Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part III

Ok, back from vacation, on with the project


If intentionality is about keeping ourselves focused on the big picture, then attentiveness is the related-but-different discipline of keeping our eye on the little picture. It’s the discipline of remaining in the present and being attentive to what we’re doing, the words we’re hearing, the words we’re saying, the rite which we’re experiencing. Remaining in the moment.

Most of us like to think we’re pretty good at this already. Alas, it only takes a brief experiment to show us how wrong we are… Go ahead—try to make the exercise of remaining in the present as simple as you can. Cut out all distractions and attempt to sit in silence for as little as five minutes; remain attentive and present by counting your breaths up to ten and starting over again. If you’re anything like me, it won’t take too long before your mind is flitting all over the place, you realize that you stopped counting a while back—or you discover that while you finished planning your grocery list you’ve counted up to 25! This phenomenon is aptly described by Zen teachers as “monkey mind.” You discover that however disciplined you thought your thoughts were, they dash around like a hyper little primate at the drop of a hat.

Here’s the thing—this isn’t a function of trying to sit in silence and count breaths: this is what it does all the time! The counting of breaths just helps us to notice it more clearly. Hence the need for attentiveness. And, as much as I’d like to be able to blame it on mobile devices, or the internet, or cable TV, Christian spiritual writers have been wrestling with it since at least the 4th century and likely earlier. So, how do we cage the little monkey for as long as we need to pray, to sing, to join in the worship of God?

This one requires a multi-pronged approach. The first and most basic is to recognize that the situation exists in the first place. When you’re in a service and the realization hits you that your mind has wandered, gently but firmly direct it back. Don’t beat yourself up about it—as your mind will only use that an excuse to go wandering off again about what a failure you are! As frequently as you find yourself wandering, just direct yourself back.

One of the few bodily gestures inserted into English canon law also provides an opportunity for attentiveness. In 1604, canon 18 enjoined that everyone present should make “due and lowly reverence” at the name of Jesus—that is, bow the head. At the parish where I learned this custom, it was explained as an honoring of the Incarnation. As a result, the head was bowed whenever the name “Jesus,” “Mary,” or the saint of the day were named as each reminded us of God’s incarnational presence in the world. I find that this sort of brief physical response helps me to pay better attention—to listen harder and can help me stay focused more clearly on the task at hand.

When praying alone from a book or saying the Daily Office by yourself, another tactic for retaining attentiveness is to engage as many senses as possible. Reading silently gives your mind ample opportunities for wandering. The act of reading aloud greatly improves the experience: you get the lips moving, and you hear the sound of your own words in additional to the passing of the mind over the letters. Adding in further physical gestures—like bowing or crossing yourself or kneeling—may help.

A 14th century devotional for English nuns recommends that attentiveness is much improved when you remember yourself to be in the presence of Jesus and picture him close by you. If you hold in mind the sense that you are speaking your words of praise directly to him, the feeling of being in conversation can help keep you more attentive.

The same devotional also makes a broad statement, noting that inattention in saying the Office is related to inattentive habits outside of the Office as well. I think I’d rather say it the other way: habits of discipline outside of worship help us be more disciplined with in it. As far as habits of discipline go, there’s none better than a daily bout of breath meditation as mentioned above. Simply sitting in silence for ten to twenty minutes, counting your breaths to ten, then starting over again, is a very useful tool for learning your mind more deeply, getting a handle on your inner life, and gradually soothing the hyper little primate that seems to live there.

I have heard some people express concerns over such a practice because it is “Buddhist” rather than being properly “Christian.” To my mind that’s as silly as a wrestler saying that he couldn’t do push-ups because they’re a “football” exercise. Just as push-ups are a universal fitness exercise found all over, breath meditation in various forms, under various names, and taught in various ways is a virtually universal tool for spiritual fitness. While it may be best known in modern America as a Zen practice, it’s been part of Christian spiritual practice at least since the time of the 4th century Desert Fathers and Mothers—if not before. (We’ll talk more about this when we discuss the Office and, in particular, our practices of praying the psalms.) Breath meditation is also an excellent foundational discipline if you choose to explore the tradition of contemplative prayer.

