Owning the Litany

I use the 1894 Book of Prayer for my morning and evening prayers. In time, I will tweek it for my own use, and update parts of it very gently. I’m amazed how, once you get into it, how durable the rite is. The morning and evening services end with one of three options: a set of collects, free prayer, or the litany. The Anglican Great Litany was the first liturgical work authorized for public worship in English, and I can see why it predated another service, say, Holy Communion or Morning Prayer. Read (responsively) with gusto, the Litany (the Universalist one having much of the thrust of the Angican one; though litanies, of course, aren’t limited to Engish) can be a powerhouse of prayer. Too often, as I well recall seminary chapel, reading any kind of litany or responsive prayer usually devolves into a polite, tepid mumble.

When I visit an Episcopal church for a communion service, I rather hope they don’t use form three of Prayers of the People because I’ve never heard it in anything other than a drone. What a waste! And what a bad example, because the dull reading of such a prayer communicates that responsive prayer and litanies are unimportant and lifeless. So people are prone to drop them, or try to invent something more modern or germaine. Cue wheel-spinning and recrimination. Last night, I used the Litany option for evening prayer, and shall do so until I hear that Nick Berg is laid to rest. Coming quick on
the heels of the prison photos, this is the time for plain, strong prayer. Like plain, strong coffee, it is what can get you through the situation.

Now, a word about reading the Litany alone. The Universalist litany has three sections, though they aren’t marked out as such.

  • The lines ending “have mercy upon us” are doubled. Read one line of each couplet, and then the confession (“Forgive, O Lord”)
  • Skipping “Save us, good Lord” note that the petitions, to the one ending “blameless to the end” are broken sentences inverted out of the usual English order. Reinvert them, so that the first petition is “Good Lord, deliver us from all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.” And pray it like you mean it, with the timbre and volume it requires. If you need to add a particular petition in the appropriate place, do it.
  • The litany ends with a benediction: read it all.

You say you’re not a “we.” Recall you are praying with the fulness of the Christian church. You are a part of a we, but you can’t see the others. And realize reading the Litany this way can be an emotional experience. Why isn’t it ordinarily?

In my own prayers, I go and pick up the collect for grace (mornings) or collect for aid against all perils (evening) before the benediction, but that’s me.

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