Contemplation and the Daily Office

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.

Pentecost and Ecstasy
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • mike

    ” A jewel without a setting is easily lost, but a setting without a jewel is, well, pointless. Or at best, empty.”

    Yes. There is a relationship between any practice and its setting. Setting defines the meaning of experience and experience is what without meaning? Experience can also effect an evolution in meaning.

    Perhaps kronos could be thought of as the developed and articulated traditions of a faith; kairos, the experience which gives rise to and constantly refreshes that tradition generation after generation?

    Perhaps these two aspects, nutured in tandem, gives rise to what can called a meaningful spiritual maturity.

  • mike


    Taking to heart your “not an attack” caution, and my first post, I would like to pursue this idea of form.

    The use of the word “devolve” seems to be rather limiting and prejudical when applied to CP, even considered as form. It is less likely that someone, beginning with the jewel, could come to see it as set in a ring of a Christian sensitivity? Is this devolving?

    Fear of form, other than an approved one, is a common blind spot in any faith which establishes traditions or orthodoxy. It is seen, sometimes correctly, to be restabilizing.

    Jesus had a similar problem with the traditional faith of his time and experience. He did not choose to stand on form. He chose to stand on substance.

    I think it is the heart of the jewel which informs and finally matters. The ring and its jewel are but its form.

  • Father Aidan

    Thanks Carl for a beautiful image of prayer. On a less prosaic note, I’ll mention here one aspect of the Daily Offices that I appreciate.

    Growing up in a non-liturgical/sacramental church, my prayer life was unintentionally restricted to praying from my own emotions, needs or desires, etc. But in praying the Daily Office, I learn to pray according to a divine mindset based on Holy Scripture. All of the prayers come from Scripture and Apostolic Tradition. The Offices usually contain readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament and the Gospels, contain numerous other direct and indirect scriptural quotes, etc.

    By the time I reach a place in the Office which allows for personal intercessions, I find that my emotional state is more centered and my prayers are then less filled with just my selfish give me this or that kind of prayers. lol.

    I once heard a priest say that the Liturgical structure of the church was like a river bed that gives structure, stability and a conduit for the water of the spirit to flow through. This liturgical structure is neither dead nor alive; it depends on those praying it. But so often when there has been a spiritual movement in times, places, or people who were lacking this liturgical/sacramental structure, or river bed, what was left when the flow of the spirit lifted was dry desert, stagnant pools, and tumbleweeds. Why? Because the energies of our bodies, emotions and thoughts are always in a state of flux, ever changing. But the liturgical and sacramental structure aids disciplines the body, emotions and the mind. Liturgy is the church what basic training and military decorum are to the military.

    This same priest once mentioned being in jail for anti-abortion protesting. He said there many other Christians there with him- pentecostal, charismatic, mainline and catholic. He said it was ironic that they all began their confinement praising the Lord for being able to “suffer” (temporarily) for such a cause and for Christ. But the judge was not going to let people out unless they signed some kind of statement acknowledging they were wrong, etc.

    But as the weekend began to pass, and Monday was coming soon and people needed to return to work, he saw many people begin to crumple from their original convictions. But he said it started with the pentecostals and charismatics. Now at this time he was a pentecostal himself, so he was surprised to see his own people begin to break down. Then it was some of the mainline folks that left.

    What was left was mostly Roman Catholics with only a smattering few pentecostal and evangelicals, left. The few who remained with him, he could hardly get to pray, they were so discouraged. But he was amazed that the catholic priest had only to say, “The Lord be with you!” and his fellow catholic responded with, “And also with you!” and they were ready to pray!

    It didn’t share this story to put down other traditions but to share his realization of the power of liturgy. He said the only discernible difference was that most of those who remained were trained by the liturgy, where the others were not; and only had there emotional stability to support their resolve.

    Of course, this is only one example and doesn’t mean it works in very situation. There are many believers from different denominations and or religious traditions that have stood up for what they believe. But it is nevertheless a testimony to the power and discipline that our faculties of body, emotions, and mind can acquire as we pray the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass, and allow Holy Scripture to guide, teach and mold our ever fluctuating physical, emotional and mental states!

  • Simon Whitney

    I think that anyone who has a “deep devotion” is absolutely on the right track. I think that there is a tendency (and Carl has mentioned this before) to try and divide up the action of prayer as a whole. I don’t believe it is a matter of “Divine Office” versus “more contemplative prayer”. In my experience it all rolls into one.

    Teresa of Avila relates how she was once concerned for one of her daughters who she felt was not achieving the heights of contemplation. She observed this nun for a while and saw that as soon as the words “Our Father..” were said that the nun went into contemplation immediately. Teresa did not say anything after that! Also, Therese of Lisieux said that “I put down the learned books that do my head in and pick up the gospels where one word can open up infinite horizons for my soul” (I am paraphrasing here – she did not say “do my head in” but it was a phrase that had the same meaning)

    Of course, contemplation can come through simple mental prayer and Teresa always advocated that as well in order to move people away from getting stuck in rote prayers but contemplation comes any time and anywhere. I think that prayer is more of a continuum within which we are at times at one end saying our prayers and at the other end “caught up to the third heaven”. We move up and down this continuum – largely through the action of the Lord. And we can move up and down this continuum whatever the practice is that we happen to be engaged in at the time. The key is, as the person said, “deep devotion”.

  • mike


    ” … contemplation comes any time and anywhere. I think that prayer is more of a continuum within which we are at times at one end saying our prayers and at the other end “caught up to the third heaven”. We move up and down this continuum – largely through the action of the Lord. And we can move up and down this continuum whatever the practice is that we happen to be engaged in at the time. The key is, as the person said, “deep devotion”.”

    Well said.

    I also like the model of Holy Spirit, if I understand Father Aidan’s example, as a river moving in the bedrock of liturgy.

    To paraphrase Kathleen Norris, there is no “church of one” that can sustain itself beyond the limit of self. This well can run dry. Then what?

  • Simon Whitney

    In the context of our friend who has a deep devotion to the Divine Office – what are people’s thoughts as to the connection between “contemplation” and “worship”?

    Are they two synonyms for the same activity? Or can one say that the highest form of contemplation is the highest form of worship?

  • mike

    Hi again Simon,

    I think I would respond with, contemplation is a state of being and worship is the act of being. The connection is being.

    We are Blessed in this moment, this now, and we tend to spend most of “it” in a state of oblivion. As it is so often said, seize this moment with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might and forgive yourself when you fall just a tad bit short. Then renew the effort.

    I think doing this is to be constantly at prayer. Living praise of God.