Without beginning and without end: Daily praise and prayer

May 23rd, 2023

This article is the eighth in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

You knew you would be asked to lead devotions at the upcoming district lay leadership retreat, and, sure enough, you were. You thought a bit about what to do, which brought to mind the sort of devotional life you grew up with in United Methodism. There was the time-honored The Upper Room, sitting on top of your grandmother’s Bible. You can be dated by the fact that devozine sat atop your own Bible on your dresser. You have a bookshelf full of cherished devotional books you’ve collected through the years, thanks to our church’s admirable commitment to provide such material in line with Wesley’s insistence that spiritual reading material be available to nurture disciples of all ages.  

The retreat leader texted you to say you’d have about 15 minutes on the program each morning and evening during the two-day event. What to do?

You casually flip through the hymnal and come upon No. 876, Orders of Daily Praise and Prayer. The fact that you’d never noticed them puts you in good company with most United Methodists, but quite out of step with John Wesley.  These services, called the Daily Office, were foundational for John Wesley, who often noted in his diary that he had participated in morning and evening prayers, quite likely using these services as they appeared in the Book of Common Prayer.

You have a conversation about this new discovery with your deacon friend on staff at the church. Turns out, she’s not very familiar with these services either. She’s heard of them and glanced at them, but confesses that she’s never been to one, much less conducted one. The two of you agree to try one out. So, you meet in the chapel on the other end of the Sunday School wing and make your way through the brief service of Evening Praise and Prayer. At first it seems a little awkward. It’s an ordo unlike Word and Table. Preaching is conspicuously absent from this liturgy. It appears to be mainly about praise, scripture, prayers, and silence. A very elemental act of worship, its predominate themes are light and darkness, day and night, the cosmic turns which shape our lives. 

And so it begins. You haven’t rehearsed. You and the deacon will learn as you go.  


The rubrics suggest that a large, plain candle should be lit and the following said or sung: 

Light and peace in Jesus Christ. 
Thanks be to God. 

You scribble a note to find a large, plain candle to bring with you to the retreat. This lamp lighting amid darkness not only recalls the pre-electrical world, but creation itself. God’s first words were “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3). Ancient Israel had read the creation story carefully and echoed this in their practice. The day doesn’t begin at dawn, but at sunset. Night is not some sort of “non-time” when nothing is happening. It, too, is part of God’s marvelous creation, essential, foundational for the day. Night’s void is a daily Advent anticipating nativity. It is that out of which light emerges at God’s command. 

The opening exchange may be sung. Historically, parts of the daily office were often chanted, using a simple melody or even one note. It signals that what is being said and done here, in worship, is not just more ordinary, everyday talk. This speech is otherworldly yet delivered in love by God to this world. Intonation marks that difference. 


Likewise, this sacred time in worship is unlike other times. Incense marks that difference, too.  Like chanting, the aroma of incense “owns a Deity nigh” as “We Three Kings” describes it. The fact that this act of worship is in brackets denotes that it’s optional.[1] It also suggests something of the Protestant alienation from traditions in worship that have been preserved in the Great Tradition but got fired by a Reformation overly zealous to discard every vestige of Catholic worship. 

Protestants have been pretty good at worshipping with their ears, listening to sermons (and anthems, and musical instruments, and the prayers and other acts of worship offered by a preacher while they sit passively and listen). They’ve been good at singing, too. But it seems every other sense is put on hold when entering a worship assembly. Tasting the sacramental elements is limited to once a month—or less. Feeling the sprinkle of the asperges—what's that?  Seeing has experienced a bit of a recovery in the aesthetic movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries, the return of the visual arts to once bare auditoriums: Four walls and a sermon. 

But can the nose worship, too? Israelites knew it could. By all accounts the Divine Nose appreciated incense, and it reminded the human noses in the temple of the sweetness of prayer.[2]  

You and the deacon look at each other. “Which one of us was supposed to bring the incense?” You laugh. You park your test-driven Evening Prayer by the curb for a moment while you consider how you might do incense, especially for a group likely unfamiliar with it. Your deacon colleague knows something about censors (also called thuribles) and makes a note to look for one in a church supply catalog, along with a canister of aromatic incense. You wonder aloud if you should caution the retreat-goers who might have sensitivities before you light a censer billowing forth clouds of smoke in the middle of Evening Prayer. Probably wise, says the deacon. Incense can be swung, or, in the form of gently burning sticks placed in a small dish full of sand.   

You move on. The order moves to an Evening Hymn and a Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Scripture. Texts for all three are recommended in the BOW, and you will make selections appropriate to the retreat. 


