There has been a renaissance of new prayer books being released lately, and old ones–from the classic Book of Common Prayer to the popular collection of Puritan prayers and devotions called Valley of Vision, to the lovely and wise paperback by John Ballie, Diary of Private Prayer–are more popular than ever. Perhaps this was inspired by the popularity of the fantastic Upper Room trilogy by Rueben P. Job, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, and A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek. Their handsome leather (blue, red, and green), perfect hand-size and ribbon markers invited users to hold them, to use them regularly, to enter the rhythms of reflective, liturgically-shaped daily devotion. Doubtlessly, the remarkable three volume set Praying the Hours (and then an Advent-Epiphany one, and a Night Prayers edition) by Phyllis Tickle set a new standard for fixed hour prayer books. Authors like Marva Dawn have long encouraged evangelicals and mainline Protestants to use solid prayer books, and Mennonite pastor Arthur Boers and Episcopal writer Robert Benson penned marvelous introductions to the tradition of fixed hour prayers, and edited prayer volumes themselves.
The radical, counter-cultural, missional communities that some call “New Monastics” have also emphasized communal prayer practices and, like their emergent friends, have used the language of “ancient future” faith. (I was with Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way this week at the Pennsylvania State Pastors’ Conference and it was good to have him share a bit about his own community with these ordinary clergy persons. If you missed it, please see my highlight of his new book and DVD, The Economy of Love that I did in the previous post!) Younger Christ-followers—whether from highly liturgical backgrounds or not—have shown interest in older forms of liturgy and worship. While the powerhouse rock anthems of contemporary “praise & worship” (coupled with grungy neo-folk quieter songs, including new renderings of older hymns like the Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Music, and BiFrost Worship projects) are still the dominant form amongst most youth and young adult ministries, it is not uncommon to hear evangelicals talking about compline services or lighting candles for quiet prayer meetings. Slower, more gentle music shaped by a spirituality which includes the work of justice, such as the Celtic Iona’s and the French Taize movement are capturing the hearts of many, older and younger pilgrims through the 21st century church.
(The marketing compromise now includes a handsome paper half-sleeve wrap-around with their names shown, unlike the earlier version of the cover shown here.) Knowing that it was “new monastics” who did this does help place this as an exceptional prayer resource and helps explain the “ordinary radicals” reference in the title. It is, of course, from the bold subtitle of Shane’s Irresistible Revolution.) Even if you aren’t part of a new monastic community, or aren’t a fan of the subversive whimsy of Jesus for President or Shane’s anti-materialism, neo-Franciscan lifestyle, I think this prayer book could be very, very useful.
Shane and Jonathan, unofficial co-conspirators of the new monastic movement, which–perhaps inspired by older Catholic Worker communities who served the poor and prayed the Divine Hours–are serious about communal prayer, even wrote a book a year or so ago called Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers (IVP; $13.00) where they explored not only the visions of the Desert Fathers & Mothers, but challenged us all to root our ministry and missional discipleship in the rigors and graces of daily prayer. That is a great little book on prayer. These “ordinary radicals” attempt to live into their slogan that “a new world is possible” and take seriously the adage that we are to “be the change that we want to see in the world” so they quickly learned the need for prayer, the transforming power of prayerfulness, and the wisdom of deeper prayer vocabulary than we can muster on our own.
And so, this new prayer book makes sense. It is not surprising that these guys living on the edge of hope among the hurting, who are drawn to the pain of violent urban streets and who are regularly lamenting—and sometimes being knocked around by—the abuse of political power, war, and injustice, would be driven to prayer and the enduring words of ancient saints and mystics and reformers. And, as I’ve noted, it isn’t surprising that thoughtful evangelicals who are drawn to ecumenism and learning from the wider Body of Christ, would appreciate older catholic (and Catholic) forms and cadences and language of liturgy. This is not a trendy marketing ploy or superficially claimed novelty. New Monastics and ordinary radicals are a part of this post-modern shift to deeper prayerfulness and they are driven to ancient prayers by the violence of these times. I hate to use such an overused word, but the whole idea seems truly authentic. It makes sense; they could hardly not move in this seemingly heavy direction!
Yet, Shane was nearly giddy with joy and possibility as we talked on the phone yesterday (we have some involvement in trying to make these available at some informal prayer services/release parties that are organically popping up to celebrate the release of the book. See here.) He really believes that this will nurture and nourish communities that are struggling. He believes that ancient forms will sustain us through the “long obedience in the same direction.” He believes that evangelicals (and others) simply must learn from others if our faith is to be balanced and mature. And he thinks it just might work. Who knows who’s going to start using this? What God might do to our movement as we have a good tool like this to center our common lives in common prayer. Yippeee!
The forward to Common Prayer is itself worth the price of the book. It tells just a bit about the history of this kind of prayer, and walks us through the joys of spoken word prayer, the litanies and styles of groups reading together. It highlights some of the unique touches of this particular volume—including the social justice themes, the subversive litanies, the earnest idealism that shapes their hopes that prayer can make a d
ifference and that someday “justice will roll down.” One of the sections is called “Welcome to a New Time Zone.” Uh-huh! It helpfully invites readers into the patterns to be found in the rest of the book, and ruminates a bit about the transforming impact it could have. It explains that this ancient form of communal litany will be attractive to many, especially if the wording, vocabulary and themes are contemporary and socially aware, ethnically diverse, and politically charged—just like the Scriptures themselves!
