I have recently taken over as administrator of Read the Fathers. It’s not too late to join! It’s never too late to join, but it’s pretty easy just now. We started on December 1, and everything we’ve been reading has been short so far. Check us out! It’s only seven years of your life. 😉
A correspondent recently asked me this question. His answer was fairly straightforward: He met St Bernard and the Cistercians in his final semester of undergrad, and there was no looking back.
I, on the other hand, am incapable of straightforward answers!
Where did it all begin?
First there was St Francis. In actual truth, first there was John Michael Talbot, many of whose CDs (and, earlier, tapes!) my parents own. This led to St Francis, and my interest in the ascetic of Assisi was increased by his apperance in Grade 11 history class. This persisted, including reading John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of St Francis in undergrad. But, like many, it was a narrow interest — just St Francis, not the movement, not other ‘monastic’ types.
Then came St John of the Cross. In high school, I went to Steve Bell’s concerts in Thunder Bay every year. One year, he sang a song inspired by St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. Then in first-year undergrad, I encountered this sort of … wild … Roman Catholic priest outside one night, staring at the stars. He said that the night sky always reminded him of St John of the Cross — so I went back to my dorm room and found the poem Dark Night on the internet. The idea, the ideal, of mysticism and union with the divine became embedded in my mind, but I did not read the whole book until the year after graduation.
The Desert Fathers took hold. Although I took a number of medieval courses in undergrad, including one where we read the Rule of St Benedict, the various monks encountered there never really grabbed me the way St Francis did as an individual, nor the way Carmelite mysticism did. Still, Sts Francis and John had tilled the soil. I was ready. In third year, when thinking of potential essay topics for the course ‘Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire’, a friend asked why I shouldn’t write about those crazy people who moved into the desert. So I did.
Cyprus solidified it. It was living on Cyprus for the year after graduation that made me maintain this interest. There I read St John of the Cross’s Dark Night for myself. I started in on The Philokalia. I met the Orthodox and their own ongoing engagement with monasticism, their own monastic tradition.
These aren’t the only points — I also read Esther de Waal’s book about the Rule of St Benedict, Seeking God, and a few other things, but these are the most important moments in this part of my spiritual autobiography.
So now, my own personal ‘spirituality’ is informed by St Athanasius, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, St John Cassian, (St?) Evagrius Ponticus, St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena, St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Philokalia, St John of the Cross, The Rule of St Benedict, St Teresa of Ávila, St Theophan the Recluse, St Gregory Palamas, St Maximus the Confessor, St Aelred of Rievaulx, Archimandrite Sophrony, St Porphyrios — all swirling around in there somewhere, showing me how poorly I measure up to the yardstick of Christ, but also showing how great His grace is for sinners like us.
Prayer, I think, is the heart of the spiritual life. A certain breed of fellow Protestant may protest that fact, but I cannot help but think on the myriads of illiterate Christians in history and the world today whose only access to Scripture was/is in preaching, hearing others read, or looking at pictures. But any illiterate person can pray.
Moreover, I cannot help but think of the literate Christians who seem to know the facts about the Bible and have read the Bible but seem also to have little charity and grace in their dealings with others.
Third, and last, to get the most out of Scripture, before any of our methodologies or study guides, we need prayer.
So, of the two disciplines all evangelical children are encouraged to undertake — read your Bible, pray every day — prayer is at the heart of the spiritual person’s life. Of course, this probably makes too strong a distinction, for Scripture informs prayer, and prayer will lead the literate Christian to pick up a Bible and read it prayerfully, and (hopefully) better.
Anyway, although prayer is at the heart of the spiritual life, many of us seem to have trouble praying. Either we don’t make the time, which signals that we don’t really, truly believe it is worth the time (whatever our conscious minds tell us), or we have trouble going through with prayer when time is made. Our minds wander. Our lips are there, but our hearts aren’t in it. We race through our prayers (whether extemporaneous or written). We find ourselves saying the same things over and over and wonder if there isn’t more to it than this.
If God’s a person, then shouldn’t prayer be a conversation?
There are many ways to revitalise our prayer lives, as discovered through the ages of Christian belief and practice. Some are directly encouraged by Scripture, others come from the tradition, others are recommended by the experiences of particular Christians.
When I think about my own spiritual flabbiness in contrast to my high spiritual ideals, I wonder how this might apply to me. I used to own a copy of Benedictine Daily Prayer, but when we moved from England back to Canada, it was among many books left behind to lighten the load. I left it behind because I could never actually organise my day to pray most offices, so it was mostly dead weight or, to use an image of St John of the Cross, it was a symptom of spiritual gluttony.
In fact, since my first son was born, I have not really got into an ongoing, steady groove of devotion, including the Prayer Book office (once the heart of my daily prayer).
