December 2, 2020

Sunday Formation Talk: Liturgical Prayer


Seven times a day I praise you
for your righteous ordinances.

• Psalm 119:164

Sacred reading, manual work, and liturgical prayer constitute the threefold footing of our daily life.

• Fr. Charles Cummings

• • •

On this Lord’s Day, we continue our consideration of teachings from Fr. Charles Cummings’ book, Monastic Practices. We are exploring what the practices of those who follow cloistered vocations might have to teach people in ordinary callings, so that Christ might be formed more fully in us for our daily lives.

Today, we will be discussing the second of the three foundational daily practices of the monastic life: Liturgical Prayer. Of this practice, Fr. Cummings writes:

In liturgical prayer, as in sacred reading, we encounter the word of God. Our concern is to go from the written or spoken word of God to a living encounter with the Word that is God. (p. 24)

In a monastery like Gethsemani Abbey, where I have had the privilege of taking retreats, there is a daily schedule when the community comes together for prayer. Here is the daily schedule:

    • 3:15am Vigils
    • 5:45am Lauds
    • 6:15am Eucharist
    • 7:30am Terce
    • 12:15pm Sext
    • 2:15pm None
    • 5:30pm Vespers
    • 7:00pm Rosary
    • 7:30pm Compline

In each of these gatherings, the brethren chant the psalms, sing hymns, hear readings from other Scriptures, and respond with words from their particular liturgy. In his book, Fr. Cummings notes that these habitual times of prayer shape the day and infuse Christ’s presence into what is done at other times.

Liturgical prayer should be seen in continuity with all our daily activities, not as something separate from the rest of our day or as a sacred moment stolen from profane time and unconnected with the practical business of living. As we come together to pray and worship we bring with us the concerns we carry throughout the day and we lay them before the Lord of blessing. Liturgical prayer is a center around which our other preoccupations are grouped like concentric rings, so that they are all influenced and blessed by that central core-activity where we encounter the living Christ, to whom nothing is to be preferred. (p. 25)

Cummings grounds this practice in three aspects of our identity in Christ:

  • 15135154176_dba831f65f_zWe are a priestly people. By reason of our baptism, we all equally share in the priesthood of Christ and participate in the pleasing sacrifice of worship he himself brings to the Father.
  • We are the bride of Christ. As Vatican II affirmed, “The divine office [i.e. the practice of liturgical prayer] is truly the voice of the Bride addressing her Bridegroom.” Liturgical prayer is an expression of our covenantal relationship with God, in which there is continual dialogue: call and response, listening and answering.
  • We are the city of God. In Christ, God has come to dwell with his people; we belong to him and he is God always with us. In anticipation of the New Jerusalem, we form his temple on earth, where his glory dwells and from which prayers ascend day and night like incense.

One helpful reminder we find in this book: liturgical prayer, along with all aspects of Christian living, is practiced by embodied human beings.

The evangelical world from which I came tends to view prayer either as something “spiritual” or in commonsense terms, like a strictly verbal interchange with a friend. Because prayer is “spiritual,” there is little recognition of the use of means when praying and such use is often dismissed as superstitious. And the “commonsense” view ends up as a one-way casting of words to the sky, since God rarely if ever talks back audibly.

Liturgical prayer recognizes the sensory dimensions of prayer and answers questions like: “How do we pray in space and time?” and “How do we pray with the body, so that our whole self prays?” (p. 31). Therefore, whether in the sanctuary as a gathered community praying the daily offices or as an individual praying the hours or having a daily devotional time, this type of prayer encourages the use of means such as the psalms, devotional readings, prayer books and set prayers, as well as sensory aids such as special times and places set aside for prayer, music, candles, incense, the visual arts, interaction with nature, special prayer garments, and physical objects such as prayer beads or other tactile aids. Various postures of the body are encouraged: standing, sitting, kneeling, walking, bowing, dancing, raising hands, making the sign of the cross, etc. Cummings reminds us that these helps are to be used freely and without compunction. They are forms designed to serve the content and the spirit of prayer, not the other way around.

One more point to help us in the practice of liturgical prayer:

14972201759_1af9689ddb_mThe psalms are the heart of the divine office. The psalter is both our book of prayers and our school of prayer; the more we grasp the deepest meaning of these inspired prayers and make them our own personal prayer, the more our mind is lifted up to God and our heart opened to God’s saving power.

