Reflections on Liturgical Prayer

Nov. 1, 2023

In our upcoming Wednesday evening’s class on Benedictine practice for lay people (“The World IS Your Cloister”), Elaine Harris asked Ron, one of our Cornerstone members, to talk about the Divine Office and asked me to pick a selection or two from Praying with Saint Benedict on the Divine Office to share with our twenty or so class members. It has led me to think about prayer and my introduction to liturgical prayer. 

My memory of the event is hazy, happening so many years ago. I don’t remember where I parked my little purple moped—someplace along St. Aldate’s or Pembroke Street. I was probably excited and a little nervous as I took off my helmet and entered the doors to St. Aldate’s Church, a popular church with Oxford University students. My friend Dave, who previously had lived in Oxford, suggested that I really had to check it out. The building itself was a sooty old Gothic structure, the nave and chancel constructed in the 12th century and comprising the central part of the building as it now stands, although the building I entered had been extended as the church grew. I thrilled at the enthusiastic singing of old Anglican hymns by the full-throated voices of the mostly student congregation, accompanied masterfully by the musician on the bench of the old pipe organ. The order of service, prayers, and responses were found in a little, green, paper-back booklet in the pew rack. 

Discovering liturgical worship was a revelation to me. It was here in this Anglican church that I first attempted prayer with others from a prayer book, marveling at the thoughtful, beautiful words expressing profound sentiments in words I never could have put together myself. Only then, as an adult in my late 20s, did I realize I could have a heartfelt conversation with God using someone else’s words. 

Discovering and praying with others the beautiful words in the English prayer book at St. Aldate’s Church in Oxford made me take a fresh look at prayer, where I was frequently moved by the sentiments expressed in the little prayer book and the fact that I was collectively expressing those sentiments aloud with my brothers and sisters in Christ. 

To this day I deeply love hearing the Prayer for Purity at the beginning of the Eucharist service (“to you all hearts are open, all desires known…”) and saying the thanksgiving at the end (“you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ…”). 

It was in the Episcopal church, a few years later that I learned there were short prayer services for various times of the day. As a new Episcopalian at another popular student church in Tempe, Arizona, where I was doing graduate work, I was soon put to work as a lector, occasionally leading the service of Morning Prayer. I later learned about Noon Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline, the service meant to be said before you lay your head down at night. One of my very favorite prayers comes from this service: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work and watch and weep this night…”. For most of the church’s history, Christians didn’t understand prayer as a means of self-expression or a personal conversation with the divine, but rather as a corporate way of approaching God through the Divine Office.[1]

It was years later, during visits to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northern New Mexico, that I developed an appreciation for the Divine Office, psalms and prayers said seven times a day, in services that lasted from ten to forty-five minutes. I gamely roused myself at 3:45 in the morning to splash some water on my face, dress, and take the seven-minute brisk walk to the chapel, using my flashlight to see my way along the gravel road. 

I learned some wonderful things by dwelling amongst the monks for several days. First, chanting the psalms is very effective in making certain phrases and verses stick in your head. I remember taking an afternoon hike to see more of the canyon, chanting “Answer me, O God, defender of my cause; You set me free when I am hard-pressed…” from a psalm we had chanted earlier in the day. Also, observing the Daily Office seven times a day was very conducive to being in a prayerful state of mind all day. Brother David Steindl-Rast[2] makes the distinction between “prayers” and “prayerfulness.” My experience at the monastery was that joining the monks in prayer several times a day led to an experience of heightened prayerfulness throughout the day. Through prayerfulness, every activity tends to become prayer. 

[1] Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 8.

[2] David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press), 1984. 

Published by Stephen Isaacson

Stephen Isaacson is Prior of the Cornerstone Community, a lay Benedictine group within Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. He has served in many other roles in the Cathedral and is currently the Co-coordinator of Outreach Ministries at the Cathedral. Prior to his involvement with Outreach or the Cornerstone Community, Steve was Professor of Special Education at Portland State University, where he also served as Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Education. During his career in academia, he authored a number of juried publications and instructional materials.

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