From the Canticle of Zechariah

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

—Luke 1:78-79 (from the Canticle of Zechariah)

The Canticle of Zechariah is said at the close of Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Breviary—the official set of prayers marking the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayer. The Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus, was “intoned by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, when the birth of his son changed his life, removing the doubt that rendered him mute, a significant punishment for his lack of faith and praise.”* (The entire Benedictus, which begins at verse 68, appears below.)

I cannot find the Bible translation that contains the graceful phrasing above. In the GOD’S WORD® Translation, the text begins, “A new day will dawn on us from above because our God is loving and merciful”—matter-of-fact but clunky, though sweeter by far than the Jubilee Bible 2000 version, which opens thus: “Through the bowels of mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high has visited us….” When I hear the words the tender compassion of our God, I am instantly comforted. Knowing that the dawn from on high shall break upon us fills me with hope. To the extent that I dwell in darkness—which is quite a lot, actually—the promise of the sunrise and of guidance for my clumsy feet into the way of peace gives me faith that this day, at least, I will walk in the light, and I will not walk alone.


Calendar page for July from the Isabella Breviary; note Zodiac sign, upper left, and depiction of peasants at work rather than regal grandeur. The “Isabella” for whom this Breviary was made is the Queen Isabella of Castile (a region of Spain) who, with her husband, King Ferdinand, sponsored Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World and also issued the degree ordering Jews and Muslims to convert or leave the country, leading to the infamous Spanish Inquisition; 1492 was a busy year.

The Liturgy of the Hours

The Liturgy of the Hours includes psalms, hymns, readings, and other prayers and antiphons. Together with the Mass, it constitutes the official public prayer life of the Catholic Church and forms the basis of prayer within Christian monasticism. The Liturgy of the Hours, along with the Eucharist, has formed part of the Church’s public worship from the earliest times. In the Middle Ages, elaborate breviaries were commissioned by aristocratic patrons for their personal ownership and as gifts for loved ones. Pictured here are two pages from the Isabella Breviary, a gift in 1497 to Queen Isabella of Castile (1472-1504) on the occasion of the wedding of two of her children to a son and daughter of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria. The main illuminator of the manuscript was a Flemish artist known as the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, active in Bruges. One particular feature of his style was to treat the page as a solid background in which the place for the miniature was cut out, as in a passe-partout. A magnificent floral and foliate border frames scenes incorporating various episodes in the Old Testament. The image at the top of this page shows the principal scene, in which the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments are surrounded by musicians and David playing the harp. Below is a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi from the New Testament. —from the Web Gallery of Art and Wikipedia

*From an October 1, 2003, address by Pope John Paul II


Adoration of the Magi, from the Isabella Breviary


Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Israel;
He has come to His people and set them free.

He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
Born of the house of His servant David.

Through His holy prophets He promised of old
That He would save us from our enemies,
From the hands of all who hate us.

He promised to show mercy to our fathers
And to remember His holy Covenant.

This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship Him without fear,
Holy and righteous in His sight
All the days of our life.

You, My child shall be called
The prophet of the Most High,
For you will go before the Lord to prepare His way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our Lord
The dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
And the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning.
is now, and will be forever.



Does Prayer ‘Work’?

If there’s a right way, tell me now…


Saint Peter Martyr Altarpiece, Fra Angelico, 15th century

Divine Creator, I have heard and read about the many ways to pray. One group claims that prayer is useless—doesn’t work at all—and others say that one form is the most effective. I don’t know exactly what it means for prayers to “work” or be “effective” anyway. If I pray for Mac the border collie to get well, and Mac dies peacefully instead and I’m at peace with his departure because I feel his spirit in the room with me, did my prayer “work”? How can I tell? Dear God—If there’s a right way and a wrong way to pray, please tell me now, because I just want to feel your arms around me. My legs won’t hold me up. I am too weak to stand and face this day and its demands. I need to lay my head down on your shoulder and be comforted. I’m too tired to even ask for strength. O God, be strong for me, just for a minute, while I catch my breath.

I have friends who pray according to a strategy; they seem to glide through life, with maybe the occasional lurch and stumble but with no plummeting into despair. I confess, dear God, that I am envious. I want to be like them, knowing where to find you and confident that you’ll show up. Instead I’m blind and deaf and flopping bonelessly in the direction of where I think your lap might be. I want to be like them, with stronger faith and no regrets. It doesn’t come easily to me—not yet. And it occurs to me that none of us is wrong, just standing on a different hilltop, looking from another latitude.

