Praying The Divine Office With The Colossian Forum
As a part of our own small attempt to become a kind of people who embody the virtues required to have difficult conversations, we at The Colossian Forum have taken on the practice of opening our workdays together by praying Scripture. This practice is also the means by which we seek to renounce the idolatry of the “work of our hands,” the habit of thought and action which presumes we cannot afford to take time to pray because “our” work is so urgent. As we are reminded when we pray the Scriptures, God is a God of plenty. The scarcity within which we live is self-imposed. Finitude, what Christians confess as creation, is a gift within which we learn to depend upon God to give us everything we need to be faithful. Our limits lead us to know him as the source of our life. Communion with him leads us into life beyond the confines of our mortal finitude. Thus, in our short morning Sabbath we offer God the first fruits of our time. It is our small “service” to God. In doing so, we seek to trust him to accomplish what he wills through us.
The Latin term for service is officium or “office” and the pattern of daily prayer based up on Scripture, centered upon the Psalms, is part of the ancient tradition of the church referred to as the “divine office,” a worship service to the divine. In the early centuries of the church, gathering to pray the morning and evening “office” was a common practice of the whole Christian community. This practice helped early believers follow the footsteps of Christ by praying through his life. Jesus himself prayed the Psalms and in praying them the Church learned to “with Christ,” molding them into the image of Christ. It also bound them to his body, the Church. In later centuries, the prayers became increasingly complex and inhospitable to lay Christians. Due to this complexity, the divine office effectively became the property of the professional clergy. In our age of individualism and ever increasing fragmentation, many believers have sought to reclaim simplified versions of the traditional prayers of the church to reincorporate themselves into the life-giving body of Christ.
As followers of Jesus, we have graciously been invited to pray the Scriptures with him and his body. We pray Scriptures before we study them because prayer is first of all a relational rather than an analytical act. Praying Scripture meets our most basic human need to know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And since it is through the incarnate Word made flesh in the body of Christ that God makes himself known, it is by praying with this same Word of Scripture that we come to know and love him.
In other words, praying Scripture is not “Bible study.” To make prayer into study would be like kissing one’s spouse to collect data for a psychological profile. While what you learn in such an intimate activity may indeed be used to fill out such a profile, if that’s why you’re kissing, you might need someone to take a look at your profile! Yet in an age that idolizes the power of information, we must actively resist praying Scripture as a form of data-mining God—collecting information about him that would allow us either get a hold of our own lives or to “nail God down.” Humanity already tried the latter. Fortunately for us, it didn’t work.
Rather, prayer, and especially praying Scripture, is a way to increase our receptivity to God in his radical otherness, allowing Him to delight and surprise us because he is always more than what we expect or even desire. And since when we pray the Scriptures we are praying the prayers of the church, we are also surprised and delighted by the fact that those who have prayed before us are also more than what we expect and desire. Praying Scripture leads us to love God, and one another, in ways we could never have imagined on our own.
Learning to Pray
Perhaps the idea of praying Scripture sounds odd to you. Isn’t prayer the place where we come to God just as we are, unadorned by other thoughts or notions of how to be with God? Most of us at The Colossian Forum grew up in a tradition that believed praying, to be authentic, had to come from our hearts and our hearts alone. “Authentic” prayer had to be spontaneous prayer. Despite the fact that Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer, the idea of learning how to pray made little sense. To pray someone else’s prayers didn’t count as real, even if it came from the Bible, even if it was a prayer Jesus prayed.
We believe there is an important insight here that reflects a holy desire to insure that nothing, no task or “dead ritual” ought to ever come between the believer and the living God. Salvation is through Jesus alone. The faith must never be transformed into some kind of Jesus and…. Not Jesus and works. Not Jesus and some kind of fancy learning. Not Jesus and some kind of “official” prayer. So how is it that we now pray Scripture? Well, in part it is because we get to! To limit prayer by our own meager imaginations and our own limited notions of spontaneity or authenticity is kind of like only eating rice and beans when there is a banquet set before us by God who is inviting us to partake in his extravagant bounty! And in our secular age, we are hungry! We desperately want to dive deeply into the riches of the faith; the extravagant wisdom of God made incarnate – available to us through the body of Christ, through the communion of the saints, through the thoughts and lives inspired by the Holy Spirit and recorded for us in Scripture. God doesn’t need us to pray the psalms in order to save us, but we get to pray the psalms as a way of coming to knowing God more fully. What a gift!
By learning to pray the Scriptures the Holy Spirit graciously brings us closer to the God who is love. It is one way to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). But the grace doesn’t stop here! There is more to receive beyond the sheer pleasure of knowing God more deeply. There seems to be something stingy about the idea that we somehow come to know and love Jesus apart from the Scriptures. Didn’t we learn it from those witnesses that came before us, and didn’t they learn it from those who came before them, all the way back to the apostles themselves? By God’s great and surprising mercy, he who could have saved us without us has chosen to involve us in his own life by allowing us to participate in God’s own life and actively share with others by our lives his plan of salvation.