. . . It is by continual use of the psalms, or phrases from them as our personal prayers that we become attuned to them and grow to savor them. There are psalms to resonate with all our moods and emotions. If the office puts a psalm of praise on our lips when we are feeling depressed, it helps expand our horizon beyond the narrow limits of our present difficulty. The life history of God’s chosen people, with all its ups and downs, is retold in the psalter. The psalter helped the early Christian community find categories in which to reflect on the mystery of Jesus, because the Messiah is in the psalms also. We may even read our own life story in the psalms as in a mirror that reflects what we have been, what we now experience, and what we aspire to. We can pray the psalms in the name of the Church, in the name of Christ, and as expressions of our own living relationship with the Lord. (p. 35f)

There is an old motto, repeated by Fr. Cummings: “A psalm always on the lips, Christ always in the heart.”


  1. And here is an invitation from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to young people, made in the hope that monastic renewal will not only help form young Christians in the ancient disciplines of following Christ, but also re-invigorate the theological and spiritual depths of the Church for post-modernity:

  2. One thing I particularly appreciate about liturgical prayer is that the repetitive cycles of it allow you to really catch a particular bit each time. I serve Vespers at least twice a week, hear the 3rd and 6th hours at least once a week, etc – yet something new or different strikes me each time, and that is what I consciously take home with me.

    What I subconsciously take home with me is an accidental memorization, such that when I see a beautiful thing in nature, nearly the whole of Ps 104 pours out of my mind in reaction.

    The opposite thing happens, too. When I am down, one of the lamenting psalms goes off in my head until I hit a contradiction. For instance, I’ll be praying one like, “When my spirit is faint, thou knowest my way. In the path that I walk, they have hidden a trap for me. I look to the right and watch, but there is none who takes notice of me. No refuge remains to me, no man cares for me…” and then I realize that though I am in a tough situation, there are people that care for me, and I do have a refuge, and I am reminded to be grateful for what I have in the midst of my trouble.

  3. Geoff Smart says

    I have often thought that ,as evangelicals, we tend to critisise “historical churches” for reading prayers from a book – that is not spiritual, that was written down by someone else, yet we happily sing song’s from a book or overhead without question. Yet they are crafted, inspired, tested by time – which is more than can be said for a lot of the songs we sing!!

    • Point.

      • Game, set, match, actually. Indeed, I distinctly recall the 1980s awkwardness of waiting for the Minister of Unauthorized Hand-Transcribed Transparencies to fumble around for a given chorus, even though every single person present could sing the song from memory. (I mean, who doesn’t know “This Is the Day”?) So not only was everyone OK with singing other people’s words, they seemed unwilling to do so without the visual prop!

        But I fear a segue into the topic of overhead projectors….

        • I think this opens up a “can of worms”. Sometimes it seems to me, that churches evangelical (and others), need and have to fill the time with noise and activity – very little time is given over to quiet reflection etc.
          Does worship and praise always have to be noisy?

          I’m sorry if I’m starting off something here.

          • David Cornwell says

            Actually I think your comment is to the point. Some of my early introductions to group prayer were absolutely terrible, with an entire classroom of people praying aloud, different prayers, seemingly using elevated voices in order to contact God. To me it was confusing, irritating, and disrupting of any prayerful attitude. It seemed, to me, that they were wanting to impress God with their spirituality. It definitely was not the place for quiet people or introverts.

            Liturgical prayer seems just the opposite of this. And the theology of liturgical prayer, offered by Fr. Charles Cummings, show us how this is true.

  4. In my walk I take notice that during the day I am doing a lot of the things summarized in the we ares as well as the times I stop and the spirit of God falls on me in power and this worship comes in response. They happen in the hardest work days when I have trouble and then again when I have joy. It is then I know how much I am loved. Yesterday was so beautiful to me the entire day I was sure I could be off at any moment. Yet still there are things to do here in my hopes. I am not Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, evangelical and ect., ect. yet I am all of these. What I see is a body posed to be exactly what it was called to be and is heading there even as dysfunctional as it might look to us. These Books of Common prayer are of great interest to me as I would like to do this but I don’t know where to start or which one would be best for me and my style. My style is to pour out my love in a personal way by my own words from my heart yet I know that there must be more like me I could join with in a common way.

