So what in the world is praying a daily office? At its pared down core, it is simply a form of prayer. The daily office is a pattern of prayer and worship that is regularly practiced/offered to God at set times within the course of a single day. It’s rooted in the simple reality that just like we require a mug to enjoy a sip of coffee, so we need a form for our prayers.
I regularly come across people who figure that for prayer to be real and genuine, it has to be spontaneous and extemporary. We assume that praying printed words are lifeless ritual and that only spontaneous prayers truly flow from the heart (we don’t realize what slaves we are to self-expression and how we’ve just idolized personal originality). We figure prayer should be like musical improvisation, something spontaneous and free. But talk to any musician about this reality and they’ll quickly tell you that only the most accomplished musicians can improvise, and only after mastering the musical forms and structures that set in place the foundation for improvisation.
Or think of a performance of a virtuoso musical piece that has undone your heart, whether it’s a Mozart concerto or a U2 anthem – what is that but the faithful performance of a written musical score. Yet that set music can soar like pure freedom, pierce your heart and reduce you to tears, and feel naturally spontaneous in the moment. Likewise in prayer, we find a freedom and depth in our communion with God as we learn the words and forms that help us commune with God. For us beginners in prayer (which is most of us), we need to learn an adequate container to carry our prayed life to God, which the office provides.
Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t riff off into spontaneous expression and ecstasy in your prayers. I love the wisdom in an old Puritan pastor (I find a loads of wisdom in dead Christians), William Law, who wrote: “Christians ought to use forms of prayer at all the regular times of prayer. It seems right for everyone to begin with a form of prayer. If, in the midst of his devotions, he finds his heart ready to break forth into new and higher strains of devotions, he should leave his form for a while and follow those fervors of his heart till it again wants the assistance of his usual petitions.”
The daily office provides a pattern that frees one to enjoy prayer as an extended conversation with God – God inviting you to be with him, you quietly enjoying his presence, listening to his Word, and responding to him with the reality of your life, and God sending you with his blessing.
The term “office” comes from the Latin officum (opus, work, and facere, to do). The daily office is the work of prayer, the duty of prayer, which is the service of all Christians to God. There are many names for this practice and they’re all referring to this same practice (fixed-hour prayer, divine office, divine hours, liturgy of the hours, canonical hours). To pray the daily office, or the hours, does not mean it requires 60 minutes (often more like 10-20); rather, it simply means you pray at a particular hour or set times throughout the day.
Typically, it begins with an invitation to prayer, a call to open up to the reality of God’s Kingdom. A psalm is always a part of the daily office; praying through the Psalter is one of the oldest ways God’s people have regularly prayed. They are, as St. Augustine said, “the school of prayer.” A further selection of scripture is prayed through, the aim being to frame our days with the story of God. There are also times for silence, quiet spaces in our 24/7, wired lives to be still, wait, listen and respond to God. Included are prayers of petition and intercession, either free or written/set prayers, often along with the Lord’s Prayer. Each time of prayer concludes with a blessing from God.
If you want to give it a try, check out either my book Seeking God’s Face or a few other good resources for praying the daily office: