the reading of Scripture for the long Office at night. The Palestinian model wins decisively in the West; Benedict expresses in his Rule what has become normative in the West: eight liturgical services of prayer with an additional monastic business meeting—Chapter—that itself acquires liturgical material. Indeed, this pattern of frequency in corporate recitation of the Offices gets taken to its extreme in the monasteries of Cluny to the point that up to a full eight hours of the day were spent singing liturgies!

With the creation of the Book of Common Prayer at the Reformation, Archbishop Cranmer put the Anglican churches onto the other path. Whereas for centuries the Western Church had followed the Palestinian model, Cranmer turned us back to the Egyptian model. Up until our present book, our Offices had consisted of just what the Egyptian Office had: psalms, a reading from the Old Testament, a reading from the New Testament and prayers, all done twice a day. (The 1979 book gives a “Palestinian” nod with the introduction of Noon Prayer and Compline.)

If prayer without ceasing is our goal (and why shouldn’t it be?) we must recall that the Egyptian model is the harder path. In order to fulfill the call, we would be wise to take their advice. Pray the long Offices as they’re appointed, but then—throughout the day—make our private prayers “brief but frequent.” Take a verse that strikes you in the morning. Ponder it through the day; make it your prayer. Repeat it to yourself as you sit in silence. Whisper it to yourself as you work. Roll it in your mind while you eat. Make it part of your prayer without ceasing.

This, then, is the essence of the Office—to make our spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. By speaking in “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” our hearts are lifted and our minds expanded to see a world imbued with God. As we take the words of the psalms and the Scriptures into ourselves, we provide ourselves with the basic resources to “pray without ceasing.” The practice of the Office—whether together or alone—builds up in us the pattern of praise and points us in the way of the habitual recollection of God.

3 thoughts on “The Essence of the Office

  1. Barbara (bls)

    Moreover, poetry both enchants and informs, addressing its rhythmic and symbolic speech to regions of the mind which are inaccessible to argument, and evoking movements of awe and love which no exhortation can obtain. It has meaning at many levels, and welds together all those who use it; overriding their personal moods and subduing them with a grave loveliness. (Worship, p. 120)


    So wonderful to see Evelyn Underhill make an appearance here; this is a great quote. Very interesting to see a concise enumeration of the various ways human beings perceive, learn, and understand – and how the “poetic” in particular can speak to people in ways the others can’t. “Worship” was one of the first books I ever read about Christianity, and I still think about it and remember parts of it. Fascinating, too, about the Egyptian and Palestinian schools of the office! That’s completely new to me.

    Fantastic article!

  2. Derek Olsen

    Yeah, I’m on an Underhill kick… I didn’t think there was any way I could write this book properly without sitting at her feet for a while so I’m re-reading Worship and The Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day. This section was just too good not to use.

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