Blogging Benedict: How to pray

Athonites at prayer

For St Benedict, chanting the Psalms, singing the hymns, praying intercessions, and reading or listening to passages of Scripture and the Fathers — these are not enough in themselves to constitute true prayer. There must be an accord between internal and external when we pray.

It is very easy for those of us in liturgical traditions to allow the rituals to become ‘dead’, to become mere rote activity, for our minds to wander, for our hearts not to mean what we pray. There have been those (particularly within the charismatic movement) who have sought to move the Church of England away not only from the Book of Common Prayer but the modern liturgies as well, believing that the Holy Spirit is stifled by liturgy. In many churches, what matters most is the inner attitude of the worshippers’ hearts — not whether you are standing, sitting, kneeling.

St Benedict, perhaps merely reflecting his culture, perhaps reminding us that, as psychosomatic unities, as persons comprised of body, soul, spirit, calls for worthy bodily posture and rightly ordered thoughts:

let us stand to sing in such a way that there is no discrepancy between our thoughts and the words we are singing. (ch. 19, p. 44 trans. White)

He also notes the importance of the simple prayer of the heart:

And so our prayer should be kept short and simple, unless divine grace inspires us to prolong our prayer. (ch. 20, p. 45 trans. White)

These thoughts draw my mind to the modern Serbian Orthodox staretz, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, who writes in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives:

Prayer should not be something that is said and forgotten. You stand in front of an icon, recite your prayers, and go about your business. That is not prayer. (p. 113)

The attitude of the heart is not dependent upon incense and liturgy, nor upon lighting effects and evocative music. It is dependent upon the grace of the Spirit and upon our own cultivation of a quiet heart. True prayer can elude us as easily in the Vineyard as amongst the Anglo-Catholics — and it can come in either place as well.

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Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth

Introducing Eastern Orthodox TheologyIntroducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of many introductory books to Eastern Orthodoxy written for a non-academic audience by an academic. Louth demonstrates a certain awareness of various trends within theology and scholarship, but these arguments and debates are not his main focus. This is not defence for the Eastern Orthodox way of being Christian, but an invitation to explore the tradition with him.

Louth’s starting point is prayer. Or, rather, the true mysterion of God. Confronted with this incomprehensible reality, we cannot but enter the task of theology through prayer. Rather than structuring the book around, say, the articles of the Creed or a systematic approach as in western theology or along the historical road of Eastern Orthodoxy (citing the title of a book by Schmemann), it always in and through the experience of God in the Church that this book moves. His most cited texts are liturgical, followed by St Maximos the Confessor and St John of Damascus (on whom he has written a book and some of whose works he has translated).

Of course, Louth engages with other texts and writers from the Didache to Bulgakov. Louth is comfortably aware of his own Orthodox world beyond the 20th-century patristic revival, which is refreshing. 19th-century Russian theology, such as Sophiology, is worthy of awareness.

Anyway, the book is a very good introduction; I list the chapter title at the end of this review. His approach to Christ and Christology I appreciate, as someone who studies the history of Christology from an academic perspective but who is also a Christian. Chapters that I hope challenge many modern(ist) Christians are those about creation and about matter in the divine economy. These resonated with some of my other recent reading, such as Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry about how the created order images forth God, about how we can encounter Him in sign and symbol.

It is worth noting, finally, that although the Most Holy Theotokos and the saints and icons are important in Eastern Orthodoxy, particularly in the daily round of liturgy, front and centre in this book is the Most Holy Trinity, the fact of the Incarnation, the Person and action of Jesus Christ. These are the heart of Orthodoxy, and if we fail to grasp the particular manner of engagement with God in Christ that the Orthodox present but somehow look only to icons, saints, and incense, we’ll miss what the icons, saints, and incense are really about.

Thinking and doing, being and praying: where do we start?
Who is God? The doctrine of the Holy Trinity
The doctrine of creation
Who is Christ?
Sin, death, and repentance
Being human — being in the image of God
Sacraments and icons: the place of matter in the divine economy
Time and the liturgy
Where are we going? The last things and eternal life

It concludes with a guide to further reading

View all my reviews

The Divine Office

A few books for prayer…

Chapters 8 through 20 of the Rule of St Benedict are about the divine office. I am not going to discuss the details of how Benedict arranges the times of day to pray and the Psalms to be sung. It is interesting for those interested in the history of the liturgy of the hours, of course, but I am not sure it fits the purpose of my blog posts about St Benedict’s Rule for today.

