“I Don’t Do Mornings!!” So proclaims the sleep shirt I’ve pulled on with the recent cooler nights here. And I smile at the outdated message. Those physical, emotional and behavioral transformations I’ve experienced in the close to 3 decades since acquiring that shirt (I’m of Eastern European heritage: we throw nothing away!!) pretty much characterize my shifting attitudes towards morning. Surprisingly, my college years often had me facing the day with dawn’s early light, not so much due to class schedule, but rather the ability to find an empty practice studio. Playing from those scores even today, my phrasing of Beethoven and Mozart sonatas will betray how often I reached for one of several coffee cups atop the piano. This made the transition to school teaching not too clumsy, though our principal may very well have owned nightwear betraying similar sunrise sentiments, as her opening announcements too often took a mean-spirited turn and I found myself leading a song or two over those manifestos, particularly with the youngest students. Delighted to imagine corn as high as an elephant’s eye, we would offer a rousing chorus, and my silent prayer it would carry them through the day: “Oh, what a beautiful morning, everything’s going my way!”
Ministry that regularly involved evening meetings, rehearsals and programs allowed for days to begin later and ushered me into the world of night owls. A sudden mid-life return to the high school classroom requiring me to rise (though never shine) at 4:30 each day, always in darkness, was difficult on many levels and morning became the enemy.
Transitions have continued with my work, as well as my levels of physical, psychic and spiritual energies, and even geography has had a hand in determining when – and more importantly how – I greet the day. The half dozen or so years I lived at the Jersey shore would find me wandering to the water’s edge on many mornings, coffee cup in one hand, journal in the other. Now on the western side of the state, the work of neighboring farmers begins well before dawn and the music of contented cows accompanies my ritual of coffee and pen and praise.
Praise. When did that find its way in there?
Well, the church-speak word would be Lauds, come to be known as Morning Prayer, part of one of the Church’s better kept secrets, the Liturgy of the Hours, also called the Divine Office or Canonical Hours or simply “the Breviary,” referring to the book that is used. Its purpose is to make holy the day and range of human activity that takes place within it.
“Pray at all times,” scripture instructs. (Eph 6:18) We are called to consecrate every moment of every day to God. The witness of the early Church teaches that both Jews and Christians devoted themselves to private prayer at fixed times throughout the day. It then became the established practice to assign special times for common prayer, for example, the last hour of daylight when lamps are lighted, or the first hour of light when night ends with the sunrise. Such prayer in common gradually took the form of a set cycle of hours. This liturgy of the hours is based almost exclusively on scripture, sometimes enriched by other sacred readings, and is principally a prayer of praise and petition. Of THANKING and ASKING. (The wonderful contemporary writer Anne Lamott puts a slight twist on Meister Eckhart, insisting if our only prayers are THANK YOU and HELP, we’re doing it right.)
While there are eight fixed prayer times through the day and night, Morning Prayer or “Lauds” and Evening Prayer or “Vespers” are the two hinges on which the daily office turns and, consequently, the most commonly prayed of the Liturgy of the Hours.
Basil of Caesarea, 4th C bishop and ecclesiastical writer speaks of the character of Morning Prayer: “Prayer is offered in the morning in order that the first stirrings of our mind and will may be consecrated to God, and that we might take nothing in hand nor set our bodies to any task until we have been gladdened by the thought of God.”
“Lauds.” The word itself means praise. In my prayer at morning I am connected with others who have chosen this practice and I take great comfort knowing that our united energies are putting praise out into the universe. There is a rhythm and reliability to this practice that strengthens me, as does the motivation to pray regularly. It invites my faithfulness.
As a musician, I am drawn to the Psalms – really a collection of ancient hymns – and usually without much effort can be reminded of a particular musical setting of the day’s psalms and sing my way through the prayer time, even by myself. So often this summer, the earliest moments of daylight took me into the garden, weeding and watering, picturing myself once again among the early rising Benedictine monks in Weston, VT, whose setting of Psalm 95 can always jumpstart a stalled prayer time. Each morning You wake us to hear, to listen like a disciple. Your word enters deep in our hearts. We know that You are near.
Poets speak clearly to me at this early hour as well. The award winning poet, translator and editor of Saturday Review, John Ciardi, was something of a neighbor as I grew up, living about halfway across our square mile town. Though perhaps better known for much of his children’s poetry, I have for years prayed “White Heron” from his collection Marry Me (Rutgers University Press, 1958).
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
Its heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
Indeed one of my favorite Mary Oliver collections is entitled Why I Wake Early (Beacon Press, 2004) close to 50 poems inviting us to attentiveness, to reverence, to gratitude. Only this morning my praise included these words:
. . .I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind, or a few leaves from any old tree –
they are all in this too.
(from “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?”)
When hearts are broken or heavily burdened, a new day does not always appear to be gift and praise can seem unthinkable. And yet the Psalmist assures us Joy cometh in the morning. (30:5) Joy runs deep, below our dark night of sadness, confusion and pain, persistent enough to dwell alongside that which feels overwhelming, and patient, waiting for us to rediscover that which is alive and well.
Joy cometh in the morning. I doubt I’ll ever see that promise on a sleep shirt. But the message will never be outdated.
Martha Dudich leads Soup & Psalms, a weekly offering of fellowship (with soup) and a contemporary vespers service each Wednesday evening at the Center for the FaithJustice. She invites you to join in this evening prayer tradition.