At the end of the day, attentiveness touches deep chords around the practices of an intentional, incarnational life. The principal of incarnation takes seriously the reality of God, the ongoing presence of Christ, the movement of the Holy Spirit bound up within our normal, daily, earthly life—the “full homely divinity” rightly celebrated in our Anglican tradition. If we’re not able to be fully present in the present of each moment, then these daily incarnations, these moments of God’s self-revelation, will slip past us, unnoticed as our minds flit from past to present to imaginary worlds of our own making.


While I’m tempted to file this discipline as a subset of “attentiveness,” it’s important enough to earn its own section. We’re more attentive in corporate worship when we can follow along, and—while we are a people of the book—that doesn’t always mean we have to be stuck in the book! One of the glories of worship conducted in the tradition of the prayer book is that so much of it repeats, both daily and weekly. As a result, over time, it will become ingrained in your memory whether you want it to or not.

When my elder daughter was quite small—maybe 4 or so—I was concerned about her lack of attention during church; she would frequently be coloring when I wanted her to be paying attention (but, since she was at least being quiet I didn’t make a fuss…). Then, one day, I noticed a strange sight: of her own volition she went into our parlor, lined up her stuffed animals in front of a small organ bench topped with a cross she’d swiped from somewhere, and began “doing church” complete with most of Eucharistic Prayer A! I learned two very important things from this—first, that attentiveness may come in a variety of forms (especially from the young); second, that memorization occurs naturally with the prayer book rite.

It’s easier to be attentive to words that are already a part of us. It’s easier to stay focused on prayers we already know when praying alone. It’s easier to stay focused on the words the priest is praying if we’re praying them silently along with her. Memorization can happen by osmosis—indeed, it’s easiest if it happens that way—but the passive acquisition of the liturgy is only enhanced when we set out to actively acquire it as well.
As in acting, make sure you know your own lines first… Memorize the congregational parts of the Eucharist. Make sure you know the fundamentals: the basic responses, the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Creed, the Confession, the Post-Communion prayers. Then, the central canticles of the Office: the Song of Zechariah, the Song of Mary, the Song of Simeon. Other pieces will suggest themselves to you from there.

We’ll talk about this later, but the collects of the prayer book represent a great distillation of our tradition. And when I say tradition, I mean that our prayer book includes collects from the time of the Fathers down to the present with many of the Sunday collects have their origins in the 6th or 7th centuries. Taking the time each week to commit the collect to memory will place you in living conversation with these spiritual and theological gems.

I’ve found that the more I memorize (or the more that memorization happens to me) the more I understand the inter-relation of our liturgical language. For instance, I remember the first time I realized that the words “…walking in holiness and righteousness…”in the General Thanksgiving at Morning and Evening Prayer come from the Song of Zechariah (“…holy and righteous in his sight…”). Then, a while later, reading an alternate history book set in post-Civil War America by a favorite (Jewish) sci-fi author, I was astounded to see a speech put in the mouth of a character that concluded with a rhetorical flourish including the words “holiness and righteousness” and an image of “the dawn from on high breaking upon us…to lead our feet in the ways of peace.” The Author’s Note confirmed that the speech had been adapted from an actual address of the period, and—without having to look it up—I recognized from the rhythms and the rhetoric a 19th century prayer book Episcopalian connecting with his audience through words familiar to them all.

Indeed, this is how the real fruits of memorization occur. Little bits of the liturgies will float up unannounced. Maybe it’ll be sparked by a couple of words put in combination by a colleague or a snatch of song—they’ll strike a chord with something buried in your memory. Often, my most fruitful theological thoughts and connections will occur in this way as my subconscious mulls over something I’ve memorized without being quite aware of it. It’s moments like these that move us closer to the habitual recollection of God, that end to which liturgical spirituality directs.


This one’s pretty obvious but it still needs to be said. We’re talking about habits, about formation, about the process of constructing an abiding Christian character through the discipline of regular worship leading towards the habitual recollection of God. It can’t happen without diligence. Acts don’t become habits if they’re not practiced on a regular, repeating basis. Will Durant’s summary of Aristotle’s ethics hits it right on the nose: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The same is true of spirituality. It’s not an act (or, alternatively, if we don’t want it to be an act…), it must be a habit.

