On Saturday, the only prayers I could offer up were the Litany from The Book of Common Prayer in the depths of shaking, horrified grief, just after we had enough hours of Internet to learn about the coordinated attacks in Paris — and, as not a few friends pointed out, suicide bombers in Beirut.
The Litany was my outlet. Because what words can actually express the shock and horror that comes when violence is suddenly so relatively close, in a place so much like home?
Paris, if you are curious, is 458.6 km from London, 1,094.8 km from Edinburgh, 1054.6 km from Berlin, 1,424.3 km from Rome.
As a Canadian reference point, Toronto is 351 km from Ottawa, 541 from Montreal, 1,401.2 from Thunder Bay, 802.4 from Québec City, and 789.8 from New York City.
That is to say that for us who live in Europe, Paris is literally close to home.
I have friends in Paris. I have lived in Paris cumulatively for three months. It is a great city, and I love it.
So what response is there, really?
From sudden death,
Good Lord, deliver us.
For times when we have no words of our own, there is the liturgy.
And the Spirit, who intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (Romans 8:26).
Horror and terror have arrived home. We have been fortunate, have we not? Western Europe, after centuries of internecine strife, has been at peace — at least between member states — since 1945. And the amount of intranational violence (IRA, Mafia, etc.) has gone down as well. Most of our governments are fairly stable, and we have police forces and border controls and security services watching over us.
To have one of our national capitals targeted — and to have the group responsible officially declare that Rome and London are on the list as well — is a very destabilising event. Which makes the difference between Paris and Beirut.
And as soon as that realisation starts to sink in —
Well, pray for Beirut. And for the many nations and cities where this sort of violence and horror are part of life (and, thus, death). Be thankful for the security and peace we have enjoyed these seventy years, then pray not only for their continuation in Europe, not only for the leaders of Europe who must seek wisdom and good counsel in the years ahead, but for the day when such peace and security can come to rest upon North Africa, the Levant, and the Middle East, for decades when they, too, can pass their days in rest and quietness.
If one wishes to pray using the old words, the words of the ancient and early mediaeval Christians, where does one go? What are our sources for the prayers and prayer lives of these early Christians and their communities? These are good questions, and I will briefly outline them here. I am currently preparing a list of online prayer resources, so stay tuned!
The period I like to draw upon runs up to the 800s and 900s. Now, I suppose those who wanted the very earliest would want to stop sooner than that, say, at the close of the Patristic period. While that would be an idealised vision of how to seek out early Christian prayers, it is impractical for several reasons. First, the liturgical prayers of early Latin Christianity are sparse before the Carolingians (740s-880s). Second, while we can find structures for the daily round of prayer from the ancient Church (which are very helpful), the arrangement of liturgies and composition of prayers is most visible from Late Antiquity onward, especially the Daily/Divine Office (or ‘Liturgy of the Hours’). Finally, this stopping point is quite arbitrary, as the rich resources of the Central/High Middle Ages are worth examining as well, and I admit it.
Nonetheless, we need the Early Middle Ages to be able to touch Late Antiquity.
So what are the sources for ancient and early mediaeval liturgy?
We begin in the East. Basically, Eastern Christianity is divided into interrelated liturgical families that follow their ecclesiastical divisions. For us Chalcedonians, the most important from the East is what Roman Catholic scholars call the Byzantine rite, descended from Antioch, and including the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and that of St Basil the Great.
This is the liturgical heritage of Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholics (Ukrainian Catholics, Greek Catholics, etc.). Its Divine Office is very closely tied up with monastic spirituality, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Amongst its ancient and early mediaeval heritage (a great treasure-house!) we find the hymns of Ephraim the Syrian, the Octoechos, the hymns of Romanos the Melodist, the hymns and Great Penitential Canon St Andrew of Crete. Sources chrétiennes has published a ninth-century book of hours from St Catherine’s in Sinai (for those who know Greek and French!).
