“It is not sufficient to participate regularly in the Eucharist, with its unequal stress on individuality and formalism; rather we have to be eucharistic people. We have to live perpetually in the eucharistic context and this means preparation in the form of constant attempts to resolve the underlying paradoxes involved. The cosmic and the local, with stress on the former because the contemporary balance veers strongly towards the other side. Then the corporate and the personal, for the same reasons in the same order, and the immanent-transcendent balance which boils down to an application of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity: which says it all.”
Martin Thornton, A Joyful Heart, Chap. 11
“The only real fall of man is his noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world.”
Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 35
From the earliest moments of the Christian Church, in part influenced by our Jewish heritage, a fundamental aspect of the life of the disciples of Jesus was to enact formal set-prayer. Jesus bestowed upon us the “Our Father” prayer, the Pater Noster. It is the model for set-prayer: particular words in a particular order to give thanks as a body to God the Father. We now call this the Divine Office.
In simple terms, the purpose of the Divine Office is to praise God and to magnify God, day by day: an “office of praise.” Christians do so because it teaches us who God is. This habitual activity becomes what William of St Thierry termed “necessary obedience.” God is Maker, Lover, and Keeper of all creation; His truth indeed endures forever, and knowledge of Him invites deeper participation in the goodness of Christ’s eucharistic holiness. Internalizing who God is prepares us to receive the Sacraments and to see all of creation eucharistically.
Nonetheless, relationship with God is always conditioned by societal context, and today many Christians increasingly live within media-rich environments where travel over significant distance is the daily norm. God works within our conditions, and so must our prayer life: grace perfects nature, as St Thomas taught. Yet, oddly, the Divine Office form standard today within Anglican patrimony has remained largely unchanged over almost 500 years, then introduced to a late-medieval, rural society of largely illiterate peasants ruled by a monarch; theirs was a society that lived and worked under the shadow of the village church. Ours is a post-industrial “global village” where the preferred church can be several miles away.
Social conditions change. Saint Benedict and Thomas Cranmer boldly and pastorally amended their Divine Office forms so as to tune into God more efficiently, given their social conditions. We seek to do the same, and the Prologue Office of Praise (Antelogium laudis) seeks to nurture a reunified Church Militant that in many ways, despite its strengths given by grace, has been torn apart by the jumbled, even dissociated, conditions of a mobile, secularized society in an satellite-driven information age. In Anglican patrimony the Divine Office was fashioned as the heart of common prayer. Yet today, because the Divine Office has been “devotionalized,” such unity—whereby laypersons, deacons, priests and bishops pray together the same way—appears obscured at best, and in some place even lost. For those that do daily liturgical prayer, the variety of options—numerous Prayer Book iterations, Common Worship, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breviary, and more—are a blessing yet erode ascetical unity, upon which all hinges.
Even worse is that many people do not do any kind of daily liturgical prayer. For these souls, the routine of life for the Faithful finds little space and clearing for the Divine Office. Yet because the Divine Office is a baptismal obligation, and unity is an important characteristic of Anglicanism, something must be done.
The pastorally minded corrective begins by going “back to basics” as means for creative, necessary renewal. But how do we do that without sacrificing orthodoxy and catholicity, nor the enduring insights of Benedictine spirituality, nor the basic worship pattern of Prayer Book heritage?
THE THEOLOGY BEHIND THE DIVINE OFFICE
The key is to see corporate prayer as a dynamic, theological whole. At its core, orthodox and Catholic prayer is responding to God within our baptismal status, and has been since the cosmic explosion of the Pentecost event. “Faith’s name for reality is ‘God,'” wrote Anglican theologian John Macquarrie. Prayer life can be said to be full, integrated, embodied, Catholic, and orthodox when it is an active and intentional response to God-named reality.
