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IN CONSTANT PRAYER
By robert benson Thomas Nelson
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One ONE TRUE THING
Tell them what you have seen and heard. -Jesus of Nazareth
We believe that the divine presence is everywhere.... But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office. -The Rule of Saint Benedict
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you are going no matter how you live, cannot you part. -Annie Dillard
I have a friend named Bettie who lives in Alabama. I pray for Bettie by name a lot of days, not because I think that she needs my prayers, but because I want to be sure God remembers that I am a friend of Bettie's.
A priest told me once that he did not think God had favorites. But, he told me, with a twinkle in his eye, he is pretty sure God has special friends. If that is true, then Bettie may well be one of them.
If I could pray like Bettie, I would not likely be writing this book about these things.
This is a book about the most ancient practice of Christian prayer, a way of prayer known as the dailyoffice. It is known by other names as well-the liturgy of the hours, fixed-hour prayer, the divine office, the canonical hours, the divine hours, daily prayer. Its roots are firmly planted in the early Church, and it has become, in recent years, the focus of a great deal of interest among people who grew up in Christian traditions in which such a way of prayer was not a part of their ongoing prayer life.
That was certainly true for me. I stumbled into the daily office when I was almost forty years old. And I have never quite recovered.
I spent two years as part of a community of sixty-five people known as the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Our Academy met for a week each quarter. We spent our days learning about the history and traditions of Christian prayer and how to transpose some of that wisdom and practice into the busy and noisy lives of us modern folks.
I finished the Academy some fifteen years ago now. The world of prayer and contemplation to which the Academy introduced me still draws me deeply, and I am still fooling with all of this, still convinced that there are deep truths buried here if I can just be smart enough or patient enough or devout enough to dig them out.
I am not much holier than I was before I began, but I am still trying nonetheless.
During those weeks in the Academy, each day would begin before breakfast with morning prayer at seven. We would say vespers together and take Holy Communion together as the sun was going down and dinner was being prepared. The day would end with night prayer at nine thirty-the offering of confessions and praise-completing our day's journey and taking us into the Great Silence, where we slept and waited for the whispering of the Voice over the dark and the void, waited for God to say, "Let there be light" again.
I wish I were poet enough to take you back there with me.
We said our prayers together in this great room, large enough to hold four hundred people if the chairs were in rows the way they set them for camp meetings. The room was paneled in old pine with great beams above us. It was the way all old campground chapels should be. The place has been there since the '30s, I think. As my father might say, there was laughter in those walls-and there were tears and prayers and praises and hymns and shouts and sorrows in there too. I used to sit in there at the altar for hours some nights.
For the Academy, the chairs were arranged in a circle of two rows, with an opening at one end for the procession of the candle or the gifts for the Table. At the other end was the Table itself. No matter where you sat, you were always looking into the faces of your fellow pilgrims. No small comfort, that.
I cannot fully express what it meant to me to say the office twenty times in a week with those brothers and sisters. If I sit still enough just now, though, I can still hear them singing the psalms and saying the Gloria, making their way through the liturgy together with care and joy. I can hear the silences, even.
Bettie was a part of the same community. At the end of each day, we would meet in small groups to process the day's information and to encourage one another in the new bits and pieces of our spiritual journey. Then we would share prayer requests and pray around the circle.
Bettie would say something like, "Jesus, help Alan's back to feel better in the morning," and in the morning Alan's back would feel better.
Or she'd say, "Jesus, help Robert not to worry," and the next day I would not be so anxious.
One day, after six days of torrential rain, she said, "Jesus, we need good weather tomorrow for traveling home," and the rain stopped before any of us had time to say amen. I swear it did, and I have witnesses.
Over the years, whenever something untoward or difficult would happen to one of us in the group, someone would call Bettie to tell her so she could pray for us. Invariably, she always knew about it before anyone called her. It was among the most powerful things I have ever seen. It was also a little scary sometimes.
