Thursday, December 3, 2009

Prayer Part II: Spontaneous or written? How about both?

Yesterday I wrote about my daily prayers with the Bible, and the texts assigned for each day in the Episcopal Daily Office. Today is a continuation of that conversation, and again, this is personal, and what I mention may not work for you.

Today I am writing about the weekday “offices” and how these ground my prayer so that it is not merely embedded in my imagination. It may help if you have handy a Book of Common Prayer while reading this; you can access the on-line version of the prayer book by clicking HERE or by scrolling down aways on the left side of your screen and clicking on the red prayer book photo.

It may help to know something of Jewish prayer tradition from whence ours comes (after all, Jesus was Jewish). Judaism honors the concept that prayer can be both spontaneous and fixed words on the page.

Both ways of prayer have value, and can give balance to each other. Spontaneous prayers are immediate and represent the longings of our hearts and minds. But such prayers can become shallow and too self-focused. Fixed written prayers represent the wisdom of the ages, often are elegantly written, and are words said by millions of other people, giving us a connection to all those who have prayed the same words. But written prayers can become dry and rote.

Each way of prayer can bring life to other. The Spirit, I am convinced, enters both.

My spontaneous prayers tend to be those in the mediation I described yesterday. When I have finished my silent mediation, I then return to the prayer book and read the fixed written prayers of Morning Prayer, from page 96 onward. The prayers, or “collects,” on the page somehow seem more vivid to me after my meditation. Sometimes a phrase or word will jump off the page in a way that it had not on another day.

Here is a morning collect that often does just that for me (page 100):
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I usually alternate between the two versions of the Lord's Prayer (page 97), and then read the collects on the next pages. The General Thanksgiving (page 101) is a good way to wrap together all of these prayers. Sometimes I wait to do that prayer until later, making it my Evening Prayer. I also highly recommend the simple but elegant Compline prayers, beginning on page 127, as a way to end the day.

There are other prayer books and devotional works that I sometimes use, just to change up my routine. There are poems I've meditated upon as well. Many years ago I meditated every morning on Gary Snyder's poem, Endless Streams and Mountains and I return to that from time to time (I wrote about that here in October; you can see that by clicking HERE).

I think it important to underline that the Christian tradition of “offices” or “hours” has it roots in Judaism. Beginning in about 100 AD, the rabbis developed a structure of prayers in increments throughout the day. The rabbis spoke of such prayer as a “service of the heart”
(avoda shebalev). You can read more about the Jewish history of prayer by clicking HERE.

Christians developed their own practices of regular hourly fixed prayer, with echoes from their Jewish forebearers.

One of my seminary professors once said that all that is really needed for Morning Prayer is a candle and a psalm from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). I think that is true.

Most of our church history is Medieval history. We cannot escape it – it is a single era that lasted more than 1,000 years in the collective memory of Christians. While much of that history is ugly – the Crusades against Muslims and Jews in particular – there was considerable development of Christian spirituality and mysticism in those centuries. The incubators for Christian spirituality were the monasteries and convents of Europe.

The Rule of St. Benedict is the model upon which all monastic orders and structured, and Benedict had a cycle of work and prayer. The monks and nuns prayed the “offices” or “hours” each day, in three hour increments. The chants typically were of the psalms.

We still live in the echo of their prayers. Spiritual giants from the Middle Ages, including Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Hildegard of Bingen to name only a few, have left us a rich legacy of their prayers, songs and practices.

In the English tradition, from whence the Episcopal Church comes, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer authored and edited the first two versions of the Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552). Cranmer retained the monastic offices, hoping that ordinary Christians would adopt the monastic practice in their daily lives. But to make this practical, he simplified it into two offices, Evening Prayer and Morning Prayer. And he took it out of Latin and put it into English.

However, by the 19th century, Morning Prayer had become the primary worship on Sunday, with Communion occasionally celebrated once a month or maybe once a year. That was far from Cranmer’s intention, nor the practice of the Early Church. Cranmer wrote his prayer books with the idea of elevating the Eucharist as a weekly celebration for all the faithful (and not just for the clergy). Cranmer’s idea was that the prayers of the weekday offices would lead to the Sunday Eucharist and enfold the Eucharist in prayers throughout the week.

Next week we will take few more turns in the labyrinth and see where we go with some of the big-hard-questions.

No comments: