Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Wisdom of Solomon

One of the things that ordained people have to do - and many others are called to do - to is recite Morning and Evening Prayer: many of us call it "saying the (Daily) Office" - deriving from an older sense of the word "office" indicating the charge or trust given to an individual in a conferred capacity or calling. For clergy, this is supposed to be done every day of one's life, alone or in community with others, regardless of the circumstances, "unless prevented by illness or other reasonable cause".  When I first starting doing it religiously (as it were) I felt honoured to be among those expected to make this twice daily offering to God, and quickly learned its rhythms and disciplines.  I came, like numberless generations before and beside me, to love and rely upon those parts of it which remain the same, day in day out - such as the Magnificat or Song of Mary: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour...."; with the psalmist to ply the Lord with the timeless cycle of songs and complaints of his faithful people; to anticipate the next instalments of whichever books of scripture are being worked through at any given time; and to appreciate the variations associated with the seasons of the Church's year and the feasts of saints and other holy days.  This gave my daily life a structure which it had previously lacked: at least two points at which, whatever prayers I may have said or wanted to say during the day, I knew I had an appointment with the Lord.  Morning and Evening Prayer - and often, Compline or Night Prayer - became for me, as for others, the hinges of the day.

There are nonetheless days when I can hardly bring myself to embark on another round of endless and apparently sterile repetition; when I fear that I am merely ploughing through the words without praying them; days when I frankly cannot be bothered, and when I simply have to make myself do it.  And then there are the nice surprises: a Cranmerian collect of exquisite poetry and economy, and bits of scripture that you can't remember reading before, that you'd forgotten, or forgotten to appreciate.  

Tonight at Evening Prayer, the Old Testament reading is the account from the first book of Kings of Solomon's dream.  Solomon has just become king in succession to his father, David; and in his dream God asks him what he would like Him to give him as sort of coronation present.  Admitting his extreme youth and inexperience, David asks for "an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil".  He asks not for wealth or victory over his enemies or long life - but for wisdom.  And God gives him wisdom, plus all the things he could have asked for but didn't (wealth etc etc).  He makes Solomon the greatest king of all time - because Solomon's request comes, not out of self-regard or interest, but out of his vocation to lead God's people.  

The episode concludes with an account of Solomon's judgement on two prostitutes, one of whom has accidently killed her own baby and stolen the living baby of the other.  They dispute before the king as to who is the true mother of the surviving child.  Solomon threatens to cut the living child in half.  The one who has stolen the baby agrees (on the grounds that she loses nothing thereby) while the other begs him not to, revealing a compassion that indicates that she is indeed the child's mother.  (I remember a version of this story that I studied for German 'O' level - in Bertolt Brecht's Marxist classic The Caucasian Chalk Circle.)  This is a terrible, graphic kind of wisdom; but it is wisdom.  And where there is wisdom, love will prevail.


  1. Well, your melodies are certainly heard and appreciated by me.
    I am sure that you are right that it is a valuable discipline to read Matins and Evensong or Compline (or their modern equivalents). I am a great backslider in this area, but found at Gladstone's Library, where I took the opportunity to attend daily morning Eucharist, that the daily repetition did indeed seem to amount to more than the sum of its daily parts, if I can put it like that.

  2. I recognise that absolutely, Laura. The physical environment can be an important factor in any kind of prayer, I think. I'm still learning (7 years after ordination!) that the trick with the Daily Office is to make it an essential part of the day - as necessary as eating or sleeping. And not to beat myself up if I miss sometimes. Thanks as always for your reflections.