In Constant Prayer is the second volume in Thomas Nelson’s “The Ancient Practices Series” which encourages a return to early traditional Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox rituals and observances. This book is written by Robert Benson, an alumnus of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and concerns itself with the “divine office.” The divine office is composed of seven (or fewer) set times of daily prayers. Each office, which takes up to twelve minutes to say, “is made up of psalms, scriptures and prayers” (p. 12). The best known of the offices was written by St. Benedict in the 6th century for use by his monks. Benson claims biblical precedent from Psalm 119:164 which says, “Seven times a day I will praise you.” He writes, “Taking their cue from the psalmist, the Hebrew people developed a set of daily liturgical offices of prayer. These little prayer services were to be said at specific times of the day, or specific hours” (p. 19). Benson then states that the ancient Christians continued this practice throughout the early stages of church history (p. 21). The office nearly died out during the Middle Ages but was rescued by the monks and nuns, only to be rejected by the Reformers in an overreaction, Benson believes, to the corrupt teaching and practices of Rome (p. 22).
While marginalized for centuries, today there has been a revival of interest in the daily office, not only among Catholics but among evangelicals as well. This is most welcomed by Benson as it seems to be the one thing that will provide for the survival of the church (pp. 51, 52, 57, 59, 115).
Although Benson offers a sample daily office, and provides some hints and ideas about its practice, this book is largely a pep rally for its use. He writes with humor, vulnerability (even admitting his struggles with introversion, depression, divorce and psychological breakdown), and with understanding (he admits the office is hard to maintain, often boring and most will repeatedly fail) (pp. 47ff; 67ff). Benson encourages flexibility in both use of a prayer book (pp. 30ff) and times and manners of the divine office’s use (p. 36).
Still, praying the office is essential unless we want to be the generation that “will preside over the death of the church” (p. 52). We are assured that the divine office is “the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father” (pp. 4, 24, 116). How he knows this is a mystery for Benson does not document any of these statements; he presumes way too much and he is careless. For example, he writes “the words of Psalm 95 have been the opening psalm of invitation to morning prayer for the faithful for six thousand years” (p. 28). Of course this cannot be since Psalm 95 was written about three thousand years ago. But that this is not a misprint is evident in that he repeats the statement on page 114.
Benson simply does not make his case biblically, nor does he try. He provides occasional references to Scripture but none supports his thesis that the daily office, as he prescribes it, is mandated by God or essential for the health and vitality of the church. His point of reference is not Scripture but Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions and those of the mystics such as St. Benedict (p. 6), Thomas Merton (p. 62) and Teresa of Avila (p. 83). Our Lord has called us to be people devoted to prayer but He does not call us to rote recitation of prescribed prayers and set times of the day.