It is my sense, based on wide observation, that the Divine Office, through well-intentioned use, has in fact become “devotionalized.” It has become optional, and it has become overly burdened by the dozens of variations through the Church. This, owing more to social and technological upheaval than to anything else, I suspect is true in many if not most places.
Let me speak more technically. By “devotionalized” I mean in the sense of Thornton’s theology of the threefold Regula—Divine Office, Mass, and Devotion, each having particular characteristics. Whereas, according to his reasoning, the Divine Office emphasizes the Father and the Mass the Son, Devotion emphasizes the immanent Holy Spirit, who guides and teaches in radically personal ways according to gifts, temperaments, and local conditions. So to claim “devotionalization” is simply to observe that instead of being a point of Unity in the Church Militant—that is, laypersons, clergy and religious praying in basically the same way—the Divine Office today signals our differences and our personal choices.
This may sounds like a perfectly reasonable development, and in many ways it is. People have different temperaments and spiritual dispositions, so it follows that allowing for liturgical variety is a good thing. Yet without a shared Divine Office form, what tangible unity in prayer do we ever actually have? None, in our current state, is the answer. Within the Anglican world, some do the Daily Office one way, others do it another way. Some do the Liturgy of the Hours, others use monastic forms, and even some use the Breviary. The American Prayer Book provides Rite I and Rite II, as well as a form for Individuals and Families. The Church of England provides a 1662 form, as well as a variety of options in Common Worship. All to the good, yet where is our Unity, then? Variation upon variation of Morning and Evening Prayer ridicule the very claim of “common” anything.
It is always instructive to look to Jesus Christ’s primary teaching on prayer. Amid his example of devotion to a variety of people around him, as well as his eucharistic command, we must always remember that the only prayer he directly taught was the Our Father, and the first Christians used it as the exemplar of corporate set-prayer. That is, the basis of the Divine Office in both scripture (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4) and tradition (Didache, chapter 8) is the Our Father. It is set-prayer—a formula for eschatological praise by His children. Seen, as the Church always has, as both an actual prayer and an exemplar for prayer to the Father (and hence, liturgy itself), any such prayer which seeks to have a transcendent emphasis beyond our conditions of time and space must follow its established pattern. In short, that pattern is 1. invariable, 2. eschatological, 3. objective, and 4. corporate. Because the Our Father is each of these, it follows that the Divine Office, when it is fulfilling its ascetical need, corresponds to these attributes.
The pattern of Devotion, on the other hand, is essentially the opposite on all counts. Devotion is infinitely variable, focused on and within particular context, largely subjective, and uniquely personal. Seen scripturally in Jesus’s walk with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus and liturgically in the Passing of the Peace, our works of Devotion come and go, they vary constantly over one’s lifetime. There is an important point here: Devotion itself is not optional; but how we do Devotion is completely up to the individual. All is rooted in the biblical revelation, yet Devotion is quite different person to person, because people are quite different from one another. What reveals Jesus in the world, that is, the sacred humanity, for one person does no such thing for another person. We all have different gifts and talents, along with particular situations of family, locality, society, language, custom, etc. The Church teaches that the faithful are to be guided by the Holy Spirit in their Devotional life, and one size never fits all.
Hence, to “devotionalize” the Divine Office is to allow it to edge closer and closer to a performance of Devotion, away from the objective, invariable—and yes, away from the one-size-fits-all, because according to the Our Father, a very important building block of prayer in fact does fit all. When “devotionalized,” the ascetical emphasis shifts—from focus on the our frail offering of praise to the Father made perfect only through His Son and hence sheer transcendence—again, the Our Father—instead to the Holy Spirit immanent who binds us to Jesus through His creatures in unique and wholly personal ways. The shift is from the radical Otherness encapsulated in the Our Father set-prayer to the radical Immediacy of “The Peace of the Lord be always with you” in infinite variation and manifestation. Ascetically these are both necessary but simply are not the same, and we confound the workings of the Body to think otherwise.
