What, exactly, is the ontological basis for set-prayer? The primary set-prayer for Christians, of course, is the Our Father. And it is from those words of Jesus that the Divine Office derives its raison d’etre. We often (and justifably) hear about the existential basis for set-prayer, as well as its scriptural basis. For example, the existential basis was classically stated by Caroline theologian William Beveridge:
A set form of prayer is an extraordinary help to us. For if I hear another pray, and know not beforehand what he will say, I must first listen to what he will say next; then I am to consider whether what he saith be agreeable to sound doctrine, and whether it be proper and lawful for us to join with him in the petitions he puts up to God Almighty; and if I think it is so, then I am to do it. But before I can well do that, he is got to another thing; by which means it is very difficult, if not morally impossible, to join with him in everything so regularly as I ought to do. But by a set form of prayer all this trouble is prevented; for having the form continually in my mind, being thoroughly acquainted with it, fully approving of every thing in it, and always knowing beforehand what will come next, I have nothing else to do, whilst the words are sounding in my ears, but to move my heart and affections suitably to them, to raise up my desire of those good things which are prayed for, to fix my mind wholly upon God, whilst I am praising of Him, and so to employ, quicken, and lift up my whole soul in performing my devotions to Him. No man that hath been accustomed to a set form for any considerable time, but may easily find this to be true by his own experience, and by consequence, that this way of praying is a greater help to us than they can imagine that never made trial of it. (Sermon on the Excellency and Usefulness of the Common Prayer, 1681)
Such a good passage! Nothing could be existential in any exclusive sense, but this is almost entirely existential rationale. Set-prayer helps us. It helps us in that we can participate more consciously and actively. We do not have to worry about trusting the words of the prayer, if it is extemporaneous or merely new. We already know the words. So we can relax, and “fix our mind wholly upon God.” There, of course, is a place for extemporaneous and spontaneous prayer and devotion, doubtless Beveridge would acknowledge. Yet there is also a place for set-prayer, and this is why, from an existential perspective.
That said, what is the ontological perspective and rationale for set-prayer? That is, why is it appropriate given not our needs, but rather God’s own Self? Ontological truth, that is, truth about Being as such, we say deals with God and His Nature, or at least derive from Him and His grace. Baptism initiates an ontological change in our Being; it has to do with us, but it derives entirely from God’s gift and it does not depend upon us for its fundamental grace. We must respond, but Baptism incorporates us into Jesus whether or not our Christian virtues are particularly cultivated. What’s more, there is an ontological change to the bread and wine during the Eucharist. Their Being shifts from that of bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ. Again, we must both be prepared for, and we must respond to, the Eucharist for it to be fully efficacious. But ontologically, it is about God and His grace. One can never truly divorce the ontological perspective from the existential one, in other words. But one can focus on one or the other and give it more emphasis in our thinking.
Hence the ontological rationale for set-prayer, including the Divine Office in a fully invariable form, is not what it says about us, but what it says about God. We may not like the invariable form, may want the daily variety of Psalms and Scripture lections; we may want the variable canticles and concluding collects; or particular BCP versions or translations of the Bible. There is great existential merit to each of those. Yet ontologically, none of that really matters. What matters, ontologically, is what set-prayer discloses about the Holy Being of God.
And what set-prayer discloses about God is His utter transcendence. Set-prayer affirms, in what small and almost inconsequential way it can (because of time and space limitation), that God is God is God. That is, God is utterly beyond time and space. He is “ontological other.” Taken by itself (which it is not in Christian faith), such truth leads directly to Deism. God is also “axiologically other.” His moral and aesthetic values are completely beyond our ken. Put these together and you have Aquinas’ cosmological argument rendered ascetically, for this truth is in fact prayed by means of set-prayer. The Our Father, and the Divine Office, become corporate drill exercises, not primarily for our benefit (although there is benefit for us) but rather first and foremost because of what we are acknowledging about God. (For more here, see Thornton’s Pastoral Theology, Chap. 17.)
But, one might ask, don’t we already say as much in our prayer life? And don’t Psalms and Scripture lections regularly touch on such themes of God’s transcendence (such as in Psalm 139)? The answer is yes, of course. We acknowledge all the time God’s transcendence though sacred words.
Yet what set-prayer asks us to do is acknowledge God’s transcendence not only in words, but in act. Set-prayer asks us to perform our acknowledgement. It is not merely a saying, but a doing. And in the doing of set-prayer such as the Our Father, and moreso I argue in the Prologue Office of Praise, we are confronted with the stark, almost unfathomable reality of God’s sheer ontological and axiological otherness. We are invited to realize that God is God all the time, no matter if we are acknowledging this fact of reality or not—and we barely understand what even that really entails. But we need to acknowledge this fact for it to become fully efficacious for us. We need to live what it means to praise our beyond-time-and-space God. Think of it as a consummation of what is pointed to by the film Groundhog’s Day, and the (possibly) 33-plus years Phil spends living a single day. Because monotonous, completely set, strictly invariable prayer is all about God and His transcendent nature, by actual performative, enactive acknowledgement (and not just saying the words), we learn about the Holy Being of God in a very deep and subtle way. This is not our doing, but that of Christ, who makes up for our frailty with his kenotic grace. Through Him, and only through Him, can we hope to pray perfectly.
It is this reality that the Angels and Our Lady and the saints unceasingly praise, for only they are truly holy and perfected enough so to do. Angels sing at the foot of God’s transcendent Throne, singing through Jesus to the Father, for only He can fully and completely pray to Him. The Divine Office is transcendent reaching toward and joining with the unceasing praise by Angels, the Archangels, and all the Company of Heaven. The whole Body of Christ sings the Divine Office in the power of the Holy Spirit to glorify God the Father Almighty, ‘primordial Being,’ in the words of John Macquarrie. To glorify the unchanging Father warrants an unadorned yet beautiful recounting of His radical otherness and cosmic creativity. God invites us to abandon ourselves and surrender in Holy Fear to the light inaccessible, the mystery incomprehensible. To live daily as if in the orans posture: this is what the Office is for. To follow in, learn from, in fact embody, the awe of Blessed Mary in the Annunciation of her child, the Son of the Most High, is what the Divine Office is for.
It is, ontologically, what set-prayer is for—Marian awe through Christ in the face of stunning, unfathomable otherness. Day by day, O Lord, we magnify Thee.