Common Prayer for the Ages

Common Prayer for the Ages May 31, 2020

Today I will pray, still online, with my parish and the prayers will be familiar.

Our Orthodox Church will use language that helped create modern English drawn (with doctrinal modifications) from the Book of Common Prayer. Sometimes, say on Titanic Day, I need the right words to express feelings and an older version of the Book of Common Prayer (1820) has the right prayers for those lost at sea. I found this fine old prayer book in Wales for almost nothing, books of Common Prayer, even copies almost as old as the United States Constitution, are common. They are valuable as they show centuries of continuity.

Our liturgy of Saint Tikhon will be more like than not to my 1820 Prayer Book. I will be praying with the Reynolds family, gone to glory, as they prayed, before they came to America in the early 1630’s. I sometimes think I can hear them in the collects. Even the prayers of those who lost all connection to the Book of Common Prayer continued to echo the words, the patterns of the services, for centuries. Once a prayer becomes common, the language breathes  the prayer for a long while.

The common element to the prayers is just what I need most days. They are in extraordinary English for ordinary people. These words were prayed for centuries becoming the public’s verbal domain. When a wedding begins “Dearly beloved. . .” this is a Common Prayer. If you begin every day with the same morning prayers, then soon the words settle in your soul. You know that somewhere in the world, on every continent, someone else is joining you in those prayers. These prayers unite a man with the past. There is little in the main parts of this 1820 prayer I do not affirm and much for which I would hope to die.

The fact that these prayers could, with only limited modifications, be brought into the Church of Antioch shows how common these prayers are. The meaning is common, an Anglicized version of what all people in all places at all times have prayed in Christ’s church. These particular words are wondrous art. This particular liturgy is a great work that Christians praying in English have done and so the church cherishes that work. This particular liturgy binds us to people past and future who spoke English as the mother tongue. My older prayer book contains additional prayers unique to the United Kingdom and the early nineteenth century, nothing wrong with relevance, yet the heart of the text is applicable to anyone who prays in English. The old book is not of date and has much in common with the new book I could find on my chair on Sunday.

Still, in the English speaking world, times change and the common prayers of the English Book of Common Prayer are not as common as once they were.

Most of the church uses the liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, though there are several others in use. Even with the same liturgy,  each language makes the prayers common to the people through the words chosen to translate the Greek. The service in Romania is like, but not like the service in Romania. The prayers take root, said daily with meaning, and are a help in trouble, a common vocabulary for a people, and establish a linguistic vocabulary for life. We hear common prayers in the morning, evening, at our baptism, our marriage, and our heirs hear the prayers at our death. The ceremony we saw place our grandparents into the ground in the sure hope of resurrection is the language that will be said over us.

I love listening to the liturgy of Chrysostom  in Greek, Arabic, or Russian. The centuries of use have worn smooth the call to prayer, the responses. Language can get in the way of our experience if new, overly clever, or obscure. Common prayers, well used words, flow so effortlessly that there is, almost, nothing between us and what we are experiencing. When we see the true Light, then we sing as we have sung, as has been sung, as will be sung until the language dies. The English is wonderful, but the translations are still finding their way, waiting for an Orthodox Cranmer to make everything just right.

In the end, all languages will fade as we come closer to the end . . . all prayers will be less a matter of words and more of music. . .reason, courage, and desire driven by love towards God. Until then, for centuries at a time, let us cherish the common prayers.

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.


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