The Daily Office: The perfect Lenten observance

By Derek Olsen

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a widely used psychological modeling tool. That is, it uses four sets of dichotomies to help a person make sense of who they are and how they relate to the world. I find it and the categories that it gives one of many helpful tools as I approach understanding myself and helping other people think through themselves and their spirituality.

The last of the Myers-Briggs dichotomies is “Lifestyle” and the official names for the two ends of the spectrum are “Judging” and “Perceiving”. Now, I don’t find these terms particularly helpful. I mean, how can anything labeled “judging” possibly give you a neutral sense about it? As I’ve experienced the test, as I’ve worked with people who taken it, as I’ve worked with people who use it professionally, this last index seems to measure organization, time and space management, and a general tolerance (or lack thereof) for spontaneity. So in my head, “J” stands for organized, regimented, controlled, and planned; “P” stands for spontaneous, free-form, disorganized.

Me—I’m a P. No, like—I’m seriously a P. But despite my natural tendencies and inherent inclinations, I keep getting called back time and again to a rather J spirituality. It even drew me into the Episcopal Church.

As an earnest first-year seminarian I discovered a group who met together before the start of classes who did a thing called “morning prayer.” It wasn’t long before I was hooked. I can’t say I was there every morning—but I managed to get there more often than not. The more I learned and explored, I discovered that this “morning prayer” thing was one bit of a whole cycle called the Daily Office. Learning about and seeking out modern forms of the Daily Office was one of the things that led me as a Lutheran to begin studying the Book of Common Prayer.

Now, I consider the Daily Office to be a pretty J kind of spirituality. It’s ordered. It’s regimented. It has a set structure. The structure changes in certain, set, predictable ways at the change of days, weeks, seasons, and years. Rather than being repelled by the J-ness of this way of prayer I fund it nourishing—grounding. Like the rhythm of the waves on the beach it afforded me with something constant, something that didn’t vary with nor depend upon my whims or fancies.

It’s been almost a decade and a half since I encountered the Daily Office, and it’s my spiritual home. It was one of the main factors that led me from the Lutherans to the Episcopalians. It’s one of the great treasures of our prayer book. And so it both astounds me and pains me to meet so many Episcopalians who have never encountered this way of praying, this way of being—or who think that it was something that we replaced with the coming of the ’79 prayer book and its move to making the Eucharist the normative Sunday morning service.

We’re right on the cusp of Lent here—and I’d like to offer a suggestion. If you’re looking for a discipline to help you take Lent seriously this year, I’d like to recommend the Daily Office—or at least a portion thereof.

Let me give you a quick orientation to what we’ve got here. The prayer book has two basic forms of the Daily Office, one in traditional language (Rite I) and one in contemporary language (Rite II). The traditional language one offers the two classical parts that have been in every Book of Common Prayer stretching back to 1549—a service of Morning Prayer (p. 37) and a service of Evening Prayer (p. 61). The contemporary language one is a bit more expansive. It has Morning Prayer (p. 75), a short Noonday Prayer (p. 103), Evening Prayer (p. 115), and Compline—a short prayer office for the close of the day (p. 127). There’s also another bit, Order of Worship in the Evening (p. 108) but it’s intended primarily to be done in church whereas the others are suitable for doing with family or by yourself.

Speaking of families—there’s also a section of really short self-contained versions of the Daily Office that are especially suitable for families called the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families (p. 136). These are one-page prayer sets for use at Morning (p. 137), Noon (p. 138), Early Evening (p. 139), and Close of Day (p. 140) and are short enough to hold even a toddler’s attention. I speak here from experience—this is what we use with our two girls.

Now—the major offices are the ones for Morning (p. 37 or 75) and Evening (p. 61 or 115). There are three other parts of the prayer book that you’ll need to make these work: the Psalms (p. 585), the Collects (p. 159 for Rite I; p. 211 for Rite II), and the Daily Office Lectionary (p. 934) which gives you three readings—one from the Old Testament, one from the New, and one from a gospel—that you can divide up as you choose.

I’ll warn you right now—there are some options, choices and decisions to be made as you learn to pray the Office. It can be tricky when you first start out. In order to help you out, let me recommend some trustworthy guides.

First, there are some great resources on the web that give you the Daily Office intact with no book juggling or page flipping required. The top two that use the current American Book of Common Prayer that I’m aware of are:

The Daily Office blog

Mission St. Clare

Second, if you think you’re not quite up to a full-on Office experience but think you’d like to dip your toe in, or if you’re looking for something that you can do with your kids, here’s a lightly Lent-ified version of the Morning and Early Evening prayer sets from the Daily Devotions section of the prayer book.

Third, if you think you’re ready to tackle the Offices out of your prayer book, then grab your prayer book, a Bible, and one of these handy guides. The first is a quick reference guide to the Rite II (contemporary) Office. It’s an anonymous composition that I found on the web a few years back—I don’t know who put it together, but it’s a great source for helping people learn the Office. In the spirit of that reference, I put together an introduction to the Rite I Office from an Anglo-Catholic perspective.

Fourth, talk to your priests! If nothing else, they learned about the Offices in seminary and if it makes them go back to the books and get a quick refresher, well, so much the better.

The Daily Office is a habit. It’s a discipline. Even if you’re not, well, disciplined. And that’s where its J and my P start tangling—and where yours might too. Some people I know fear the Office because they’re afraid they won’t get it right, that they won’t do it enough, that they’ll miss a time or two and then they just won’t measure up. I understand. I’ve been there—and it’s ok. A house with kids is nothing like a monastery. Four offices a day each and every day is a goal—not a starting place. Start with whatever makes sense for you. And if you slip up and miss a day (or even a week…) then it’s time to enact another Lenten discipline: repent, receive forgiveness, and give it another shot.

So if you’re looking for a holy habit this Lent, something spiritual, something classic, something Anglican, look no farther than the Daily Office. Try it for a season—relax in the ebb and flow of the psalms and canticles and give it a chance to speak to you the way it does me.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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