But how do we name reality as God? To us it has been revealed that reality for the Christian is a diversity of three-in-oneness: reality in the dimension of its “transcendent otherness,” which is named God the Father; reality in the dimension of its “immanant nearness,” which is named God the Holy Spirit; and reality in the dimension of “incarnate mediation,” which is named God the Son, Jesus Christ, named in our liturgy as our only Mediator and Advocate. Catholic reality, and hence its prayer life — liturgical, sacramental, salvific — is ultimately derived from, and correlated with, nothing less than the Doctrine of the Trinity.
Prayer is responding to God. How are we to respond? Our triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — invites a threefold response that Anglican theologian Martin Thornton appropriately called Regula, meaning “pattern” or “framework.” Gloriously formulated for 6th-century monastic life by Saint Benedict and for 16th-century secular life by Cranmer (and in many other ways within the family of Catholic churches), the basis for Regula in scripture is the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). Today the terms are, respectively, Devotion (that is, baptismal ministry), Mass, and Divine Office; these are distinct, but interwoven and irreducible. More than mere formula or framework for organizational discipline, Regula is dynamic praxis; for Thornton, it is the lifeblood of participation in the divine life of the redemptive organism, the Church.
Regula is the doctrine of the Trinity arranged for prayer. It orients us to the threefold reality of God. Devotion orients to the immanent dimension: increasing openness to the Holy Spirit who is infinitely variable to us in time and space and who reconciles us to Christ, the definitive revelation of the Father. Divine Office orients to the transcendent dimension: surrender to our heavenly Father, wholly and invariably otherness, our source and origin from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds to unite us to the Son. And Mass orients to the incarnate dimension: mediated communion with the real presence of Jesus Christ both deity and man — fully transcendent as the Son of God, fully immanent as human being. Yet this is all one response, one prayer life, to love heavenly God who loves us beyond measure and yearns for our spiritual growth. As St Athanasius wrote, God became human so that humans might become God — that is, through Himself and His sacraments, we might become numbered with His saints and, in the words of Walter Hilton, reformed into the likeness and holiness of Jesus.
Moments of the life of Jesus Christ reveal Regula, the fundamental pattern of holiness. Besides the Pater Noster, given by Jesus to be our set-prayer, His baptism in the River Jordan points to the Divine Office, an objective daily ritual of corporate repentence that, through Jesus, discloses God’s identity and story. The feeding miracles of Jesus point to the Mass, where we too are fed by Jesus and his love for us. And the myriad episodes where Jesus heals, preaches, teaches, and eats with others point toward Devotion, ministry to the creatures of the cosmos in relationship with Scripture. Regula, then, is the means by which we live; Regula articulates our corporate experience of being Christ’s Body, and the means by which we cultivate the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.
THE PURPOSE OF THE DIVINE OFFICE
Through Thornton’s theology, the specific purpose of the Divine Office as a whole is clarified. First given by Jesus to his disciples as the Pater Noster (“Our Father”), as mentioned already, 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. Its purpose is not to “sanctify the time” but to pray to the Father as Jesus would have us pray: “an eschatological proclamation of the salvation received in Christ, and a glorification and thanksgiving to God for that gift,” in the words of Roman Catholic theologian Robert Taft, SJ. Simply put, the Pater Noster is the germ of God’s theology.
Accordingly, what the Prologue Office of Praise seeks to do is make Catholic theology unmistakably evident within its text and enacted in its performance. Its invariable, fixed, and unchanging form seeks to revivify the entirety of the scheme of daily Offices. It is intended to support the underlying, and original, purpose of the Divine Office as a whole: Marian awe in the face of radical otherness.
In the Prologue Office of Praise (Antelogium Laudis), we celebrate the beyond-time and space, unfathomable reality of heavenly God as mediated by His mighty acts of creation, salvation, and reconciliation, initially revealed to the Old Testament prophets and the Children of Israel, and consummated definitively in the Incarnation of Christ as announced by the Holy Spirit through Angel Gabriel to Blessed Mary, Ever-Virgin, our exemplar in discipleship and witness to Christ: Our Lady truly is the Mother of the Church. As such, the purpose of the Divine Office, more refined, is to invite daily through praise the unfathomable presence of divine otherness that confronted Blessed Mary. This is an otherness that confounded her in holy fear, that taught her, that empowered her. And, by baptismal incorporation into the Body of Christ, this mystery can do so for us, in a continuous and gradual unfolding of God’s revelation of himself.
