I’ve been pretty heads-down on the GCW material and other, non-liturgical, projects since coming back from Toronto. In preparation for the SCLM’s meeting in New Hampshire next week, one of our instructions was to bring our copy of “Daily Prayer for All Seasons” (henceforth DPfAS). So, I picked it up again this morning and looked through it.
I’ve done that a few times now—I keep hoping that I have been looking at it while in a bad mood, and that if I get a fresh perspective on it, I’ll learn to like it better. No such luck.
I was not involved in DPfAS’s creation at all; it was completed before I was appointed to the SCLM. Part of me is sad about this. I wish I could have had a role in working with it and shaping it. But more of me is not sad. I’d rather have had no input into the process than to have had limited or disregarded input and yet still have my name attached to it. (That feels very harsh as I type it—and yet, that’s where I am right now.)
What makes me feel this way? Well, like I said, I’ve got a lot of balls in the air right now and this will not be a fully thought-out explication. (That may well come in its own time!) I cannot say I’ve given it a thorough evaluation, but I have looked through it on a number of occasions. Here are a few key points that have consistently come up as I have glanced through it.
1. It claims a continuity with the Tradition that it manifestly does not possess.
In the introductory material, the work makes reference to the tradition of “praying the hours” and “praying at set times” (p. VIII). It then makes reference to Benedictine monasticism: “For the inner structure, each set of seasonal prayers falls into eight ‘hours,’ which follows the pattern of Benedictine monks, who divided the day into a cycle of eight intervals, called ‘hours,’ that effected a rhythm between work (labora) and prayer (ora). . . . Each hour has a name, which also dates back to Christian monastic history and which we printed in italics after the hour’s “work” name [more on that in a moment...], for example, Praise (Lauds)” (p. IX).
Alright—what are we to make of this? I see this implying a connection between the eight monastic hours and the hours that will be found in the book. Indeed, the work moves beyond implication when it actually borrows the names of the hours in the text itself. But—the hours presented here have no connection with the traditional hours in their structure, their intent, or their content.
Structure: In a standard Benedictine configuration, Matins was the first office. This was the long Office that contained the main Scripture readings, sermons, homilies and the sung responsaries that broke these readings up. It was the monastic wake-up call and the start of the day. It ended the Great Silence that began at the end of Compline in it’s beginning citation of Ps 51: “O Lord, open our lips/And our mouth shall proclaim your praise…” Then you have Lauds that was a mid-sized office structurally balanced with Vespers so that the chief sunrise and sunset offices were consonant with one another. Prime immediately followed and balances with Compline (although not as directly as Lauds and Vespers); then Terce, Sext, and None were the mid-day little hours, identical in structure with one another.
DPfAS begins with Lauds. It’s a short office, one of the shortest in the book, and is structurally identical with Vigils, the last office of the day. (Classically, the names “Vigils” and “Matins” were used for the same office.) Then, the versions of Terce, Sext, None, and Compline are structurally identical with one another, but are mid-sized offices formed by adding more material to the pattern laid down in Lauds/Vigils. Lastly, Prime and Vespers are balanced together as the longest offices by adding still more.
In short, the way that the hours relate to one another has nothing whatsoever to do with the classical pattern of Benedictine monasticism to which the book’s introductory material refers.
Intent: The system of hours inherited and passed on by the Benedictines had a system of intentions built into it. As liturgical scholar Laszlo Dobszay writes:
The Lauds and Vespers was the regular morning and evening prayer of the church; it was also the continuation of the Old Testament prayer hours, furtheremore: of a basic religious institution of the mankind. The Vigils (Matins) was originally the time of occasional long prayers and meditation, connected to the feasts and the memorial days of the martyrs. The Terce, Sext and None was short stops during the daily activity, and also commemoration to three moments of the history of salvation. The function of the Prime and Complet was something to organize the daily c[o]urse of communities, to bless the start and close of the working day. (from here)
The notion of work and prayer (ora et labora) that grounds the Benedictine system is the idea that prayer (chiefly the psalms) and manual labor are complimentary with the additional notion that once one has internalized the prayer, than the work too can become an act of prayer as the psalms are continually recited and ruminated upon as one works. The mid-day hours in particular were brief moments of recollection—a monk could stop his work, go through these short (usually memorized) offices, then get on to it having been spiritually reoriented and having been explicitly reminded of some psalmic material to ponder as he labored. Confession in particular happens at Prime and Compline: the beginning of the work day (note that the liturgical day had already started hours before with Matins) and the end of the complete day, just before sleep.
