On many mornings the music I choose for meditation is Lianna Klassen, The Guest. As I listen to Adoramus Te Christe I realize that this evangelical Anabaptist has stepped toward his roots. I left the Catholic church at 14. I would not have imagined any elements of liturgical practice in my future. Now that I have arrived in this place, however, I can understand something of the road that has brought me here, and my perspective of God’s work in history has also expanded. I now know something of the contribution of tradition, and I can relate to Merton’s thought:
“That which is oldest is most young and most new. There is nothing so ancient and so dead as human novelty. The ‘latest’ is always stillborn. What is really NEW is what was there all the time. I say, not what has repeated itself all the time; the really “new” is that which, at every moment, springs freshly into new existence. This newness never repeats itself. Yet it is so old it goes back to the earliest beginning. It is the very beginning itself, which speaks to us.”
As I listen to Adoramus Te Christe, I believe that it is the unfamiliarity of the Latin words, and the knowledge of their antiquity, that is helpful. Because I worship and bow before Jesus of Nazareth, these words and this song are life giving, connecting me with a larger story and helping to secure my identity with God’s people. Because these words are not mine, but the property of a tradition, they connect me with a movement and a perspective that is broader than my immediate fellowship and experience. The Guest evokes rhythms from the Daily Office, from Celtic tradition, and from Taize.
The Office, or Canonical hours, has been around since the fourth century and is practiced by monastic groups, and within the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communities. But they reach further back than that. The practice of daily prayers grew from the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at set times of the day: for example, in the Book of Acts, Peter and John visit the Temple for the afternoon prayers (Acts 3:1). Psalm 119:164 states: “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.” Wikipedia states: “Canonical hours are ancient divisions of time, developed by the Christian Church, serving as increments between the prescribed prayers of the daily round. A Book of Hours contains such a set of prayers.”
What? A routine, or ritual, of prayers and prayer times? Non-spontaneous, mechanized liturgy? How can an evangelical, anabaptist, charismatic and informed guy like me even consider such a thing? Surely to be led by the Spirit is to live entirely within the NOW of his movement and life?
My own convictions and practice grow out of fatigue with the “just Jesus” prayers, prayers that center around self rather than around God’s kingdom. Prayers that center around self are not prayers at all, but naval-gazing disguised as spirituality. Joan Chittester reminds us that discipline in prayer is a call to otherness.
“Just as the incense drifts out of our hands.. so does the notion of prayer as a personal panacea disappear quickly. Benedictine prayer is based almost totally in the Psalms and in the Scriptures.. Benedictine prayer is not centered in the needs and wants and insights of the person who is praying. It is anchored in the needs and wants and insights of [God] ..”
I resonate with the sentiment of Belden Lane, who writes, “I really don’t want a God who is solicitous of my every need, fawning for my attention, eager for nothing in the world so much as the fulfillment of my self-potential. One of the scourges of our age is that all of our deities are housebroken and eminently companionable; far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes). Critics of religion are correct that this kind of diety is nothing more than wish-fulfilment.
There is something about a liturgical response that itself encourages me. I am reminded that feelings alone will not carry me through. I embrace a discipline – a pattern of formation that sows to the Spirit even when I am tired or discouraged. And I know that as I enter the discipline I connect with a wider community of God’s people, even when I do not see them or know them. There is an element of mystery in this knowledge, and a sacramental vision.
Moreover, I observe that when we lose a sense of rhythm we lose a sense of self. We seem to lose a foothold in reality, and our anxiety about self and meaning increases. Just how important are rhythms to human community anyway?
One of the most fundamental rhythms we experience is so close to us it is transparent. It is the rhythm of the flow of blood within our bodies. “The life is in the blood.” Blood is the means of transportation for food and oxygen and bodily defenses. The blood receives oxygen and food, then is pumped outward by the heart muscle. When it has done its work, it moves inward for cleansing and nourishment, then it is pumped outward again. This inward and outward rhythm is not optional to life!
Similarly, we need encouragement, prayer, information, and sometimes correction. We need to love and be loved. And then we need to go to work in the world, partnering with God in the redemption of His good creation.
Without rhythms we are confronted with the incessant tyranny of the urgent, or distracted by the multitude of voices, or affronted by the anxiety of endless options. Paradoxically, rhythm offers us an anchor so that we can experience freedom.
French psychiatrist David Servan-Schreiber has recently introduced new treatments that are making Freud and Prozac obsolete. The treatments seem most powerful against two of the most common maladies of our time: anxiety disorders and depression. How fascinating that the treatments are related to natural rhythms.. His discovery? There is a powerful connection between the heart and the brain. A coherent heart rhythm is able to bring the emotional brain to rest. When your heart is beating in a healthy way, you can heal stress, depression and other mental afflictions. (Tijn Touber, “Our Natural Instinct to Heal,” Ode Magazine, Vol.4, Issue 6, 36-40).
In the end, there is much to be said for spontaneity, but I believe most communities need to establish rhythm in their practices, or they will have difficulty maintaining coherence. Fragmentation will continue to plague them, and non-covenantal reality will result in distractions and negotiations that contribute to arhythmia. Confronted with too many options, we experience analysis paralysis and choose nothing. As Bonhoeffer expressed it in Life Together, when we sing the Word it is the Church that sings. The corporate nature of the Body of Christ finds expression in liturgical practice. Finally, escaping the vestiges of the duality of sacred and secular life may require us to rediscover essential rhythms.
The Daily Office and hours of prayer have endured. They have rooted the people of God, and formed in the people of God biblical cadences, through centuries of life and death, shifting paradigms and the rise and fall of empires. Because these prayers are themselves formed and informed by tradition and history, and because they are currently practiced by so many of my friends, my joining in praying them connects me to a living tradition and a living community. In sharing this commitment to set times and means of prayer, I am encouraged that even when I might feel alone, I am not alone. I am sustained in the knowledge that I share in a community that transcends time and space.
Most missional orders incorporate a shared discipline of prayer and study.
See also “Benedict and Prayer.”