Greek liturgy also includes the early third-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus that provides us with liturgies for baptism and Holy Eucharist (baptismal regulations are also present in the Didache). The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America provides us with liturgical texts for daily prayer, some of which are ancient and early Byzantine as well. The living tradition of Orthodox liturgy is replete with ancient and Early Byzantine prayers.
In the West, our ancient and early mediaeval prayers come to us in a few forms. For collects and other prayers for use in the Eucharist, keyed to the church year, we have three main sacramentaries, each named after a pope although none of them definitively by its eponymous pope: the Leonine Sacramentary (c. 600), the Gelasian Sacramentary (two versions, one mid-600s and one post-750), and the Gregorian Sacramentary (most popular form from Charlemagne’s time, c. 800). We also have the Bobbio Missal, a seventh-century mass-book of Gallic type from northern Italy. These are great sources for beautiful prayers, and we know Cranmer used the Gelasian in preparing the Book of Common Prayer.
Beyond the Eucharist (which is what most secondary sources on liturgy discuss, except [of course] Robert Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West), we have access to the hymns of St Ambrose, Prudentius, Venantius Fortunatus as well as various prayers from the likes of St Columba of Iona and scattered amidst the writings of the various Latin Fathers. When the western Divine Office starts appearing in monastic breviaries and lay books of hours in the High and Late Middle Ages, the shape of the Office and the content of much of the prayers drew upon this early period.
In fact, in researching this post I became aware of several sources/areas for the Office in the Early Middle Ages. For example, one of our earliest office books the Antiphoner of Compiègne, from the 870s; images of the manuscript itself are online. Elsewhere is a book whose title I’d seen but not apprehended, the Antiphoner of Bangor (mid-600s?). From 1079 in Ireland comes the Psalter of Ricemarch – many office books of the Early Middle Ages were Psalters with extra prayers added, to be used according to the custom of the Rule of St Benedict or one’s local monastery. The monastery of Sankt Gall was also a source for liturgical production (e.g. the lovely Alleluyatic sequence, ‘Cantemus cuncti melodum’, is attributed to Notker the Stammerer). Two sources from the early 1000s worth mentioning are Aelfwine’s prayer book (c. 1025), recently edited by Beate Güzel for the Henry Bradshaw Society in 2009 and The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, available as a Penguin Classic!
The sources are many, but for the West the earliest liturgical books exist only in Latin; I’ll put something together for them like I did for medieval mystics. If you do get to access these, you will enjoy rich treasures from the storehouse of our forebears in the faith. I promise.
Before I leave the topic, modern books of translated prayers from early mediaeval insular Christianity (‘Celtic’ and Anglo-Saxon) abound. Some of these prayers are genuine, some are not; of those that are not, some are better than others. These prayers have proven very popular of late in the generation of new liturgies, though. I’d like to see what modern liturgists could do if they had available the riches of the earliest sacramentaries, missals, hymnaries, and office books!
Sometimes when a post like my most recent one appears on the Internet, someone immediately thinks the writer believes that the period in question is a Golden Age, or a more ‘pure’ age of Christian spirituality. I remember once I sent an article about first- and second-century evangelism to a friend, and it came up in the comments section of his (now dead) blog, and someone came in with all guns flaring as though he and I believed that everything done in the ancient church was perfect.
This is not how I view ancient and early mediaeval Christianity.
We have to immediately admit that things back then were not perfect — as early as Paul’s letters to the Corinthians or the message of the Spirit to the churches n Revelation we have evidence that Christian persons are not perfect. This trend is visible not only in Patristic and Mediaeval texts that try to solve and reform problems, from 1 Clement to Gregory of Tours or the letters of Gregory the Great, but also in texts that claim to bear weighty authority — some of these are visibly heretical to post-Chalcedonian eyes, others tread near to it, others have problems mingled in with the good, invisible to their authors.
Notker the Stammerer’s Life of Charlemagne, for instance, gives us a vision of Christianity and Christian liturgy that is mostly about doing exactly the right thing at the right time; I feel that his is one of the most ritualistic (in a bad way) and legalistic texts I’ve met.
So if ancient and early mediaeval Christianity are so obviously flawed, why would I favour them in the prayerful commission of new liturgies for today’s context? Why not just, say, construct liturgies out of Bruce Cockburn lyrics or attend U2charists?
I will dispense with the absolutely subjective first. I like ancient and mediaeval prayers. I like the way they sound. I like they way they are constructed. I like the stuff they say. I like the contexts they fit. I enjoy their perspective. Furthermore, well-translated they are more beautiful than Cockburn or U2. Here an example from the Central Middle Ages, a prayer of St Anselm as translated by Sr Benedicta Ward:
Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerless weakness I attempt. My life, the end to which I strive, although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be. (The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm)
I have that on a Post-It Note on the endpage of my Book of Common Prayer. I just love it.
Another slightly less subjective reason is the connection with the historic faith and believers through the ages. Sometimes, when I receive the Eucharist, I am filled with awe at the fact that I am joining with millions of other faithful Christians on that same day to partake of the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Nothing can compare with that mystical act. But when we pray using the old forms and old words, we are joining brothers and sisters in a transtemporal and transnational expression of piety towards the Triune God. It is not good for the man to be alone, says the LORD in Genesis. Praying ancient and mediaeval prayers is a way to unite with the rest of Christ’s mystical body and not be alone.
Furthermore, ancient and early mediaeval prayers contain powerful Gospel truths. I was raised in the evangelical, charismatic wing of Anglicanism. The glorious and wonderful Gospel of Jesus Christ — that God became a man to save us poor wretches, and that He died a terrible death for us poor sinners, and that He rose again victorious from the grave, and that He ascended, and is now present with all who call upon His Name, that we are not saved by any of the good things we may do but simply through His grace, which we must accept in faith (you know that Gospel), and so forth — is the heritage of all faithful Christians.
These truths, and other ‘Bible truths’ and theological profundities are readily available in the ancient and early mediaeval prayers. Take this one from the Gelasian Sacramentary (sections of which are 6th-century, others 7th, and a modified form after 750):
O God, Who by the Passion of Thy Christ our Lord hath dissolved that hereditary death of the ancient sin, to which the whole race of Adam’s posterity had succeeded; grant that having been made conformable unto Him, as we by necessity of nature have borne the image of the earthly, so by the sanctification of grace we may bear the image of the Heavenly, even of Christ our Lord, Who with Thee… (trans. W. Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers Selected from Various Rituals)
A fourth reason is that ancient and early mediaeval prayers can speak to us in ways our own words and worlds cannot. This reason would be a reason to use any historic liturgy, be it 1662 or the Tridentine Mass or the Use of Sarum or the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or the hymns of the Oktoekhos or Aelfwine’s Prayerbook. If our prayers are temporally bound to this moment, there is a danger of them becoming earthbound rather than heavenward.
I think there is an intuition along these lines in the liturgical reforms of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Cranmer, for instance, mined the riches of the Gelasian Sacramentary as well as seeking to establish a more ancient form of what is basically Sarum (in English with no saints, mind you). The Council of Trent explicitly sought to re-establish the worship of ‘the Fathers’. Later, Pius X in the early twentieth century was interested in reinvigorating the worship life of Roman Catholicism through Gregorian chant of all things.
If we produce new liturgies based solely upon the past several years or decades, we will be timebound, trapped by U2 or by Cockburn, by the Gettys or by Graham Kendrick, praying all the latest fads instead of deep, uncomfortable truths we may never have thought to pray about.
