Thursday, June 4, 2015

The bell for Morning Prayer

When the bell over St. Paul's Chapel rings at 8:25am on weekdays, it is more than a signal to those making their way to Morning Prayer: it is also reminding the resident animals and birds to praise their Maker; it is reminding the Rouge River of its vocation to find the sea; it is reminding the towering stone and watchful statues of their ancient and persistent purpose.

Aren't those things obvious? Why bother with bell-ringing and psalm-saying? Why put so much energy into a church service where no one even passes a collection plate?

Without the bells and the psalms the world would go on, but in a stunted, starved version of itself. There is something the landscape is always trying to say, but lacks the words. The traditional shapes and rhythms of the Daily Office seek to supply that language and speak those words, using symbolic  forms  developed through centuries of monastic practice as symbolic commentary to the tidal, the seasonal, and the catastrophic life that transpires all around us. Each morning in St. Paul’s Chapel  our liturgical phrases and movements are joined to those uttered by the robins and crows, by variant breezes, by passing traffic on Lone Pine Road, and by the people who have prayed, studied, loved, and been buried on this site. The Daily Office translates this inchoate sound into worship, into words beyond concepts, values beyond worth, wisdom beyond explanation. 

The Latin word officium  means “duty”, “service”, or “job”. Hence, we go to the “office” to “work.” The “Daily Offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer constitute, therefore, the “work of worshipping God”, and have the connotation of a disciplined, intentional effort, as opposed to a spontaneous or occasional outburst of some kind.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that the form and practice of the Daily Office had its origins in the monastic movement, wherein, from the 4th Century onward, groups of men and women vowed to maintain lives completely focused upon God.  Monastic communities sought to sanctify the natural rhythms of each day with chanted psalms, short readings from scripture, and prayers. Over time, parish churches, cathedrals, and school chapels adapted the monastic pattern to their own circumstances, with clergy and lay people coming together to perform offices of prayer on behalf of neighbors and friends whose officium  in the world made their physical presence at church difficult .