As Mary intercedes that we may be made worthy to receive the promises of Christ, we enact obedience to the grace of God through the Divine Office. It is prologue in that it prepares us — hones us — by means of the Holy Spirit to adore, and then receive, Holy Communion. Through this heavenly food we can become Christ’s out-poured and kenotic love, most precious as it is most plenteous, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich. But as St Paul instructed, before we eat and drink, we are to discern the Body (1 Corinthians 11.29) — such discernment is our daily work: the Divine Office on Monday prepares us for Eucharist the following Sunday. To take the Christian claims seriously means every morning is a test of faith. Yet our obedience, often difficult and even dry feeling, patiently teaches us about Jesus and our baptismal incorporation into Him. A genuine sacramental outlook upon all of creation is a gift from God, yet we must always remember that Blessed Mary had her moments of arid boredom, too.
Likewise, our obedience means internalizing, absorbing, and living-out God’s theology. This ascetical responsibility coincides with the pastoral fact that in a mobile society, a “global village,” there is simply less time available for daily formal set-prayer. Might not this fact also be of divine providence? Yet we cannot forswear orthodoxy, which would deny our baptism, so a Prologue Office of Praise, which can be prayed amid a hectic, busy life as an ascetical minumum, seems quite overdue.
A NEW ADDITION
What must be stressed is that a Prologue Office of Praise need not substitute for the Cranmerian Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, or any form currently in use. The Prologue Office of Praise does not replace what is used now; instead, it is meant to add to it. One can continue to do Morning and Evening Prayer as one always has, along with the daytime Hours of Terce, Sext and None. The suggestion here is to chant or recite the Prologue Office of Praise right before the Morning or Evening Offices. It is another “hour” for daily set-prayer.
Why do this? One concrete reason is that it catechizes. Refined to its bare theological core, the Prologue Office becomes a sturdy rock of daily doctrinal catechesis for young and old alike, experientially absorbed through memorization and singing. This points directly to the theological virtue of “Faith,” what Macquarrie called “existential knowledge” and Aidan Kavanagh called “theologia prima.” This Prologue Office of Praise is fittingly seen as a pledge of allegiance to God, an eschatological proclamation of faith, the basis for “a school for the service of the Lord” in the Benedictine sense: it teaches as much through the mere habit of it as it does through its content. Our lives showly adjust to the truths embedded in this Office.
It catechizes because of its predominant focus on doctrine. This Antelogium Laudis is a theological and experiential expansion of the Pater Noster by means of the Nicene Creed. Analyzed as a whole, its text proclaims a variety of authoritative doctrine, the crucibles of the Church’s historical experience. Doctrines include that of Prevenient Grace, Baptismal Incorporation, Remnant and Adoration in the Preces; God and Metanoia in the Jubilate; of Creation, Angels, the People of God and Remnant in the Benedicite; of Incarnation, the Church, Atonement, Resurrection, Parousia and Theosis in the Te Deum; of Penitence and Adoration in the Kyrie Eleison; of the Kingdom of God in the Pater Noster; and of the Theotokos and Assumption in the Ave Regina Caelorum — these and more, directly from scriptural and scripturally derived prayers primarily of patristic ethos. Yes, these are canticles and hymns, but embedded within them is Catholic imagination: tremendous theology and glorious doctrine ecumenically celebrated.
Why the focus on doctrine? Because to sing the Antelogium Laudis is to confess doctrinal truth, a constant need in the Church no matter the age. And as in the patristic era, particularly prior to Constantine, doctrinal confession manifests through joyful performance and almost secretive memorization: to memorize is to internalize, to internalize is to embody, to embody is to teach by example, with or without words. We are to serve the Lord with gladness and come before His presence with a song (Psalm 100). Singing forms us, and formation through catechesis, as theological reflection in relationship with doctrine and experience, is the beating heart of evangelization.
