Prayer has always been difficult for me. Growing up in the world of Evangelicalism, the highest form of prayer was always those spontaneous, off-the-cuff prayers that came “from the heart.” The more emotional and spiritual, the better.
Since leaving the Evangelical world and deconstructing most of the faith I grew up with, I’ve discovered the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, or the BCP. An Episcopal priest gifted me my copy sometime last year, and I’ve been attached to it ever since. It has been a loyal companion guiding me through the difficulties of deconstruction and leading this exvangelical down the Canterbury Trail.
So how has this nearly 50-year-old book had such an impact on my prayer life? Here are four reasons why this book has become so important to me, and why I think the BCP can be a valuable resource for any Christian. Yes, even those outside the world of Anglicanism.
Written prayers never really felt real to me. If I’m being honest, it always felt like cheating. Don’t prayers have to be unique in order to be… I don’t know, effective?
But as long as writing has been a thing, people have been praying pre-written prayers. And even before then, people prayed prayers that were passed down orally from generation to generation. While spontaneous prayer may be held in higher esteem in our modern culture, this is a relatively new phenomenon.
I didn’t realize how much I needed prewritten prayers until I started using the Book of Common Prayer. I didn’t know this, but spontaneous prayers had become a stumbling block for me in my spiritual journey.
Every once in a while, I’d be asked to pray during a church service. As a previous worship leader, this is something I was very accustomed to. But toward the end of my journey in Evangelicalism, I began to realize that this became much more about myself than it did about the prayers I prayed. The question was not “How can I bring glory to God through this prayer?” The question became “How can impress everyone with my words during this prayer?” Even when not in public, my spontaneous prayers were becoming a reflection of my own vanity.
Having written prayers sitting in front of me helps me to stay focused and on track. It takes the center of attention off of me and points me back to God. There is something humbling about reading the same words that have been prayed for centuries. About realizing that I’m entering into something bigger than myself. (Spoiler alert: You’ll find that this is a recurring theme throughout this blog post.) And that’s a great segue into number two.
One of the biggest reasons I love the Book of Common Prayer is the “common” part. There are thousands of Christians all over the world holding the same book, reading the same words, meditating on the same scriptures, praying the same prayers. It has reminded me that the Christian faith is not about me. It’s about me stepping into something bigger than myself. (Here’s that major theme again, just in case you’re not paying attention!)
I remember growing up trying my hardest to build the perfect “quiet time” routine. I would sit in the corner of my bedroom for an hour reading scripture, journaling, and praying. Trying to deepen my own relationship with God. This was a spiritually formative time for me, and not something I regret. But at the same time, I realize how self-centered that time was. It was about me, my own journey, about what I could get out of the whole thing.
But Jesus said when two or more are gathered together, he is there. Jesus abides in community. The body of Christ on earth is not an individual, but a group of individuals working together. That’s easy to forget when we isolate ourselves in our rooms or in our individual congregations without paying much attention to the rest of the world. For me, the Book of Common Prayer has been a much needed remedy.
When I read the words of the morning prayer, or the compline, or the Sunday lectionary, I’m reminded that there are thousands of people all over the world reading the same words as me, praying the same prayers, thinking about the same thoughts.
When I first started reading through the morning prayer, I felt a little silly. There are parts that are clearly meant to be read in a group. I remember reading “May the peace of Christ be with you, and also with you,” for the first time. Maybe I should just skip that part next time, I thought. But wait. If I skipped the parts about being in community, wouldn’t that negate the whole commonality of the book?
As weird as it felt, I kept praying those prayers. I kept passing the peace across the kitchen table to the empty chairs around me. And the more I participated in these rituals, the more connected I felt to the wider Church around me.
When my prayers are dependent upon my own words, they tend to be very one-sided. Wherever my head is at that moment is what I end up praying for.
The Book of Common Prayer helps us to break out of this one-sided mindset. The prayers for the Daily Office and for the other services all follow a certain pattern rooted in scriptural prayers. The prayer services walk through praise and adoration, confession of sin, prayers for the sick, for the dying, for the needy. The BCP helps me to make sure that my prayer life is holistic and well-rounded, not just limited to whatever my limited brain can come up with.
The same concept can be applied to the scriptures. If you’re like me, you have your favorite scriptures that you like to read over and over again. There’s nothing wrong with this; I think the goal of scripture reading is just that, to read something over and over again and let it soak into your brain and into your heart. But that shouldn’t happen with one or two books, but with the whole thing.
