Sadly, this is something about which most people who call themselves Christians are blithely ignorant. Yet the church has found it to be a very useful exercise, one that goes back to our Jewish roots and that is reflected in the daily practices of our Muslim siblings.
Structuring Daily Prayer
Growing up I was made familiar with the practice of “Morning Watch,” which was a daily practice of singing hymns, lectio divina, and mental prayer. “Can you not watch with me one hour?” Jesus asked his disciples. Usually I allotted an hour each morning for this. I devoted other times during the day to more extensive reading, Bible study, and additional prayer.
This worked most of the time, but much depended on having a reliable emotional state. However, because this practice was largely freeform, it does not work well when one is going through a long bout of depression (mine used to be chronic and would last for months or longer). When one is suffering so, not having a more structured daily prayer cycle can sometimes exasperate things.
I gave my time more structure: I went through my hymnal sequentially and kept a thorough reading schedule of the Scriptures. (For many years I read through the New Testament monthly and managed, for a much shorter spell, to read the Old Testament four times a year.)
Unstructured prayer, however, can be exhausting and can even entrench negative thoughts, which are often deceiving. I have found that the daily office is more stabilizing, and therefore more strengthening for my emotional and spiritual wellbeing. It must, however, be practiced over a long period of time for it to bear fruit.
Concerning negative thoughts: I learned that we need to bare them in conversation with a safe other, someone who can echo our thoughts back to us and help us to reflect on them more honestly than in the echo-chamber of our minds. At face-value, these thoughts lie to us; but they nevertheless come from somewhere within us. We need to learn to detach ourselves from our thoughts, not cling to them so tightly, not believe them, and then respect them and look lovingly for the hurt from which they emerge—in other words, learn they are really saying, behind their language—and have compassion for the person in us, our self, who is hurting so much. We seldom love ourselves; but we should: our Divine Lover loves us so much.
For me, the daily office is a discipline that helps ground, center, and nourish us. It is enhanced when we can do one or more of the services with another or others. The office usually consists of two or more times of reading, meditation, and prayer—lectio, meditatio, and oratio—each day. My practice, or at least the practice that I am attempting to make habitual (the services of which are described here), consists of
- Morning Prayer (matins or mattins, which consolidate the monastic hours of matins, lauds, and prime)
- Midday Prayer (diurnum)
- Evening Prayer or Evensong (vespers)
- Night Prayer or Compline (completorium).
There tends to be a cyclical reading of the Psalter along with the regular reading of the Old and New Testaments—aiming to read the entire (Western) Christian canon of Scripture—the latter punctuated by scriptural canticles or litanies, which are then followed by traditional regular and seasonal prayers. Some of us find that singing a hymn (or hymns) and chanting parts of the office help our attention and feeling. (Studies have also shown that chanting has salutary effects on the brain.)
The office is not intended to be the fulfillment of our prayer “obligations,” or rather, privileges (for such prayer is). Our aim is to pray without ceasing, to transform our daily running thoughts, perspectives, and attitudes, and to have a more deeply affective contemplation in the time which we have set aside for that. The daily office, however, helps us, as I said, to ground, center, and nourish ourselves.
One can find online offices and their apps at these two sites: The Daily Office from the Mission St. Clare (morning and evening prayer in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), and The Church of England, Daily Prayer (morning, evening, and night prayer from either the English Book of Common Prayer and the newer Common Worship).
For my daily office, I am drawing from sources such as these and from The Saint Helena Breviary, A New Zealand Prayer Book, Celebrating Common Prayer, and the Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter, and crafting my own feminist-language daily office. I am quite satisfied with the distribution of psalms in The Saint Helena Breviary (the whole psalter every two weeks) but I prefer to read larger portions of both the gospels and the apostolic writings than are allotted in the daily lectionary; so I will need to create my own schedule and follow that. Familiarity with the Scriptures of the Synagogue is more important than reading the common daily lectionary provides for, but I do not have a solution for that as of yet.
Also, I find the constant masculinizing of the Divine to be annoying and distracting, since the Divine One is not masculine: Her essence, in my view, is feminine; only economically does She take on—in part—a masculine function. (There are only particular reasons nature developed the masculine sex: at first its function was to recombine and distribute the DNA or life-essence of mothers; later was added to this the function of protecting mothers and their offspring when they are vulnerable, and to provide for them their needed protein. In other words, evolution developed the male sex only for the sake of the female.) The “masculine” can sometimes be a metaphor for the divine economy in its acts; and the Divine Word incarnated in a human body that was identified as male. That the Divine, however, is feminine and life-bearing is however more than a metaphor. It is what the Divine is.
