Praying at all times

This article by Stephen Dean was first published in The Liturgy Planner (Volume 3, No. 3)

In July 2006 the Canterbury Press is publishing Celebrating Sunday Evening Prayer for the Liturgy Office of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.

I rejoice at this event, which has taken a long time to come to fruition, as I had a part in setting the process going - I forget exactly how many years ago it was - by suggesting at a national committee that we needed to have a simple way of doing exactly what the title says, celebrating Sunday Evening Prayer.

Why? Because in spite of Vatican II and the 1974 publication of The Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours or Prayer of the Church has failed to become a staple part of Catholic parish life (monastic celebration is quite another matter).

Should it? I think so. Prayer at set times of day is a part of the life of all great religions - except, for the moment, for many Christians.

There are two reasons for this. First, the Office is still complicated. Think of it in comparison with the Rosary; how many volumes, page markers and cross references does that need? You know exactly what to do; you do it from memory. The Prayer of the Church as at present constituted is highly book-based. In times gone by the successful navigation of the Breviary could become an end in itself, as you located the antiphons, the psalms, the Magnificat, the commemorations and more besides in various parts of a labyrinthine volume. Think of Benediction, the Stations of the Cross or the Rosary and you think of actions which become instinctive, and a process which has a satisfying shape. Think of the Office and what comes to mind is a book.

The second reason for the lack of vitality in the Office tradition is an ambivalent attitude towards it by the clergy, who still form attitudes in parishes. Centuries of private recitation and a sense of obligation shading into the feeling of a burden have meant that the communal aspect of it is difficult to grasp. It is something which still divides clergy from laity: we have to do it, you can choose to do it. In these circumstances it is difficult for people in general to take possession of it. And they are not given the chance to experience it; when non-Eucharistic services are planned in a parish, Evening Prayer is rarely suggested.

The first Christians would have prayed at set times, either privately or publicly, as a normal part of daily life. It was a Christian custom, not a clerical or lay one. This sense that this is an activity the whole church takes part in is something which we need to recover, not as a piece of liturgical archaeology but because it is simply our duty - and possibly our delight to pray, in ways which are appropriate to the time of day. In the evening, for instance, we look back and thank God for the day that is passing.

Not that liturgical archaeology is to be sniffed at. What lies behind this new publication is the recovery of a way of celebrating Evening Prayer which had been lost for centuries. Confusingly, liturgical historians call this the 'Cathedral' Office. This distinguishes it from the monastic office, but to modem ears it has echoes of evensong in big gothic buildings. The Introduction to the new publication describes them as follows:

These liturgies were for the whole Church; they were colourful and action centred. As well as lighting lamps and burning incense, people moved around the church, pausing at the font, the cross, special relics and so on. Something of this still lives on when, for instance, we celebrate the Way of the Cross as a procession around the church, or the Taize custom of Friday evening 'Prayer around the Cross'. These liturgies were acts of worship for everyone, not just clergy, but celebrated regularly in the big city churches built at the time by the whole community of the Church: bishop, priests and people.

In the last twenty years celebrations of this type have been revived. Praise God in Song published by GIA in the early 1980s, closely followed by Paul Inwood's Evening Prayer from the St Thomas More Centre, revived the Lucernarium or lighting of the lamps, and demonstrated that simple, relatively unchanging forms of Evening Prayer as an alternative to the intricate mechanism of the Divine Office provided a liturgy with genuine popular appeal. Recent hymnbooks such as Laudate and The Celebration Hymnal routinely include simple Evening Prayer so it is already accessible to parishes. Music, simple movement, incense, candles, and the opportunity to pray both aloud and in silence combine to give this form of Evening Prayer the potential to spread.

Until now it has had an air of being 'unofficial'. The new publication is backed by the authority of the Bishops, an important step.

To succeed, it requires people to believe in it. In a parish the task of organizing Evening Prayer might be delegated by the priest to the musicians or prayer group leaders. This would take a burden off the clergy on a day which is busy enough anyway, and would show that the whole parish takes responsibility for its prayer life.

CSEP is published in July, price £25. Containing complete orders of service, seasonal variations, rubrics and notes, it comes with a CD which includes both the complete text and templates for the production of service sheets. However, it should not be seen as a book. Rather, it is the script for an action involving much more than words.

Article © 2006 Stephen Dean