Old Prayer Books for Difficult Times

Several weeks ago, I would never have guessed that my life soon will be largely confined to the small room in the college accommodation interrupted only by one walk or cycle a day which is presently allowed in the UK. I already made arrangements to travel back to Poland and spend, for the first time in five years, the Easter with my family. All of my plans were, however, suddenly overturned by the spread of the pandemic. My daily routine also had to change. I do not get up every morning to cycle to the Tyndale House. My life is not organised according to the schedule of 11 am and 4 pm coffee breaks. There are no Tuesday chapels to attend and no Hebrew reading groups. And, although these things would stop anyway during the break, I know that in the Easter term there will be no research seminars at the Faculty of Divinity or complines and vespers in my college’s chapel. This leaves me with a lot of time to work, think and write. 

And in this time, I am discovering the benefits of regular liturgical prayer. Various Christian traditions have different settings for the regular prayer. Luther’s Small Catechism advised people to begin and end their day with the sign of the cross followed by the Creed and Lord’s Prayer. The Benedictine Liturgy of Hours prescribes seven times of prayer during the day and one in the night. In the modern hymnbook used by the Lutheran and Reformed Churches in Poland, one can find their version of the Liturgy of Hours consisting of Lauds (morning prayer), Sext (midday prayer), Vespers (evening prayer) and Compline (prayer at the end of the day). But the idea to pray at the set times of the day is not just an old Christian tradition. Already Psalms tell us that people used to address God at the set times of the day: O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch (Ps 5:3 ESV, cf. Ps 88:3). Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! (Ps 141:2). As for myself, I usually pray the morning and (much less regularly) evening prayers from the Book of Common Prayer.

So what is so beneficial about praying the liturgical prayer? How is it helpful during the time of pandemic? First of all, it is in the first person plural. It forces us to think about the body of Christ even when we cannot meet physically. These prayers are designed to be said by the community. And I came to think that it is really important to preserve this first person plural even when we are praying on our own. It is often said that the word Father in Our Father is a powerful lesson about how to pray. But there is another important lesson already in the first word (or, as in Greek and Polish, in the second word). We are addressing God as our Father in the first person plural. He is not just our personal Father but we are coming to him as members of the redeemed community – His church. This is a really important lesson to remember now when we are isolated from one another.

And it is meaningful to think that, even though I am praying these prayers alone in my small room, same collects and canticles are recited by many other Christians throughout the whole world. Even more, many of the very same prayers were prayed by countless believers through the ages of history. Praying liturgical prayers can be a very powerful tool in preserving our desire for the communion of the saints when we are deprived of this communion. 

Keeping the habit of morning and evening prayer may be also helpful in giving structure to our day. Many of us, and I am no exception, need some routine. Having a settled framework for the day helps us to be more productive and motivated, to separate the time of work from the time of rest. It is not easy to stay focused and motivated when daily routines are overturned. What is the better way to organise our day than by prayer? Morning and evening prayers open and close the day. They dedicate to the Lord both our daily labour and our rest at night. They help us to ask for forgiveness as we begin our new day and as we close it. They help us to offer thanks for the new day and all opportunities that it brings and for the day that is past.

Finally, prayer books help keep the balance between various parts of the prayer. I naturally tend to tell the Lord more about my requests than of thanksgiving and praise. And even as I offer petitions, I gravitate toward matters that are more important to me personally, being less eager to pray for the church and the world. The liturgy helps me to remember all the important elements of prayer. And it gives me words appropriate to manifold situations such as this prayer from the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer:

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also in the time of King David, didst slay with the plague of Pestilence threescore and ten thousand; and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest; Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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