In Constant Prayer
(The Ancient Practices Series)
By Robert Benson
Foreword by Phyllis Tickle
Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008
Review by Carl McColman
Thomas Nelson’s “Ancient Practices Series” brings together some of the most vibrant and interesting of contemporary Christian authors (like Brian McLaren and Scot McKnight) to explore some of the venerable ways in which early Christians expressed their faith — not as some sort of museum piece, but to commend these ancient practices to the lovers of Jesus in our day. Some of current and forthcoming titles in the series unpack themes that will be familiar to pretty much any Christian, like fasting and the sabbath. But this book, by the Episcopalian contemplative Robert Benson, looks at a topic that I suspect is virtually unknown in many corners of today’s church: the Divine Office (also known as the daily office, or the Liturgy of the Hours).
For my readers who don’t know about the daily office, it is a compendium of psalms, canticles, readings and prayers, arranged for daily use, following ancient customs that have been particularly associated with monasticism (although in some churches, clergy and even laypersons are encouraged to pray the office as well as monks and nuns). What puts the “office” in the daily office is its status as the official liturgy of the church (or community) that prays it. Thus, there is a Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, an Episcopal Daily Office, as well as Orthodox and various monastic versions of the liturgy.
To pray the entire liturgy is a bit of a commitment, as it consists of four to seven “offices” or specific liturgies for different times of the day. To do the whole enchilada would probably take an hour each day, or longer, given time for silent meditation and personal prayer woven into the set prayers of the day. Of course, this hour to ninety minutes isn’t all prayed at once, so a person could arrange his or her life to pray the office over the course of the day, with any one office only requiring 10 – 20 minutes of time.
Sound overwhelming? In our frantic, frenetic, non-stop culture, this kind of a time commitment seems not only daunting, but positively absurd. Maybe it’s okay for monks (or retirees), but hardly practical for the rest of us. Right?
Well, not so fast, says Robert Benson. With a gentle and wry sense of humor and a truly down-to-earth writing style, Benson explains just what the office is, why it matters, and why it ought to be a central part of every Christian’s spiritual practice. He acknowledges that most of us feel starved for time, and so for many folks, maybe only one set of prayers a day would be sufficient (the two “main” offices are morning prayer and evening prayer). The author also looks at how even the most dedicated person of prayer will miss days (or many days), and his self-deprecating wit comes across as hopeful and reassuring for those of us who know that we can only pray these prayers most imperfectly.
It’s a little book, long on stories and short on theory, which is a good thing; Benson only gives enough information to explain his point and then leaves it at that. He knows that in our Wikipedia-driven world, all the information we want is only a mouseclick away. So the book really is 1 part explanation and 4 parts exhortation, encouraging and at times mildly guilt-tripping the reader to do more than just learn about the daily office, but to actually make the commitment to begin praying it.
It’s a lovely book, and even though for me to read it is a bit of preaching to the choir, I certainly learned a thing or two and picked up an insight or three as well. His comments on the wisdom of praying written prayers is alone worth the cost of the book. As a good Catholic boy, I’m naturally disposed to praying from a script; if I could find encouragement here, I’m sure that evangelical readers will gain a wonderful new perspective if they read this with an open mind and open heart.
I only have one complaint about this book. Benson is writing for a Protestant readership, which has resulted in the book carrying a set of assumptions about its readers that I found just a tad disappointing. I wish he could have been just a smidgen more mindful of the book’s potential appeal to those of us who play for the pope’s team. Catholic laypersons for generations have pretty much been limited to the Rosary or to little anthologies of prayers for our daily devotions; it is a tremendous blessing that in our time the laity is discovering the Liturgy of the Hours for themselves. But what this means is that for many Catholics, the daily office is just as “new” and unfamiliar as it is for Protestants. Catholics may not have to be sold on the value of the liturgy, but do need to be encouraged to bring that value to life in their own homes. For that reason, I wish this book had been just a bit more ecumenical in its focus. Early in the book Benson complains about being left out at a Catholic mass because Protestants are not in full communion with Rome; but when he talks about the Reformation or describes the liturgy almost entirely in terms of the Episcopal office, ironically more than once I felt just a little bit “left out” as a Catholic reading this book.
But this is a minor nitpick, to be sure; In Constant Prayer is never sectarian or anti-Catholic in its tone, so I’d recommend the books to Catholics. But it’s especially recommended for Protestants — really, it’s for all Christians who want a bit of inspiration and encouragement in the quest for making meaningful daily prayer a daily reality in their lives.