This book, they say, is for you.
Whether you are over-churched or under-churched, a proud evangelical, a recovering evangelical, or not an evangelical at all; whether you are high church, low church, or no church, a skeptic or a Pentecostal; whether you have found community or have burned out on community; this book is for you.
A few of the features of which I am especially fond include a fantastic set of sidebars Over twenty little essays are offered, including notes on advent and Christmas, and lent, a good piece called “Sacred Space: Thinking About Where We Pray” and one on “Taking Liturgy to the Streets.” There is insight on eucharist and communion, one section called “smells and bells” and a few on creative stuff like the use of prayer bowls and using your body in prayer. There are a few on specific secular holidays (Columbus Day is an opportunity to reflect on the need for new heroes) and a few on specific actions and their implications (like, say, confession, or a good one on passing the peace.) In other words, embedded in this thick prayer book is a “users guide” on how and why we use such liturgical rubrics. These side bars are brief, clear, a bit provocative, and very, very good. And through-out they suggest books to read for those that want further knowledge. Great!
There is artwork scattered throughout, original woodblock or linoleum block prints that cause us to think of Fritz Eichenberg and the famous Catholic Worker aesthetic. (Eichenberg and Day met, by the way, at the Pennsylvania Quaker retreat center Pendle Hill in 1949.) These new pieces were designed by three artists, one an Orthodox artist, and are a wonderful enhancement to the prayers. An artist friend of Shane’s did some great artwork around the edges of the pages that include the Lord’s Prayer and, again, add a very handsome touch that somehow is both rich and simple, stark and nuanced, beautiful and yet drawing us to the poor and the hurting.
Near the back of the volume—which feels like a good, solid hymnal, nearly 600 pages, with a beige slightly woven textured clothbound cover, by the way—there are prayers offered for various special occasions. There are a bunch of house blessings and prayers for new babies or adoptions. There are prayers for the land (even a garden) and a prayer for those who have been killed in the neighborhood. There is a celibacy commitment and a litany to honor women. There are prayers for the workplace, prayers for Sabbath, prayers for life transitions, and several more.
And there are hymns and spirituals and folk songs. Singing together is an important aspect of spoken and sung prayer, although I’m not sure if these are going prove useful or not. They have one verse of a large handful of stuff—a few very appropriate, a couple less vital, from hymns to Taize chants. It is helpful, I suppose, to have the music printed out (even to well known tunes like We Shall Overcome and Swing Low.) To see Praise to the Lord the Almighty and Ubi Caratas and Come Thou Font or Come Ye Sinners next to We Are Marching in the Light of God is surely a wonder!
Of course, the heart of Common Prayer are the cycles of prayers, readings, Scriptures, and liturgies. There are more than 365 entries for daily morning readings, bunches for evening or occasional prayer, and a suggested one for midday. Many note the birthdays or anniversaries of important Christian leaders, peace-makers or justice activists (certainly one of the great strengths of the book.) There are the expected cadences of collects and responsive readings. There are Psalms for each day, of course, and an Older and Newer Testament reading. The prayers are sometimes classic and ancient (penned by Ignatius, say, or John Chryostom, Claire of Assisi, or William Wilberforce) and sometimes quite contemporary, perhaps penned by the communities of Shane or Unuma (who is a memoirst, workshop leader, musician and poet herself, or drawing on the stories of Fannie Lou Hammer or Dom Helder Camara. As I said, these stories, feast days and testimonies are remarkably rich diverse and important.) I suspect Jonathan did much of the background work, as he is quite familiar with the ancient stuff, and has written widely on the church fathers and the new monastic vision of economics, place, community and justice. And, as the editors say in the acknowledgments, they have had consultants and helpers galore. Ms. Okoro first lived in her homeland in Africa and brings a global awareness, too. Yet, the prayers and readings seem not at all disjointed or “forced” or ideological. It is a solid, useful, global prayer book. For those who love the rich liturgical traditions of other prayerbooks, or those new to this style of praying, this resource is a treasure.
The patchwork project of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals is not a whim or a cheap paperback resource that will soon disappear. This is an important, valuable, rich, and lasting project, a gift, really. The word liturgy–from the Greek, they tell us in the long introduction–means “the work of the people.” Yes, they have worked to create this, many people have and the excellent quality of it shows. But the task is now ours. We must (we get to) work these pages. Use the ribbon marker. Pray the prayers, get the lovely cover marred with fingerprints and candle drippings, maybe spilled with tea or red wine.
Will you accept the gift of this work? Will you share this book, offer to use it with others, invite your own community, church, prayer group or fellowship to use it as a resource? I suspect the authors won’t care if you use it haphazardly. I know you will use many prayers often. This gift will last; it will be turned to in your own hours and hopefully in your own family, household, small group or faith community. We celebrate its publication, thank God for the movements of these sorts in these days and trust that God’s people will be encouraged, deepened and sustained by the use of prayers and readings found here. Common Prayer? Yes, our prayers are common, common as daily breath, and commonly done together. Yet, this wonderful book is quite uncommon. Young evangelicals discovering feast days and litanies? Justice activists calling us to routine prayer? Zondervan publishing a radical prayer book? Yes, this is beautifully uncommon! Let’s get to work, settling down for the long haul of subversive, radical Christian living. May the uncommon become more common! We are happy to invite you to purchase this today. Thanks.