Unless you are a Benedictine or other cloistered monk, I am not sure that you can achieve the lofty goals set out here. Besides requiring a certain amount of regulation and order, it also requires time. Now, we are all too busy not to pray. But we may be too busy to pray in this way as (post)modern lay people, many with demanding jobs and family demands. When we take ‘real life’ into account, we begin to see why monks imagine that theirs is the life most devoted to God.

That said, the inspirations for all monastic rounds of prayer are the same, and we non-monastics should take heed. The round of prayer in the monastic world (broadly considered) from Sketis and Tabbenisi to the Great Laura on Athos to the Jura Fathers to St Martin of Tours to Benedict to Columbanus to Mont St-Michel to La Grande Chartreuse to Assisi is founded primarily on two biblical texts:

Pray without ceasing. (1 Thess. 5:16)

Seven times a day have I praised you. (Ps. 119:164)

So, whether you are gaining inspiration from Benedict or Francis, from the Celtic world or the Athonites, ask yourself: How can I transform my life into ceaseless prayer? Can I find seven times to pray every day?

The answer to the second is probably yes, even if most of us have never given it much thought.

The answer to the first is to consider the office as a gateway to ceaseless prayer.

What office to pray? Where do I find the office? What is the divine office?

Well, the divine office or the liturgy of the hours is the round of prayer at fixed times that not only derives from these two injunctions but from the practice of the ancient church and synagogue. Maybe I’ll discuss its biblical foundations another time. Anyway, over the years, different ways and forms of praying the divine office evolved, some for public use in the local church (the ‘cathedral’ office), some for use by monks. There was cross-fertilization between the cathedral and monastic offices; in Byzantium the monastic office pretty much won, whereas in the Latin West it did not, although it influenced the Roman Breviary to a great extent.

I recommend starting with Morning and/or Evening Prayer at first before adding Compline or Midday Prayer, let alone Terce and None.

Here are some resources for you to start praying the office if you wish to.

  • The Witness Cloud! This is an endeavour started by my Anglican priest brother and I. Our dad and some friends are part of it. We have our own recommended prayers, derived largely from the Book of Common Prayer, but you can use a different text if you like. The point of the Witness Cloud is for us to know that we are all united in prayer with Christ our Lord. We recommend at least Morning and Evening Prayer.
  • As far as particular texts go, I always recommend Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.
  • A shorter office was devised by the Anglican Society of Saint Francis, called Celebrating Common Prayer.
  • You can also use the Church of England’s Daily Prayer site, available as an app for your phone. It has both BCP and modern options.
  • If you are a bit more gung-ho, you can try Benedictine Daily Prayer — it seems daunting when you behold the size of the book, but it’s pretty doable if you are looking for a handy way to pray all seven.
  • Verging back into more Protestant territory, my friends at Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey — a community that prayers the hours every day — have their own set. These are more modern than the other recommendations.
  • Some people also like the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer. I used it for a while but grew desirous of the regularity of the BCP.
  • Many people recommend Phyllis Tickle’s books. Although I dig her last name, I’ve never looked into them.

Prayerfully choose what can nurture your own prayer life. The purpose of the daily office, if you ask me, is to create space within the day to meet with Jesus, to encounter the word, and to start to transform our whole lives into prayer, cultivating prayerfulness and silence. I have found it beneficial in my life, as have many others.

Trinity and mysticism in East and West

There is a famous statement by Pope St John Paul II (or JP2 to his homeys) that the Church must start to breathe with both her lungs once again — that is, East and West. I don’t know the original context of the statement, but it seems to emerge in discussions about the more ‘rational’ approach to the faith in the western tradition and the more ‘mystical’ approach in eastern Christianity. A false dichotomy, to be sure.

Nonetheless, as the chapter about St John of the Cross in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition shows, there are differences in the approach to mysticism found in East and West. Someone such as Vladimir Lossky would probably boil it down to the differences in our approach to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.

This may be part of it.

The problem with Lossky, however, is that the opening chapter of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church raises a sharp irreconcilability between the two traditions. He argues that our view of the Trinity is, in fact, false — but does so through a misreading of St Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of western Trinitarian thought.

