by Chris Labadie
This semester, as part of Fr. Anthony’s School of Theology•Seminary course on the Liturgy of the Hours, we had the assignment of praying an intentional “office” experience and journaling about how the prayer connected with our daily life and the course materials.
I chose to spend the week of Easter praying morning and evening prayers from Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book. This was a fascinating exercise – coming from my usual base in the more traditional aspects of Catholic liturgy – because historically the Anabaptist worship tradition is much freer and rooted in the movement of the Spirit. “Anabaptist” is an umbrella term for various groups growing out of the “Radical Reformation” – Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, Brethren, Bruderhof, Apostolic Christian Church – but from what I have researched Take our Moments and Days is associated primarily with Mennonites. The idea that there would be a set form of liturgical worship in the Anabaptist tradition intrigued me because I wondered how this would work with the freer worship style.
I am fairly well steeped in the Roman office tradition, and rather “traditional” in my liturgical and theological sensibilities, so this experience was quite different from the way that I usually pray.
The offices (I use this term for the sake of convenience, fully aware that it would probably not be the preferred term for an Anabaptist) are arranged fairly simply around a three-part structure: the Call to Praise, the Call to Discipleship, and the Call to Intercession. The Call to Praise includes a psalm, thanksgiving prayers prayed by the assembly aloud or silently, and a song of praise or thanksgiving. The second section consists of two fairly lengthy readings – one from a Gospel and the other from a New Testament book – followed by a reflection or silence, and then another hymn, followed by the canticle. The editors were not limited to the traditional Catholic choices of the Benedictus and Magnificat and so there are a wide variety to choose from throughout the year. The prayers for the week of Easter are thematically linked by using the Philippians hymn (Philippians 2:5-11) as the canticle and basing the prayers and versicles on parts of that hymn. The final section has scripture-based intercessory prayer, a loose collect-like prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and a benediction. Many of the elements repeat from day to day, which fosters memorization, and all of the elements are optional and can be adapted in whatever way the assembly or individual desires.
I began with Easter Sunday, so my experience corresponded to the Easter Octave – although they would repeat this same week of prayers until Pentecost. Each prayer took anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes depending on which of the elements I included. I did notice some basics which seemed to parallel the idea of a “Cathedral office” in which some of the more common and well-known psalms were chosen, as well as the repetition for memorization. In some ways it seemed like a “communal people’s office,” as if one were to take Give Us This Day and use it as a communal prayer service. I enjoyed the emphasis on Scripture, even though sometimes it was more subtle than I would have liked. I think that to an Anabaptist, for whom Scripture is a bigger part of the personal faith journey, these subtle references would have been much more obvious.
One reason I chose to pray this Anabaptist office during Easter was to get a taste of how they would incorporate the joy of the Resurrection into their prayer. It was interesting to me, then, that the first words of Easter Sunday morning are “He humbled himself, and he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, therefore God lifted him high.” While I recognize the importance of putting the Resurrection in context with the Passion, it seemed odd to me to begin Easter Sunday with Jesus humbling himself to the point of death on a cross. Is this a characteristically Anabaptist emphasis on humble service rather than triumphalism?
In the Roman tradition we break our forty day fast from “Alleluia” by proclaiming it as many times as we can (at least ten times during Morning Prayer alone). In the Anabaptist tradition there is one Alleluia in the prayers for the entirety of Easter Sunday. Something just felt off for me because it seemed as though Easter Sunday was just another day, not set apart in any particular way as a day of special celebration. There were times during the week when I ended up praying both the Anabaptist and Roman offices, fully recognizing the duplication, but needing to feel the connection to the season that I was not getting from the Anabaptist office.
In the first few days I missed the Benedictus and Magnificat, but by the end of the week the repetition of the Philippians hymn began to play off other elements in the office and give a little more weight to this “new” canticle. There is also quite a bit of space included in the structure for either silence or free prayer – which is great if I had the time to actually enter into that – but on some of the busier days (it was pushing towards finals!) it was too easy to just keep moving on to the next element. I think the silence was a very important part of what the editors were trying to do with this prayer, but unfortunately it was hard for me to engage silence as much as I would have liked.
During the course of the week I attempted two experiments. On Easter Monday I tested some of the adaptations suggested by the editors, which are there in order to facilitate everything from a person praying on their own, to a whole congregation worshiping on a Sunday. I was using the 1992 Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book in conjunction with Take Our Moments and Our Days, but on Monday I chose to skip the thanksgiving song and the reflection hymn. I also decided to do just the Gospel reading, skipping over the New Testament reading. At first I was disappointed in the morning to see that the editors chose to cut off the Emmaus pericope with Jesus interpreting the Scriptures. I thought for sure this was some theological statement about the Eucharist…until I prayed in the evening and found the breaking of the bread half of the pericope as the evening Gospel! Overall I found that these changes gave me more opportunity for silence because I did not feel as much pressure to rush off to something else.
My second experiment came later in the week when I realized that it was hard to differentiate between prayers for morning and prayers for evening. So I decided to try the morning prayers in the evening and vice versa. There was one reference to “evening” in “evening prayer” but it actually felt like some of the themes and words (“filled with your praise…with your glory all day long”; “God of new beginnings”) were more proper in the morning than they might have been in the evening. Similarly there was one reference to “morning” in the morning prayers, but other than that all of the psalms, readings, and versicles seemed to fit just as well in the evening.
Overall I found the experience of praying the Anabaptist office to be, for me, too much of a departure from the Roman office I am used to praying. The structure is similar in some respects, but there are enough elements that are different that I always felt a little uncomfortable. At the same time I recognize that I prayed this coming with my own biased experiences, and I think for an Anabaptist this makes a very fulfilling prayer in line with their traditions. For a Catholic I could see how it might be adapted as a nice prayer service during a retreat or some parish event, especially something centered on the Scriptures. It might also make a good alternative for people who find the Roman office to be too much, since Take our Moments and Our Days is designed to be adapted to each person’s needs.
The experience was fascinating, but in some ways it was too academic for me to get a real grasp on the actual praying. I would love to be able to experience this with a community who pray it regularly and find it to be life-giving so that I could truly experience daily prayer in the Anabaptist tradition.
I think it is great that some in the Anabaptist tradition recognized the desire for a more formalized daily prayer and responded by producing this wonderful prayer resource. But as for me, it would be hard to replace my Roman office.
Chris Labadie is a graduate student at the School of Theology•Seminary.