The Daily Offices have developed and changed plenty over the last 2000 years, but they had their beginnings in the synagogue services in ancient Judaism. So from the very beginnings of Christianity, there was already a long tradition of formal times of corporate – or common – prayer. From the beginning, this included chanting the Psalms, chanting portions of the Torah first and then from the Prophets, and finally chanting set prayers and a benediction. The Psalms, of course, were set to music because they were songs. The Scriptures were set to music as well because they were seen as sort of too special for normal, every-day kind of speech.
You can read in the Acts of the Apostles about the Apostles going to pray in the Temple at the hour of prayer. The tradition developed of holding formal prayer services seven times a day: at midnight, at six in the morning, at nine, at noon, at three in the afternoon, at six in the evening, and just before bedtime. And all of these times were found in the Bible.
Obviously, not everyone could make it to all of these every day, but there were small groups of people who committed to getting together and devoting themselves to praying all seven offices. Again, you can read about this in the New
Testament. St. Paul gives instructions about the requirements for being enrolled in the formal group of widows, who were dedicated to this kind of life. Nowadays we would call them nuns (think about Anna, the Prophetess, in Luke’s Gospel).
Imagine what Church would be like if the real center of every community was a group of widows getting together to pray on behalf of the community. Imagine how different life would be for Christian widows. If, instead of being considered to be past their primary usefulness, we thought of them as having successfully passed through the ascetical disciplines of remaining faithful to a husband, bearing and raising children (if that had been granted to her), and doing her part in managing a household in addition to whatever other work or business pursuits she had undertaken. If we thought of them as having been rigorously trained by God to be the living, beating heart of the Church’s common life.
By the way, they were paid for their work of prayer.
Prayer was the well-spring of the early Church’s common life. And when the Church got together to pray together, their prayers were mostly the Psalms.
Praying the Psalms is participating in the Trinity. These prayers were given by the Holy Spirit and prayed by the Son to the Father.
Praying the Psalms is a ritualized meditation. Over and over, the Psalms recount the history of God’s work of salvation — how God freed us from slavery, defeated our enemies, brought us safely through sea and desert, and promised to heal the world through us. They drill into us the assurance that our God, who never changes, is good. He is powerful and faithful to us; working to free us from fear and anxiety.
Praying the Psalms ritualizes and affirms our humanity, allowing us a safe and healthy way to express the whole gamut of human emotions: desperation, joy, wonder, humility, anger (including anger at God), praise, love, vengeance. It teaches us, not to suppress and and deny our feelings, but to sublimate them and express them in healthy ways.
Praying the Psalms unifies us. We are praying the same prayers that David prayed, that Jesus prayed, that St. Francis prayed, that millions of Christians are praying across the world.
When chanting the Psalms, as is traditional, the breath is naturally regulated and put into rhythms with the words, bringing the mind and body into sync. In the last 500 years, however, we’ve developed a tradition of reading the Psalms aloud without singing them. When reading the Psalms aloud, the goal is the same: corporate ritualized meditation. To help us to do this, the custom is to at the end of each verse and also in the middle — where the asterisk is — to finish breathing out and to breathe in again. This gives a rhythm to the recitation.
As with all kinds of prayer, our goal is first and foremost to develop our awareness of God’s constant presence with us. We use them to quieten the mind and to bring it into the present moment, the moment where God is actively at work in our lives. To bring us to a place of stillness.
In this place of stillness, we are ready to listen to the readings from the Bible. This became especially important after the Reformation as the Church leaders found it desirable that everyone — not just the few educated — should have the opportunity to know what the Bible said. Each Reading is followed by another piece of meditative poetry — usually from the Gospels — to bring our minds back to center. After hearing the Bible, of course, our proper response is “I Believe,” so we stand together and confess our Faith in the words of the Creed.
We end with prayers of supplication. There’s some back-and-forth prayers between the minister and congregation, called “sufferages.” Then the Lord’s Prayer, and three set prayers, called “collects” which are meant to be general enough that they can collect all of our individual needs and petitions together. I n some Prayer Books these collects change with the day of the week. In others, one collect changes weekly while the other two are always the same. These ask for God’s protection and strength to fight against sin. Finally, with a Benediction, we are dismissed to go to our work.
And that’s the Daily Offices. That’s how Anglicans across the world pray together. At the Reformation, the seven offices were condensed down to two services (Matins and Evensong, or Morning and Evening Prayer, if you prefer) so that everyone could use them.
And here’s the thing: We know that the ultimate goal, the thing that we’re about, is for Jesus to bring about his universal Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And our job as individuals is to be God’s foot-soldiers; ready to hear and obey Jesus at a moment’s notice wherever we happen to be and whatever we happen to be doing. That’s what we do in order to serve God in bringing about his ultimate goal. But practically, soldiers spend a good deal of time doing calisthenics and running drills. Practically, the Church must be, first and foremost, a people of prayer.
Prayer changes us. It forms us into the likeness of Jesus. It would do no good for our congregations to grow numerically if we were not first something worth growing. It does no good for us to make converts of other people if we ourselves are not first fully converted. We would only make them twice as much a child of hell as we are, like Jesus said to the Pharisees. We are called to be Saints. That is, we are called to be true Christians through and through.