    • I’m sorry posed has and I in it for poised

    • Not coming from this background I totally missed this. I think I must do more reading. Wish I could just delete it

    • w,

      You might find “Celtic Daily Prayer” from the Northumbria Community, available online ( – click on “Join us in our daily prayer” to the right of the screen). From what you have written on iMonk so far, it might be a good fit for you; you can try it and see. If you like it, you could get the print version. It’s contemporary English, but draws on a mix of the spiritual heritages of the founders of the Community, along with a strong injection of the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

      The Northumbria Community was started in the late ’70s by an “ecumenical” group of serious Christians – British Baptists, Methodists, non-denoms, Anglicans and Catholics – taking inspiration from what we know about the ethos of the early Christians of Ireland, Scotland and northern England. I used their book for about 10 years. While I was in the wilderness, it really helped me have a prayer life connected to the “ancient paths” and to Christians around the world.


    • Just remember, if you find a prayer book you are able to appropriate for your personal devotional use, it doesn’t have to rule out spontaneous prayer from the heart. In my family, we use both together. Our prayer time together has a part in our brief sequence where we simply lay whatever concerns are troubling us before our gracious Father in heaven, usually preceded by the Lord’s prayer and followed by a collect or two. A lot of the time we skip this part because we find it more important that we pray at all, and consistently, than that we pray in a particular manner. We lean more heavily on the set forms and psalms because they give us a consistent discipline that helps us develop a daily rhythm of worship. Our prayers are no less legitimate if we don’t use the form or if we don’t deviate from it, but for me personally, not having to be spontaneous in prayer while still having the freedom to is something that makes prayer a more inviting discipline.

      I highly recommend the Book of Common prayer (1979 Episcopal version) for a first breviary. I think it is the easiest to use, has the smallest learning curve, and it is very directly focused on the words of Scripture as the substance and model of prayer. I use mostly Lutheran resources these days, but I will always be grateful for the tremendous impact that book has had on my life in teaching me to love prayer and understand the interrelation of the various scriptures it ties together.

  5. Asinus Spinas Masticans says

    I’m going to plug a Reformed book here – The Valley Of Vision, by Arthur Bennett.

    It is a collection of prayers written by great Reformed divines, and it is, in my opinion, very simply the best book ever produced by that tradition.

    • That it certainly is. I keep a copy for reference. However, I do find the pervasive rationalism, pietism, and worm theology to be more wearisome than comforting at times. The daily prayers are nice, but generally speaking, Concordia’s “Lutheran Book of Prayer” is much more practical and comforting.

      • “Worm theology”, I like that one Miguel. Please forgive me in advance for stealing it.

        • Not mine. I stole it from somebody else, though I can’t remember who. It’s the emphasis on what a worthless piece of crap I am to the exclusion of the New Adam. It’s not that I don’t think it’s true, it’s just that is Law focused prayer. I’d rather pray with the Gospel.

          • Worm Theology goes with the Calvinist T – total depravity. Don’t tend to get it in Arminian churches 🙂

          • Lutherans embrace total depravity as well. It is a hallmark of monergism. But it isn’t the only source of worm theology.

            I was raised in an Arminian church where worm theology was very present. You have two things that happen in Arminian churches: Monergism replaced by fundamentalism, where you’re just brow-beaten for being a worthless sinner with the only hope offered being “TRY HARDER,” or the equal opposite counter-reaction, where we’re not really that bad, nobody’s perfect, but our we are not so depraved that our wills cannot cooperate with God in accomplishing our salvation (decision theology).

            Total Depravity in Lutheranism is a much more scriptural way of dealing with man’s brokenness: Dead in trespasses. Dead men don’t act. They don’t make decisions. They can’t even crawl like a worm. New life is simply given them from above by another, not as a result of more effort (fundamentalism), wise choices (decision theology), or the lucky role of the dice (Calvinism).

      • David Cornwell says

        Frank Herbert’s “Dune” contains a quite rigorous “worm” theology.

  6. Thanks for the recommendation, Asine. I’ll look for it.

  7. ‘The evangelical world from which I came tends to view prayer either as something “spiritual” or in commonsense terms, like a strictly verbal interchange with a friend. ‘

    I wonder whether it’s actually bigger than this, to wit, that Christians in general approach the act of prayer (however specified/unspecified by a given tradition) differently than do other religions.

    On this point, I recall reading about an American Christian woman who walked into a coworker’s office to ask him a question, and found him engaged in one of his daily prayers towards Mecca. Embarrassed, she withdrew and later apologized to him. What he said in response has stuck with me for years: “You shouldn’t be embarrassed, because prayer for Muslims is a public rather than a private act. On the other hand, you Westerners are comfortable with PDAs, whereas we Muslims prefer to restrict them to the realm of the private.”