We praise and thank you, O God,                                                                                                              for you are without beginning and without end.
Through Christ, you created the whole world;                                                                                         through Christ, you preserve it.
You made the day for the works of light                                                                                                     and the night for the refreshment of our minds and bodies.
Keep us now in Christ; grant us a peaceful evening,
a night free from sin; and bring us at last to eternal life.                                                                      Through Christ and in the Holy Spirit, we offer you all glory, honor, and worship,                                     now and for ever. 


Let the scripture at the Daily Office be read slowly, perhaps even in the form of a meditative Lectio Divina.[3] And then, silence. Your deacon friend encourages you that this should be a long, deliberate silence, not a perfunctory ten seconds, but a fully engaged two minutes. Worship, like life, is not an endless succession of things to be done. We listen to scripture, and then we listen to the silence itself. Just as light comes forth from darkness, so speech proceeds from silence, and back again. 


The silence is broken, in Evening Prayer, with a canticle, a biblical song. Traditionally, that’s the Song of Mary (Magnificat) in the Evening, and the Song of Zachariah (Benedictus) in the morning office. So, you turn to UMH 198-200 for three options.

Why Mary’s song here? It is a song of revolution, an overturning, a re-creation in the midst of creation, all of which makes it fitting as the evening canticle. God, who called light out of darkness, called Mary to motherhood, a call she answered with “let it be to me,” her own echo of God’s “let there be light.” The Blessed Virgin is the church’s song leader, the subject of the second verse of “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” (UMH 90); She who magnifies the Lord teaches us how to do so by her example. 

And, Mary, it turns out, is a good Wesleyan. She who rejoices in God acknowledges the gift-nature of God’s grace to her, at work in her. In the next breath of her song, she praises God’s work in a new creation where the poor and lowly are fed and lifted up and the rich and proud are scattered and sent away. God’s holiness is inner and outer, personal and social, transformative of the soul and the community, the person and the cosmos. Mary’s song expresses the comprehensive scope of God’s grace.


Together, let us pray 
for the people of this congregation... 
for those who suffer and those in trouble... 
for the concerns of this local community... 
for the world, its peoples, and its leaders... 
for the earth you have given to our care… 
for the Church universal—its leaders, its members, and its mission... 
in communion with the saints... 

Or a prayer of confession. That might be especially appropriate one evening of the retreat. No need in the prayers, though, for too many words. The prayers here are a series of invitations to the assembly to name aloud what their hearts urge them to voice. Let the gathered speak the prayers of their hearts. You should expect names to be spoken, institutions and leaders and current events to be voiced, together with thanksgivings for the faithful departed after the last petition.  


The rubrics suggest the Our Father may be sung. If singing, rather than saying, makes spoken words more visceral, you shouldn’t be afraid to introduce a sung or chanted version of the Lords’ Prayer. The hymnal has a number of options. If you’re going to burn some incense, why not?! Keep the senses engaged!  


The grace of Jesus Christ enfold you. 
Go in peace.
Thanks be to God. 


You imagine moving about the room at the retreat, passing the peace with everyone.  

A few weeks later, you arrive at the district campground where the retreat is being held, with one candle and a few tablespoons of incense ready to heap on a burning coal placed in a bowl. At least, that’s what you and the deacon rigged for the occasion. It will do fine. You rehearsed morning praise and prayer, this evening prayer service, and you’ve done a little background research on the services. You’ve even discovered their companion, Night Prayer, or Compline, which you’d also like to try.  It occurs to you that you could use these little services at home, to begin and end the day. Or maybe you could work with your church staff to introduce them as a daily feature of your congregation’s life, even if only two or three gather to pray on behalf of everyone else.  

Suffice it to say, the services are well received and add a depth dimension to the retreat. They are the sanctification of time, a daily reorientation around the blessing of light and darkness. They are cosmic, a thanksgiving for aliveness and the vitality of the creation made of waking and sleeping, consciousness and rest, action and reflection, and back again.  

Think about the Daily Office as how to keep a cosmic rhythm in your life, that the beautifully finite world in which we live and move and have our being contains and points beyond itself to the very life of God, without beginning and without end.  

Pray about it. Better yet, why not pray it?

[1] The Service of Incense appears in the BOW version of Evening Prayer, but not the UMH. 

[2] Exodus 30:34-38, Leviticus 2:1-2, Psalm 141:2, Matthew 2:11, Ephesians 5:2, Revelation 5:8, among many other references and descriptions of the use of incense in biblical worship. 

[3] A method of hearing scripture beginning with a slow reading of the text, followed by a second, meditative reading, a period of silent prayer, and finally, contemplation of the text. 

comments powered by Disqus