And here lies my main thought.

Setting aside for the moment the vexed issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit, I think that we need each when we think about the Trinity, precisely because we are in certain respects different. Our foundation is, however, the same. As St Anselm writes:

Latins call these three things persons, Greeks substances. For as we Latins call the one substance in God three persons, so the Greeks call the one person three substances, they meaning here by substance the very same thing that we mean by person, and not differing from us in faith in any way. (On the Incarnation, ch. 16)

Yet if you read Latin Trinitarian theology, we often start with the unity of God — thus Anselm’s Monologion and Proslogion. Greek theology, on the other hand, often starts with the three Persons — thus St Gregory of Nyssa’s That There Are Not Three Gods. Lossky argues that our insistence on the divine unity posits a fourth hypostasis in the Trinity, a fourth thing that is the ground of being of the three Persons. However, and I forget the title of the book that brought this home to me (it was about Aquinas and Bonaventure’s triadology), what we really mean by that unity is all three persons at once. The unity is a conceptual articulation, not a substance of its own.

Rather than arguing us vs them in Trinitarian theology, East-West dialogue should FIRST acknowledge the incomprehensible and unapproachable mystery here. And then we should see what nuances we can gain from each other. And then, perhaps, we can start to breathe with both our lungs.

And as we breathe with both of these lungs, we will be reminded that the Trinity, the persons beyond personality who are a single God yet three persons, is bigger than any of our doctrinal statements (no matter how true those statements are). And so we will seek Him out in prayer and contemplation, questing after the Uncreated Light, the Beatific Vision, the grace of a meeting with God that is theosis.

But as long as we begin in a position of hostility, our ability to love each other will be hampered. And if we cannot love our brethren whom we can see, how can we love God whom we cannot see?

Blogging Benedict: Humility (chapter 7)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Here are my notes on humility from chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict…

It is a universal monastic virtue. I’ll blog on that another time.

He uses an allegorical reading of Jacob’s Ladder:

That ladder is our life in this world which God raises to heaven if we are humble in heart. Our body and soul form the sides of this ladder into which the divine calling has fixed the different rungs of humility and discipline which we have to climb. (p. 24, trans. White)

The first step towards humility is to keep the fear of God in mind at all times. (p. 24)

And then Benedict gives a bunch of commands, ‘Do not forget,’ ‘Keep in mind,’ ‘Guard yourself,’ ‘Remember’ — God is watching us, and sinners suffer. This is less heartwarming than Phil Joel in the 1990s, ‘God is watching over you.’

Because God is watching us, we should keep the fear of God in our minds. This is similar, but a bit less optimistic, than the saying of St Antony the Great that one should keep the thought of God in mind at all times.

Benedict is deeply indebted to the tradition of watchfulness, of the eight thoughts, etc., that comes from the Desert and Evagrius:

One must … beware of evil desire because death lies in wait at the gateway to pleasure. And so Scripture gives us the following command, ‘Do not pursue your lusts’ (Sirach 18:30)’. (p. 25)

Benedict’s indebtedness to this tradition comes out at the fifth of his twelve steps to humility: confessing all wicked thoughts. Here I think of St Antony telling his followers to keep a journal of their thoughts. Elsewhere in the Desert tradition, we read of injunctions to confess all thoughts — good or bad — to one’s Abba in order to keep the thoughts under control. This develops in Eastern Orthodoxy into the tradition of the spiritual father, the geron or staretz, such as Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov or, in real life, St Porphyrios (d. 1991) and Archimandrite Sophrony (d. 1993).

The sixth step is very important — being content with your station, even if it is the lowliest. No raising yourself above others at any time.

Step 9 — the power of silence. We’ve been here already.

The chapter ends:

When the monk has climbed up all these steps of humility, he will reach ‘the perfect love of God which casts out all fear’ (1 Jn 4:28) (p. 30-31)

I like this, because you begin the path of humility in fear, and end it fearless. Now, the fear of the Lord is a different thing from fear of Klingon attack or of cancer. But in the end, we are called to be in a relationship of love with God…

Incarnation and Eucharist

I have observed an interesting phenomenon the past few years — the hymn, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’, has been used as a Christmas carol. This is of note because the hymn itself is, in fact, a versified translation of a portion of the Divine Liturgy of St James, the traditional eucharistic liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem.

