It was the poet George Herbert who finally pushed me into it. I had been resisting Morning Prayer for years. It was on my list of “shoulds,” but my heart wasn’t in it. Most mornings, I was alone – and it seemed silly to pray a public service in private. The pronouns for this service are plural – “Lord, open our lips,” “Let us confess our sins;” it felt like I was praying in the royal “we.”
So for years, I just read the Scriptures assigned at the back of the Book of Common Prayer for the Daily Office – i.e. the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. It was while preparing for a Quiet Morning on Herbert’s The Temple that I read about his practice of praying both services every day. I could have guessed this, but this time the reality of it hit me. I could see and hear how the images and cadences of the prayers became second nature to him. He carried the words not just in his mind, but in his heart and imagination. He could make meaning and beauty with them. I wanted to have that kind of eloquence in me too, so I finally committed to daily Morning Prayer – whether or not I physically had someone to pray the words with me.
Among the treasures, I found this:
O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p. 99)
Herbert would not have known this prayer. It was arranged by William Reed Huntington (1838-1909) at a time when division was a denomination-wide problem. The issues at stake were different from today, but the need for solace was the same.
I’m not sure where I draw the most comfort from this prayer. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgment that a faithful life is difficult, if not impossible to discern on our own. We are beset by desires that, if not wrong, are often confused and misdirected. Even when our intentions are good, the law of love is not automatic for us. The way of peace is not obvious, and even when we stumble onto it, we need help staying there. I appreciate that all these realities are a given in this prayer. We don’t have to pretend strength or piety we don’t have. We can daily place all that we are in God’s hands and trust that God knows what to make of the mess.
I also value the larger frame we’re given here. The truth is – we are not in control of the times and seasons of our lives. Sometimes the night lasts longer than we ever thought possible; sometimes it’s the day and its demands that never seem to end. We’re reminded here that neither will last forever, at least not on this side of eternity. In the meantime, we can trust in the One who, in Louis Armstrong’s words, brings us both “the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night.”
No matter which time or season we find ourselves in today, we are not alone. Morning Prayer, with all of its pesky plural pronouns, reminds me of that. Perhaps George Herbert gave me just the push I needed.