From when I was a teenager, silent mornings of Bible study and prayer rooted my spiritual life. This “quiet time” habit served me well—until I became a mother. And then, it was ripped away from me and I resented it.
Despite efforts to wake up before my children, their infallible instinct that I was awake, plus the creaks of our old house, made this time alone impossible. When we could manage it, my husband would watch our kids so that I could slip away. But it was never enough to fill me up for the demands of life with a toddler and infant. So, in my soul, I raged against my children. Because they were “bad sleepers,” I practically didn’t have a relationship with God anymore.
Of course, I tried to fit prayer and Scripture into the crannies of my day. But, inevitably, it was accidental, serendipitous – not part of the fundamental structure of my life. And, though I knew what Jesus said about not hindering the little children, I felt that they were hindering me.
Nowadays, my children are a little older and sleep a little better, but the fact that I’m not despairing anymore didn’t change because they slept better. To use an image from my unfolded (though clean) laundry, I found that my spiritual life was “inside-out.” The seams and tags were showing. Understanding that common prayer precedes private devotion turned spiritual life the right way out, so that I no longer feel like I must escape from my children in order to love God.
As a Baptist around ten years ago, my understanding of Christianity began shifting from an exclusive focus on individual relationship with God. Rather than maintaining some vague Jesus-and-me emotional cloud, I realized that becoming a Christian meant joining something bigger than me; it meant entering a kingdom, changing realms, giving my allegiance to what was objectively real. I understood that the Gospel wasn’t a mindset, but a historical reality that didn’t depend on my emotions to make it true.
Once we became Anglican, I saw how the liturgy in my church reflected that realization. But I did not understand how it came down to my daily, personal life. I knew about the Daily Office (the services of Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer), but I assumed it was interchangeable with whatever I wanted to do for my “quiet time.” Also, I had it in my mind that really, it was only supposed to be prayed as a gathered parish – so, praying it privately or as a family, while nice, was a stretch.
Fortunately, I read Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition. While I found the entire book compelling, Thornton’s discussion of the Benedictine Threefold Rule of Prayer was an epiphany. Put simply, the Threefold Rule of Prayer structures a spiritual life by the Eucharist, the daily office, and private devotion. The fact that the daily office and private devotion are different from each other, but are both crucial, set the stage for my shifts in spiritual practice.
The threefold Rule ensures the most perfect possible balance between the corporate and individual aspects of Christian life. It manifests both the corporate nature of the Body of Christ into which we are incorporated by Baptism, and the unique value and glory of every individual soul created in the image of God. . . With the use of both Office and private devotion, the Christian brings to our Lord in the Eucharist both selfless loyalty and his own unique gifts of oblation. 
Discovering the Daily Office
I began studying the development of the daily office and how God’s people have historically thought about common and private prayer. I learned that before the fourth century, the early Christians adapted set Jewish rhythms of prayer. As time passed, while the exact hours recommended by the various church fathers differed, set patterns of prayer – with the focus on morning and evening prayer — were assumed and non-negotiable. And, while these prayers were offered by individuals or by small groups of family and friends in homes, this was always understood as prayer with the church. Paul F. Bradshaw states:
The fact that second- and third- century Christians did not usually offer their daily prayers in formal liturgical assemblies does not mean that they thought of what they were doing as merely ‘private prayer’. As Cyprian makes clear, each person’s prayer was seen as being a participation in the prayer of the whole Church: ‘Before all things the Teacher of peace and Master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, so that when one prays, he does not pray for himself alone. . . . Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one.’
I then read George Guiver’s Company of Voices: Daily Prayer and the People of God which traces daily prayer throughout Church History. Guiver writes:
The individual as a microcosm of the Church, as someone who, even in solitude, prays with the Church, is a theme which can be detected through the history of Christian liturgical prayer. One thing it achieves is to support the efforts of the one who prays. Knowing that we are not alone, we realize that our small effort, poor as it seems, does not stand or fall by its own apparent success or failure (41).
Reading Guiver’s book made it increasingly clear that a prioritization of common prayer roots a Christian in a way of prayer that is profoundly human – an older way that has endured because it works within the limitations of real life.
And, of course, I grew to greatly appreciate Cranmer’s genius in recovering the Daily Office for normal lay people in the Book of Common Prayer. To return to Thornton’s English Spirituality, I learned that the Prayer Book is not just a matter of church services, but an ascetic system that allows normal Christians to follow Saint Benedict’s Threefold Rule, with common prayer as the ground for spiritual life:
When the Prayer Book is studied and used, publicly, privately, and constantly, then it takes on its true character of a comprehensive system. And the more it is used privately, the more it is seen to be the basis of an integrated religious life; something to be found not neatly stacked in the church bookcase but in the kitchen and in one’s pocket.
Why Does This Matter?
I was convinced that common prayer is prior to private devotion, but why would that come as such a relief to me? It means that I can pray with the church with my children. I don’t have to escape from them, coming up with clever ways to work my spiritual life into the random moments of my schedule. My life of prayer as a mother doesn’t have to be accidental, serendipitous. Instead, common prayer can compose the pillars of my day, as needed and normal as mealtimes.
This in no way diminishes the importance of private devotion, which flows out of the liturgy of common prayer. While private devotion is never dictated (since it’s the offering of ourselves to God that only we can give), according to Thornton, it normally works itself out in “habitual recollection” or “practicing the presence of God.” So, throughout my day, inspired by daily liturgy, I can be praying as I drive, singing hymns as I wash dishes, sneaking in theological reading in those lovely moments when my kids play by themselves. I can be more attentive to those rare and dear times when it is silent and I am alone, whispering “Here I am, Lord.” And, when common prayer is habitual, those moments feel more natural, part of the fabric of everyday life – not a matter of guilt — “Oh, I haven’t prayed at all today. Quick! I need to fit prayer in here.”
All that I’ve written so far does not mean that we are amazingly consistent, or that we do the full morning and evening offices daily as a family. We do a shortened form of the offices and sometimes, it’s not pleasant. But, it’s doable. Plus, my perspective has changed so that I don’t measure success in family prayer by the way that it feels, but by our consistency, which bears witness to the consistent, objective reality of the Kingdom of God. When able, I wake up earlier than my kids to pray the full morning office. But, if they wake up early, I don’t despair or rage like I did before. When I pray the office privately, I’m praying with the Church. When I pray the (shortened) office with my children, I’m praying with the Church. And since it’s “with two or three gathered together,” it will not be easier, but it may be – theologically– even better.
- Martin Thornton, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1986), 76-79. ↑
- Thornton, English Spirituality, 78. ↑
- Scot McKnight, Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006) 31-37 ↑
- Paul F. Bradshaw, “The First Three Centuries [The Divine Office]” in Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold SJ and Paul Bradshaw, eds., The Study of Liturgy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 399-403. ↑
- As someone who was primarily praying with the church with my family, I found it fascinating that the “patterns of prayer followed by many early monastic communities were little more than the preservation of the family prayers of former times.” (Bradshaw, “The First Three Centuries), 400). ↑
- Bradshaw, “The First Three Centuries,”400. ↑
- George Guiver CR, Company of Voices: Daily Prayer and the People of God (Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2001) 41. ↑
- Thornton, English Spirituality, 262. ↑