First the hymn as we know it:

1 Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

2 King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

3 Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

4 At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

This is very clearly eucharistic — ‘Lord of lords, in human vesture / in the body and the blood. / He will give to all the faithful / His own self for heavenly food.’

Nonetheless, perhaps it is fitting for the season of the Nativity. Immediately after this hymn in the Divine Liturgy of St James, the priest is about to bring in the ‘holy gifts’ and pray over them this prayer:

O God, our God, who sent forth the heavenly bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be a Saviour, and Redeemer, and Benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us, do You Yourself bless this offering, and graciously receive it to Your altar above the skies

Thus, this divine liturgy makes explicit the connection between the physical bread on the table here present, and the coming of Jesus Christ as the heavenly bread in history. We normally associate the Eucharist with Christ’s death and resurrection (as well we should) and with the recapitulation of those glorious and life-giving events in symbols and rituals that are more than symbols and rituals.

Yet this hymn and the ensuing prayer break through our own historicised, symbolised view of the Eucharist. The kairos — the acceptable time — ruptures the chronos — the sequential time — and salvation history collapses into a single moment. Holy, eternal time is not restricted to linear movement — this is a point that, a bit East of Jerusalem, St Ephrem the Syrian will make (approximately contemporary with this liturgy).

Here in the Eucharist, we encounter not only ‘a perpetual memory of that his precious death … in remembrance of his death and passion’ (BCP) but, as ‘partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood’ (BCP again) we find ourselves meeting God as Jesus, and the Incarnation breaks through. The God-Man strides from Christmas to Easter to the communion table at your local church, all coalescing in the same moment.

Consider: God is truly transcendent. Utterly. He is holy because He is wholly other. There is an ontological divide between creature and creator. And then He rends the heavens and comes down (Is. 64:1) — not just once, at Bethlehem, but, somehow, every time and every place the Eucharist is celebrated. Somehow, mystically, He is incarnated and present unto us in the bread and wine.

In the Eucharist, space and time collapse, heaven and earth meet, and the cosmic power of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are made real to us in the elements of bread and wine.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand.

Spirituality, Trinity, and Tradition

A bit of visual heresy for you

I recently had a job interview with a small Christian liberal arts college, and when talking about my ‘faith journey’, the phrase I came up with was ‘historic orthodoxy’. I am committed to historic orthodoxy, having had my faith formed in my Anglican charismatic upbringing to have a live expectancy for God to show up and do stuff, a sacramental and liturgical orientation for worship, and a firm trust in the Bible as the authoritative revelation of God to the world. Sort of: charismatic, catholic, evangelical.

For some, the idea of ‘historic orthodoxy’ speaks of dry, barren traditionalism, of dusty doctrines, of incomprehensible theological jargon, of moralism, of a faith devoid of life, of a belief in mere intellectual abstractions and a form of Christian rationalism. For some, historic orthodoxy is a reductionistic attempt to tame the untamed God, to produce mystery-free religion with (so-called) accurate doctrines and a scientific approach to faith. It is fundamentalism. It is about controlling people’s minds and actions. It is dry. It is barren. It does not have the juices of the life of the living God coursing through its veins.

Not for me.

I think of this in light of Fred Sanders’ review of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. I admit that I have not read the book, so I dare not criticise it directly. But what Sanders accuses Rohr of doing is using some traditional language of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity to slip in a novel doctrine, mostly about something called ‘Flow’, and saying such things as each of us is the fourth person of the Trinity, and seeing Flow as circumscribing everything, including the Trinity. This view of the universe is, indeed, a bit New Agey, but also not surprising in light of the base doctrine of ‘god’ that most of us work with, as described by Matt Milliner in his splendid Byzantine art history lecture ‘Visual Heresy.’

Anyway, what I’m thinking is that the view that Sanders’ review claims the book upholds (which, not having read the book, I cannot verify as accurate or not) is one that would consider ‘historic orthodox’y as promoted today in the way described above. Rightly, Rohr wishes to reinvigorate our understanding of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity and connect the Christian doctrine of God with our own spirituality. But, again according to the review, in the process there is a statement that between the Cappadocian Fathers and William Paul Young’s The Shack, the Trinity was not really alive in the thoughtlife of the church.

