Cathedral prayer: the heartbeat of God’s love

Published on: 1 March 2018

Each day at Norwich Cathedral begins in the same way. Shortly before seven o’clock, the verger unlocks the doors and people begin to filter into the church.

In late autumn and winter, this takes place in almost complete darkness, with a bare minimum of light to enable people to navigate the space safely. Candles flicker here and there to guide the way; others shine in coloured lamps beside images of the saints, reminding us of their prayers for us.

Some make their ways to the different chapels for silent prayer and contemplation, or to light candles and write prayers for family, friends, the world, the sick and the departed. The chink of change falling into the candle boxes regularly punctuates the deep silence. A regular group, numbering up to a dozen, make their way to the choir to wait in silence. The bell strikes at 7.30; the lights come on and all rise to the same words that have opened prayer here for more than 900 years: O Lord open our lips.

So it is now, but also much as it has been all that time. Norwich Cathedral is saturated in prayer. In the time of the monastic community here (roughly 1096 to 1538), the monks offered the daily round of seven ‘offices’ (services) of prayer day and night as well as the Eucharist. The dissolution of the monastery and the Reformation somewhat curtailed this pattern but by no means brought it to an end.

In the Book of Common Prayer, it was Archbishop Cranmer’s particular genius to condense the monastic offices into two: Morning and Evening Prayer, within which the Bible would be read right through over the year. This commitment to the daily office and the contemplative reading of Scripture is a hallmark of the Benedictine tradition and helps explain how Anglicanism has come to retain a profoundly Benedictine character.

Like the regular architectural rhythm of the Cathedral’s arches and vaults, rhythm is key to the Cathedral’s life of prayer. After Morning Prayer, the Eucharist is offered each morning, and again at mid-day. Prayers are offered on the hour to enable visitors to stop and reflect and to take part in this ever-ongoing offering. And each day closes with evensong, at which our prayers are not only expressed through words but also reinforced through the music of choirs and organ as they have done here from the very beginning.

It is the regularity and predictability of this pattern, with the demand that we ‘down tools’ and leave what we are doing in order to pray, that enables people to immerse themselves in God’s presence. In order to allow the inner life to flourish, we must make a commitment to resisting the constant demand to ‘do’ in order to allow ourselves to ‘be’ in God’s presence and to listen for his voice in our lives. Our commitment to be present allows us to be carried by one another and sustained by the ongoing prayers of this community, past, present and future. All are welcome to be embraced by this rhythm, the heartbeat of God’s love.

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