In DPfAS, the hours that feel the most like the quick, “redirectional” hours vis. the classical Terce-Sext-None are assigned to Lauds and Vigils. The mid-day hours are now longer instructional things, and Confession happens at Prime and Vespers. But the chief thing about intent in the new system is that there are specific themes given to each office. Invoking the principle of ora et labora, DPfAS uses terminological sleight of hand to suggest that there is particular “work” that ought to be done at each hour. But this intent has little to do with the classical pattern, and when it does it is a cause for concern—the office with the work/intention of “Praise” (Lauds) is the most meager office offered!
Content: The heart of the Benedictine Offices is the psalms. Period. End of story. The ceaseless recitation of the psalter is the crucible of monasticism. The character of psalm-shaped prayer is absent from DPfAS.
How this work can claim to be in continuity with the hours of Benedictine prayer given the omission of any kind of discipline of psalmody is beyond me.
2. The character of the DPfAS feels disjunctive from the character of the Book of Common Prayer.
The BCP is a product of a Reformation-minded Church that was, nevertheless, strongly formed by the traditional cycles of prayer. The ’79 BCP remains in continuity with this formative heritage despite complicating matters by the inclusion of the “4th century agenda.” The ’79 Offices retain the fundamental grounding of the psalms.
DPfAS feels different. The use of prompts and leading questions, among other things, gives a very different feel to the liturgies. There is a certain amorphous quality that may be intended to offer room for meditative freedom lacking in the prayer book.
If one were to praying Morning and Evening Prayer from the prayer book, then use the DPfAS hours for the other hours, there would be a striking difference between the BCP offices and the DPfAS offices. Whatever it is, DPfAS lacks a certain complementary character. Its hours are not of a piece with those in the prayer book.
There’s more to be said here; it relates to what DPfAS is trying to do and be vs. what the prayer book is trying to do and be. I do get that they’re not trying to do/be the same thing. And, yet, I perceive a fundamental discontinuity between the two to be teased out at greater length some other time.
3. The tone of the prayers is didactic.
To my ear, prayers have certain tones to them. I’ve never tried to categorize these or make a systematic study of them—perhaps I should one day! The prayers of DPfAS strike me on the whole as what I characterize as rather “didactic.” There’s an intrinsic self-awareness where the prayer knows that one of its functions is to make you aware that you need to think more about the big-ness of God.
Having said that, let me back up and say a few things to provide context for this label.
First, prayer is first, last, and always speech to God. Whenever it loses that character, something about it has profoundly failed.
Second, God doesn’t need our verbal prayer; thus, our verbal prayer has an inherently formative quality. We say certain things for a reason knowing that the words matter to and for us rather than God. Our praying shapes us.
Third, our recognition and awareness of the formational aspect of prayer must be considered carefully in the compositional act. That is, knowing that prayer forms people and communities, prayer must yet in spite of that be first and foremost speech to God lest it lose the fundamental character of prayer. To my mind, prayer that is too aware of its own role in this regard can crosses a fundamental line where it ceases to be speech to God and becomes an exercise in consciousness-raising or becomes merely didactic. I recall some Presbyterian pastoral prayers that I’ve heard that felt more like a second run at the sermon than the assembled community’s prayer!
Fourth, I don’t have an issue with expansive language for God in prayer. After all, I pray the psalms! There is all kinds of expansive and non-gendered language for and about God tucked away in there. I do have an issue with it when it 1) it feels overly contrived or overly didactic (see above) or 2) when it is offered as replacement language. That is, expansive language offers us deeper ways of looking at God by expanding us beyond the traditional metaphors. We are offered new metaphors that help us round out our notion of God. The path of catholic orthodoxy recognizes the wisdom of both the cataphatic and apophatic traditions. We can say “God is Father” and recognize that we are borrowing a metaphor. At the same token we can equally affirm “God is not ‘Father'” because no metaphor of human language is capable of containing and conveying the true nature of God to humanity. Good expansive language helps us to not get trapped in certain metaphorical boxes. But when expansiveness starts becoming impressed with its own openness, it heads back into didactic territory…
I do know that I saw some regular prayer book prayers in it as I flipped through, so not all of the prayers are of this character—but many of the new compositions do feel this way to me.
Ok—I’ve spent way more time on this than I intended to. I’m still pondering.
One good thing that I do see in it, though, is that it makes more of Mary than most Episcopal resources, if only a tentative step. We could do with more Mary. Indeed, I think there’s a Roman Catholic Captivity of the Blessed Virgin that we in the Episcopal Church are well positioned to speak against. I don’t know that DPfAS does this, but even including the Blessed Virgin at a few points is a step in the right direction.