By MICHAEL PARKER
I returned to the Catholic church in 1991 as a cradle Catholic, who fell out of the cradle and out of the Church as a teenager. I was 26 years old, and had the good fortune to fall in with a group of dedicated and enthusiastic young Catholics through the Rejoice prayer group and the first three Hearts Aflame summer schools. After a few years, I felt that I needed more order and structure in my prayer life, rather than it being based on my subjective personal energy or preferences. So that wise director Fr Ernie Milne (who helped guide a generation of young Catholics in Auckland) introduced me to the Prayer of the Church. Father Milne kindly gave me his own large print book with the four-week cycle of morning and evening prayer, and antiphons for Sundays and the liturgical seasons. He taught me about the parts of the Office and praying the psalms, and so began my journey praying Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers).
The more the praying of the Office has continued, the more it has “opened out” to wider and wider vistas. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “Living Together”, he writes that “those who are praying the psalms are joining in with the prayer of Jesus Christ their intercessor”. Then there was the transcendent writing of Fr Louis Bouyer, who wrote that, in praying the psalms, we are praying the “words of God to God”. Then Saint Paul VI, who stated that Morning and Evening Prayer were the two “hinges” of the Office, and he encouraged laity to pray some part of the Liturgy of the Hours “according to the circumstances they find themselves”. The great teaching is that the praying of the prayer of the Church is the joining of the whole Church as the Body of Christ in offering prayer and intercession to the Father – so that no-one prays the office alone. I had the good fortune to be introduced to the Benedictine Rule by the fathers and brothers at Arcadia monastery in NSW. Seeing the link between the vertical praise of God – “Let nothing, therefore, be put before the Work of God (RB43)”, to the horizontal interpersonal reality of a 1500-year tradition of Benedictine hospitality. Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ (RB53).
Fr Milne taught me that it does not matter what is happening in your life, but to keep turning up to the office as moments during my day, so I could consciously return to God. I think the life lesson of “keep fronting up” is a good one and, apart from around three years, this has been my pattern. I see how God protects me by these constant returns to the Prayer of the Church.
Even with these enriching teachings, I struggle to match what is in my heart with the praying of the offices. Often it is a struggle to verbalise the office, and my prayer can be in competition with other interests and desires. I still pray morning and evening prayer daily, and try to fit in some short offices (mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon) on the weekend. The time required is not burdensome, but it can be a burden to keep going when my natural sensibilities to prayer have withered, and all that is left is the belief that I am not praying alone.
Praying the Prayer of the Church is not a static thing – there is still much I have to do, always starting again: including formation on the psalms, to study them so over-familiarity does not dull their meaning, to discipline myself not to rush; to be more reflective, Bishop Patrick Dunn said once, to take a line, a few words that speak to us from an Office and to hold it, to ponder it as prayer food given for our spirit each day.
The verse that struck me today was from Ps 118 – “You are my God I will give thanks to you, my God, I will give you praise”. I hold it, repeat it, lose it, reread it, I reflect – an echo of what is happening to me. After 26 years of praying the Office haphazardly, with God’s help I am to pray the Office for the rest of my life – this is not a resolution, but an important realisation. A realisation that it is not my work, but somehow mysteriously I have prayed parts of the Office for over a quarter of a century. Through seasons of pain, times of elation, through some long years of travail, fatigue, dryness, through all the pressures of life – it is as if it was not something I did, but God accomplished. When I look back on this I am ashamed that I have treated this work so poorly, often rushing, perfunctory reading with limited reflection on the meaning of passages, quickly turning to other interests after an Office, instead of trying to sustain a prayer conversation.
But this prayer on my own, which has, at times, been less what I wanted in my heart, is joined with others as part of the Body of Christ offering praise to the Father. I hope, as a lay person, to pray the Prayer of the Church for the rest of my life, knowing that I do not do this alone.
- Michael Parker is a Catholic from West Auckland.