If we fail to name and witness to this amazing aspect of God’s grace, of his including us in his plan of redemption, we are cut off from the gratitude we owe God for inviting humanity in his own life, his own work of redemption. And we are cut off from the gratitude we owe to those believers through whom the Spirit worked to bring us into the faith, who have modeled for us in their own unique way who Jesus is. In a world so bereft of thanks, we don’t want to overlook such a magnificent gift!
The divine office is one form of this gift. It is a collection of the psalms and canticles (songs) and prayers of the believers who have gone before us. As we learn to pray with those who have gone before us in all times and in all places, the same Spirit who inspired their prayers will also inspire ours. We will learn to utter their prayers as our own, to reiterate them in our own unique way in our own unique circumstances. Only the Holy Spirit can teach us to pray, but the Holy Spirit has breathtakingly (or better yet, breath-givingly!) chosen to come to us in the flesh, mediated by the incarnate the Body of Christ. What a marvelous and surprising God, that the very Word of God, the very Scriptures we pray, would come down to us and live with us in the flesh!
Learning to Pray with Jesus
And there is more good news! If we are honest, we must confess that there are times when we are not able to pray by ourselves. As Jamie Smith likes to say, “the psalms are like the gift of tongues; they are the way the Spirit gives us words when we don’t know how to pray.” Whether because of sorrow, despair, weariness or apathy, sometimes we have no words of our own to pray. And at these times, the prayers of Scripture and the prayers of the church are one of the ways the Holy Spirit gives voice to our deepest groanings. On the cross, Jesus himself cries out the with the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” Praying in the Spirit through Scripture deepens in us our longing and love for God and gives us words in the times when we have none of our own, when we cannot see the way ahead and don’t know what to pray for. In the face of death only the perfect and Holy Spirit of Christ can sustain us. Only his perfect trust in the goodness of God when all else is lost can save us. At such times, that for which we must pray is beyond our own limited language and vision, yet it is precisely at these times when we get to pray with Christ.
Yet the capacity to trust the goodness of God in the face of radical uncertainty, to pray to him even when we don’t know what to pray doesn’t happen by accident. The hours and hours of praying the prayers of Israel (the psalms) gave Jesus the words he uttered on the cross. It is in the mundane prayers of our everyday lives that we learn the words we will need. But perseverance in daily prayer is difficult. Praying Scripture may help us overcome the difficulty of very regular prayer because it provides a sustainable pattern that we can easily build into our daily habits (if we are willing to repent of our busyness and idolatry of the work of our hands!) The structure of the prayer can help overcome the distractions of our daily lives and help us focus by providing an objective text rather than leaving us to our own resources. Certainly there is room within the structure of the office to bring our daily lives before our Lord, to wrestle in prayer and to dwell with God as our needs dictate. Yet we allow those needs to be framed by the life of Christ and the life of his Church. In this way, our vision of prayer is enlarged because our mind is linked to the mind of Christ through Scripture.
Learning to pray this way is to learn to pray the way Jesus and his earliest followers prayed. The early church was shaped by the Jewish practice of praying the Psalms three times daily (Acts 3:1, 10:3,30). Paul’s exhortation to pray “without ceasing” was interpreted by the early church as an encouragement to observe regular hours of prayer (Rom. 12:12). Jesus learned to pray by praying Scriptures inspired by the Holy Spirit, given to him by the daily liturgy of Israel. And this is how he taught his Church to pray. Of course, Jesus revolutionized Israel’s tradition of prayer by bringing it to fulfillment. He was able to do this because he was the True Son of Israel, the true Son of the Father. And yet this unique relationship between the Father and the incarnate Son was constituted by prayer, prayer that we too are invited! Scripture reveals to us that Jesus prays at the nearly all the critical moments of his life. Baptism; before choosing apostles; before healing deaf man; when he raised Lazarus; before he asked his disciples “who do men say that I am?”; when he taught them to pray; when they returned from their mission; the night before his passion; the Last supper; on the cross. Prayer animated Jesus’ entire life and mission. Insofar as we hope to participate in that same mission, we do so through prayer, praying the prayers Jesus and his people have prayed for centuries in our own unique key, adding to it our own unique needs and desires, trusting the Holy Spirit will bring about something new!
When we pray the office, we seek to learn to pray as Jesus does so the world might know Jesus as Jesus knows the Father (John 17). We also pray this way because we believe it is how Jesus taught us to pray. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he gives them a model to copy (Lk 11:1-13). He did not say, “Just pour out your heart to God” or “pray as the Spirit moves you.” That may be good advice, but it certainly is not the only advice. And perhaps it is not the best advice for beginners. Praying this way and this way alone leaves us at the mercy of our own limited imagination.
We have found the discipline of praying Scripture has profoundly enriched our imagination and allowed the Holy Spirit to speak to us in new and unexpected ways (at least new and unexpected to us!). We believe the Holy Spirit to be alive and active in our midst, giving us the gift of himself through prayer. Such a gift is not to be hoarded, but treasured in the sharing. So we will occasionally share with you reflections that arise out of our morning prayers together. We invite you to join us, and the whole communion of saints in prayer. If you would like to know more about praying Scripture, or are looking for resources to help you adopt this practice, you might find some of the prayer app links on our website helpful. May Christ bless you and keep you and his Spirit rest upon you and give you peace!