The Desert Fathers and Anglican Devotion

Launcelot Andrews (1555-1626)

It’s pretty easy to make an argument for any Protestant to read the Church Fathers at large. Do you believe in the Trinity? Recite the Nicene Creed? Well, then, read St Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, St Augustine. Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man? Well, then, read Sts Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus the Confessor. Grappling with the question of religious images? Read St John of Damascus. Are you pondering why God became man? Well, then, read St Irenaeus of Lyons. Want to read the Bible better? Read St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana.

From the perspective of Anglican devotion, St Augustine’s theology of grace gives us good insights into the theology of the Prayer Book collects. Sts Hippolytus and John Chrysostom show us something about the history of our Eucharistic liturgy — as well as the “Prayer of St Chrysostom”. At the heart of the Anglican daily office lies the Psalter: Here, Sts Athanasius and Augustine are a great help.

Spending time with these Fathers will only help us do a better job of being Anglican, Protestant, whatever.

But what about the Desert Fathers? What do we gain from celibate men and women who cut themselves off from normal society, were consciously sleep deprived, ate only once a day, and were professional pray-ers? What can ancient monks do for the devotional lives of Anglicans? And lay Anglicans, at that?

This question is particularly strong for people of my generation who grew up in Anglican churches, at least in Canada, that had a strong Sunday liturgical tradition of Holy Communion and even hymns, but whose devotional world, Monday-Saturday, was the same as that of the Baptist down the road. A lot of room to be truly healthy and holy, but not a lot that was specifically Anglican. At a certain level, hey-ho, that’s fine! Holiness is the goal, not Anglicanness.

But if a standard, evangelical “quiet time”, maybe with some charismatic elements tossed in, is what your devotional life is used to, then the Desert Fathers can be quite foreign, I can assure you.

They can also be quite reassuring and challenging in a good way, though. When I was an undergrad, like a lot of young people, I briefly flirted with the idea of not being purposely and consciously Anglican. And yet whenever I came up against something with which I disagreed, whether from Roman Catholics or evangelicals, I found myself simply Anglican. So I read the 39 Articles again and decided that, regardless of what it meant for other Christians to be Pentecostals, Ukrainian Orthodox, Baptists, or Free Methodists, I was, quite honestly, Anglican. It was silly to pretend otherwise.

Thus, one Lent I chose for my devotional exercise the praying of one office from the BCP (1962) every day. This ended up being Compline, and this time also ended up being my time of “conversion” (if you will) to the Prayer Book. Anyway, that was the same year I met the Desert Fathers and fell in love with their wacky monomaniacal devotion to the Triune God.

This compline-desert confluence is where the Desert Fathers help out the Anglican. The daily office, especially Morning and Evening Prayer, is fairly central to the Anglican devotional tradition. At the heart of the office, alongside the set canticles common to each day, are a monthly rotation through the Book of Psalms and a yearly cycle through the Bible.

Reading the Desert Fathers and learning about their rule of prayer is actually, at base, a simply encouragement for an evangelical Anglican who wants to discover the divine office, for here you will meet the antiquity of your own devotional practices. Not in a “Ha ha, Alliance Church!” sort of way, but in a reassuring way, that this is part of our own heritage and bigger than any single Christian tradition.

At the heart of the devotional life and prayer of the Desert and the tradition that flows from it, whether Benedictines and Cistercians in the West or Mount Athos and St Catherine’s, Sinai, in the East, is the Psalter, coupled with trying to live the words of Scripture. I’ll share some of the Desert Fathers’ wisdom on psalmody later, but their approach to the Psalms can really help transform the impact Psalmody has on the praying of the divine office.

I confess to not having read all of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living, but it strikes me that one central aspect of his book is intentionality in what we do, as well as not attempting to seem holier than we really are. A large quantity of desert literature deals in this question of intention, using the term “watchfulness” (check most of Philokalia, Vol. 1). Watch your thoughts, watch the reasons you choose to do things, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts, watch your actions, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts. Seek purity of heart. Clear the mind of all but Christ.

And if you do decide to get down with the Anglican divines, you’ll discover that ascetic practices (fasting, regulating sleep, etc) are there in William Law and Jeremy Taylor, and the spiritual sense of Scripture peaks through Lancelot Andrewes. The Desert is not so far, after all.

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