The Divine Office is devotionalized when, taken away from its sheer objectivity of set-prayer, it becomes made instead of options, variations and preferences both local, parochial, and personal. This or that “may be said,” on this or that day or season, or not said at all—we do this, we don’t do that; I personally do this, I do not like to do that, etc. How often do we hear this when people talk about the Divine Office!
Let me say, despite my last statement—this is all good and holy. People have particular needs, particular access to technology, particular day to day realities of family, work and transporation. It is a great gift that there continues to be a demand for daily prayer, and a hungering for something of ancient origin. No one who currently uses a personally designed approach to the Divine Office need stop what they are doing. My only plea is to stop calling it the Divine Office. Call it, instead, a “Daily Office of Readings,” something with a relatively stable structure but plenty of lattitude for change and variation. For is this not what we have, today?
Why do I ask we stop calling that the Divine Office? Only because one must so stretch and contort reason to draw actual, tangible correlations between the wildly variable Prayer Book Office forms of today and the Our Father prayer, that such a case collapses. And if we lose that correspondence and precedent, then we lose or at least obscure a fundamental connection between corporate prayer and Jesus’s own direct teaching.
Furthermore, I ask because there is a real need, if the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is to be used and applied rather than merely assented to and adored as an object, to establish and commit to a mode of corporate prayer that simply and unmistakably is oriented to the Father Almighty. That is, we must, if we are to be orthodox, have a fundamental place for praise intended for a Person who is radically, ontologically, and axiologically Other. Yes, the current Prayer Book Office forms mention prominently “Our Creator” and similar language, and yes we do so during the Mass, and certainly many people do so as a personal choice within their Devotion.
But that is not enough. The doctrine of the Trinity insists that such praise—to God who is truly incomprehensible and beyond our knowing—who created the cosmos—must be as elemental as Mass and Devotion. Transcendent praise must be as specific and liturgically obvious as mediatorial and immanent praise. Within the threefold Regula, the only foundation available is the Divine Office. Therefore it must be oriented strictly to the transcendent Father and therefore must take as paradigm the Our Father prayer and its attributes. Because if transcendent praise is not the focus and telos of the Divine Office, there simply is no where else within the Regula it can find such prominence.
Now, God is One; transcendence is not “better” than immanance. “We are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be both God and Lord,” to quote the Quicunque Vult. Yet with this shift, which has been several centuries in the making, nothing liturgically authoritative has replaced ascetical transcendence of the Divine Office properly understood, which along with ascetical immanance and mediation, are fundamental to our baptismal DNA.
Trinitarian doctrine dicates that we need to pray transcendently, immanently, and incarnationally—and there is no single method or mode to adequately cover all three in a single performative action. These three orientations, to be sure, synthesize to some degree through time, increasing spiritual maturity and growth in holiness, particularly in the Church Expectant, and full, complete synthesis is nothing sort of the heavenly Vision of God in the Church Triumphant. Yet in our fallen conditions of space and time, the synthetic and whole Vision of God is grasped through glass darkly, which means a sort of sequential “Now we pray to God Beyond, now we pray to God Incarnate, now we pray to God immanent”—exceptions of course abounding—not because of who God is but because of who we are as contingent beings.
Because of a devotionalized Divine Office, we have seen an attempt mitigate this shift by alteration elsewhere within the threefold Regula. Specifically there are those who try to turn the transcendent emphasis of the Mass, as it were, “all the way to eleven.” The renewed attention to Rite I in some quarters is an example. This attempt seeks to take the already meditatorial emphasis of the Mass and add to it a sense of still more “Otherness”—loading up that side of the balance. This is what the recent uptick in likewise well-intentioned advocacy for Ad Orientem is really all about, as well as the initatives toward a Latin Mass in Roman Catholicism. Hence the loss or diminishment of pure transcendence in the Divine Office is compensated for by a more transcendent Mass liturgic—or so goes the ascetical logic, all well-intentioned.