There are those among us for whom the life of prayer, a life of close communion with God, a life in which there is a simple faith and a simple conversation that goes on with the One who made us, takes place in an extraordinary way. There is no doubt about that. There are one or two folks like that in your church as well. They are not always the ones who are asked to pray in public, but they are the ones you call when something terrible has happened.
If you are one of those people, I may well have very little, if anything, to teach you about prayer. Except to say, of course, that my back is sore and I am worried about some of the stuff I am saying here and I have not seen the weather forecast but I could use a few sunny days if it is not too much trouble.
If you are one of those people, you know it. And you know that most of what I have to say about prayer may have meaning only for the rest of us.
I grew up in a church crowd where the Bettie way of talking with God was expected of all of us all of the time. Even those of us who were not like Bettie at all.
So I would pray like Bettie, and nobody's back ever got better, and the rain did not stop. The problems never got solved, the fears never went away, and the healing I prayed for so fervently never came. I began to believe that prayer would not make any difference, or it would not make any difference if I was the one doing the praying. For a while I believed that I just needed to pray louder or shed more tears. Later I began to believe that it was because God would not listen.
I have finally come to believe that it was because I was trying to say Bettie's prayers, not the ones I could say.
When I first stumbled onto this way of participating in the life of prayer, this way of prayer I had unknowingly been searching for until I finally stood still long enough for it to find me, I thought I had found something that was just for contemplative folks like me. I was pretty certain it was for us poets and shy people, people who preferred silence to conversation and chose stillness over action.
So I went charging back into my local parish to try to change everyone into contemplatives like me. All I needed to do was to get them to quit their jobs and stop being extroverts and a raft of other things I thought were necessary to becoming, as Dostoevsky said, a monk hidden in the world who waters the earth with his tears.
I did not get very far. The extrovert thing is as strong as the introvert thing, I came to discover. I knew it was louder; I just did not realize the degree to which I was outnumbered. It turns out I am on the tip of a very tiny iceberg. According to the psychologists, only one person out of every hundred is as introverted as I am.
So I backed off for a bit, self-righteously thinking that such prayer was just for us chosen few (there is a confession in there, if you listen carefully), just for the enlightened, we who would rise up, all seven of us, and pray the Church into sanctity in our time.
I am coming to believe that this way of prayer may not be for the Betties of the world, those who are numbered among God's special friends, the ones with whom God seems to converse in an astonishing way. Except for those times when, like Bettie, their journey crosses paths with ours, and they are given to us as gifts to be beside us for a time.
I also have come to believe that this ancient way of prayer is not just for the contemplatives of the world, either, the particular and peculiar few who are called to live in monastic communities or to wear habits or collars or some such thing. It is not just for those of us who do not make small talk because we cannot make small talk, who would rather be alone than in a crowd, and who are even more alone when we are in a crowd. We are drawn to such prayer more easily, perhaps, but it is not just for us.
The prayer of the office is not for everyone. But that is not to say that it is only for a minority of us. The prayer of the office is not just for God's chosen few, and it is not only for God's special friends. It is prayer for the rest of us.
It always has been. For thousands of years, the daily office has been a primary way to hold ourselves in closer communion with the One who made us. It is a way to sanctify our days and our hours, our work and our love, our very life itself.
It is for any of the rest of us who need to find a way to pray. It is for those of us, and this includes most of us, who cannot pray Bettie's prayers and yet must find a way to respond to our calling to pray without ceasing.
In the simplest of terms, the daily office is a regular pattern and order for formal worship and prayer that is offered to God at specific times throughout the course of the day. Each set of prayers, known as an office, is made up of psalms, scriptures, and prayers. It is the sort of prayer that is most often associated with monastic communities and the more liturgical and sacramental parts of the Church.
What I hope to do here-with as little jargon and technical talk as possible-is to open up some of the mystery of the daily office for those who have had little or no exposure to this ancient way of Christian prayer.
