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The Spiritual Discipline of Liturgical Prayer

In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul gives us a bracing challenge: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Pray without ceasing! How is that even possible? 

There are many ways to approach the idea of constant prayer, but one way that Anglicans all over the world have used fruitfully is to pray what is known as the "Daily Office" for Morning and/or Evening Prayer.

The Daily Office is a liturgical style of prayer, meaning that there is a set structure for the prayer service.The Daily Office is structured around Scripture readings, in a framework of traditional written prayers (most of which draw specifically on Bible verses for their language), with “space” built in for extemporaneous, personal prayer. The Anglican / Episcopalian liturgy for Morning Prayer or for Evening Prayer has a number of different options, so by making choices about what to include and what to skip, each individual can personalize the Daily Office to fit different preferences and amounts of time, from 15 minutes to... however long you want to pray!

Some Christians hesitate to pray using a liturgy, because they fear that it is the "mindless repetition" that Jesus warned us about, or that using the same structure repeatedly will cause them to be less thoughtful in prayer. Certainly we should always be mindful of falling into patterns of prayer that are just going through the motions, but that can happen with extemporaneous or "from the heart" prayer just as easily (if not more so! for it's all too easy for me at least to fall into the same round of petitions time and again.) Remember that Our Lord himself gave us a liturgy: when the disciples said "Teach us to pray!" he gave them, not generalized instructions, but a specific prayer: "Our Father..." 

Devoting a portion of our prayer time to structured, liturgical prayer can be a beautiful discipline that helps us to lift up our hearts to God in a deeper, richer way.

The benefits of praying the Daily Office are fourfold.

First, it helps deepen and expand one’s prayer. It is easy to fall into just doing one type of prayer, usually petitionary or intercessory. The Daily Office liturgies lead us through all five main types of prayer: adoration, contrition, intercession, petition, and thanksgiving.

Second, it helps us internalize God’s Word. Many of the recurring prayers and canticles come directly from the Bible. By praying these every single day, the words of Scripture become engraved on our hearts and minds.

Third, it immerses us in the Word. If you read both Morning and Evening Prayer, every day you will read two or more Psalms plus a reading from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, and one from the Gospel. What’s more, the Scripture selections go in order, so if you read the Daily Office every day, you will find yourself reading through entire books of the Bible in a disciplined way. Thus, we hear all of God’s word, not just our favorite passages.

Finally, praying the Daily Office is a discipline. Committing to praying the Morning or Evening Office means praying regardless of whether you really “feel like it” or not. It is a discipline because our choice to be obedient to Jesus, who tells us to pray, takes precedence over our transitory emotions. It teaches us to turn to God in prayer every day, not just the days when we feel pious or when we feel needy, and challenges us to confront our misplaced priorities. It is far too easy to make time with God something other than #1 on my priority list. If I am “too busy” or “too tired” to pray on a daily basis, that means I am putting something else higher than time with Him.

That said, praying the Daily Office is not about “getting it right” or racking up X number of prayer times per week, but rather about making a commitment to spend time in prayer with God on a daily basis. Committing to the discipline of Morning or Evening Prayer is not valuable in itself... its value is entirely and completely that it points us toward a deeper connection with Our Lord.

I began doing Evening Prayer during Lent in 2008, on the recommendation of my spiritual director. I found that it so enriched my prayer life that I made it an ongoing practice. In the summer of 2009, with the encouragement of one of our senior pastors, I added Morning Prayer, and once again found that this discipline helped deepen my relationship with Christ. What was initially a challenging commitment very quickly became a cherished part of my daily walk with Christ. I can feel a real difference in every aspect of my life when I start and finish the day with prayer. For one thing, I find myself more readily turning to God in prayer at various times during the day, not just during my scheduled prayer time!

Last year I went through a period of some months... probably half a year, really... in which I felt stuck in spiritual dryness. I did NOT feel like praying, and when I tried to pray "from the heart" I found I had nothing to say. During that time, the discipline of praying the Daily Office helped me immensely. The basic habit of getting down on my knees to pray once or twice a day, and of reading a Psalm and a Scripture passage once or twice a day, was so ingrained that I kept doing it. I had no expectations about feeling the presence of God or having a "rewarding" prayer experience; I just prayed. And as I look back on those months, from the perspective of having emerged from that time of dryness into a new and more fruitful spring, I firmly believe that God was doing His work in my heart and mind in those very moments of prayer in which, not wanting to pray, I did anyway, and in which I let the words of the written prayers speak for me.

By now, I hope you are at least a little bit intrigued by this spiritual discipline!

But wait... HOW do you pray the Daily Office?!?  It’s easy. Let me walk you through it!  

In order to read the Daily Office, you will need two things:

1. Your Bible.

2. The Book of Common Prayer.

The Book of Common Prayer is an Anglican prayer book that is readily available in any Christian bookstore or through Amazon. Created in 1500s England, it incorporates prayer from the very earliest Fathers of the Church, and prayers based on Holy Scripture, as well as prayers written by 16th century and later pastors. You can also find the contents of the BCP online here (in printable form) and also here at BCPonline.org.

The BCP contains the liturgy, the basic “structure” of the Office. The prayers are the same for every day. Note: feel free to shorten the Office by leaving out some parts of it. Keep it simple, and you’re more likely to do it!

Interleaved into the structure of the Daily Office are the Readings:  one or more Psalms and one or more Scripture lessons. These readings will change for each day. You can find the readings for each day listed in the back of the BCP, under the title of Daily Office Lectionary. (Or click the appropriate link at the BCPonline.org version.) The Lectionary contains an entry for each day that tells you what the reading is for that day.

The Readings are arranged by the liturgical calendar. Sunday is the start of each week. For instance, as I write this, we are in the week of Last Epiphany (that is, the last week before Lent). We are in Year One right now (we alternate between Year One and Year Two, with the Christian year starting in Advent).

I recommend starting with the online version, to get the feel for it!

Although the Daily Office seems complicated at first, it gets easier very quickly. It is well worth the time it takes to get into the habit... and Lent is a wonderful opportunity to step forward into a deeper, more faithful prayer life. During this concentrated 40-day period, the mindful practice of spiritual disciplines like Morning or Evening Prayer can help us to grow in love and obedience to our Lord. Over our lifetimes, even a very small step taken during Lent can add up to significant spiritual growth and a deeper maturity in the faith.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

 

Comments

I pray that I can get past the inability to pray daily... I simply forget to pray. But when I do pray, I apologize profusely for me error. Pray for me :)

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About
Dr. Holly Ordway is a professor of composition and literature. She speaks and writes regularly on literature, especially fantasy literature and poetry, and literary apologetics.


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