Reading through the Sunday lectionary and the daily office lectionary takes you through the majority of scripture over the course of two or three years. Not just the ones you like or the ones that make you comfortable. But the weird ones. The ones you don’t know what to do with. The ones that don’t fit into our pretty little doctrinal boxes. All of it.
The church calendar was always a mystery to me. Individual dates made sense. Obviously I was used to Christmas, Easter, even Pentecost. When it comes to seasons, I knew about Lent. I even participated from time to time when it was convenient for me. But the Book of Common Prayer has really opened my eyes to the breadth of the church calendar and how helpful this tool can be for improving my prayer life.
The church calendar is divided into six seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. And these aren’t just random holidays and seasons. They all have a purpose: pointing to Christ.
The calendar starts at the end of November in simultaneous expectation of the birth of Christ and his second coming. Then we move into the season celebrating his birth, the incarnation. We move into Epiphany, where we celebrate the life of Christ. His ministry, his miracles, his teachings. The forty days leading up to Easter is the season of Lent, where we join in the sufferings of Christ. During the season of Easter, we celebrate the resurrection. And Pentecost helps us reflect on the journey of the church after the ascension. Pentecost takes us right back to Advent, where the simultaneous expectation of Christ’s birth and second coming is the perfect conclusion to the previous year and start to a new one.
I say all of this to show you how carefully this calendar has been designed to help us structure our days and our weeks around the life of Christ and the church. This has been so helpful for me to be able have this structure in my prayer life. To allow myself the freedom to have seasonality in my prayer life. To pray through each and every experience in life.
Another reason the church calendar has been liberating to me is that it’s not dependent upon me. Not sure if I’ve mentioned this yet, but the Book of Common Prayer has really allowed me to step into a spiritual experience that’s bigger than myself. That said, the calendar around which the liturgies and offices are based center on and find their being in Christ. Not in me. I know that sounds obvious, but before the BCP I really did believe that my prayer life was dependent upon me. I had to choose the scriptures I wanted to read. I had to choose the words that I wanted to pray. Whether I even spent time praying throughout the week totally depended upon the season of life that I found myself in, whether one of spiritual abundance or drought.
Finding a system that allows me to find the center of my prayer life in something outside of myself, in something bigger than myself, has been a breath of fresh air. It’s like a weight has been lifted off of me.
I didn’t read through the morning prayer this morning. In fact, I haven’t opened the Book of Common Prayer in a couple of days. In the past, I would have been stressed out about missing a few days, to the point that I probably would have just stopped trying. But now, since the days of the church calendar continue to fly by whether or not I acknowledge them, there is a certain amount of grace there. I don’t have to commit to something every day. If I stop doing my part, the whole system doesn’t fall apart. If I pick up the prayer book tomorrow, I can just pick it up and keep going, because the calendar is always in motion.
Connecting this up with the previous sections, I also don’t have to feel any guilt when I go days or weeks without praying, because I’m part of something bigger than myself. I’m part of a body of believers. The words of the prayer book are always being prayed somewhere, whether or not I join in with those prayers. Now I do believe joining in with the prayers of the people is important. But the difference is this. If I go weeks without prayer, I recognize that I’ve missed out on the blessing of communion with my creator.
But the fact that I missed that time has nothing to say about my relationship with God, my love for God, or God’s work in my life and in the world around me. I can’t tell you what a huge shift this has been in my thinking. Because in the time before, me missing weeks, months, or years of prayer was cataclysmic in my worldview. The more I missed out on prayer and scripture reading, the further I thought I was drifting away from God. The more messed up I believed my life would become.
Man, I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self that the Christian faith is not about me, but about being a part of something larger than me.
I think you should. I think there’s something in this book for every Christian, regardless of what denomination you belong to. It’s a beautiful book full of scripture, prayers, and wisdom. If nothing else, you can use the book to add something new to your prayer routine, or just get some ideas for how to structure your prayer times.
If you’d like to learn more about how I use the Book of Common Prayer more practically, be sure to keep an eye out for my next blog post. In the meantime, let me know in the comments below what you think about the Book of Common Prayer. Have you ever used one before? Is this the first time you’ve even heard of it? I’d love to hear from you!