I hope to shed some light on the history of the daily office and about the call to prayer it offers to us in our time. I will say some things about the obstacles that keep us from participating in such prayer and some of the ways we might overcome them. I will also share something about the benefits that can accrue to us as pilgrims, as members of the community of faith, and as the whole body of Christ if we begin to participate in this ancient tradition that has sustained the Church through the ages.
In a way, I hope to write the book I could not find when I first stumbled into the daily office all those years ago.
Some of you who read this work will be somewhat familiar with what is written here. For others, some of the information and ideas will be very new and, in some cases, very startling. Some will have already begun to pray the office and are looking to learn more about this way of prayer you have come to hold dear. Some will have only just begun to learn of its existence and are in search of hints and clues as to how to keep exploring in the right direction. Still others will find all of this completely new and more than a little bewildering.
However you come to these pages, I recommend a posture that includes one part openness, one part faith, and one part welcome. There is a possibility that some new thing is about to unfold before you even though you may not yet perceive it, as the prophet Isaiah once said about a deeper mystery. This way of prayer-the prayer that has sustained the life of the faithful for centuries-has a way of sneaking up on you and not letting go. Which is what often happens when we come in contact with God. Communion with God is several things-predictable is not one of them.
You should know that I do not consider myself a scholar. I think of myself as a poet and a storyteller. I do not stand in the pulpit; I sit in the pew. I am not a seminarian or a cleric or a professional religious person of any sort. I began my journey in the direction of a deeper prayer life as a pilgrim with some questions and a fountain pen and a lot of time on my hands, armed with little more than a desire to see what might happen to me if I learned to pray the prayer that has been prayed by the community of saints for centuries.
I would not even now consider myself to be a person of prayer. I am not even certain that I can fully describe what all of these things have come to mean to me.
What I know of prayer has come from reading books and asking questions, from talking with those who have come from church traditions other than mine, and from wandering and wondering with other pilgrims for whom this way of prayer has become a central part of their life with God. And from participating in the prayer itself.
I have stories to tell that I believe give voice to or shine some bit of light on the questions that surround this way of prayer, questions that usually seem to arise in the hearts and minds of those who are drawn to it. I know such questions lived in me when I began this journey. They were forming in my head and in my heart and in my very soul from the moment of my first exposure to this way of prayer. And maybe some of them are your questions as well.
"To be a writer," said the novelist Ellen Douglas, "is to bear witness to all that you have seen and heard." A writer is all I really make any claim to be. And so I am bound to tell these stories to you and even again to myself.
Perhaps in the reading, and in the telling, new words and notions and questions about prayer will rise up in us both. I certainly hope so.
I have written about some of these things before, in bits and pieces in other books. There is a sense in which I have been writing this book for more than fifteen years. Not long enough to know everything about this great mystery, and not long enough to become much more than I was when I started-a pilgrim who wants to learn how to live a life that is shaped by and around and for prayer, a life that becomes a prayer that is prayed without ceasing. I have to tell you that the whole business still astonishes and terrifies me; it still lifts me up and manages somehow to pull me forward, or if not forward, then maybe even higher or closer or nearer to the One who made us and to whom we pray.
I have been at it long enough to know at least this: of all the things I have ever written about or will ever write about, this is the one true thing that has come to matter to me the most.
<%TOC%> Contents Foreword....................ix
Excerpted from IN CONSTANT PRAYER by robert benson Copyright © 2008 by Robert Benson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1. One True Thing....................1
2. Ancient Prayer for the Ancient of Days....................15
3. The Daily of the Divine Office....................27
4. Praying Upside Down....................43
5. The Divine of the Daily Office....................59
6. The Real Currency of Our Age....................75
7. Lost Between the Daily and the Divine....................91
8. Praying Alone Together....................105
9. An Invisible Reality....................121
10. The Great River of Prayer....................139
Appendix A: Sample Office: Morning Prayer....................153
Appendix B: Additional Resources....................158
About the Author....................165