The genius of the English Reformation was that it took the life of prayer that had been the heart of monastic devotion and made it the heart of parish life for both priests and laity. This involved some changes. In the old prayer books, there are two offices instead of seven, each incorporating elements of the others. Nobody who has a vocation in the world could realistically be expected to make it to seven prayer services a day. Something is lost in this. But something is also gained, at least potentially. Each parish and our whole communion is joined together by its common prayer life. At the heart of it is our praying of the psalter and reading of scriptures from all parts of the Bible. It unites us to one another even when we pray the offices alone, and it opens up a space several times a day in which God can communicate to us through the words and songs that have been divine vehicles of communication before.
I don’t mean to sound sentimental, of course. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. There’s a reason most Christians don’t know most of the psalms. Many are boring, tedious, or just plain disturbing, and you have to figure out what to do with them. Sometimes, you just want to finish the damn thing so you can eat breakfast or go to bed. And finding a good time for evening prayer is a constant challenge, and it’s hard to start up again after you miss a few days.
But frustrations notwithstanding, this has become the heart of my prayer life, especially since I’m dividing my weekends between two cities, and am not always worshiping with the same congregation on Sunday.
The weird thing for me is that even though the Daily Office is inherently communal, I usually pray it alone. Most Episcopal parishes do not pray the office daily together (at least not to the best of my knowledge). My campus chaplaincy in Chicago does evening prayer on Wednesday as part of our main weekly program, and is experimenting with morning prayer and compline one day a week. I’m glad we do this, but it is a very different experience when you only do it once a week. I am told that in England, one of the main duties of the parish priest is to officiate the Daily Office, even if nobody else comes. But in the Episcopal Church, if we do it at all, it seems we usually do it in solitude.
I’m not sure this is a bad thing (nor a good one). In fact, I kind of prefer praying it alone. I have my own routine, my own preferences where the prayer book gives multiple options, and being an evangelical Protestant at heart, I like being able to give myself some extended time for extemporaneous prayer (“authorized intercessions”). That last bit especially is part of who I am, and I’m happy to have found a place for it within the rubrics of my adopted church. I love the fact that the rubrics of the office make me confess my sins, pray a psalm or two, read scripture, say a canticle, profess my faith, and pray for the peace and salvation of the world before I start in on my own problems. I’m also trying to figure out how to fit in some time of silence or centering prayer. Thus customized, the Daily Office is exactly what I need right now.
But is an inherently communal practice that manifests our communion supposed to be so customizable? Have we subtly changed what daily prayer is for Anglicans by doing it mostly alone? I don’t have an answer, except to suggest that perhaps this is why it’s important to do it in a group every once in awhile. There is a discipline to praying by oneself, and there is perhaps a discipline to doing it with other people (when someone inevitably rushes through the psalm or picks the stupid collect).