Daily prayer that works for us

By Donald Schell

How many tries did it take to start a morning prayer practice that worked for my wife and me? I’ve lost track.

Maybe I should say “re-start a regular practice of daily prayer” because what made me want to be saying prayers was daily morning and evening prayer at General Seminary 1969 – 1971, and even more my first four years as a priest at the Episcopal Church at Yale from 1972-76, where twenty or so of us gathered to sing Evening Prayer and Eucharist every Monday through Friday in term. Those four years were a gift and joy that were hard to leave when I went to be rector of a parish in Idaho.

The students in our college chaplaincy lived and studied in walking distance of Dwight Chapel on Yale’s Old Campus, so our 5 p.m. daily office and Eucharist slipped easily into a slot when their afternoon studies were either done or becoming half-hearted, and they found friends, song and prayer a welcome respite. Finishing our prayers at 6 p.m. meant many of us would go to dinner together afterwards in the dining hall of one of the Yale colleges. The memory of those four years kept me wanting to ‘re-start’ something daily.

My first year in Idaho I made a closet in our house into a chapel and went to it frequently to pray the psalms appointed for the day and sit silently for fifteen minutes of praying the Jesus Prayer. For a new rector facing a congregation upset at the new 1976 Proposed Book of Common Prayer, the prayer time was a lifeline. One of the two times I’ve heard Jesus address me happened in that homemade prayer place. It was a hearing in prayer that changed everything, but even so, there were days I skipped whispering to myself, ‘I should do this every day.’

In 1980 when we moved to San Francisco to help Rick Fabian found St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, he and I planned to gather our nascent congregation for some kind of daily prayer as we’d done with the students at Episcopal Church at Yale, but finding a daily time to gather proved much more difficult than it had been at Yale. Proximity and parishioners who shared living schedules had been our gift in the chaplaincy setting.

From its beginning, even when the group was very small, St. Gregory’s drew from all over the city and across the Bay Bridge in Oakland and Berkeley. Many urban churches, particularly those with a distinctive character, ‘destination churches,’ face this challenge. Twenty minutes away by car on Sunday morning became an hour in weekday traffic. It took St. Gregory’s about twenty years to find its way to a daily morning prayer, twenty years and a handful of committed laypeople who lived quite near.

Meanwhile, repeatedly and sporadically I tried to find a daily prayer practice my wife and I could share. At one point I’d become an associate of one of our Episcopal monastic orders, but to make certain I could sustain their associate’s rule of life, I first prayed the daily office for a whole year, 365 days. She was supportive and encouraging, but not part of the experiment. At the end of that year, I wrote to the religious community’s director of associates and asked to be enrolled. Then almost immediately something in me suddenly balked at being accountable to someone else for doing what I’d done freely for the year previous. My daily prayer discipline came a crashing halt, so I sent my letter asking to be removed from the associate’s list a few weeks after I’d received my acceptance letter in the mail.

There were more bumps on the road, but each one had the same outcome – thinking, believing, wishing I or we wanted to be praying daily, looking for a structure, not finding one or trying one on for a while and not seeing my way to make it stick.

What changed in 2001 when my wife made her first trip to Africa with her new work as International Programs Director for the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance? [ES1] On the way she and Sally and Bill Rankin (Bill’s GAIA’s president) spent a couple of days in England with Bill’s old seminary classmate from EDS, Peter Selby, an Englishman who’d returned to the UK and had become bishop of Worcester. Bishop Selby and his wife welcomed Ellen and the Rankins to their official residence, the medieval bishop’s palace, and Ellen accepted the bishop and his wife’s invitation to join them for morning prayer in the chapel attached to the palace. Mrs. Selby told Ellen how much pleasure she and her husband took in their long history of daily prayer, and Ellen came back saying, ‘We’re just going to do this.’ And we did.

We did and it stuck. What was different from my and our previous attempts?

Well, first of all, I must confess, it was different that the priest, me, wasn’t in charge. I have a liturgist’s determination about what shared prayer should look like. Ellen took a different tack, “We’re going to keep this really simple. Let’s just read some Bible and a couple of psalms, have some silence, offer intercessions as we’re moved to, and say the Lord’s Prayer.” In substance that’s what we’ve been doing for the last nine years.

Another change in circumstance is that our children were mostly grown up. Our youngest was in high school when we began, and he could get himself ready to go in the morning.

And we settled on morning because (now beyond the happy domestic chaos we’d known when we had to get various children up, dressed, and off to school), we knew we could make morning a dependable time.

Our existing morning routine offered another kind of support. For some years I’d been making us tea and a simple breakfast to have in bed together. Before we began daily prayers we’d been having a quiet time for conversation as we watched the morning begin. After our breakfast in bed, I’d leave to go to Aikido (a self-defensive martial arts which is also part of my daily spiritual practice). The pre-morning prayer routine had me getting up at 6.

Our new routine to accommodate morning prayer moved wake-up to 5:30. When I was thirty, that hour would have seemed insane. In my 50’s it seemed easy. And now I particularly love the season when I’m making tea and oatmeal in the dark and we can watch an entire sunrise from first hint of green-blue light on the horizon to a line of gold, to sun rising above the mountains to make the waters of San Francisco Bay shine.

Ellen’s simplification of morning prayer rested on doing something we wanted to do. Without me trying to make it ‘right,’ we’ve also given ourselves permission to shape it beyond the lectionary, and to allow ourselves reflective conversation on the texts we’re reading.

When the Prayer Book daily office lectionary had us reading stories of David the shepherd and David the King, Ellen said she wasn’t getting the sweep of the story and asked if we could just start over and read through I and II Samuel a chapter a day. We did and so enjoyed (and sometimes stumbled over) the folkloric sweep and often-recognizable political propaganda that portrayed a sometimes ruthless, sometimes tragically impulsive leader as the founder of the Messiah’s line. When I read a review of R. Crumb’s graphic novel of Genesis, I said I hoped we could read that after we finished I and II Samuel. We’ve been reading Genesis for the past month and a bit, reading a chapter a day. The skeptical cartoonist’s patient illustration of the whole book, a frame at a time, slows us down to see and hear what the familiar stories actually say. The repetitions and contradictions of the stitched together sources are even more evident in the frame-by-frame format.

What we’ve found in this homemade morning prayer is something we love doing and look forward to, continuity between speaking and silence, between conversation together and prayer and listening (sometimes perplexed or very impatient). It’s a long circuitous route finding our way here from the daily office and Eucharist at the Episcopal Church at Yale, but it’s in very similar territory – shared prayer for one thing, a praying that fits the actual rhythm of our day for another.

Most of all, we stuck with a daily practice that was shaped by desire and pleasure, and we’ve that our morning prayer remains a pleasure not only in our times of gratitude and joy but even in times of uncertainty and fear.

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