Recently, my father was trying to explain the Daily Office to a friend of his. The Daily Office is a routine set of Bible readings and prayers ordered out in a particular way. It can be, to say the least, a bit confusing at first. After explaining his own routine to his friend, the friend responded with a simple inquiry: “Why?” That brings us to today’s topic…
Let us begin with some brief background information. Shortly after the Exodus, the LORD consecrated Aaron and his sons to be the first High Priest and the priestly line thereafter. Following that consecration, the LORD commanded that the priests should offer two lambs every day on the altar, one in the morning and one in the evening. That continued for centuries as the Hebrews passed from the Tabernacle in the Wilderness to Solomon’s Temple. Some scholars believe that a set of readings from the Torah, Psalms, and the Prophets developed during the Babylonian Exile. They theorize that, since they could not bring the daily sacrifice of lambs to the altar, they could, in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, bring a “sacrifice of praise” to the LORD. (Jeremiah 33:11) By the time of Our Lord’s Incarnation, there were various daily readings in each synagogue, for the morning and for the evening. As the son of just and upright parents, Jesus would have regularly gone to the synagogues and heard the rabbis recite the readings from the Psalms, the Torah, and the Prophets each and every day. This, in part, explains why the most oft-quoted book in the New Testament is not the Prophet Isaiah (a distant second), but is actually the Book of Psalms.
During the early Middle Ages, Christians who felt Christianity had been corrupted by the newly converted Roman Empire, isolated themselves and formed religious communities dedicated to prayer. This was the origin of monasticism. These men and women developed elaborate systems of readings for the Psalms, Old Testament, New Testament, and the Gospels so that the entire body of Holy Scriptures would be read, in some cases quite frequently, over the year. As a result, Holy Scripture so infused their lives, that when one looks at their writings, you can hardly tell what is Scripture and what is their own thought.
Later, the elaborate system of the monasteries was simplified into what we now call the Daily Office. In consists primarily of a routine for Morning Prayer and for Evening Prayer. Each office opens with a sentence from Scripture and a introductory Psalm or hymn to “set the mood.” There is a reading of one or more Psalms followed by one or two passages from Scripture. After each scriptural reading there is what is called a “Canticle,” or a song taken from Scripture. The Songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon are some of the best examples (St. Luke 1:46-55, 68-79; 2:29-32), but others are taken from Exodus, Isaiah, Revelation, and various parts of the Apocrypha. After the readings and Canticles come the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and other prayers that vary by day, week, or season. There is, of course, time given for free intercession.
So, now, why the Daily Office? There are four reasons.
1. The Daily Office incorporates Lectio Divina into daily prayer time. Lectio Divinia means simply “Divine Readings.” The Daily Office is intensely reliant on a regular progression of readings through the Holy Scriptures. Throughout the course of the two-year cycle, the overwhelming majority of the Old Testament is read; the New Testament is read each year and the Holy Gospels are read even more frequently. Beyond that, those who pray the Daily Office do not go skittering about Scripture on a whim; they proceed quite regularly through the various testaments and the Gospel, following one passage after another. For a few weeks, one might read a chapter of the Prophet Isaiah and the Gospel according to Saint Luke. After a season, one proceeds into the Prophet Jeremiah and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Spirit led prayer is a part of the Daily Office. There is little need for the “Bible in a Year” plans when one already prays the Daily Office.
2. The Daily Office makes heavy use of the very best “Liturgical Music.” The Book of Psalms is perhaps the most under utilized book of the Bible. As a collection of hymns, it often goes over-looked. This should be far from the case. The Psalms were “Jesus’ Prayer Book.” It is from the Book of Psalms that Jesus quoted most frequently. Rather than relying on a nearby hymnal, one who prays the Daily Office reads the hymns on which Our Lord grew up. The historic Church gave so much esteem to the Book of Psalms that Saint Benedict of Nursia, who some call the founder of Western Monasticism, made it part of his Rule that his monks had to pray the entire Psalter, all 150 Psalms, each week! As part of the modern Daily Office, the majority of the Psalms are prayed on a seven-week cycle. In addition to the Psalms, after each reading, as previously states, one reads another song from Holy Scripture. It might be one of the three already mentioned, but could be the Song of Moses (Exodus 151-6, 11-13, 17-18), The Songs of Isaiah (12:1-6; 55:6-11; 60:1-3, 11, 14, 18-19) or the Prayer of Manasseh. Again, rather than puttering about for a hymnal, one reads Holy Scripture put to music and, whether said or sung, those songs become a part of one’s being. I am not one given to quoting long passages of Scripture, but some of the Canticles have become ingrained in my memory that I wonder if I could ever forget them. Is that not a lofty goal in and of itself?
3. The set of proscribed prayers help drive us into a routine of praying appropriately rather than what we feel at the time. It is too easy to let the first thing on our mind dominate our personal prayer time. With the Lord’s Prayer, the responses, the weekly and nightly collects, as well as the prayers for the Church’s mission, we routinely touch on those issue which we ought never neglect in our prayer life: the poor and needy, those in government and justice, those who are sick, those who do not know the Lord, as well as grace and protection for our own walk with the Lord. Additionally, those rote prayers, so often maligned by the more charismatic Christians, help us develop what I call Spirit Memory. You have likely heard of “muscle memory.” It comes when an athlete trains and trains and practices and practices to the point when they can perform certain skills practically blind-folded. The perfect visual for this is the move The Karate Kid. In that movie Mr. Miyagi trains Daniel (or Mr. Han trains Dre, depending on your generation) by making him wax his cars, sand his patio deck, and paint his fence (or, again, taking on and off his jacket). After weeks of this training the young student throws an absolute fit before an impressive display of how what he has learned is truly applicable to Karate. The same can be applied to rote prayer. Take a good godly prayer; pray it until it becomes like second nature; when a crisis comes, watch that prayer spring to your mind before you have even had time to think, “what should I do now?” Rote prayers develop spirit memory just as athletic drills develop muscle memory.
4. The Daily Office is convergence worship. Obviously, because of its intense reliance on Holy Scripture for its use of the Psalms, Readings, Canticles and response, the Daily Office is an evangelical exercise. Because of its requisite professions of faith, use of Holy Spirit inspired Canticles and personal Spirit-led prayer time, the Daily Office is a charismatic exercise. The Daily Office is not a sacrament, but it is sacramental. The traditional definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” In praying the Daily Office the one who prays is a physical sign of at least three different graces. First, that we have a God who has bestowed upon us the gift of Holy Scripture; second, that we have a God who has given us the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to assist us in prayer; and, third, that we have a God who listens to our prayers. As such, the Daily Office is a sacramental exercise.
That is why the Daily Office.