Ancient and Early Mediaeval Prayer – 1: An Invitation

La Sainte Chappelle, Paris
La Sainte Chappelle, Paris

A couple I know is involved in an exciting new church plant in Thunder Bay called ‘Urban Abbey‘, associated with the Anglican Mission in Canada but on friendly terms with local Baptists (from whom they gained their building) and such. One aspect of their mission that excites me is the Tower of Prayer. As I have been given to understand, this space will be open for anyone, any time to come in and pray. Not only that, but they will pray at the six hours of prayer throughout the day:

Prime at 6am: Greet the Day in Jesus’ name

Terce at 9am: Psalm Reading

Sext at noon: Pray for our World

None at 3pm: Pray for the Church locally – in Thunder Bay

Vespers at 6pm: Pray for Thunder Bay

Compline at 9pm: Prepare to Sleep in the arms of God.

For those uninitiated into the world of liturgical prayer, they have a one-page document, ‘Preparing for and Participating in Liturgy.’ Finally, they have available ‘A Week of Complines‘ to download.

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.

Tomorrow: John Calvin on the Holy Trinity

Somehow, poor John Calvin has his name associated with a certain breed of hardheaded, argumentative, internet-addicted, theological-nitpicking jerk.  This is really too bad because John Calvin (though I personally would not go so far as to say that he completed the Reformation that Martin Luther started) was a brilliant man who wrote insightful Bible commentaries and sound, orthodox theology.  Besides that, lots of people of the Reformed/Calvinist position aren’t jerks and are open to thoughtful discussion of their beliefs, including things besides predestination again.

I’m not saying I agree with everything John Calvin ever wrote, especially regarding icons, and I’m not overly committed to the mechanics of predestination, but he is worth reading.  And worth reading for more than predestination.

So if all you think of when you hear, “John Calvin,” are those hardheaded jerks and endless arguments about predestination, please read his words on the Holy Trinity here (for those with their own print copies of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, it’s Book I, Chapter 13).

There you will find defense of the word “person” as well as a very brief history of it and its use (nothing as mind-crushing as Zizioulas’ in Being As Communion), a defense of the divinity of both the Son and the Holy Spirit, and a discussion of how the Unity in Trinity runs down the middle course between Arianism on the one hand (only the Father is God) and Sabellianism on the other (all three are different “modes” of God’s being).

For those who are thinking, “You say The Shack isn’t really theology, but where do I turn?”  Turn here!  It is briefer than Augustine’s On the Trinity, more modern than Boethius.  Here you will find the true, orthodox doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity expounded.  It is honey and sweetness to your ears, balm to your soul!  Read it and praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Spirit — Three in One!

Saint of the Week: St. Augustine of Canterbury

For those still curious about the doings of the Classic Christian Reading Group, this past week we read Bede’s account of St. Augustine, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book 1, chh. 23-26, par. 1 of 27, 29, 31, 33, 34; Book 2, Chh. 2, 3.

In the year of Our Lord 596, Pope St. Gregory the Great, Doctor of the Church, sent missionaries to the island of Britain to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon peoples dwelling there.  At the head of this expedition was the abbot (for the missionaries were monastics) Augustine (not of Hippo).  As these Italian missionaries got closer to the English Channel, they wavered in their commitment.  Why on earth were they going amongst a barbarian people who did not worship the Most Holy Trinity, did not honour the name of Christ, had strange customs, and spoke a language they did not even know?

They sent Augustine back to Gregory in Rome, but Gregory would hear none of it, but instead exhorted them not to turn back having put their hand to the plough, for it would have been better never to have started at all than to have chickened out in Gaul (France) — a common piece of advice to ancient and mediaeval monks and missionaries.

Strengthened by Pope Gregory’s words, they crossed over to the island of Thanet and made their presence known to Ethelbert, King of Kent.  Ethelbert went over and met them, allowing them to stay on the island for a while until he was certain of their motives.  Ethelbert’s wife was a Frankish princess named Bertha and herself a Catholic Christian (this is in distinction to Arian Vandals or Goths), so he had some knowledge of the faith.

Once King Ethelbert was convinced the were of good intent, the missionaries were given an old church in Canterbury to operate from.  Although he did not wish to convert at first, since it is a big deal to turn away from the customs and beliefs of one’s ancestors, Ethelbert saw no harm in allowing the Christians to preach among his people, allowing the people of Kent to believe as they chose.  If we consider the attitude of a good many Christian princes and bishops at this point in time, King Ethelbert’s tolerance is outstanding.

