Somebody asked me recently about praying the daily office…here’s a post from some time ago on that topic.  [Here’s some resources for getting  started: Tickle, Phyllis “The Divine Hours, Pocket Edition” Oxford University Press, 2007; Clayborne, Wilson-Hartgrove, Okoro, “Common Prayer”  Zondervan, 2010.   And if you like it, try: Maxwell E. Johnson, “Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary” Liturgical Press, 2005 or by Sister Joyce Yarrow CSF and Brother Colin Wilfred SSF, “The Daily Office SSF” Mowbray, 2010]

Q: Why is prayer necessary for Christians?

A: Because it is the chief part of the gratitude which God requires of us, and because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who sincerely beseech him in prayer without ceasing, and who thank him for these gifts.

The Heidelberg Catechism

One of the great problems in Protestantism, and in churches in the Reformed tradition in particular, is that they do not recognize nor are they taught that there is a spiritual tradition within their own heritage.[1] Lots of Christian folk covenant to be together in prayer.  I belong to just such a group.  The first item on this list is the Daily Office.  Some may argue that this particular practice is from outside the Reformed family.  Yet, (in my view) there is no way to be properly Reformed without an ecumenical appreciation of all parts of the catholic church which give strength and guidance for a Christian life.  This ecumenical appreciation is part and parcel to the modern Reformed folk.  When we covenant in this way we find ourselves seeking to live out Richard Baxter’s most basic instructions for the “Reformed Pastor:” Pray, Study, Confer, and Practice.  The purpose of my discussion here is to examine the first imperative, Pray.  For Calvin, the focus of Christian worship and discipleship was not on the space of the church but on life in the world, what he called a theater for the glory of God.

The consequences of the Reformation left many followers suspicious of the apparent dichotomy between public and private prayer.  We affirm the central, innermost sanctum of the whole of Christian worship, act of devotion as the Eucharist.  Still, to believe that one hour a week is sufficient sustenance for a believer is naive.  Better to understand that regular prayer that is woven in the fabric of our faith is also essential fuel for Christian witness.

The general lack of knowledge of the tradition coupled with the suspicions about orthodox practices has left us floundering in what is generally a plurality of practice that appears to be driven by nothing more significant than personality and personal taste.  I appreciate the places where contemporary studies of spiritual practices correctly link one’s personality with types of prayer.  It would be quite ignorant to ignore the work of a generation of practical theologians who have noted this predilection of people toward certain styles of prayer.  Yet it is my concern to identify, within this range of styles, particular types which are also consistent with our Reformed theology and heritage.  Otherwise, why not simply seek a connection with God through the Buddhist practice of meditation or Kabbalah?

I do not mean to suggest that there is but one correct path to conversation with and contemplation of God.  What I do mean to say is that there are practices that support our growth within a particular tradition and those that do not.  Tradition, after all, is but a tool whereby we are able (to the extent it is practiced) to increase our love of God and one another.[2]

The genesis of most Christian prayer is the prayer Jesus left for his followers, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.  In general, the work of prayer in the Reformed heritage is not so much to get something but to become something.  It is then an expression of what we believe about God and what we believe about ourselves.  Thus, Christian prayer practices are necessarily Christological.

Prayer is then highly confessional.  Part of the reason for this is scriptural.  We follow the Ordo for worship which is scripturally based upon Isaiah 6. This same movement informs private prayer, as well as public prayer.  We accurately note that in most biblical encounters with God the first and appropriate response is contrition.  Contrition reminds us who we are and who we are not.  Contrition prepares us to rightly hear what word the Lord has for us.

Thanksgiving is also central to the movement of the Ordo, and private prayer.  For us, this is of course based on the gift of Christ.  Rice notes: A recovery of a Christological focus for our image of God and a recovery of a sense of our need for God in order for us to be fully human are both a deep part of our Reformed heritage.[3]

Because I subscribe to the Mercersburg Theology, and because it emphasizes the Incarnation so heavily, I should not fall into the trap of over emphasizing the transcendence of God to the diminishment of the immanence of God.  There are several commentators out there that note the trend in some Reformed communions toward “Methodism and Puritanism” in its prayers.  These sorts of comments are intended to indicate the over emphasis upon the immanence of God, a very personal God, and implies a god who appears more like a concierge than the Ruler of the Cosmos.  Note to self:  there is a balance in Reformed worship that maintains both the transcendence and immanence of God and private prayer should do likewise.

Commentators of every stripe recommend regular times for prayer.  No regular pattern of private prayer develops itself.  In this respect, I know of no reason (other than the fact that most of us do not live a cloistered existence) not to keep the traditional ‘hours’ or some similar timetable.  You might ask why the hours?  One reason to stop during the day to pray to God is to emphasize that we are creature and not creator.  But even as we do so, setting a disciplined time for prayer should not be about obligation.   Calvin[4] is very explicit about regular times for prayer, but notes it isn’t about paying some debt to God as if then after Laud’s in the morning we are ‘paid up’ until Terce (or even Vespers).  It is about receiving strength for the journey.  This is what is so marvelous about the traditional ‘Hours,’  it is about garnering stamina for what lies immediately ahead, insight into what is now past, and insofar as it is done with readings from scripture, hope for the future.

