As my students in the School for Diaconal Formation know, I am terrible at teaching the daily offices. The offices have never really been part of my devotional life, so I don’t have any real understanding of them. I’m attracted to the romantic figure of Nicholas Ferrar, whose community at Little Gidding kept the flame of the practice of praying the offices alive in the late 16th to early 17th centuries. How could I not be drawn to someone who was a friend of George Herbert’s and an inspiration to T.S. Eliot? But I don’t really understand Ferrar, in part because I don’t really understand the offices.
I understand the eucharist. When we celebrate communion together, we are aligning our soul’s with Christ’s self-emptying. The word for this self-emptying is kenosis, and it happens both in the incarnation, when God is born as a human being, and on the cross, when God is killed as a human being. Divinity empties itself of divinity to become human, humanity empties itself of humanity to become divine. This is the pattern that Jesus established, and the eucharist calls us to imitate it. We, who are human, must empty ourselves of our control, our brokenness, our clinging after comfort, our focus on happiness, and everything else that keeps us locked away within our small selves. The eucharist assures us that we will not be abandoned in the midst of this emptying. Jesus will be with us in our daily meals and in all of the ordinary little moments of our lives. Indeed, we act in response to grace so that we can see beyond the veil of our self-centeredness to all the ways that divinity is already and always present in our lives.
But what of the offices? How do they work on our souls? Not having made a regular practice of them, I don’t know. Many of the people whom I respect the most pray the offices regularly, can shut their eyes and say the words of the canticles and collects, just as I can shut my eyes and say the words of the Eucharistic prayer. I have never thought to ask them to reflect on the way that that praying the offices transforms their souls. That is my mistake, and this period of time during which the daily offices are becoming necessarily central is an opportunity to make up for that mistake. I don’t know if my piety will ever truly align itself to the offices. But I’ve never really explored the possibility. This may be the moment when the gift of that possibility should be accepted, with humility and hope.