The missionaries lived together in monastic simplicity, sharing everything in common, and providing a stipend to the married missionaries who seem to have been involved in the project.  Their simplicity of life, miraculous signs, and clarity of preaching won many souls from among the English.  Canterbury became the seat of episcopal power in Kent, and remains the see city for the Church of England to this day.  Before long, King Ethelbert converted and was baptised, giving even greater freedom of movement to the missionaries both to preach and to restore old Roman churches that had fallen into disuse during the centuries of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the old province of Britannia.

Augustine was accordingly consecrated bishop in Arles, the nearest major episcopal seat.  Now that he was a bishop and the growth of the Church amongst the English was a more secure reality, he wrote to Pope Gregory about various questions concerning the life and order of the Church as it would become established in its new home, as well as questions surrounding the life and practice of the bishop.  Notable amongst St. Gregory’s replies to St. Augustine’s questions was the following encouragement:

… if you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or of Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the Faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches.  For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.  (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 1.26, trans. Shirley-Price, p. 79)

Such an attitude would seem shocking to people reared on Reformation myths of mediaeval Christianity, or with the knowledge of Charlemagne’s attempts at making all liturgy and practice uniform in the eighth century.  Yet this is not so surprising if we consider the vast world of ancient Christianity which spread from Ireland to Mesopotamia and even India and included various cultures.  There was and is much similarity among the traditional liturgies, be they Roman, Gallican, Byzantine, Coptic, Syrian, and so forth, but with flexibility for local variation.

According to one book I read, this embracing of the good from both the Roman and Celtic practices is what helped shape and form the Use of Sarum, the particular liturgy in use in England until the Reformation.  No doubt it was less florid in St. Augustine’s day.

This willingness to take what is good from the pre-existing culture is demonstrated in the evidence that remains of Anglo-Saxon Christianity as established by men like Augustine and Cuthbert and as it stood until the coming of the Frenchified Viking Normans in 1066.  For example, the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels demonstrate an artistic aesthetic that stands proudly beside the Celtic art of the Book of Kells.  Many of the considerations and prayers we find from the Saxons resonate with those we find amongst the monks of Iona.

Although there was some clash between the Roman missionary enterprise from the South and East and the Celtic from the North and West, much of what the modern Celtic movement in Christianity treasures existed within Anglo-Saxon Christianity as well.

However, the encounters between St. Augustine and the Celts were not all afternoon tea and crumpets.  The Celtic Church was not following the same date for Easter as the rest of the Church (ie. the Church from Spain and France to Mesopotamia, from Germany to Ethiopia), and they had their own monastic system.  St. Augustine tried to force the Celtic Christians to accept the universal date for Easter and to adopt Roman (ie. Benedictine) monastic practices.  They refused; many were slain by an Anglo-Saxon pagan king years later.  Bede attributes their deaths to their refusal to submit to St. Augustine.

As St. Augustine’s mission grew, he consecrated bishops in London and Rochester.  Many of the English became Christians during this time, and because of King Ethelbert’s conversion, many people with senior positions within the realm adopted Christianity or were promoted because they were Christians.  Ethelbert did not force his people to convert, maintaining his previous openness to people of other beliefs.

In 604, St. Augustine died.  The Church he helped found spread throughout all of England, and those worshipping communities have their successors amongst the worldwide Anglicans as well as English Roman Catholics.  A great harvest has been reaped, to glory of God Almighty.

The Katabasis of Father Brown: Descent in “The Sign of the Broken Sword”

SPOILER ALERT!  What follows is a sort of commentary/essay on G.K. Chesterton’s story “The Sign of the Broken Sword.”  If you wish a. not to have any of the story spoiled and b. to know what exactly I’m talking about, read it first.  It is not long.  Then, come, read this post!

A katabasis (Latinised as catabasis) is, according to Raymond J. Clark in Catabasis: Vergil and the Wisdom Tradition, is a descent to the Underworld by a living human being in the flesh — ie. not a divinity, not in a dream, not necromancy.  Many katabaseis involve the hero of the story going to Underworld to fetch back a person or gain knowledge, thus requiring a favour of the Queen or King of the Dead, such as dread Persephone, Lord Pluto, or Ereshkigal.  The most famous katabasis in all of western literature is that of Dante in his Inferno, vol. 1 of The Divine Comedy.  This descent was patterned on that of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI; other mythological heroes to descend include Herakles and Orpheus.

The katabasis has survived into modern literature as well.  Two recent examples, both of them framed on Classical myth, are found in Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  Themes and images of descent make their appearance in less explicit places as well, however.  “The Sign of the Broken Sword” is one such place, beginning with a descent from the churchyard into the woods, and out again at the inn at the end.  Along the way, Father Brown and Flambeau wrestle with a mystery that itself is a descent into villainy, horror, and treason.