Given this daily habit whereby we are immersed in doctrinal affirmation, the story of God, which outlines our baptismal status and invites theological reflection and mystagogy, the role Scripture plays in Regula is also clarified. Our “back to basics” lens reminds us that Scripture’s purpose, from the beginning of the Church, is corporate and personal meditation and contemplation to safeguard, and to inspire, Catholic imagination, or sacramentality. Just as Jesus “interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24.27), scripture ought be for us the sacramental thesaurus of our baptismal experience guided and taught by the Holy Spirit personally, particularly, and relationally through and with other people, all seeking and serving Christ in each other. The Benedictine practice of lectio divina is not merely a way to read sacred text, but training in how to interpret the cosmos.
CONCLUSION: AN ORTHODOX AND BENEDICTINE PASTORAL SOLUTION
To reconcile the pastoral situation today with our baptismal obligation, an orthodox solution is to add a Prologue Office that is comparatively shorter, more accessible, more doable, more explicitly doctrinal — and a Benedictine and Cranmerian solution is to restore a common Office able to to be sung by laity and clergy alike: a true unity of the Church Militant. This counteracts a clergy-only Divine Office, too often our situation today, upends the entire theology of historic Prayer Book heritage. It is called the Book of Common Prayer not for nothing.
All of which is to say, this Prologue Office is pastorally attuned for a missional Church in a mobile, “post-Christian” society. It is doctrinally vigorous, yet ascetically realistic. It does not require paging through books, does not discriminate against the illiterate, young or old, and can be sung anywhere and at any time, whether in the morning, noonday, or evening: whenever the holiness of beauty is disclosed (Psalm 29).
This Office is also family-friendly. For those with young children, its second half — Kyrie Eleison, Pater Noster, and Ave Regina Caelorum — is a gentle place to start for adult and children alike, and it is quickly memorizable. Subsequently, the Jubilate can be added, followed in turn by the Benedicite and Te Deum, first in portions and then in their entireties. Because even the youngest of children, through the help and example of their parents, day by day can magnify God, and worship His Name ever world without end. May we join Ananias, Azariah, and Misael, the three holy children — saved by God in the fiery furnace of His abundant and gracious love. And in so doing, may we sing — may we trumpet! — our love of our heavenly Father, who confers upon us our very being, and who gives for our salvation His only Son, Jesus Christ.
As a final note, the reason that the Prologue Office of Praise uses classic, non-contemporary language — also known as “sacral English” — is two-fold. The first is to be consistent with the sensibility of the Pater Noster, the prayer that controls the theology of the Divine Office; despite it too being non-contemporary, it is nonetheless beloved today — “art,” “thy,” and “thine” are familiar precisely because the prayer is used. Likewise, the more one uses the Jubilate, Benedicite, and Te Deum, the more “ye,” “hath,” and the rest become familiar and second nature.
And the second follows from the first. Without question, the sacral English translations simply sing better: the phrasing and literary sensibility of that era have more musicality and hence more poetical allure. Contemporary does not necessarily mean improved, and a persuasive case can be made that contemporary translations of these prayers obstruct rather than edify. The translations selected here are better to sing, theologically more transparent, and, in the case of the Benedicite, shorter. The choice therefore is obvious. We are, after all, to bring the first fruits of our ground into the house of the Lord our God (Exodus 23.19). Not only Truth, and not only Goodness, but also Beauty adores our Maker, our Lover, and our Keeper — for He is their source.
Heavenly Father, who bestowed upon your Church from its first baptismal moments the grace of Regula: capacitate us to love you, the Lord our God, with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our Mind; and likewise enable us by your presence to love our neighbor as our self, that our life in response to you can indeed become holy, holy, holy; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, our comforter, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.