Some people say that you’re not “out there” but “in here”—my higher self resides in me—that my prayers are answered instantaneously, that I lack nothing materially or spiritually… that the answers to my questions, the solutions to my problems, and the generosity of heart I ask for are always and immediately at hand.

Out there or in here… what is the meaning of location with respect to you, who made it all, created countless worlds and stars and galaxies and universes? What is the relevance of “God is here” or “God is there” when there’s no place that you are not?

bahai-prayer.jpgHere’s what I’m always sure of, as certain as it’s possible to be: You are my divine Creator, my Father-Mother, and the always-fresh-and-uncontaminated wellspring of my life. You are the strength that lifts me when I’m weak or incapacitated. Yours are the arms that hold me when I grieve. You are the presence that fills me when I’m absent from myself, when I experience my being as irrelevant, when I feel completely set aside, alone, depleted, and superfluous. You are the wisdom that makes me wise, giving me the courage to keep moving when I can’t feel the ground or find in my surroundings a place of safety. Your vision guides my steps. Where I perceive a dead end going nowhere or a wall too high to climb, too wide to find the end of it, you see around the bend and far beyond, past this minute, this day, this mortal existence through the ageless, timeless, glorious tomorrows into eternity.

Prayer is sacred energy. To pray is to breathe light and clarity into forgotten valleys cast in shadow… forests overgrown and uninspired. To pray restores vitality, the way a rainstorm opens channels long obstructed by debris and inactivity.

There are sages who recite the laws of the universe and build systems and structures based on them, saying that even you, God, can’t restrain the momentum you set in motion at the instant of Creation. But who are we to calculate your infinite complexity? What are we looking at? Where are your edges? Who has built the fence outside of which you may not go? What are these laws that hinder even you, as if Creation had a vastness its Creator couldn’t measure? I respect these men and women and their mystical agility, but God, in the bitter cold I come to you for warmth, and in the dark it’s your light that guides me, not intellect, not human understanding, which wavers when untimely winter comes and hides the sun.

Am I wrong to come to you with petitions and pleas for intercession? Do I think a word from me will change your mind? Dear God, I don’t begin to know how you respond to prayer. I know better than to make demands or give you checklists. I pray to feel you with me. I pray against the illusion that we can be separated from your love and outside your protection. I pray so that my spirit will be renewed, my heart refreshed, my mind cleansed, and my needs, wishes, and desires surrendered. I pray to see things as you see them and remember that all is well.

I pray for clarity about the truth: The sick are healed; broken relationships are repaired; families are reinforced and mended; love is released; peace is restored; energy and purpose are awakened; and laughter is the music played by winds at ease, strummed across the prairie grasses, echoed from the cliffs and valleys, amplified and spread by the rivers and the seas.

I pray for miracles, even if what seems miraculous to me is just a borrowing from nature’s customary rhythm, a euphoric flight among the stars I thought were out of reach. I pray for courage in my work and purity in my relationships; for the healing power of love unfettered; for the clarity of purpose that unites my bliss with service and compassion. I pray to know the meaning of abundance not sought out of greed but sharing of the planet’s bounty. From my soul I pray for harmony, honesty, and innocence to sweep away everything unnecessary, toxic, and decayed. Underneath the layers of corrosion, behind the dust and through the haze, O God, the world and all that grows here are as clean and vibrant as when they were made morning. Your gifts have not been taken away, nor has the world’s reflected glory been erased. Your allness is intact, and clever imitations of another power, some imagined rogue Creator, can’t make the world an ugly, bleak, and loveless place. I don’t know everything, but I know this.


The Holy Innocents

What I know of you, God, and your nature isn’t what I’ve figured out so I can pride myself on my discernment. Whatever knowledge I possess is what you’ve shown to all your messengers on earth. Whatever revelation I might claim is borne of grace, of victory, and of the cycles, seasons, galaxies, the rhythm of the universe, which returns all things to primal innocence, to soundness and perfection.

Father-Mother, by the grace of your unfailing love, may I become your instrument, to tend whatever I find sick and broken, helping it become well and vigorous and whole. Reveal to each of us our genius in the flow of work and rest and recreation. Precious God, at every opportunity, in every gathering, discussion, meeting, chance encounter, ignite our curiosity so that we’re impelled to ask the question “What can I do to serve you? How can I make your life better?”  Amen