Canadian Mennonite
Volume 5, number 11
June 4, 2001

Praying the Office

Common morning and evening prayer, often called the Daily Office, was important to early Christians and receives much interest now. Why did most Protestants lose the tradition? This is the second in a series.

By the fourth century, many churches had daily morning and evening prayers. Regular attendance was expected. Ambrose of Milan (339-397) wanted all Christians to attend each morning!

Monks longed to fulfill literally Paul's injunction of unceasing prayer and moved to the wilderness with its fewer distractions. They added more services, spending hours in prayer each day. Eventually there were eight Offices, including one in the middle of the night.

Under monastic influence, congregational prayer services grew longer and more complex. "Unceasing prayer" came to mean spending as much time as possible in church. Lay involvement became difficult and Latin was a barrier. "Professionals" conducted services on behalf of the wider church.

People came to believe that the ideal was to say all eight services every day. Clergy were monasticized and required to recite the Office. A complicated, unwieldy system of hours-long observances evolved that required many books. This was too much of a burden for active clergy.

Because worship was so disconnected from the laity, many moved away from corporate prayer and found alternative devotions; for example, Stations of the Cross or the rosary (often said during worship!). The fourteenth century devotio moderna movement (which influenced many reformers) emphasized interior subjectivity, further separating liturgy and personal spirituality. Corporate disciplines were replaced by internal, extemporaneous prayer. This is the ancestor of our "personal devotions."

Much of this came to a head during the Reformation.

As a monk, Martin Luther was frustrated with the Office. He tried to keep up with it, sometimes accumulating up to three weeks' worth and reciting the prayers (without food or water) for as many days as it took. He quit when he fell three months behind.

Later he developed a morning and evening service for clergy and academics, but it soon fell into disuse. As well, he created "house breviaries," private Offices to be conducted at home.

Other Protestants (including Ulrich Zwingli) were comit-ted to daily morning and evening prayer services. The now diminishing custom of two Sunday services is a vestige of the morning and evening Office.

Anglicans still attempt an Office with the Book of Common Prayer but ultimately the Office fared poorly with Protestants.

The Reformation, intending to revitalize prayer, contributed to greater privatization and left many without prayer: as people were discouraged from practising earlier devotions, many did not know how to pray! Later, with the industrial revolution and urbanization, people lost rural rhythms which encouraged regular prayer. Individualism and a voluntaristic approach to faith continued to spread. Growing literacy and mass production of literature also made private devotional material more available.

Anabaptists and the Office

Anabaptists wrote about many aspects of worship they rejected-masses, candles, fasting, images, pilgrimages-but say little about the Office.

They may have dropped it because of problems identified by other reformers: unwieldiness, mechanistic approach, Latin's inaccessibility, clericalizing of prayer, trying to earn salvation, and sola scriptura (practise only what is explicitly commanded in scripture). Furthermore, with no safe places to meet, daily corporate prayers were impossible.

Balthasar Hubmaier said in his Eighteen Theses that the Office must be abandoned because it undermined teaching the gospel; he also attacked the Latin used in the Office.

It is surprising that the Office was so easily dismissed or ignored. Many Anabaptist leaders were former priests who had prayed the Office. Such worship and prayer immersed in Psalms contributed to the spiritual development of early Anabaptists. Some were exposed to a Protestant morning and evening Office in Zwingli's Zurich.

Alas, Anabaptists made no attempt to recover its original genius: encouraging ceaseless prayer and joining people in prayer.

There are ironies. First, Anabaptists -who idealize the early church-did not realize that evening and morning prayer was well established in the early church. Second, although Anabaptists emphasize community we do not have strong traditions of corporate prayer.

In spite of all this, there are vestiges of the Office in early Anabaptism.

1) The Swiss Brethren document on Congregational Order (attached to the Schleitheim Confession) says: "The Psalter shall be read daily at home." This was an inheritance of the monastic Office.

2) We noted Hubmaier's criticisms of the Office, yet within two years of his Theses, he began ringing church bells to call people to daily prayer. After his arrest, he said: "I...reinstated the ring-ing of bells for prayer, evening, morning, and noon, where it had previously been discontinued by other preachers, and have therefore designated to the people the hours of prayer."

He justified this by drawing on ancient Office traditions which recommend the third, sixth, and ninth hours of prayer as mentioned in Acts.

3) In the 1530s in the Prussian city of Halberstadt, a group of Anabaptist refugees met in a house behind the cathedral. Petronella (drowned in 1535) reported: "The brethren and sisters prayed four times daily, also before and after meals. They usually get up twice at night to pray and praise God." This is a typical time frame for praying the Office.

4) Hutterites first abandoned outward prayer but moved quickly to formalized prayer. Early on they had an evening "worship hour" which they still observe. Such daily prayers were more easily regulated because they lived together in colonies.

In 1582, a former Hutterite reported that in the morning they had prayed, "May God the Father protect me;" at noon, "May God the Son protect me;" and in the evening, "May the Holy Ghost protect me." (Cyprian in the third century had recommended connecting morning, noon, and evening prayers to the Trinity!)

5) Anabaptists quickly developed prayerbooks. Hans de Ries published the first collection by 1610 in the Netherlands. This included prayers for every day: morning, evening, before and after meals. A Dutch collection by Leenaert Clock was published in 1625 and later translated into German. Non-Mennonite prayerbooks were also used.

Some prayerbooks have been long-lasting: Prayerbook for Earnest Christians (1708) and Golden Apples in Silver Bowls (published in 1702 but written before 1693) have been recently translated. Robert Friedmann, an Anabaptist scholar, believes that some of these prayerbooks were derived from other Protestants and may have been influenced by the Roman Catholic Office.

This little survey establishes two things. First, formal daily prayer remained among Anabaptists. Second, the Halberstadt Office, Hutterite Office and Mennonite prayer-books all point to the need for formal support in daily prayer.

Mennonite connections

Unfortunately, by the time of the Reformation, vital understandings of the Office had been lost. It was meant to be communal. It was not meant to be prayed individually or privately. Alas, it became a private domain.

Similarly, the Office was meant to express the participation of all Christians in Christ's priesthood on behalf of the earth. Instead it became the practice of an elite-priests, monks and nuns.

Further, the Office was intended not just to remember the history of salvation, but to become our daily involvement in that work. However, the prayers became recitation or inspiration without a sense of participating with the Body of Christ in God's salvation.

Original Office priorities are closely related to Mennonite sensibilities.

First, we emphasize community. We believe that Scripture cannot be interpreted or understood alone. Baptism means willingness to join (and submit to) the community. For many Anabaptists, community commitment meant sharing of property. It is surprising and troubling that community emphases have not borne the fruit of communal prayer.

Second, we are suspicious of clericalism. We emphasize that the Holy Spirit empowers the whole body of Christ to work and pray on behalf of others. We have not understood how this priesthood of all believers calls us to be a people who pray together for the world.

Third, our deepest instincts show we are called to make God's reign a reality. Our emphasis on following Jesus inclines us to do good works. Gelassenheit or yieldedness (an important theme for medieval mystics) has practical consequences, such as nonresistance. Thus we emphasize daily involvement in the work of God.

While the Reformation intended to revitalize prayer it contributed to greater privatization. This process threw out the Office with the holy water, as it were.

Given the long history of the morning and evening Office, and realizing that it forms the background of many "spiritual classics" that we still rely on, we ignore it at our spiritual peril!

-Arthur Paul Boers

The writer is pastor of Bloomingdale Mennonite Church in Ontario.

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