This morning, a reader of this blog posted these two simple questions:
The Divine Office: how important is it for lay Christians? How does it deepen our spirituality?
If I can answer the second question, that in itself will answer the first. The Office is important for ordinary Christians precisely because it does deepen our spirituality.
Just a few thoughts here. I believe the Daily Office deepens our spirituality because it immerses us in the language of prayer, it links us to the larger community and to the tradition, and it creates a habit of mindfulness of God. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The Daily Office immerses us in the language of prayer. Praying the Daily Office, or even part of it, means reading, reciting and praying some of the loveliest and most inspiring written prayers of the Christian faith. Actually, of the Jewish faith as well, since the heart of the Office is the Psalms. The lyrical, eloquent, elegant language of the canticles, Psalms, antiphons and other elements of the Office teach us the language of prayer — language that can then inform and deepen our prayers offered in our own words. By the same token, these beautifully written prayers alleviate us from the need to always be coming up with something new to offer to God; in other words, the Office liberates us from the tyranny of having to continually improvise our own words of prayer, by providing us with prayers that have been meaningful and formative for Christians throughout the centuries. Which leads to the second point:
The Daily Office links us the larger community and to the tradition. There are many different varieties of the Daily Office, not only between the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Churches, but also as developed by various monastic orders within the various churches. So praying the Office does not create a stultifying conformity. But it does immerse us into a rhythm of daily prayer that integrates Scripture, Psalms, hymns, canticles, and other prayers offered to God as a form of ongoing praise and worship — and in so doing, links us to other Christians, around the world, many of whom are praying the exact same prayers we are, while others are praying something similar. Many people cannot or will not pray, for a variety of social, political, psychological, and even health-related reasons. When we pray the Office, we pray for those people as well. But what I also love about the Office is not only that it allows me to join in the worldwide chorus of praise here and now, but it also links me to the generations of people who have prayed these words, over the centuries. Some prayers, like the Phos Hilaron or the Te Deum, go back to the earliest days of the Christian movement. Others, like the Magnificat or the Benedictus, or found in the Bible. And I think it is particularly important to keep in mind that when we pray the Psalms, we are praying the very same prayers that Jesus himself prayed. So the Office links us to the Mystical Body of Christ, both throughout the world and throughout the ages (yes, it links us with the generations of praying Christians to come, as well).
The Daily Office helps to foster in us “the practice of the presence of God.” A meditation teacher once told me that the point behind a daily practice of meditation is to cultivate a way of being that transforms us every minute of the day. We call meditation a “practice” because in it we practice being more mindful, more relaxed, more open to the Divine Presence in our lives. It is my experience that the Office provides a similar training in ongoing mindfulness. But since the Office is grounded in language, it more specifically anchors us in the mindfulness of God that comes through the words we use to speak of, and to, the Great Mystery. Indeed, praying the Office before or after an extended period of silence is a particularly lovely discipline, in my experience: we create the space to encounter God both in words and in silence, and we carry that with us throughout the day.
So this is why I believe the Divine Office matters, even for laypersons. I should mention that I am very flexible in my understanding of the Office: not everyone has the time, or the self-discipline, to pray the entire Office, every day, with the correct antiphons, propers for the Saints’ days or other memorials, etc. It’s tempting to get overwhelmed by how complex the Office is, and then just give up on it. But that’s like saying that since I don’t play like Jaco Pastorius, I have no business touching a bass. Balderdash! I can enjoy the bass even at my humble and minimal level of skill; likewise, the Office can make a profound difference in our lives even if we just manage to get a few Psalms and maybe the Benedictus and Magnificat recited each day. Or whatever. Pray as you can, not as you can’t — this applies to the Office as well as to any other form of prayer. Taking baby steps to learn (and pray) the Office is immeasurably rewarding — and even just praying one or two canticles or Psalms a day can truly deepen our spirituality.
Let me finish by commenting on something I wrote above: about how the Office “liberates us from the tyranny” of improvising prayer in our own words.Let me be clear here: I am not arguing against conversational, informal prayer! On the contrary: I believe that true intimacy with God requires a balanced diet of silence, formal prayer, and informal prayer. What bothers me about when critics of the Office say “it’s better to pray using your own words” is that they are ignoring the fact that on some days we have no words to offer to God; on other days we might be bored, or uninspired, or simply will resort to saying the same banal things over and over again (“Lord, we just want to thank you for all your blessings today…” etc.). If my extemporaneous prayer ends up sounding the same day after day, then I may as well use the Office, where at least I am praying using the elegant, eloquent words of our spiritual ancestors.
If we reject formal prayer, we are cutting off one important means of maintaining a sustainable daily discipline of prayer. Now, I know there is the opposite danger of just meaninglessly reciting the Office without bothering to put our heart into the words we are praying, and yes, I’ve been there before. But what I’ve found is that if my recited prayer is that meaningless, I’m not interested in conversational prayer anyway, because the problem is not with the formal prayers, it is with me. So, actually, a discipline of formal prayer functions as an excellent barometer by which I can measure just how open my heart is to God in the first place. Finally, for those who prefer conversational prayer, the Daily Office thankfully allows times for personal, heartfelt prayer in the midst of the formal prayers, so that we can actually rely on the discipline of the Office to make sure that, every day, we take the time to check in with God — in our own words. In other words, if we are praying the Office in its fullness, we are offering God both formal prayer and prayer in our own words — each and every day.