Fifth, these prayers are not merely old, they are tested and true. Not every prayer or ritual act found in a mediaeval manuscript and dateable to the centuries of my interest is worth our time. I think. I admit to not being sure about that, but I’ll concede the hypothetical point. Nevertheless, many of the prayers from this period made their way into the liturgies of the great branches of Christianity — take the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or of St Basil the Great, or the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, or the Catholic Mass, or the Book of Common Prayer, or the various breviaries and liturgies of the hours — many of the prayers we find in the earliest traceable liturgies have made their way to us in these texts.
By way of example, the next time you encounter this (or similar words):
The Lord be with you.
And with thy Spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.
It is meet and right so to do.
It is indeed meet, right, and our bounden duty …
Thank the Lord for St Hippolytus (d. 230s) in whose day this was already traditional in the Church of Rome. And realise that this ancient liturgical moment in the ‘Anaphora’ crosses not only between Anglican/Lutheran and Roman Catholic, but across to the Eastern Orthodox and historic Oriental churches as well.
Generations of Christians have found ancient and early mediaeval prayers to be nourishing. By praying these prayers, they are able to lift their souls to heaven. By reading these words, they have found themselves in the throne room of God. By meditating on their truths, they have come nearer to the Most Holy Trinity in their frail, human understanding.
This liturgical aspect of a missional church interests and excites me for more than the obvious reasons. I think that prayer must be at the centre of our lives as individuals as well as churches. If we want to see transformation occur in our own hearts as well as in the communities around us, we need to encounter the living God. The witness of Scripture and Christian history tells us that this happens when we set aside time for prayer and worship.
Indeed, Baptist preacher John Piper even notes that worship is our true end; mission exists because worship does not.
This is our chief activity.
I would have been really excited to hear about this venture and mission on behalf of Christ’s church — and in my old stompin’ grounds (well, almost — Port Arthur isn’t quite the same as Fort William) — regardless of anything else. I’m doubly pleased that a friend from high school and her husband (who is fast becoming a friend) are involved in this disciple-making movement of prayer in the broken heart of Thunder Bay.
And I’m humbled that I have been approached to assist with the liturgical angle of this moment of Our Lord’s mission on earth.
Which brings me to the title of this post. The request mentions that they are interested in using ancient/classical forms of prayer (the obvious reason why Urban Abbey interests me), and says:
Anyways, I was interested if you would ever be interested in sharing/creating some liturgies ( I know you don’t just “create” them, but I hope you get what I mean) that you feel would be meaningful/important.
Of course, I directed Scot to this blog, specifically to the liturgies you can see off to your right under ‘Classic Christian Texts.’
I’ve been mulling over this for the past couple of weeks — probably too much, but that’s just the way I am.
It’s true that one doesn’t just ‘create’ liturgies.
For example, I once led a study of a portion of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses that dealt with perfection — since Divine perfection is endless, then our own perfection will be endless too. This is the selection in Richard Foster’s book Devotional Classics. For prayers at the start of that evening, I took some of the prayers from the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great and modified them a little, making portions antiphonal and giving the selection a beginning and an end — these were prayers for perfection. Obviously, they were out of context. But it was a way to truly pray (one does not pray ancient prayers for novelty) but also to connect with the world of the Cappadocians more thoroughly than a merely intellectual study would or could.
The creation of ‘occasional’ liturgies such as that is a matter of looking at the needs of that community and that moment, and then looking at the resources — the rich and beautiful resources — available to us in the centuries of prayers that Christians have offered up to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I do not think I would ever truly create a Eucharistic liturgy, although once I put together something based upon research into first-century worship and St Hippolytus, but that was basically just the Anaphora/Canon of the Mass. I don’t know if it’s something I would use again, though. (Yes, we had a real priest in Apostolic Succession consecrate the elements that night.)
As a Latinist, I have an advantage over a great many other people in this regard. While some of our earliest Greek liturgical texts, such as St Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, have been Englished, most early Latin liturgical texts remain untranslated. I can thus more easily tap into the wellspring of ancient and early mediaeval prayer than those unschooled in the Latin tongue.