A devotion like the Daily Office does its work in a period measured by decades, not moments or occasions. We can’t pray it occasionally and expect it to bear the fruit that it’s able to. Likewise, treating the corporate worship of the church as a once a month, drop-in-if-the-mood-strikes affair fails to train us in the paths of holiness in the ways that weekly attendance does.

This is not to try and set up a New Legalism. There was a letter that started floating around Europe and the Middle East at some point in the sixth century, originally composed in Latin and eventually translated into virtually every medieval local language of which we have record. It was allegedly written by Christ himself in heaven and dropped through the clouds into Jerusalem, and it is filled with dire warnings against anyone who didn’t go to church on Sundays and who did any sort of “secular” work. In countries where people did work, it threatened plagues, and famines, and widespread disasters. I’m happy to say that several councils and church leaders did denounce this crude attempt at social control—including St. Boniface, the 8th century English-born Apostle to the Germans who had stern words for those who circulated it—yet the mentality that it evoked and effects it wrought in law codes across Europe persist to the modern day. We don’t go to church on Sunday lest God blast us; rather it is both our duty and delight to worship together the God who formed us, who loves us, and who was willing to become incarnate and suffer bodily for our redemption and reconciliation.

At its most basic, the discipline of diligence is about priorities. To what degree are we willing to spend our most precious coin, that which we can neither earn nor hoard: our time? The way we choose our activities reveals our priorities above all else. Any relationship worth having must be nurtured with this precious commodity, and our relationship with God is no different.

As the father of two active children, I know how difficult it can be to carve out time. In our time-strapped pluralistic age, schedulers of sporting events and dance rehearsals think nothing of seizing the Sunday morning time slot. While creative use of the available options (like Saturday or Sunday evening services—right, clergy friends?) can help negotiate this treacherous turf, sometimes decisions have to be made. And on those mornings with no good alternatives when ballet wins (I’m looking at you, mandatory Nutcracker dress-rehearsal), do we have the persistence to substitute a family act of worship in lieu of the full-on corporate experience?

To tell the truth, I’m also sometimes envious of my priestly wife and clergy friends for whom praying the Daily Office is (or could be or should be) part of their paid work. As a layman, I can only imagine my boss’s response to a request for paid prayer time! Instead the Offices have to be fit into carefully carved out niches of time that occur between child care and house work and relationship maintenance and regular employment. I’ll freely admit that sometimes those carefully carved niches collapse; sometimes the time I think I have disappears. There are days when the set prayer just doesn’t happen. On those days, I try to at least glance over the psalms for the day, and if that doesn’t happen at least hit the memorized high-points of the Office, and if that doesn’t happen at least a quick prayer of apology. In the grand scheme of things, at least feeling guilty about missing the Office is itself an act of diligence!

On a more serious note, though, while holding up the importance of diligence, we also have to approach the spiritual life as a marathon, not a sprint. This is a life-long path we tread. There will be seasons of our lives where time is easier to find or harder to find. There will be periods where the blocks of time come more freely to our hands, and those when it will not. This, too, is part of the ebb and flow of incarnate life. Our goal should be to be as diligent as possible given the conditions within which we find ourselves.

8 thoughts on “Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part III

  1. Barbara (bls)

    Glad you pointed to “monkey mind” here! It’s always amazing to me perhaps the single most salient fact of our mental and emotional lives – the endless and circular internal cogitating and ‘self-talk’ – for the most part goes completely unnoticed and un-remarked upon!

    When you consider that an entire branch of meditation – Contemplative Prayer, which you allude to here – is completely focused on and dedicated to addressing this single problem, and when you further consider that the great majority of people have great difficulty doing it – well, you start to recognize what an astounding thing the whole thing is.

    It makes you greatly appreciate what the religions of the world have actually been up to, and how sophisticated they are. (Somebody told me recently that “A.A. is so primitive” – and I realized that this is a true thing. Indeed it is primitive precisely because it’s addressing “primitive” issues. Yet the practices it takes from religion actually point to something much more sophisticated than science has even begun to notice, let alone address.)

