One of the things asked of us by adulthood itself, and more especially by our baptism, is that we pray for others. Like the high priests of old, we need to offer up prayers daily for the whole world. Indeed we are all priests, ordained by the sacred oils of baptism and consecrated by the archetypal burdens that have given us wrinkles and grey hair. As adults, elders, we have both privilege and the responsibility to, as scripture puts it, “make prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, for ourselves and for the people.” All of us, lay and cleric alike, need to offer up priestly prayer each day.
But how do we do that? How do we pray priestly prayers? We pray as priests, as Jesus prayed in the 17th chapter of John’s gospel, every time we sacrifice self-interest for the good of the community. That’s priestly prayer in its widest sense. However, we pray that prayer, formally and sacramentally, whenever we pray the prayer of the church, namely, the Eucharist or the Divine Office. This kind of prayer, called liturgy, is what keeps incarnate the priestly prayer of Christ.
In priestly prayer we pray not just for ourselves, nor ideally by ourselves, but we pray as a microcosm of the whole world, even as we pray for the whole world. In this kind of prayer we lift up our voices to God, not as a private offering, but in such a way so as to give a voice to the earth itself. In essence, when we pray at the Eucharist or at the Divine Office, we are saying this:
“Lord, God, I stand before you as a microcosm of the earth itself, to give it voice: See in my openness, the world’s openness, in my infidelity, the world’s infidelity; in my sincerity, the world’s sincerity, in my hypocrisy, the world’s hypocrisy; in my generosity, the world’s generosity, in my selfishness, the world’s selfishness; in my attentiveness, the world’s attentiveness, in my distraction, the world’s distraction; in my desire to praise you, the world’s desire to praise you, and in my self-preoccupation, the world’s forgetfulness of you. For I am of the earth, a piece of earth, and the earth opens or closes to you through my body, my soul, and my voice. I am your priest on earth.
And what I hold up for you today is all that is in this world, both of joy and of suffering. I offer you the bread of the world’s achievements, even as I offer you the wine of its failure, the blood of all that’s crushed as those achievements take place. I offer you the powerful of our world, our rich, our famous, our athletes, our artists, our movie stars, our entrepreneurs, our young, our healthy, and everything that’s creative and bursting with life, even as I offer you those who are weak, feeble, aged, crushed, sick, dying, and victimized. I offer to you all the pagan beauties, pleasures, and joys of this life, even as I stand with you under the cross, affirming that the one who is excluded from earthily pleasure is the cornerstone of the community. I offer you the strong and arrogant, along with the weak and gentle of heart, asking you to bless both and to stretch my heart so that it can, like you, hold and bless everything that is. I offer you both the wonders and the pains of this world, your world.”
To pray like this is to pray liturgically, as priest. And we pray like this each time we go to the Eucharist or when we, with others or alone, pray the Divine Office of the church. It is particularly this latter prayer, the Divine Office (also called “Breviary” or “Liturgy of the hours”), that is available daily as the priestly prayer for those of us who are not ordained ministers in the church. And this is especially true for two of those liturgical hours, Lauds (Morning Prayer) and Vespers (Evening Prayer). They, unlike the other hours which are more the particular domain of monks and professional contemplatives, are the ordinary priestly prayer of the laity.
And what is important in praying them is to remember that these are not prayers that we say for ourselves, nor indeed prayers whose formulae we need to find meaningful or relevant. Unlike private prayer and contemplation, where we should change methods whenever praying becomes too dry or sterile, Lauds and Vespers are prayers of the universal church that are in essence intended to be communal and priestly. They don’t have to be relevant for our private lives. We pray them as elders, as baptized adults, as priests, to invoke God’s blessing upon the world.
And whenever we do pray them, we are, in microcosm, the voice, body, and soul of the earth itself, continuing the high priesthood of Christ, as we offer prayers and entreaties, aloud and in silent tears, to a God who can save us.