Take it here, of course, that ‘the church’ means Latin, western, Catholic and Protestant. Nevertheless, it is shocking to see St Augustine’s wonderful writings on the Trinity excluded, as well as a Franciscan leaving out Bonaventure’s Trinitarian mysticism. It must be an erroneous representation of Rohr, either in the book or by the review.

Anyway, where I want to go is this: Mystery and Trinity and contemplation and mysticism and transcendence are part of historic orthodoxy, and historic orthodoxy is richer than its caricature.

To take an example, I am reading Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination right now. Here is a book that seems, so far, entirely ‘orthodox’ in outlook, reading various English poets for their theological insights. I’m not far into it, but Guite rightly observes that pre-Enlightenment Christianity was very happy with the poetic mode, that the ambiguity and fraught edges of language are exactly what we need when we encounter the utterly transcendent yet immanent God. You could look at poetry theologically in the entire tradition of Christian verse, from the Phos Hilaron (not that he cites this poem, it just came to me as one of the earliest Christian poems) to T.S. Eliot (Guite draws our attention up to Seamus Heaney, in fact). Guite’s investigation of theology via poetry, or poetry as a medium for theological thought, begins with The Dream of the Rood, on which I’ve blogged before in relation to the Ruthwell Cross, and then does not stop in the pre-Enlightenment poets such as George Herbert and John Donne (both of whom I love) but goes through Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Seamus Heaney.

Poetry and the visual arts (and, I guess, novels, music, architecture, drama) can bring us to places that strict propositional theological thought does not. Guite, thankfully, does not reject the endeavour of reasoned, critical theology, but sees the two modes of theological thought as happily co-existing. This is proper; Ambrose and Aquinas both wrote propositional theological treatises and poems. But we have neglected the poetic, the evocative, the ambiguous — the mystery of God needs to tread these borderlands of our consciousness. I would argue that this is why we need liturgy, symbol, ritual.

So let me come back to the doctrine of the Trinity. Our spirituality and our theology are healthy if they can embrace story and song, philosophy and proposition. Romanos the Melodist is important; so is Bonaventure. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote powerfully philosophical theology; he also wrote poetry. The tradition of Evagrius, Cassian, and the Cistercians is important. The tradition of Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin is as well.

I think that a simple and sound understanding of the historic doctrine of the Trinity, outlined in the Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, and Athanasian Creed, is the foundation of a healthy spirituality. In God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). He is transcendent and beyond all creation, therefore immanent and everywhere in creation. He is an incomprehensible mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, every analogy of which probably gets us into heresy.

But understand this: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God and God is love. That is why God exists in Trinity, for therein can be found the fulness of love (I’ve blogged on this before). By his triune essence, God is perfectly fulfilled and perfectly love. When we come to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity in prayer, we are approaching Someone(s) Who Is richly, deeply, and powerfully love, Whose outflowing and expression of that has manifested itself in creation, in redemption, in salvation — and in indwelling our own hearts.

We meet the King of Love in our own hearts, a Deity Who is beyond all our longings yet found at their centre. As John Zizioulas arges in Being As Communion, an exegesis of the Cappadocian Fathers, God is Communion, and He is the ground of all being, all existence. Thus, we are meeting with a real person, not a superhuman in divine form like Zeus, but a person nonetheless (Zizioulas also demonstrates that our understanding of person lies in the history of the doctrine of God), who loves us, who is Communion, and who chooses communion with us out of His/Their Own outpouring of divine love.

And then we realise that we are ourselves richly blessed with love when we enter into communion with others. Yet others are themselves impenetrable mysteries. And so we find ourselves at the frayed edges of existence and consciousness in seeking God wherever He might be found, whether in contemplative prayer, the Eucharist, or fellowship with other humans. He is there, and the simple doctrine of the Athanasian Creed can help us remember his characteristics, while the verse of John Donne or Ephrem the Syrian, or the mystical theology of Evagrius Ponticus can bring us to approach him not as a list of characteristics but as a real person.

We do not need to jettison historic orthodoxy to have an encounter with the Divine or a rich experience and love for God. This is what my Anglican charismatic upbringing taught me, and I continue to see it as I study the history of Christ’s church here on earth.