I think that many of us are spiritually flabby, and I also think that most of us do not have spiritual fathers like Archimandrite Sophrony to help us grow up, nor even spiritual friends like St Aelred of Rievaulx to encourage us to good deeds. Without guides, or in a world where our guides are books and blogs, how can we work our way to spiritual strength and fortitude?
Is it wimpy to suggest starting small?
The idea is to take the seven canonical hours and use them, but not to use the set liturgies. Or at least, not all of them. Take your phone or calendar on your computer and set reminders at the hours throughout the day. And then determine what sort of prayer will take up the different hours.
An example might be:
On waking: Thank God for day and commend it into His hands before getting out of bed.
Third hour (9 AM-ish): Arrow prayer (e.g.g. ‘O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me’; ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). Most people start work at 9 AM, so that may be all there is time for. Is there a better way to start work?
Sixth hour (Noon): 10-20 minutes of Jesus Prayer during lunch break (I think Dallas Willard would recommend a similar practice with the Lord’s Prayer). Or prayerful meditation on the Cross and its meaning since that is when Jesus died for us.
Ninth hour (3 PM-ish): The Lord’s Prayer.
Evening Prayer: Evening Prayer (take your pick: BCP, Celebrating Common Prayer, Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, Orthodox Daily Prayer)
Prayers before bed: Maybe Compline? Or time for prayer with spouse.
Middle-of-the-night prayers: Arrow prayer on the way to the bathroom to pee. Or more extended prayer if you’re involved in caring for an infant.
My two main thoughts are:
Make sure there is a time for longer, undistracted prayer.
Make sure the Lord’s Prayer is there.
Structure may not give the oomph! back to prayer life. It may not work miracles. But it will guarantee that we at least pray. And if we do it not because it is a duty or because we think it’s magical, God, Who is faithful, will turn up. Hopefully we’ll notice Him.
One of the recommendations in the Catechism of the Canadian 1962 Book of Common Prayer is the creation of a personal rule of life. I’ve not investigated previous editions to know if they include this instruction. Nevertheless, I imagine few Canadians since 1962, let alone Anglicans at large beforehand, have followed through with this recommendation.
It is something that I have attempted before. I blogged about one attempt, and was told in the comments that I needed a spiritual father, otherwise I’d just fail.
As I reflect on the recommendations for individuals in The Apostolic Tradition as well as the reminders of asceticism for all believers that run through David W. Fagerberg’s On Liturgical Asceticism, I find myself musing on what my own ‘asceticism’, or askesis — the Greek word for training — or disciplina would look like.
The other foundations must be prayer and Scripture-reading. I’ll post soon on the hours of prayer, I think. But I wonder if finding some way of praying at those times, as the ancient Christians and living monks do, might not be possible. Not a full-blown liturgy of the hours with set prayers, but times of prayer and remembrance, with maybe one or two offices proper mixed in?
What disciplines are you seeking to pursue in your own rule of life today?
Now that I’ve written a few posts of reflections on The Apostolic Tradition, I think it a good idea to give a quick review of sorts. I read the second edition of the translation by Alistair Stewart-Sykes for SVS Press’s Popular Patristics Series; for some reason he goes by Alistair Stewart on this volume, even though I’ve only seen the double-barrelled last name on his other work, including the first edition.
One thing you may have noticed in my Apostolic Tradition posts has been a certain ambivalence as to its author. This text, which is not transmitted to us in its original Greek besides fragments, comes down to us anonymously in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic (three different dialects), and Arabic. In no manuscript is it attributed to Hippolytus. However, a text of this name is attributed to him elsewhere. Therefore, based on some similarity of ideas as well as fitting the highly reconstructed context of Hippolytus, in the early twentieth century it was attributed to him, and most people now taken is as uncontested ground that Hippolytus of Rome wrote On the Apostolic Tradition.
I think it is possible but not airtight. Stewart accepts the attribution and gives many reasons, drawing on the heavy reconstructions of third-century Roman Christianity conducted by Allen Brent. Brent and Stewart are both clever, so if I am skeptical of their conclusions, this doesn’t mean I am right. I think there are far too many unknowns and uncertainties to say for certain. Indeed, a colleague of mine is even uncertain that the person who lies behind the Hippolytean corpus even lived at Rome!
This should not keep you away from Stewart’s or anyone else’s translation, however. The text is probably of a similar age to Hippolytus, even if maybe it originated in Asia Minor as some believe. It represents the traditional form of many aspects of church life in a particular community in the pre-Constantinian age. For this reason alone we should give it some air time, regardless of authorship.
The Apostolic Tradition will appeal to people interested in the history of liturgy and sacrament and the history of church order. We have here what I think might be our oldest eucharistic and baptismal rites, which is very exciting. A number of other prayers and practices are also here — anointing the sick, blessing bread for those not present at church, personal prayer, communal teaching events, ordaining a bishop, the sign of the cross, and so forth. We see presbyters, bishops, and deacons doing their jobs, as well as catechists and other people with a largely teaching role.
