Each weekday at 7:30am, my parish church, St. Alban’s, is livestreaming Morning Prayer. It is a simple service but I have found it moving and meaningful. I’ve been reminded of the consolatory function of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (Matins and Evensong) for so many Christians for so many years of pain and trouble and fear. I’m going to post here a relevant passage from my biography of the Book of Common Prayer.
So days were begun and ended in communal prayer. In institutions that featured chapel services — the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge most famously, but also public schools, preparatory schools, the Inns of Court — and where attendance was mandatory, this rhythm of worship was still more pronounced. Cranmer’s 1549 order, which would later undergo significant change, begins with the priest reciting the Lord’s Prayer “with a loud voice” — this in contrast to the old Roman practice, which likewise began Matins with the Lord’s Prayer but instructed the priest to say it silently. After centuries of liturgical prayers being muttered in low tones, and in a language unknown to the people, the new model demands audible English. After this prayer comes a beautiful exchange taken from Psalm 51: the priest says, “O Lord, open thou my lips,” and the people reply, “And my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” Then “O God, make speed to save me” calls forth the answer, “O Lord, make haste to help me.” Such echoes and alternations are intrinsic to the structure of liturgical prayer: praise and petition, gratitude and need. The whole of the Matins service repeatedly enacts this oscillation.
After further prayers and readings from Scripture, the service comes to a close with a series of “collects” (pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable): these brief but highly condensed prayers were a specialty of Cranmer’s. He did not invent them — Latin liturgies are full of them — but he gave them a distinctive English style that would be much imitated in the coming centuries. Here is the final collect of Matins:
O Lord our heavenly father, almighty and ever-living God, which hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day: defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger, but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight: through Jesus Christ our lord. Amen.
Here we see the rhetorical structure common to most collects: a salutation to God; an acknowledgment of some core truth, in this case that the people come to prayer only because God has “safely brought us to the beginning of this day”; a petition (“grant us this day we fall into no sin”); an aspiration, or hope and purpose for the prayer, often introduced by the word “that” (“that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance”); and a concluding appeal to Jesus Christ as the mediator and advocate for God’s people. Anglican liturgies are studded with these collects, many of them either composed fresh by Cranmer or adapted by him from Latin sources. They are among the most characteristic and recognizable features of prayer-book worship.
For the people of the sixteenth century, this thanksgiving for safe passage to a new day would not have been a merely pro forma acknowledgment. As A. Roger Ekirch has shown in his extraordinary history At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, the early modern period in England was marked by deep anxiety about the dangers of the nighttime world. With only limited forms of artificial lighting, people found the darkness continually befuddling: friend could not be distinguished from foe, nor animate objects from inanimate ones. The moon was thought to bring both madness and disease, and the night air was perceived as unhealthy, even poisonous. Ekirch quotes one woman whose thoughts were typical of the period: “At night, I pray Almighty God to keep me from ye power of evil spirits, and of evil men; from fearfull dreams and terrifying imaginations; from fire, and all sad accidents . . . so many mischiefs, I know of, doubtless more that I know not of.” Doubtless more that I know not of: the “Terrors of the Night,” as Thomas Nashe called them in a 1594 pamphlet, multiplied relentlessly in the mind.
This was the context in which people came to Matins thanking the God “which hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day,” and the context that determines the sober mood of Evensong. One can easily imagine the felt need to come together in church, before the fall of night, to beg God’s protection, and indeed Evensong, which begins with a shortened version of the exchange that opens Matins — “O God, make speed to save me”; “O Lord, make haste to help me” — concludes with a collect frankly admitting the fear of the dark, in a prayer so urgent that it even forgoes the customary decorous address to God and rushes straight to its petition: “Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord, & by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the love of thy only son, our savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”