On Matins and Repetitive Prayer

I found this short essay on the BCP service of Matins, and thought it might perhaps be useful for them as struggle with the Book of Common Prayer:

Matins is the poor relation of the two Sunday Offices in BCP. Evensong still has a following especially in Cathedrals or where it’s sung, but in the parish it is Matins that lingers on.

It’s principal handicap is that Matins is almost incomprehensible to the newcomer.

It relies for its coherence for the weekly repetition of passages of scripture over and over again until they almost loose their meaning.

At its centre are the changing readings from scripture, the lections.

Sometimes it seems that these words have sunk so deep we can hardly see them any more, we can read a whole canticle out loud, without registering a single word. Likewise often when it comes to the reading to us of scripture we find the passage has been read and we couldn’t say for sure what was said.

If we are careless this can make the whole process a waste of everybody’s time. If the words wash over us unheeded while we plan our dinner or our week , or worse still if we continue to rehearse and protect our grievances and our grudges while speaking words of faith, it is more than a waste of time, it is our own condemnation.

But if we are here with a mind to prayer and to place our week before God, Matins can give us a path to God that relies not on our understanding of the words, but our ability to let them speak through us. Matins is, if you like, a slowed down version of the rosary or any other method of repetitive prayer. When we pray the rosary, for example, we take a short prayer, usually a sentence or two from scripture, and recite it over and over and over until the meaning is lost and the words become a vehicle, a road, to lead us to God. We speak holy words which eventually serve simply to keep our mind on God and away from our own concerns and distractions. The Word of God reaches in beyond our brains to our hearts and our whole selves.

And so it is with a repetitive service like Matins. Most of the words we use are taken from the scriptures. Holy words, living and active. Once we know the words well they sink into our souls and seem almost to say themselves. If we let them they can take us on a dance through our approach to God and bring us before the Throne with surprising ease.

We start with the Venite – the call to worship. We start with the reminder that we and all the world belong to God and that the only proper response to him is to kneel. We are reminded of why we are here and who we have come before.

Then we join in the ancient worship of the Church and of the Jews before us with a passage from the psalms: A cycle of hymns that speak fully of a life lived with God. Only then do we approach the scriptures directly and hear the first lesson.

As we listen to the first reading we hear not just a story of long ago or words of wisdom of a man long dead, but we step into a community of faith that holds these words to be part of the meaning of who we are. We are drawn deeper into our worship as we let these words become part of who we are, part of our story, part of God’s word to each one of us, however faintly we might understand what it means for us today. This is why, after we have heard the Word, and seen a little more clearly who God is, we are given a hymn of praise. We praise thee O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord – the only Lord, whom we love with our heart, mind and strength.

Then we hear the second lesson and having heard our portions of scripture we declare our salvation in either the benedictus or Jubilate: The Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting. … the dayspring from on high hath visited us to give light to them that sit in darkness… and to guide our feet into the way of peace. We have heard the words of our liberation and we rejoice with the words generations have used before us.

So we declare our faith, and finally kneel in prayer to bring our concerns and fears before the God whom we have been brought near.

The whole of Matins is a call and response led by the scriptures. They speak and we answer – usually through the words of those same scriptures. They lead us from our first experience of God to a greater understanding of our salvation. As we speak the words over and over and over they can become part of who we are, sinking into even the marrow of our bones. The words of scripture become a substitute for the words we do not have, leading us into a deeper knowledge of ourselves and of God. Naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account…we … approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Within the scriptures we see generations of God’s people hearing anew the word of God and speaking it afresh and at the heart of the scriptures is the Word, the Logos, Holy Wisdom who calls the people of God to hear and respond.  O Lord open thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

Book list:

All Mud and Matins, by P. Lack
The Book of Common Prayer, a Biography, by A Jacobs
The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present and Future, by P. Dailey
The Daily Office: Exploring Patterns for Daily Prayer and Bible Study, by A Barton


Author: @RoffenWorship

A Slightly Welsh Priest

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