This is the third in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This third reflection concerns Lauds and Prime, the hours when day begins.
From dust I rise,
And out of nothing now awake,
These brighter Regions which salute mine Eys,
A Gift from God I take.
The Earth, the Seas, the Light, the Day, the Skies,
The Sun and Stars are mine; if those I prize …
Into this Eden, so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come His Son and Heir.
— Thomas Traherne [i]
New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.
— John Keble [ii]
Do you believe in miracles? There is at least one every day: God says, “Let there be light!” And behold, night and nothingness flee away; the visible world appears miraculously before our eyes. We may sleep through this miracle, forget to notice, or take it for granted. But every morning is like the first morning of the world—a divine gift to be honored with astonishment, delight, gratitude and praise.
The victory of light over darkness is one of the most ancient and natural religious tropes. For mortal beings, whose temporal span is a long day’s journey into night, the recurring dawn is a sign of unconquerable life. “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light,” says the prophet Isaiah, finding the narrative of salvation in dawn’s daily parable. The Song of Zechariah, whose son, John the Baptist, would herald the true Light of the world, elaborates this image at every Morning Prayer:
By the tender mercy 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)
It’s a shame that most of us see many more dusks than dawns in the course of our life. Might we be more joyful people if we devoted greater attention to the daybreak hour? Even early risers may succumb too quickly to their tasks, duties and worries to greet the dawn with attentive stillness.
“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you,” says Rumi. “Don’t go back to sleep.”[iii] The medieval Sufi mystic counsels us to cherish the liminal hush between night and day, sleep and waking, when the mind still drifts in tranquility. “Take the first moments when emerging from sleep to be still,” says Elizabeth Yates in her Book of Hours, “to let waking come gently, to cherish the thoughts that are hovering, to let the idea that may soon need to be acted upon gather fullness.”[iv]
Whatever your work may be, whatever your schedule demands, find a way to spend contemplative time with the dawn—if not daily, then weekly. The birth of the day is a great and mighty wonder, not to be missed. As Thomas Merton suggests, “the most wonderful moment of the day is that when creation in its innocence asks permission to ‘be’ once again, as it did on the first morning that ever was.”[v]
In the daybreak liturgy of Lauds—the term means “praises”—the opening sentence breaks the night’s Great Silence with an invocation: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Psalm 51:15). Begin your day not with coffee or screens, but with praise, and notice the difference! Some of us may be reluctant risers, but daybreak is no time for slumber. It’s too beautiful and holy to miss. “Rise and shine,” says the prophet, “for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you (Isaiah 60:1). The Psalmist responds with gusto: “Wake up, my soul; awake, O instruments of joy; I myself will waken the dawn (Psalm 57:8). Sing the day into being!—it’s a lovely practice. Try it sometime on a mountain summit, lakeshore, or back porch.
When I was a chaplain for teenage backpacking camps in California’s High Sierra, our venerable leader, Joe Golowka, was always the first one up. The rest of us, still snug in our bags, tried to postpone the shock of cold mountain air, but Joe would wander among us like a biblical watchman. “Don’t miss this beautiful dawn!” he’d say, echoing the Psalmist: This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24).
There are many beautiful hymns and prayers for the observance of Lauds, but a measure of wordless attention is also required. If we can simply listen without thought, the silent dawn will speak to us, as it did to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“I see the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake in its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”[vi]
In Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Benedictine Macrina Wiederkehr praises the dawn as an hour of healing and renewal.
Moment before dawn
quietest of all quiet moments,
good medicine for the soul,
make plans to be there.
Set the clock of your heart,
breathe in the rays of dawn,
raise high the chalice of your life,
taste the joy of being awake. [vii]
Wiederkehr’s eucharistic image is apt. Taste and see. Dawn is indeed a sacramental hour. A hymn sung by Camaldolese monks imagines it as a baptism of light:
Dawn’s radiance washes over earth;
refreshed and rested from the night
the world is rinsed baptismally
as all are bathed anew in light. [viii]
Not only is the natural world “rinsed baptismally” each new day; so, to some degree, are we. “I dwell in possibility,” says Emily Dickinson, “spreading wide my narrow / Hands — / to gather Paradise.[ix]
However many past projects, burdens, and sorrows we drag with us into the present moment, the new morning is an invitation to set them down and “dwell in possibility,” receiving the gift of “now” as a fresh opportunity, an empty canvas, like Eden before the Fall. As John Muir learned from spending countless dawns in the roofless wild, we can breathe the air of Paradise in nature’s daily Lauds:
“I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.” [x]
The new day not only reenacts the creation of everything. It is also a drama of resurrection: we rise from the “death” of sleep, startled by the return of our conscious self from the night’s oblivion. “Rise, heart; thy Lord is risen,” says the priestly poet George Herbert. For every day, when truly perceived and welcomed, is the day of resurrection:
Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever. [xi]
However, rolling out of bed can become so habitual that we forget the wonder of it, forget the miraculous givenness of our existence. Sometimes a dramatic reminder may be necessary. Forty-nine years later, I still can feel the utter joy and relief of seeing one particular sunrise in the Smoky Mountains. Having just endured a terrifying night of lightning on an exposed summit, I felt delivered into newness of life. And who has not experienced equivalent inner dawns, when “the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”[xii] One of Charles Wesley’s morning hymns employs the physical sensations of sunrise to convey the spiritual gifts we are offered with each new day:
Dark and cheerless is the morn unaccompanied by thee;
joyless is the day’s return, till thy mercy’s beams I see,
till they inward light impart, glad my eyes, and warm my heart.
In Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life, a quartet of allegorical paintings, “Childhood” is imbued with morning spirituality. The Adamic child, newborn and joyful, emerges from a dark cave into the roseate dawn of a happy world. A protective angel holds the tiller of the child’s golden boat as it drifts down the stream of time. As Cole reminds us in the quartet’s later paintings, troubled waters lie ahead in every voyage, but though Paradise be lost, it may yet be regained every time we greet a new day with thanks and praise. In the words of Kathryn Galloway’s morning hymn:
We receive God’s graceful moment
While the day is fresh and still,
Ours to choose how we will greet it,
Ours to make it what we will.
Here is given perfect freedom,
Every hope in love to fill. [xiii]
Prime (after sunrise)
The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask;
room to deny ourselves; a road
to bring us daily nearer God.
— John Keble [xiv]
Prime, the “first” portion of daylight following sunrise, is the period of transition from contemplation and praise into the onward flow of the day’s tasks and needs. In the monastic tradition, it is when work assignments are distributed, and the community asks a blessing upon their labors. Sounds begin to punctuate the silence: footsteps, voices, the opening of doors. Before things get too busy or muddled in my own working hours, can I pause for one minute—or twenty—to pray the day’s questions? What is this day for? What is being asked of me? What might I do better? Whom can I serve? How can I love? What can I change? Will I entertain angels unaware? Will I pause to notice a burning bush? Can I spend this day wholeheartedly receptive to the fullness of time?
The daily office for morning in the Book of Common Prayer expresses Prime’s focus on the day before us:
We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight.
So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you.
Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks.[xv]
This last prayer is my favorite, and I say it every day. It assumes that we are capable agents, that we can be shaped by divine intention, that this day holds immense potential for us. We may not make it to nightfall without lapses major and minor. The cheerfulness may fail us more than once. We know this. Perfection is a process, not a possession. But to begin each day by offering it to sacred purpose—the Divine acting in us and through us—this is the energizing spirit of Prime.
Lord, I my vows to thee renew;
disperse my sins as morning dew;
guard my first springs of thought and will,
and with thyself my spirit fill. [xvi]
The video of “Bright morning stars are rising,” a traditional Appalachian spiritual first recorded in the field by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax, is sung by the author, accompanied by his photographs: Mt.Rainier seen from an airplane in a late-winter dawn (2015); Holy Saturday dawn on the Camino de Santiago east of Burgos (2014); Summer Solstice sunrise in Puget Sound, Washington (5:26 a.m., June 21, 2015); October sunrise in 2011 from the former site of Mt. Calvary Retreat House in Santa Barbara, an Episcopal monastery tragically destroyed by fire three years earlier; sunrise on the Dordogne River in France, a few days after the Autumn Equinox in 2018.
[i] Graham Dowell, Enjoying the World: The Rediscovery of Thomas Traherne (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1990), 92. Traherne, a 17th-century Anglican poet, priest and theologian, was truly a morning person, naturally disposed to “enjoy” the world with wonder, love and praise.
[ii] John Keble (1792-1866), “New every morning is the love,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #10. Keble, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, was a poet-priest. Many of the poems in his popular collection, The Christian Year, became widely used hymns.
[iii] Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273), cited in Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 47.
[iv] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 15.
[v] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, cited in Kathleen Deignan, Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 46. A variation on this lovely image is in Merton’s Turning Toward the World: The Journals of Thomas Merton, vol. 4): “The first chirps of the waking birds—le point vierge of the dawn, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in silence opens their eyes and they speak to Him, wondering if it is time to ‘be?’ And He tells them ‘Yes.’ Then they one by one wake and begin to sing ….” (The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, Orbis 2002, p. 363).
[vi] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836), The Annotated Emerson, ed. David Mikics (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 48.
[vii] Wiederkehr, 57.
[viii] Hymn #199, Monday Lauds in Camaldolese Monks O.S.B., Lauds and Vespers (1994).
[ix] Emily Dickinson, “I dwell in Possibility” (J657, Fr466).
[x] Cited in Linnie Marsh Wolfe, ed., John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 72.
[xi] George Herbert, “Easter,” in Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 139-140.
[xii] Samuel John Stone (1839-1900), “The Church’ one foundation,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #525. Stone, a poet-priest in the Church of England, responded to a “night of weeping” in the life of his Church (“by schisms rent asunder”) with 12 hymns inspired by the 12 articles of the Apostles’ Creed. This hymn celebrates article 9: “the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.”
[xiii] Kathryn Galloway, “God’s Graceful Moment,” Iona Abbey Hymn Book #44.
[xiv] “New every morning is the love,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #10.
[xv] Collects for Morning Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 100-101. For more on the third collect cited, see my post, “Grace me guide”: https://jimfriedrich.com/2015/03/20/grace-me-guide/
[xvi] Thomas Ken (1637-1711), “Awake my soul,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #11. Ken, an Anglican bishop, had a great influence on the development of English hymnody.