Amateur Hour: On Prayer

Note: I wrote this reflection for the forthcoming letter of the Fellowship of St. Augustine, a group of friends and associates of St. Augustine’s House in Oxford, Michigan.

Of all my memories of my first visit to St. Augustine’s house over a decade ago, the one that stands out with the most unexpected clarity is the readings at Vigils: the Book of Joshua and The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger. The lengthy liturgical reading of Scripture and theology was new to me, and while with the early hour and the many psalms it tested my liturgical endurance, it also became one of my treasured experiences.

Before and after that visit I made attempts—usually short-lived—at keeping the Daily Office in some form. I could fairly plead that my life only got more complicated after that first retreat, with marriage, children, and ordination following in short order. And in that moment right before the advent of the smartphone and the omnipresence of social media, my attention was still more or less my own.

But that memory of the burning candles and the grave, deliberate voice of Father Richard [now Brother Richard, following his reception into the Catholic Church] did bear fruit. When I came to my present call, I started keeping morning prayer with more regularity. First I relied on the Catholic iBreviary app, which was a fine and user-friendly resource. When I found myself missing too much of the psalter and Scripture, I simply used the Morning Prayer service from the Book of Common Prayer with a continual reading of a chapter of the Old Testament, a chapter from ancient or medieval Christian literature, and the psalms. I gave up the attempt to follow any sort of lectionary and made only the most minor concessions to days and seasons in the interest of always knowing where I was and what was next.

All the same, this strictly amateur and highly accommodated attempt at daily prayer did become ingrained in my work. My first task when I arrive at church—before checking email or any meetings—was always to pray. On those days when I arrived late, I would turn to the Order for Noonday. I found that it was a smaller commitment of time than of habit and intention. Once it took hold, however, it shaped my pastoral work for the better to hear from God, voice my intentions, and offer my sacrifice of praise before doing anything else.

I’ve now been through psalter translations from Robert Alter, the Jewish Publication Society, the Authorized Version, and both the Book of Common Prayer and the NRSV several times. It took me about three and a half years to complete the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, an experience whose emotional peaks and valleys, unexpected discoveries, unsought motifs and heartbreaking attention to detail transformed my relationship with the Biblical text. It took me about two and a half years (including a substantial hiatus after the birth of a child) to finish a complete edition of The City of God, including all those oddities, digressions, and fixations that redactors take away from Augustine but that give his work a curious and empathetic fascination. I was even able to turn that overbearing online dimension of modern life to some good, giving and receiving concerns from people I know only from social media for daily intercession.

There were tines when this felt quite tedious. More than once I flipped ahead to see how many chapters there were about the Maccabees anyway (as I remember doing, in the interest of full disclosure, with the psalms in those long-ago Vigils services). But the sheer accumulation of vastness joined to the repeated elements of praise and the ever-evolving list of intercessions gave me a humble, grateful perspective on my faith and life that I could not have otherwise known I was missing. As I reached those last few chapters of City, where Augustine talks about the play of light on the sea and the consolations of this life of punishment that merely prefigure the glories to be revealed, I felt something like grief at being parted, at my prayer and hearing going on to a new companion. Now, among the few items of advice I can reliably urge from personal experience on seminarians is this: cultivate and defend your daily prayer life, whatever it takes.

A few necessary caveats: the foregoing describes a private and individual, rather than corporate and public, prayer practice. On occasion I have been joined by one of my children or a curious friend, but I have made no attempt to integrate my daily prayer into the life of the parish. While I would have loved and perhaps preferred to do that, I found that I needed a flexibility of timing that is not compatible with parish prayer services.

Second, this has primarily been a workplace rather than a home devotion. At home I have had some success in involving my children with the brief and unvarying structure of Compline. But the household devotions offered in the Small Catechism as well as quite abundantly in Catholic and Orthodox traditions are probably more suitable.

Finally, while I did make use of this daily practice in reflection, and while it certainly shaped my preaching and writing in indirect ways, this has not been a substitute for true study of Scripture or theology. I have found the modes of attention in prayer and study to be very different, and both are better served by keeping them separate.

Nevertheless, I am grateful for the instruction in hearing and prayer that I received those many years ago. While I have never been and likely never will be able to pray as one professed to a life of prayer, it helped me begin to pray as one who loves—as an amateur—and that has shaped my life and my ministry in profound and lasting ways.

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