A reader writes:
I am a deep devotee of praying the Daily Office through morning and night. How do you think praying the set Divine Office affects more Contemplative prayer, and vice versa?
Wonderful question. I believe that, from an orthodox Christian perspective, the Daily Office (Liturgy of the Hours) has a relationship to silent prayer similar to how a setting relates to a jewel. A talented jeweler, by properly setting a diamond, will only enhance the beauty and brilliance of the gemstone. Furthermore, a set diamond is safer than a loose diamond, and of course, a loose diamond cannot easily be worn or displayed.
Hopefully you can see how the analogy works. Contemplative prayer is brilliant and dazzling, like a lovely diamond. But to appreciate the fullness of its gifts, the diamond needs to be set. Likewise, contemplation is most fully and truly a blessing when it is part of an overall “balanced diet” of spiritual practice, including lectio divina, reception of the sacraments, engagement in a faith community — and, yes, liturgical prayer.
An interesting thread has been developing on this blog over the past few days about the merits and dangers of centering prayer. Normally I get frustrated pretty quickly with those who criticize CP, but this thread has been marked by respectful dialogue and open sharing of ideas, and has given me insight into the sometimes very legitimate concerns of CP’s critics. The basic concern seems to be that, by itself, centering prayer is simply a generic meditation practice, and so can easily devolve into a new age or non-Christian type of spirituality, particularly if the practitioner decides that he or she no longer needs the structure of traditional orthodox Christianity. In other words, take the jewel out of its setting — remove contemplative practice from the sacramental or liturgical life of the church — and you run the risk of the jewel getting lost, or at least of its brilliance being diminished.
Please, do not read this as an attack on non-Christian spirituality! Heaven knows that I have a strong commitment to respecting other faiths. But for those who identify themselves as Christians and seek to engage in contemplation as Christians, I think a contemplative practice must be embedded in the words and wisdom and traditions of the faith. Hence, the beauty and necessity of the Daily Office.
Incidentally, I do think this dynamic works in the other direction as well. A jewel without a setting is easily lost, but a setting without a jewel is, well, pointless. Or at best, empty. I think a rote recitation of the Daily Office, without the nourishing waters of contemplative prayer, will soon grow dessicated and lifeless. We need to keep the words of our faith supple by showering them with the refreshing waters of silence in which we rest in God’s presence.