    Given Jesus’ words about prayer closets, I think it’s inevitable that Christian practice will lean towards the private. But it seems to me that Islam makes the valid, if narrow, point that public prayer can be potentially liberating. For now, however, it feels like public Christian acts of prayer (e.g., “Meet Me at the Pole” or prayer for invocations for God to bless the football game before we start yelling at the refs) are more about tribal boundaries than about actual interaction with God.

  8. I also find that Liturgical prayer, whether alone or with others, can carry me past my moods and attitudes at any given moment. When I am alone and don’t know what to pray, I can trust the words and prayers from Scripture or the saints to carry me through. And, the formal Liturgy (Mass, for me) is USUALLY an oasis of joy and sharing with Christ and His people….but not always. Yesterday, we went to evening Mass [due to some unusual commitments that kept us from our normal 8:30 am Mass routine] and I felt like CRUD. I had a headache and was queasy and distracted, we had a visiting priest, and it was too darned hot in the church. I was cranky and mad at myself for not being able to “get into the Spirit”. Nevertheless, the rhythm and familiar prayers, echoed by those around me (who I do not know as well as the “eight-thirty group”) got me past myself into joining into the worship of those with me physically as well as the communion of saints.

    • David Cornwell says

      Pattie, you sound so human! I wish the services I attend now were more like the ones you are describing. I’m at place in life where I’ve had to make some changes, and yet I find I’m not totally happy with the new direction. None of us go to perfect churches, so how are we to adjust and try to make up the difference? This kind of prayer and worship is what brings balance to life, and yet …

    • “I also find that Liturgical prayer, whether alone or with others, can carry me past my moods and attitudes at any given moment.”

      Yes, this!

  9. Lately I’ve noticed I sometimes pray without being able to form words, hoping the Word knows what words I’m failing to convey.

    • Then why not just use the words that have been given you by the Word? I really think it’s silly to say “I’d like to be coherent but I don’t know where to begin.” Christ has taught us how to pray.

      • I should have clarified, this new “form” of prayer of mine (new to me, maybe old to others) is when it’s about a concern I don’t even know how to articulate a “request” or “petition” for. There are certain circumstances lately that I’m so unclear of “God’s will” that I can’t even pray a clear prayer of words, so I toss it up to the Word. Coherency isn’t the problem as much as knowing God’s will.

        • This is where “Lord, have mercy” works really well.

          Fr Anthony Bloom of blessed memory taught that in Greek the stem for the word mercy and the stem for the word olive are the same, and when one said “olive” one was understood to mean “olive oil” because the oil was used for everything to “make it better.” So when one prays “Lord, have mercy,” one is not trying to get God to forgive something, or not be angry, but rather one is saying, “Lord, please work your healing in this situation.”

          Sometimes (maybe most of the time?) we can’t know what “God’s will” is for any particular situation, for various reasons. But we don’t need to despair; scripture says that God’s will is for us to give thanks in everything, to seek to be made holy, and trust that God wants to bring his ultimate healing to all.


          • thank you for that connection between ‘mercy’ and olive oil . . . I found this very beautiful: ” “Lord, please work your healing in this situation.” as a connection to ‘Lord, have mercy’

    • Rick, I believe Paul covers that, or rather the Spirit covers it when we have groanings we can’t put into words. Not to light off a firestorm, but that would seem to be the basis for what gets called speaking in tongues. My daughter used to sing in tongues before she could talk plainly. Highly beautiful, I’m sure even more pleasing to God than to me. Not that you can’t use liturgical prayer as well.

      • The gift of tongues is a powerful tool for devotions and healing ministry. Of course, like everything else it can be used in an unbiblical way

      • I sometimes pray in tongues. This is bit different than that. This is more of a “I don’t know what you want me to pray for, so you pray for me, Jesus.”

        • This is where we orthodox folks would pray “Lord, have mercy”, trusting that He knows what mercy is better than we do. It is a universal prayer, for you, for your loved ones, for the world.

    • Words are not necessary unless you are of the mind that they really are in a particular instance. ‘Being’ in Him is beyond words and that isn’t esoteric mumbo jumbo. It’s where love begins. Maybe the silence is where he is drawing you at this juncture. My wife wants me to be in the room with her but doesn’t need to hear me go on. A time for words and a time for silence.