Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Other Corporate Worship

When you and I talk about “corporate worship,” it’s a safe bet that we are referring to what takes place in a church on Sunday morning. That in itself is a sign of how the other tradition of corporate worship—daily prayer—has been neglected, at least by the likes of us.

Sure, there are monks and nuns and a few others out there who gather morning, noon and night for prayer and a psalm or song. But they have time for such piety; their whole lives are devoted to it.

As for the rest of us, it isn’t so easy to find the hours, or even minutes, to give to the practice of prayerful disciplines. It’s difficult for us to carve prayer time out of our busy schedules individually, much less find a time to gather a group of people.

Nevertheless, the Book of Common Worship (1993) includes within its covers (and under separate cover as well) Daily Prayer, a full-blown book dedicated to day-by-day group worship. It is an all-out effort to reclaim what some of us Christians have lost, yet what others have retained, preserved and nourished over centuries.

While Lord’s Day worship follows the cycle of the Christian Year, Daily Prayer tracks the cycles of days and weeks. Occasionally the two converge in themes, but most of the time run on parallel tracks. For example, on any given Lord’s Day, there will also be worship according to the hours of the day. In any event, Lord’s Day worship and Daily Prayer are mutually supportive.

The “hours” observed in Daily Prayer are Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer and Prayer at the Close of Day. The traditions behind these services are rich. Here are just a few observations:

Morning and Evening Prayer, the principal hours, obviously follow the course of sunrise and sunset. The image of light is strong in the evening as darkness falls and candles are lighted alluding to the coming of Christ as Light for our darkness. Following natural rhythms of the day connects our prayers with the reality of our lives.

Midday Prayer arrives in the thick of the busy day, offering us a chance for prayerful reflection on the grace of God, as well as on the opportunities and challenges we face in discipleship. Prayer at the Close of Day comes just before we go to sleep. It is, in a way, a rehearsal of our funerals, as we give ourselves utterly to God’s care and keeping.

Daily prayer is established firmly on the Psalms, which are to be sung. Chanting is a lost Presbyterian art, one, it is hoped, to be resuscitated. Some psalms are set to be repeated often, as are the New Testament songs (Morning: Canticle of Zechariah; Evening: Canticle of Mary; and Close of Day: Canticle of Simeon). Repetition is valuable in that changing circumstances call forth new insights from the repeated texts and prayers.

The hours of daily prayer have different emphases on different days of the week. Fridays, for example, cannot come without remembrance of Good Friday. Saturday is a relatively low-key day, reflecting the “silence” of Holy Saturday. Sundays, of course, are celebrative.

The daily services are intended to be led not just by clergy, but by the participants as well. The services are also very flexible and adaptive to different groups in different settings, and can be lengthy or brief. Therefore, they lend themselves to use at family gatherings, governing body meetings, retreats, mealtimes, and other groups, large and small.

What is more, the Daily Prayer book is a valuable asset for one’s individual prayer times. Using it reminds us that even our prayers when we are alone are not private, but corporate, joined to the prayers of the whole church.

Even though the resource may be used individually, it is still a communal resource in that others are joining in the same prayers, praying the same psalms, on the same schedule as everyone else. The community may be scattered, but individuals are not isolated from one another. In fact, the use of daily prayer in concert has a cohesive effect for all who pray.

In one church near me, the session has provided the Book of Common Worship—Daily Prayer for the whole congregation, and presents a copy to each new member. It is their common resource for corporate daily worship, together or apart.

Still there is an issue of time—how do we find time for any of this?

Take a trip up into the mountains near Cambridge, NY, and you will find New Skete Monastery, part of the Orthodox Church of America. I’ve worshipped with the monks there not nearly as much as I’ve wanted, but often enough to learn from them an important insight. Prayer is not an item on your daily agenda for which you must find time—it is the frame for your daily life, into which everything else is inserted.

The Common Worship—Daily Prayer resource, as other similar resources published by other denominations and in other traditions, helps define that framework of the hours of the day. As I have come to understand the prayer times of morning and evening, midday and at going to sleep as circumscribing all I am and what I do, I have been surprised to find myself praying at all odd times during the day and night. “Praying without ceasing” is not the impossibility I once thought it was.

Do you use a particular resource such as Book of Common Worship—Daily Prayer? Do you observe hours of daily prayer in your church? Do you follow a personal prayer discipline? How do these enhance your Lord’s Day worship?

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