Those of us engaged in Apostolic ministry know that to make a commitment to the hours isn’t always easy.  Some may even wonder why put forth the effort?  I readily admit that part of my motivation is the vows I took with my religious orders.   Guilt, over failing to keep this commitment, is a lousy motivator.  An over active sense of responsibility isn’t much better.  “Reformed spirituality is funded – in heart, mind and soul – by a sure and certain knowledge that the initiative is with God (God comes to us in grace) and that the response comes from us, in gratitude.”[5]

Karl Barth (1886-1968) also speaks on this very issue:

Jesus Christ is indeed God in his movement towards man, or more exactly, in His movement towards the people represented in the one man Jesus of Nazareth… Jesus Christ is the decision of God in favor of this attitude or relation… it is a relation which is irrevocable.’ ‘This service [the life and work of the elect], and therefore the blessedness of the elect, consists in gratitude of the self-offering of God… God chooses him in order that his existence may become simply gratitude.[6]

So I do my best to pray affirming that this discipline of prayer is in no way motivated by duty, but rather gratitude.  This keeps prayer and its motivation for it in proper perspective. Still, the question is what form should this prayer take if one is interested in learning our tradition as best we can?  Little is written about a prescriptive practice.  Are we left to adopt some structure for prayer from outside our tradition?  And, so what if we do?

Commentators within the Dutch Reformed church advocate use of the prayer tradition(s) of Franciscans, Benedictines, and Brother Roger (Taize) for good reason:

Without directions for the way, the pilgrimage through life can become fragmented, not sufficiently focused on the Centre, the Ultimate Mystery and Source of Life. A spiritual rule or way of life could function as an ark of human and eternal values which can bring people safely to land and also provide possibilities for sailing safely on the, at times, stormy seas of postmodernity.[7]

My religious order mentions The Book of Common Prayer, the Book of Common Worship, and ‘other’ sources for guidance to the ‘Daily’ or morning or evening prayer.  Some folks, myself included, may have some resistance initially to moving into a practice of the Anglicans or from the Roman Catholic camp.  Part of the purpose of my discussion on daily prayer is to work out my own concerns for the ‘root’ or ‘authentic’ Reformed practice.

Reformed and Lutheran Christians must remember that in many ways the Book of Common Prayer is partially our book too. Archbishop Cranmer was well versed in the progress of church reform on the continent. Throughout the 1520s and early 1530s he had traveled Europe in the service of Henry VIII. He came into contact with the teachings of the reformers, Luther and Calvin among them, and learned the politics of reform. In time, Cranmer was instrumental in bringing Lutheran, Calvinist, and Zwinglian scholars to university posts in England. The orders of worship, the postures and language of prayers, and the understanding of the sacraments contained within the 1549 prayer book reflect a complex synthesis of Reformed and Catholic theology and practice.[8]

Any simple review of the worship in the Palatinate Liturgy, the German Reformed Book of Worship or the E & R Hymnal reveals a liturgy reflective of Crammer’s Book of Common Prayer.  Public prayer in Reformed Churches have been shaped for centuries by this form.

None of this is, of course, outside of the central aim of Reformed Theology, per se: to move toward a catholic, apostolic, faith.  And so it is that I rise every morning, and retire every evening comfortable in the use of the Monastic Diurnal, or the Benedictine Daily Prayer, or the Book of Common Prayer, or Thomas Merton’s Hours.  There are times and seasons when all I can manage is the “Daily Examen” from the Jesuits.  To be reformed, always reforming, also requires that we admit that the church did do some good things before Trent and that we can benefit from such wisdom still.  And, as part of an Order that covenants to pray this way, this time of private prayer is only private to the extent that there is physical distance between me and my brothers and sisters whose hearts and ears are tuned to ancient texts and the present voice of God.

[1] Howard L. Rice, Reformed Spirituality: An Introduction for Believers, Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 1991, p.10.

[2] H. Richard Niebhur, “The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry”

[3] Rice, 1991, p. 83.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, III, XX, 50, p. 918.

[5] Richard D Adams, Reformed World, Vol. 50, No. 2

[6] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, ‘The Doctrine of God’, Edinburgh: T.&T.Clark, 1957, p. 7, 413

[7] C H (Kaaiman) Schutte & Yolanda Dreyer, Monastic Retreat and Pastoral Care in the Dutch Reformed Tradition, Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies (HTS).  vol.  62, no. 4, p. 1462

[8] Paul E. Detterman, Reformed Worship, “The Uncommon Book of Common Prayer: Still A Bestseller after 450 years,” issue 53.