A Reason Why Liturgy Matters: “Like Staring Out Into Eternity”

A Reason Why Liturgy Matters: “Like Staring Out Into Eternity” September 4, 2019

So often, it seems to me, that people who are drawn to the Christian tradition of mysticism and contemplation are eager to learn practices like Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer — but they are far less enthusiastic about some of the less “glamorous” Christian practices, like participating in the Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office or the Daily Office).

I confess that this has been true for me. If you invite me to deepen my breath, relax, and practice a discipline of letting go of my thoughts so I could be still and know God, my response would be, “When do I start?” But when it came to gathering with other people to pray out of a breviary (or, even worse, picking up the breviary by myself and praying in solitude), I simply failed to see the point behind it. It was so formulaic, so repetitive, so… rote! How could this be spiritually formative?

Getting to know contemplative practitioners from other faiths, however, has forced me to reevaluate my bias against the liturgy. First (as I recount in Unteachable Lessons), I became friends with a Sufi, a Muslim who prayed five times a day, no matter what — typically reciting the same passages from The Qur’an, day in and day out. Later, I spent some time meditating daily with a group of Buddhists, who began their morning meditation with the same few chants — day in and day out. They had other chants for the evening, again, the same words each and every day. I began to think that I was spoiled: at least the Christian Liturgy changed from day to day, based on the readings and whether it was Lent or Easter or some other time of the year.

So why do it? Why pray out of a book, prayers that consist of Psalms and canticles and other Bible verses — and even if they aren’t the same day in and day out, they do follow a rhythm, and over time you keep praying the same words over and over. Why do it?

I’ve written about this before — see Seven Reasons to Pray the Divine Office: the Divine Office provides us with a language for prayer, it teaches us who God is (and who we are in response to God), it helps to form our identity as people of prayer, and so forth. Today, however, I’d like to share another reason for praying the Liturgy of the Hours, that comes to me from an Anglican Benedictine monk, Holy Cross Father Aidan Owen, OHC. Brother Aidan is the Guestmaster of Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY, and recently he sent out an email newsletter to friends of the monastery; in that newsletter he offered the following reflection, which he has given me permission to quote here on the blog.

I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on the place of the Monastery in today’s chaotic and violent world. I have friends — many of them among our guests — who are, so to speak, on the front lines, bringing God’s message of hope, love, and justice to those at the literal and figurative borders of our world. We monks are not, largely, those people. And yet, I firmly believe that the witness of prayer we offer is essential to the greater flourishing of God’s Word and God’s Love in this hurting world.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Br. Ron before I entered the Monastery. I asked him what it was like to pray the Office day in and day out for over forty years, worrying, I suppose, that it must get a bit boring. He surprised and delighted me by saying that it was like staring out into eternity. There is so much space and no hurry at all.

It strikes me that that window into eternity is what the Monastery offers as gun violence, white supremacy, environmental degradation, and consumerism wreak havoc on God’s people. Each time we pray the Office or celebrate the Eucharist or sit in silent prayer, we return to eternity, where God always lives, and we allow God to remind us that God’s peace and justice and love are already right here and right now, even as they are not fully visible or manifest.

When I first read that, I had a “wow” moment.

Praying daily prayers, even the same daily prayers you’ve been praying for forty years, is like a window into eternity. Not that eternity is some faraway place: on the contrary, it is closer to us than we are to ourselves. The beauty of daily prayers — even daily prayers recited from a book — is that they remind us that eternity is here, now; and they help us to see what is right in front of our noses — and in our hearts — but that we all too often fail to notice.

As you explore the path of Christian mysticism and contemplation, make the effort to balance your daily practice of silence with prayers that you sing or say. Prayers that come out of the tradition, like the Psalms or other Biblical passages — which of course are prayers that the great mystics and contemplatives throughout history have prayed; especially the Psalms, which Jesus himself prayed.

Will you ever get bored with the Daily Office? Of course: don’t we all get bored with the quotidian tasks of our lives? But as much as we can remember that our common prayers give us “space and no hurry at all” to gaze into the silence of eternity, hovering in and between the words we offer to God — then even the most mundane words we pray will shimmer with the light of grace.

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