So I am seeking to “translate” the texts, beginning with the Psalms, to feminize the Divine One and the reader (reading the psalmist’s words), and to picture a more gender-neutral community, for the sake of my imagination-at-prayer, while marking, for my cognitive awareness, the gender-bias of the original languages and cultures. Therefore I am “translating” Adon as Lady, YHWH as Eloah, and Elohim as Divine One. The result will be a more theologically correct experience of reading.
I find that, for me, the word “God” is not gender neutral; it conjures masculine associations in me which I notice at once when I substitute a feminine or gender-neutral synonym. Because of the patriarchalizing tendencies of our language, it is, in fact, difficult for our language to be gender-neutral. I am referring to something subtle: we might not, in fact, conjur an “image”—we should try not to—but even when we don’t, there is still a masculine ghost or shadow weighted with masculine associations. What is often “neutral” assumes a norm of the masculine; this is especially the case when a word can be feminized. Along with “god” we have “goddess”; it is therefore not easy to read “God” as neutral.
Is it really harmless for men to imagine the Divine in their own image, as masculine? Can men, cognitively, make masculine associations that are not loaded with patriarchal assumptions? With a great deal of self-reflection perhaps. However, testosterone has an affect on the mind. It equips the male for the hunt: with self-sufficiency, with analytical abilities, and with aggression. Do the effects of testosterone on the male reflect on the Divine nature? The common humanity that men share with women does reflect the Divine. However, the nature of the Divine we can see in the self-emptying and receiving, and the co-inhering, of the three Persons in love. The activity of the Divine issues from this movement. Testosterone equips men to act, and sometimes their action reflects the activity that issues from the Divine essence, but in order for their acts to do so, men need their actions to be governed by the female, whether internally or socially. In other words, its self-sufficiency cannot be self-serving. Masculine activity cannot fulfill itself except in service to others. (This is more innately the case for the feminine.) When “masculinity” becomes independent of the female, when it reifies itself, and makes the female subserviant to it, it always results in the idolatry of patriarchy.
So, I think there is harm for men to masculinize the Divinity, though, if they can free themselves from the tendency towards patriachalizing masculinity, they can appropriately masculinize certain divine activity.
Then what about the literal meaning of the Scriptures? Should not its patriarchal language be maintained for the sake of accuracy? Yes and no. Of course the original patriarchy has to be recognized for what it is, otherwise a critique of it becomes distorted. On the other hand, when we use Scripture, as when we use it to pray, or in our preaching, our language should reflect the theology of the canon of Scripture, which recognizes patriarchy itself as the symptom of humanity’s rupture with the Divine; the theology of Scripture has a clear and evolving anti-patriarchal tendency finally embodied in the Incarnate Word. To divide the two may not be easy for the uninitiated, but the ability can definitely be developed by practice over time.
Seated on the floor—the butt on a block or cushion and both knees on the floor (there are various positions one can take)—Matins begins with the opening versicle (Psalm 51:15) and the Gloria (the Gloria we use, modified slightly from The Saint Helena Breviary, is: “Glory to the holy and undivided Trinity—one divinity—as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Alleluia”), followed by a canticle, usually the Venite, exultemus Domina (Psalm 95:1-7). The remaining verses of Psalm 95 are added during Lent (during which the Alleluia is omitted from the Gloria). During the season of Easter the Pascha nostum (from 1 Corinthians 5:7-8; Romans 6:8-11; and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22) takes its place. For now, we skip the invitatory antiphon as adding too much complication. This is all chanted in plainsong, using ancient Gregorian and British tones (Lancelot Andrewes Press: Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter, 2002) with the aid of the keyboard in the iPhone’s GarageBand app.
After this, we say the Psalms according to the day and week (Week 1 or Week 2). These are preceded by an antiphon (which is chanted; I use the regular antiphon, the one appointed for the “Green” seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost in The Saint Helena Breviary) and they are followed by the Gloria and then the same antiphon (also chanted; we do not chant the psalms themselves). Here, the Gloria is: “Glory to Eloah—Source of all being, Incarnate Word, and Holy Spirit—as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.” The schedule of Psalms can be found in the Monastic Edition (2005) of The Saint Helena Breviary on page 890. The antiphon and Gloria are chanted in plainsong (I find the tones in The Saint Helena Breviary too difficult).
This is followed by the Lessons or scripture readings, followed by appropriate canticles, the Apostles’ Creed, and then the Prayers. A nice abbreviated form that we sometimes use (after we say the Psalter together) is the “Daily Devotions” in A New Zealand Prayer Book (1997), pages 104-137, according to the day of the week. The appointed Lessons would then have to be added later during the morning hours.
In terms of the Office, we postpone the Confession of Sin until Compline.