For the last several months my wife and I have made regular (or at least semi-regular use) of the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer. Most often we do so individually, but sometimes we pray the Office together. On occasion, we use the family version with our kids at bedtime. We are using the 2019 BCP published by the Anglican Church in North America. While we each have the actual book version, you can find the online version of the Daily Office from this edition of the BCP here. It is also available as an app for your smartphone.
I’m a bit of a Christian hybrid. I was raised Roman Catholic but for the last roughly 25 years I have been active as a Baptist. For a good portion of that time, I have been pastoring in Baptist churches in Atlantic Canada. So I am thankful for both formal and informal forms of worship. I love the gift of being able and free to pray spontaneously from the heart to my heavenly Father. I also love being able to make use of written prayers drawn from church history. I don’t see any reason why the two need to be mutually exclusive. More recently, I have grown to have a deeper appreciation for the richness of historical liturgy, and perhaps especially the prayers of the Daily Office. To that end, I want to share three reasons the Daily Office has been a help and blessing to me.
First, praying the Daily Office slows me down.
I don’t know about you, but left to my own devices first thing in the morning my heart and mind will easily start rushing about. If I’m not careful, I can let the concerns and responsibilities of the day crowd out the quiet I need to hear from God. As a husband and father, mornings during the school year can be particularly hectic. I need something to anchor me in God’s presence.
Sitting down in our living room rocking chair with my Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, and taking the time to pray the Daily Office and attend to God’s word, forces me to take a breath and slow down. Of course, I have to be intentional about it. I have to let let my eyes and my heart pour slowly over the prayers and Scripture readings. I have to be patient. I have to be willing to take the time. You can’t pray through the Daily Office in 5 minutes. Even if there are portions that you skip, most times you’re looking at having to spend a good 15–20 minutes praying and reading Scripture. Some mornings I have spent closer to an hour.
When I deliberately pay attention to the words in front of me, it helps me to refocus and regain perspective. It makes it possible for me to orient my life within God’s story of creation and redemption. It provides context to all the little bits of my life. Otherwise, I can too easily find myself falling prey to false narratives that can wreak havoc with my sense of identity and purpose.
Life seems to conspire somehow to keep us distracted, hurried, and anxious. Too often we turn to Facebook, TV news, or our smartphones as soon as we get up in the morning. We all need to slow down and, I believe, intentionally enter God’s presence. Praying the Daily Office makes that possible for me.
Second, praying the Daily Office gives me words when I have none.
Believe it or not, even as a pastor I can sometimes be at a loss for words. Including when I sit down to pray. The Daily Office includes prayers of confession, canticles of praise, the gloria Patri, the Lord’s Prayer, a general thanksgiving, and collect prayers for each day of the week (and for a variety of occasions). When my heart and mind are too tired to muster up my own words, the Daily Office provides me with a wonderful vocabulary of prayer.
More than that, the Daily Office gives me words of prayer that wouldn’t always occur to me. Through it I am being taught to pray, I think, more biblically. Whereas on my own I can quickly leap to praying for my own needs and concerns, the prayers of the Daily Office teach me to pay attention to certain spiritual realities and biblical truths that may otherwise escape my attention.
For example, here is one of the prayers of confession:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and apart from your grace, there is no health in us.
O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare all those who confess their faults. Restore all those who are penitent, according to your promises declared to all people in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may now live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of your holy Name. Amen.BCP 2019
And this is how the Daily Office begins, with a straightforward reminder of our need for forgiveness, grace, and the good news of Jesus crucified and risen. I cannot recall ever hearing a prayer remotely like this on a Sunday morning outside of a more formal church liturgy. And while I’m not saying that all churches need to incorporate such written prayers into their worship, I wonder if not having prayers like this (spontaneous or written) has left us more spiritually shallow. It makes me wonder, too, what we are communicating to our congregations about prayer without realizing it.
Then there is the General Thanksgiving prayer:
Almighty and most merciful Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.BCP 2019
Let me simply say, I love how this prayer asks the Lord to give us an awareness of his mercies. It doesn’t presume we are already aware and thankful. Instead, it acknowledges we can very easily take the Lord and his blessings to us for granted.
Even if we just read a prayer like this and take a few minutes to reflect quietly on what it teaches us, we will discover spiritual truths that we may otherwise tend to neglect. Such prayer language can reveal our hearts to ourselves and orient us before God.
One specific type of prayer that blesses me is called a collect. There are a wide variety of these collect prayers in the BCP and they essentially are short, summing up prayers, often thematic, and bracketed by language of praise. Here is one example:
Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your grace that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.BCP 2019
One of the most valuable aspects to the BCP and the Daily Office is that it takes you through the book of Psalms regularly. In fact, the whole book of Psalms (in the Coverdale translation) is in the Book of Common Prayer. It is divided into sections for morning and evening prayer, usually consisting of 3–4 psalms at each sitting. If the psalms are longer, then perhaps the morning office will only consist of 1 or 2. I don’t follow this strictly. Because I am more consistent in praying the morning office, I will often read more psalms in one sitting.
In any case, given that the Psalms are the Bible’s prayer book and hymnal, going through the psalter gives us language for our prayers that we might not have without it. Sometimes the language of the Psalms take me off guard. Sometimes the words in a particular psalm makes me uncomfortable. Psalmists, for instance, speak a great deal to God about what they would like him to do to their enemies. But this is important too. It expands our understanding of what we can say to God in prayer and what feelings we can freely express.
Third, praying the Daily Office reminds me I am not alone.
I am often reminded that in the Lord’s Prayer roughly half of the pronouns are plural. Our Father, give us our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses, etc. Our Lord Jesus taught us to pray in such a way as to remind us that we do not pray alone. And, as is clear from the examples above, the same is true of the prayers in the Daily Office. So even if I am praying the Daily Office individually, I am reminded that I am a part of a spiritual family that spans the globe and the centuries of church history. When so much of evangelical spirituality and piety seems privatized and individualized, praying the Daily Office offers a healthy corrective.
Praying the Daily Office also helps me understand that I do not have to construct my prayer life from the bottom up without any help. I needn’t be left to my own devices. The wisdom of believing generations before me is a rich spiritual resource that I neglect to my own detriment. Why deprive myself of that and be left thinking it’s all up to me?
I have one more closing thought to sum up. Praying the Daily Office can be a springboard for our more personal prayers.
Theologian Karl Barth, in his little book Prayer, says this about praying the Lord’s Prayer: “Be content with possessing in the Lord’s Prayer a model, but let your prayer arise from the freedom of the heart.” What’s true of the Lord’s Prayer is also true of the Book of Common Prayer and the Daily Office. It is not something that we should be legalistic about.There are days when I do not use it. Nor does it need to be a replacement for more personal, spontaneous prayers. I have found that in my most blessed experiences in praying the Daily Office, the written prayers lead me into moments of spontaneous prayer.
Of course, praying with the above in mind does not require using the Daily Office. But if you sometimes find that prayer is a struggle or if you find yourself feeling guilty when you lack what you think should be the right words, might I suggest giving the Daily Office a try? It may bless and encourage you more than you think.