I think I will prayerfully read through these ancient and early mediaeval prayers and prepare some texts for my friends. They are the same sources that Thomas Cranmer used in the 1500s as well as some new ones that have come to light. They express beautiful truths that all Christians can stand behind. So I will see if we can make them live again today in Urban Abbey’s Tower of Prayer in Thunder Bay.
In my next post I’ll go into some actual thoughts on Christian prayer in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.
In his 2006 article for First Things, ‘Europe and Its Discontents’, Pope Benedict XVI lists those things that united mediaeval Europe, East and West — Christianity, a belief in being successors of Rome, and monasticism. Of the last he writes:
The last factor I would mention is monasticism, which throughout the great upheavals of history continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of the ultimate guidance of humankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the bringer of ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.
Benedict is writing here from the perspective of society and culture, of course. And I cannot deny the major importance that the monastic and ascetic movement has had and still has across Europe. This paragraph makes me also think, however, of a phrase Diarmaid MacCulloch used in one of the lectures of his ‘History of Silence’: The silent (or quiet?) ecumenism of mysticism (or asceticism?).
As you can see, I don’t quite remember the quotation exactly (I’m notorious for that). Nonetheless, the point comes across.
Whatever differences may exist between power structures of western and eastern Christianity, whatever variations amongst our respective liturgical inheritances, whatever divergences in dogma and formal, confessional teaching of doctrine, the ascetic and mystical tradition of Christianity finds its common source in the Prophet Elijah and St John the Baptist as well as the wellsprings of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Judaean deserts — and its different streams taste remarkably similar.
It is my experience, at least, that the main differences between the Eastern Orthodox/Byzantine/Russian spiritual writers and those from the west (primarily Catholic or Mediaeval) are of emphasis, but they are united in their experience of God. They are also united in their promotion of the disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, contemplation — while steering us clear of illuminism. The goal of all of this, this entry into the Interior Castle (to borrow the term from St Teresa of Ávila), is to encounter the Giver, not His gifts.
And all of them (much to the chagrin of the Reformed) will speak in terms that are best understood by the word synergy. That the encounter with God, the quest for purity and the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity requires everything of us, requires much effort and labour on our part. Yet it comes, in the end, only because of the grace God. It is wholly dependent on God, yet we are required to seek to purify ourselves so that God will purify us. We are told to seek His face so that He will show it. I am thinking here of St Theophan the Recluse and St John Cassian, one at the end of the Russian tradition, the other at the beginning of the western.
Perhaps, then, Christians should spend more time praying together and more time praying alone. And then, having encountered the Most Holy Trinity Who is Himselves a Communion of Persons, we can find greater communion with each other.
Today’s pope question arose twice in one day recently, so I feel it is worth answering. I was asked what sort of manuscripts I’ve been studying, and I said that I’m currently looking into Late Antique Papal Letters; or Papal Letters from the Roman Empire (one from Siricius [pope 384-399], four from Innocent I [401-17], one from Zosimus [417-18], two from Celestine I [422-32]). These particular letters whose transmission I’m studying are, in fact, genuine.
But how can we know?
I think the first thing to deal with here is: Why are all early papal letters suspect? My guess is: a. The Donation of Constantine and b. Pseudo-Isidore. The Donation of Constantine is the famous ninth-century forgery that gave Pope Silvester (pope 315-335) all sorts of temporal power that no pope had before the Central Middle Ages. Lorenzo Valla, in one of the great moments in humanistic study and the history of philology, proved it a forgery in 1440. Pseudo-Isidore is also ninth-century, but of a different ilk. By ‘Pseudo-Isidore’, scholars of canon law mean a group of forgers (or maybe their forgeries) in mid-ninth-century Frankish lands (c. 844?) who produced a vast array of forged papal decretals (papal letters universally binding in canon law) from very early popes right up to when we have actually papal letters.
These two factors, I imagine, are why people think all early papal letters are forgeries; most of them are.