Yet in so doing, what gets thereby diminished is the mediatorial balance in the Mass between transcendence and immanence, found solely and wholly in Christ alone. The Mass, because it is anchored in the Real Presence of Christ, must be BOTH transcendent and immanent, which is precisely what is meant by “Incarnate Christ our sole mediator,” because he alone is both perfectly divine and perfectly man. It is to be both transcendent and completely everyday and local. This is not a case for or against Ad Orientem or Ad Populum; rather this is a plea to examine the underlying ascetical principles inherent in corporate response (prayer) to the Holy Trinity.
If we follow the approach of Martin Thornton, then the way to deal with the obvious fact that far too few Christians pray the Divine Office—in short, to accept pastoral reality—is to anchor all analysis in doctrine and theology rather than the often insidious “rationale” of the Church’s National Anthem—”But that’s the way we’ve always done it”—which usually avoids reality and celebrates corporate Self rather than God Almighty. Liturgical tradition and ritual history have their place, but that place must take a back seat to doctrine, theology and pastoral reality—which is to say, a back seat to Our risen and glorified Lord incarnate eternally as well as amid the conditions of time and space. To ask hopefully not too obnoxious a question—if we saw Jesus siting on a park bench in prayer just after dawn, do we really think we would find Him reading Morning Prayer from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, or the Liturgy of the Hours?
My own remedy to devotionalization is the Divine Office of Praise, which grows out of Thornton’s analysis over nearly thirty years, his tentative suggestions in Prayer: A New Encounter, as well as my own analysis and devout experiment in my family and at my parish with a group of devout souls. Although it may seem like a radical rethinking, in truth what I propose is a rearrangement. The Cranmerian form of the “Daily Office,” as well as anything similar to it, such as the “Liturgy of the Hours,” I refer to now as The Daily Office of Readings.
For Anglicans, the Daily Office of Readings will look very familiar, and this is intentional. Cranmer was on to something, and his Benedictine (and perhaps Cistercian) ascetical insights were brilliant. Yet we, the faithful People of God, are no less at the same point in the pilgrimage as Saint Benedict was when he wrote his Regula than we are at the same point of Cranmer when he wrote his. Social conditions around Cranmer were radically different than the social conditions around Benedict, and our social conditions today are radically different as well. We need to find what Martin Thornton called “Unity in the Church Militant.” We used to have it through the original Books of Common Prayer. But it has been lost over the centuries as the Cranmerian form, and all like it, have become devotional options rather than our anchor in daily togetherness.
In chapter 2 of his magisterial work, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, Robert Taft writes, “The first explicit, unambiguous reference to a system of daily prayer in the primitive Church is Didache 8, which gives the Matthean ‘Our Father’ with the doxology ‘For yours is the power and the glory unto ages,’ followed by the rubric, ‘Pray this three times a day.” He then proceeds over the subsequent 360 fascinating and informative pages to effectively ignore both that fact and any ascetical consequence it might have.
If you boil down my argument, it is essentially to stop ignoring the practice of the New Testament Church. It is time to treat the Divine Office as Jesus and the first Christians did—as a faithful elaboration of the Our Father. That means a Divine Office that is simple, memorizable, eschatological, invariable and objective. Let a Divine Office of Praise, in its ten minutes of doctrinal and ascetical glory, be the anchor of Unity in the Church Militant. All Christians can do this Divine Office—laypersons both young and old, deacons, priests, bishops, and even religious.
This does not mean abandoning our weighty tradition, for we can and should continue to use a Daily Office of Readings, or any similiar form, as we are able to—many are not, yet clergy often are required to as part of their ordination vow, and religious as part of their four-fold or seven-fold pattern of daily prayer.
My view is that If a primitive, invariable Divine Office form — the Our Father — worked for the first Christians living into the staggering experience of Pentecost, then I see no theological reason for anyone to insist that a form analoguous to it cannot work for us today.