I find it comforting to see the eucharistic liturgy’s similarity to the liturgies we use today, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans. There is a thread of tradition connecting this text and its community to us and our communities. A thread of faith in Jesus Christ and his precious death and glorious resurrection.
Besides the question of the catechumenate, I am also interested in the text’s promotion of ongoing teaching/learning and the rigour implied. Like some of the early Protestants, the members of this worshipping community are encouraged to attend a teaching session before work on weekdays. This sort of rigour is what I imagine myself liking and doing, even though spiritual laziness all-too-often wins.
The text is not long, so I do encourage you to read it.
Here are my other recent posts on The Apostolic Tradition:
Someday I hope to be able to write a book about spiritual practices of the ancient church, so I’ve been in contact with people I know to see what they would like to see in such a book. One question that arose was: Did they have daily devotions? What would this look like?
A starting point: The sort of standard evangelical version today consists of daily prayer and Scripture reading and the reading of other Christian books along the way, whether labelled ‘devotional’ or simply theology or biblical commentary or the like. The shape of prayer, determination of readings, and relationship of the two to our Christian books vary from person to person and tradition to tradition.
The catechists, presbyters, bishops, monks, and learned believers who left us our vast body of ancient Christian literature expect a pattern of personal, daily prayer from the ancient Christians. Many of them give great advice about how to pray. The third-century Apostolic Tradition attributed to St Hippolytus gives us a daily round for the members of the ecclesial community that consists of these times for prayer:
Third hour (9:00 AMish)
Sixth hour (Noonish)
Ninth hour (3:00 PMish)
Cock-crow (hopefully dawn, although roosters crow whenever they please, in my experience)
A little moment of liturgical history: The canonical hours of prayer clearly pre-date monasticism. These were handed down to the author of the Apostolic Tradition through tradition itself, so they are undoubtedly older even than the third century. Indeed, Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) in On Prayer 25 recommends the same round of prayer. I might even argue, if I were more acquainted with the context of the Apostolic Tradition, that the communal service of lamplighting gives us seven hours for prayer, which matches the monastic pattern of later centuries, but I do not know for certain that the service of lamplighting was daily or not.
The first three hours listed above are set aside because of their association with Christ’s passion, an association they will maintain throughout tradition. When we combine them with the Apostolic Tradition‘s teaching on the sign of the cross, we see regular, daily devotion to Jesus and the salvation wrought for us by his precious death and glorious resurrection.
The Apostolic Tradition also encourages the ordinary Christian to attend teaching in the morning if there is any. If not, then the believer is encouraged to spend time in personal study of a book.
There is no mention of the private, personal reading Scripture, although it is definitely part of the teaching and worship of the corporate church.
The only other personal devotional practice I have noted in this text is fasting, which people are encouraged to engage in at any time. One text may mean fasting before Holy Communion, but may actually mean having Communion before the love-feast (see Stewart-Sykes, 2nd ed., pp. 191-192).
These are the non-corporate devotions of the Apostolic Tradition. Can we live up to them or adapt them as we progress in piety?
In The Apostolic Tradition, the author (Hippolytus? of Rome?) writes at the end of the baptismal rite:
And when these things are done, let each hurry to do good works, to please God and to live properly, being devoted to the church, putting into action what he has learnt and progressing in piety. (21.38, trans. Stewart-Sykes)
The phrase that struck me as I read this was ‘progressing in piety’. One of the features of ancient, medieval, Byzantine Christianity is its belief that the ongoing life of faith involves progress. We are not simply ‘saved’ and baptised, but, now that we are made right with God and adopted as His children, we have the opportunity to ‘progress in piety’.
The standard of perfection, for example, is God. And God is eternal and infinite. Therefore, argues St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) in the passage excerpted by Richard Foster in Devotional Classics, the human pursuit of perfection is endless and infinite as well. We will never arrive; even in eternity we will have room for limitless growth in glory.
In some Protestant circles (usually the Reformed), a fear of ‘works righteousness’ and the legalism or false sense of personal achievement that attend it have led to a rejection of the idea of progress in holiness — although they acknowledge that something like it occurs, as Spurgeon did when he rejected the phrase ‘progressive sanctification’ as unscriptural, speaking of growth in grace instead.
St John Climacus’ Ladder is all about this progress, after all. Indeed, the ascetic literature, while it can at times tend towards legalism of the harshest kind, is piercingly aware of growth in holiness, portraying it as a ladder or an ascent or steps towards God. Simultaneously, there is an acknowledgement of the necessity of grace for this growth in holiness. (St Theophan the Recluse, the nineteenth-century Russian always comes to my mind when I think about this.)
We are commanded to progress in piety, but we need the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit will empower our spiritual disciplines so that we can strive for the heights of John Wesley’s Christian perfection. (A concept, when rightly understood, I am not opposed to — but I do wonder if anyone ever received so much grace.) This is synergeia, synergy, and it is not a rejection of grace but a way of viewing how it operates.