  2. Jon

    It would be good to see more of a nod to the other basic disciplines of contemplative prayer. Breath meditation is good, but it’s possible to go far in contemplative practice without ever using breath meditation, for example by sticking to the Jesus prayer, or John Main’s mantric meditation, or even some form of the rosary prayed gently and without rushing. Of course, even basic contemplative practices are to diverse to dig into in this chapter, but even adding as little as “among other contemplative practices” where you commend breath meditation would help hint at the breadth of possible approaches.

  3. John-Julian, OJN

    Attentiveness—I agree with Jon that breath practice is okay, but what it does is simply leaves one with only the total number of breaths counted—and not with any liberation from self. Having used when-needed-mantric means for over thirty years I can testify to its effectiveness—and I need also to say that in the whole meditation business, much latitude needs to be provided for variations and alternatives when it comes to methodology. I think one needs to be very careful when introducing the contemplative way not to turn a person off by proposing a “right way” which doesn’t work for that person. (I know: over fifty years ago my spiritual director pushed me into Ignatian stuff which was simply inappropriate for me and it put me off contemplation for over twenty years.) I used to offer our monastic novices some seven or eight “styles” of meditative/contemplative approaches and suggested they try until one fit—or until they found their own unique way.

    Memorization—I’ve always tried to point out that while the Divine Office was really designed pretty much for literates, but Mass was always seen as not requiring literacy—as being spiritually available even to those who couldn’t read. And from that I generally concluded that not only did one not need to read in order to assist at Mass, but one really out NOT to read. And the memorization is really very minimal.

    Diligence—I think I would tend be a bit tougher than you, Derek. Back in parish ministry days I used to preach quite clearly: “If you do not intend to be at Mass every Sunday for the rest of your life, don’t bother about trying to be ‘good’ or living a ‘Christian’ life or whatever because you will have voluntarily chopped off the primary source of grace God provided for you!” I have a hunch that if there is anything that makes Sunday Mass “impossible” then it is THAT “anything” that needs to change.

    Finally, it is such a breath of fresh air to come to Haligweorc after running through all the other networks and blogs and list-serves. I’m not sure if you realize what a pastoral gift you give us all, Derek, just by posting! Warmest thanks and best blessings!

  4. Derek Olsen

    Jon, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not writing on contemplative prayer. A nod is all I can give because I’m focusing on the spirituality of the BCP. There are some points of intersection, but with the scope and focus of this work, it’s simply not the time and place to get into it.

    Besides–I have several years of experience with contemplative prayer; enough to know that I’d need at least another decade to be able to speak about it with any degree of competence.

    Fr. John-Julian, I had a feeling you’d say that on the diligence part!

  5. Jon

    I understand and agree. That’s why I’d be content with just a hint that there are basic approaches other than breath meditation, which I’m guessing has been a significant part of your contemplative practice.

  6. Michelle Jackson, ObJN

    Thank you, Derek! I have been involved in adult spiritual formation for several years, at my church. I have repeatedly pointed catechumens, confirmands and other leader/mentors to your blog as one of the most thorough and basic to understanding how to develop and deepen as Christians. Please keep up the good work. I can hardly wait to read the next installment.

  7. Annie

    I’m a highly conservative sort of person but I have a painting that represents the monkey mind adjacent to my private prayer space–the space itself contains icons and incense but I keep the monkey mind painting, which was created for me by a former student, because it reminds me of the truth of what you’re saying.

  8. Susan Snook

    Great post, Derek. The part about memorization reminded me of a lovely story from the first church I served as a priest. We had a wonderful 95-year-old parishioner who never missed a weekday Eucharist or an 8:00 Rite I service. He had gone blind, but could participate fully because he had the service memorized. One day he told me about his private practice of prayer: every night, before going to sleep, he prayed the entire Rite I Eucharist, including Prayers of the People, Eucharistic Prayer I, Prayer of Humble Access, etc., in his head. It showed me the power of a lifetime of memorization of the rhythms of BCP prayer. I hope I can do the same at age 95!

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