However, it is entirely reasonable to assume that letters written by Bishops of Rome would survive to posterity from the ancient world. This can be drawn first of all from analogy. Other western bishops left behind their correspondence, most famously St Cyprian, St Ambrose, and St Augustine, but we also have letters of, for example, Aurelius of Carthage. Eastern episcopal correspondence also survives, such as St John Chrysostom, St Basil of Caesarea, and St Athanasius. Indeed, the Bishops of Alexandria have left us many letters, most famously their yearly ‘festal letters’ that inform the Egyptian clergy of the date of Easter for the year and deal with some internal affairs and give a bit of exhortation.
If bishops from Carthage, Hippo, Milan, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Caesarea are involved in the business of ecclesiastical letter-writing in Late Antiquity, why not bishops of Rome?
Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop. If, however, two or three bishops shall from natural love of contradiction, oppose the common suffrage of the rest, it being reasonable and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, then let the choice of the majority prevail.
Rome was Metropolitan of Suburbicarian Italy and chief episcopal see in the western, Latin-speaking Mediterranean. Due to actions of Constantine and then a long series of disgruntled provincial clergy, the Bishop of Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries developed into an arbiter in disputes and court of appeal. People will have wanted to keep what this guy had to say.
So much for the theoretical grounding as to why it is inevitable that people will have kept and transmitted genuine papal letters.
How can we tell, though??
Not to go into the gory details, one question is how early the collections and manuscripts that contain a letter are. Is it in collections from the late fifth or early sixth century? Or does it not appear until the ninth or tenth century?
The next question is: How does the material match the context of the letter? For example, one of the Leo forgeries is all about the rights of chorepiscopi in Gaul and Germany. This was an issue in the 800s, not the 400s, not least because there wasn’t really an established episcopate of any sort in Germany at the time. But when Siricius makes references to the Council of Ariminum (Rimini, 358) and the canonical precedent established at the time, it seems genuine.
Leo the Great writes about Manichaeans in Ep. 7, and we have corresponding evidence from his sermons, from imperial laws, from the Chronicle of Hydatius and the Chronicle of Prosper that Manichaeans were an issue at that time. It is reasonable to assume that Leo would have written about/against them in his letters.
Of course, one will protest, isn’t contextualisation what makes a good forgery? Well, yes, but I can assure you that it is the burden of the many smaller references that help tip the scales, as well as references to canonical practice that would change over time.
Then there is style and terminology. This is harder. Even popes with distinctive personal styles like Leo the Great look an awful lot like their predecessors — a problem facing the identification of a fragment in one ms, is it Leo or Boniface I? Nonetheless, different popes have subtle differences, although it can be hard to spell it out. I do find, though, that Innocent I does not write the same as Leo the Great. I promise.
And don’t forget the seruus seruorum Dei rule — if it turns up in a papal letter before Gregory the Great (590-604), it’s either an interpolation or the whole letter’s a forgery.
I hope this helps. I promise that I’m not mistakenly reading a bunch of forgeries. Early papal letters are a vastly understudied and misunderstood resource for the historian of Late Antiquity, so casting aside the forgery burden is an important task so we can get down to studying the real documents.
Liturgical worship is coming back into style nowadays, though it has been around for centuries. Some people love it; some people hate it. We started using liturgy in our church several years ago. Here’s why you shouldn’t use it.
The Connections to the Ancient Church
Many people associate the use of liturgy with the Roman Catholic Church. Actually, the Romans were not the first to use liturgy. Liturgy developed in the Early Church, possibly having been influenced by liturgy from Jewish backgrounds. Using liturgy gives a sense of connection to something more than the local church. Liturgy allows a local church to feel connected to the universal church that consists of all true believers through the ages. Today, churches pride themselves on being independent, creating new things, and trying to “start movements.” Liturgy reminds us that we are already part of a greater movement of God’s kingdom on earth. If…