This Fall, my husband Evan and I ordered a couple of new prayer books. We love getting new prayer books! We are kind of nerdy-Anglican that way. So in celebration of these new additions to our prayer book collection, I thought I’d do a little mini-series on liturgical prayer resources. Today I’ll reflect on how I came to love prayer books. And in the coming weeks I’ll take you on a little tour of our prayer book shelf. I’ll pull together another little example midday prayer for an upcoming Fall Holy Day – Michealmas. Then I’ll give some lessons on how to decipher the more complex prayer books. Finally, maybe I’ll even brush off the old Masters degree and do a little history lesson on English Prayer books. So grab a cup of hot cider and join me in reflecting on the poetry and wisdom of prayer books in the coming weeks.
I was a latecomer to the liturgical party. I grew up in a host of different churches, but none of them was particularly high church and none of them had an elaborate liturgy. The extent of my formal liturgy was that my parents taught my brother and me the Lord’s Prayer with the thees and thous. And on Easter I would look forward to that special call and response: He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed. Otherwise, my thoughts about “traditions” in church were limited to Christmas hymns and the standard animal crackers Sunday School snacks.
It wasn’t until junior high when I went to visit our family friends, Jimma and June, for a week that I was really exposed to praying a set prayer each day. It was a very sweet introduction, complete with candlelight and the waning sun of a late New Hampshire summer. We left Jimma and June’s with a photocopy of their evening prayer and would pull it out as a family from time to time.
In high school I spent part of many summers working at a Lutheran camp. The counselors and the campers there had a bit of the reverse experience of liturgy. They had grown up with it every week, and in the summer they were looking for a way to jazz it up and make it fun. So I learned a whole host of interesting ways to do calls to worship, and confessions of sins, and declarations of faith, and graces before meals. (Think cartoon theme songs with the words of old Lutheran graces.)
And at the end of high school my family started attending services at the local Eastern Orthodox Church. This was a rather more formal and intense introduction to liturgy. It was incredibly foreign at first—all the standing and the incense and the gold icons and no familiar hymns for the whole two hours. But slowly over time I learned to recognize the patterns of what stayed the same and changed each week, and even sing along. And sure enough, that Divine Liturgy included those same elements that were there around Jimma and June’s table and along the lake front beach at camp—a call to worship, a confession of sins, a declaration of faith, and preparations for the meal.
When I went to college, I found the Sunday morning liturgy at the local Anglican church to be a great blend of all the traditions I had been exposed to until then. They had their liturgy printed out in a thick bulletin each week. But even though I found Sunday liturgies beautiful, I didn’t have the slightest idea how to use a prayer book. I remember being completely befuddled by the ribbons and the days and the references to seasons in the English Celebrating Common Worship prayerbook. I was used to devotional books in which you started at the beginning and went straight through to the end. But this prayer book seemed to want you to hop around to check charts for what day and what year and what season you were in. I tried a couple of times to use it, but in the end gave up.
It wasn’t until I had a couple of friends suggest that we meet for morning prayer my senior year of college that I finally understood the anatomy of the prayer book. My lovely friends Anna and Mary and I would meet in an old chapel across campus a few mornings a week. Anna borrowed a couple of Book of Common Prayers, and she lead us gently through all those strange terms — daily rite, invitatory and psalter, songs of the saints, suffrages, collects, thanksgivings. She would just kindly ask Mary or I to pick a collect to read, and if we didn’t know where it was on the page, she’d point to it. I loved praying together even though my dyslexia makes reading aloud in groups challenging when I randomly invert phrases. But the girls were patient with me, and I left college feeling like I understood roughly how to navigate the prayer book.
One of the kindest wedding presents we got from my mother’s college dear friend Katie and her husband Bruce was a three-volume set of Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours. Here were all three prayers a day, including the text of the scripture readings, for a whole year picked out for you from a whole assortment of common prayer books. After having wandered aimlessly around a prayerbook, and then being taught by Anna how to pick out the pieces, I appreciated the amazing amount of work that had gone into Divine Hours.
When Evan and I were dating we went to Anglican services together. We started out with my awkwardly inviting myself along to an Ash Wednesday service and by the time the Easter Vigil rolled around 40 days later we were smitten, and not just with each other, but with the experience of going through the Church year together and of celebrating Christ’s life with a Church in song and word. Something about the rhythm of the liturgy fit well with each of us, and this is one of the many things that we share that help us understand each other better. And when we moved to Maryland, we knew that it was something we wanted to continue. And going to Church each Sunday evening to say and sing prayers and Scripture is still the highlight of our week. And of course, we love to collect prayer books to use throughout the week as well.
What I love about prayer books is that they allow you to pray when you don’t know what to pray and the same time they teach you to pray by letting you borrow words from Scripture and the saints. They are steeped in history and culture. Phrases and concerns along with joys and sorrows from bygone eras surprise you by showing up next to unchanging universal challenges and hopes. Praying the Hours connects you to the brothers and sisters around the world before and ahead of you who have and will pick up the words of the Psalms and of the Fathers and Mothers of the early Church and find that the Holy Spirit is present in the work of prayer.
When I use a prayer book, too, I remember the collect from Jimma and June’s prayer, or the exuberant summer calls to worship from camp, or beautiful phrases from the beatitudes from the Orthodox service, or a collect from our Anglican wedding ceremony.
Do you have a favorite prayer book? Have you found them challenging to decipher?
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