Our first clue that Chesterton has written us a katabasis comes in the first paragraph as he is setting the stage and setting the oppressive, heavy mood that persists throughout the story.  In describing the forest, he writes:

The black hollows between the trunks of the trees looked like bottomless, black caverns of that Scandinavian hell, a hell of incalculable cold.

First, Chesterton is not merely imagining that Hell would be a place of cold for northern peoples, an inverse of the Mediterranean Christian Hell of fire.  Hel in Norse mythology is the name of the goddess of the Underworld, one of the children of Loki (himself god of mischief), and she rules over an Underworld of cold ice — as Chesterton says, “a hell of incalculable cold.”  At first reading, I assumed Chesterton was merely making the hell reference to produce the weighty mood that he sought.  Such is not the case, as further evidence of katabasis, of descent, rears its head as our main characters walk away from the monument to General Arthur Saint Clare and make their way into the woods — into hell itself.

The first clue is merely incidental, but not to be missed — they are leaving an old graveyard, the earthly abode of the dead.  There is no more appropriate place to begin a descent to the Underworld than a graveyard, if you ask me.  Another piece of corroborating evidence is found as our protagonists pass “many hundreds of grey and ghostly trees” — strikingly reminiscent of the shades of the dead who abide in Hades, even described as “ghostly”.  And that this hell is Scandinavian is kept within the reader’s awareness by the description of the moon as being “like a lustrous snowball”.

At one point, Brown and Flambeau pass from one bit of forest to another.  As they are about to plunge into the depths of the next piece of wilderness, we read of Flambeau:

He stared firmly at the grey facade of forest in front of him, with the one black gap in it, like the mouth of the grave, into which their path plunged.

They are descending into “the mouth of the grave” — into Hell itself.  As they move through hell, at one point a tree branch curves against the white face of the moon — described as a “devil’s horn.”  As the evil of the narrative discussed by Father Brown and Flambeau unravels and becomes clear, they plunge through dark corridors and blackness.  The path grows steeper, more convoluted and twisted, the deeper into the tale of General Saint Clare they tread.  Ghostly language is used even to describe the spare light to be found in the wood at night, “a ghost of a net”.

We eventually reach a firmer reference to Hell once Father Brown has unravelled the clues and is about to relate to Flambeau the whole horrid, wretched story of evil:

“I mean that,” retorted the cleric, and suddenly pointed at a puddle sealed with ice that shone in the moon. “Do you remember whom Dante put in the last circle of ice?”

“The traitors,” said Flambeau, and shuddered. As he looked around at the inhuman landscape of trees, with taunting and almost obscene outlines, he could almost fancy he was Dante, and the priest with the rivulet of a voice was, indeed, a Virgil leading him through a land of eternal sins.

Thus, Father Brown is leading Flambeau through Hell.  Flambeau is like Dante, Father Brown like Virgil.  The Hell is one of coldest ice, a Scandinavian Hell as found in the wintry wood of Chesterton’s story.

And as Father Brown draws his story to a close, Flambeau sees the warmth of the light of the inn at which they shall rest come story’s end.  The katabasis will be soon over.  At the end, they emerge from the woods, from Hell, and come back to our world, to an inn, the Sign of the Broken Sword.

G.K. Chesterton, “The Sign of the Broken Sword”

This coming Tuesday, the Small Group shall look at “The Sign of the Broken Sword,” one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery stories.

This group has romped through the Great Tradition fairly broadly thus far.  We have looked at creeds, at theological texts, at liturgies, at poetry, at devotional writing, at mystical works, at sermons, at essays.  We have looked at ancient writers, mediaeval writers, Reformation writers, modern writers.  But we have not sampled fiction, and (as I like to say) ever since Joseph and Aseneth was a runaway second-century bestseller, Christians have been writing fiction.  Therefore, this week we shall read a Father Brown story by GK Chesterton.

I am looking forward to this not only because it is the first piece of fiction the group will sample, but because it is Chesterton.  This guy was larger than life.  Essayist, journalist, literary critic, poet, novelist, mystery writer, amateur theologian, hagiographer, church historian—little was untouched by the girth of his corpus (he was also corpulent).  He is most famous for his Father Brown detective stories, the novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, and the non-fiction books Heretics and Orthodoxy. His most famous poem is the “Ballad of the White Horse.”  He was a convert to Roman Catholicism partly on the grounds that on the Catholic Church could have produced St. Francis of Assisi.

I look forward to a pleasant evening of good storytelling and good discussion.

Letters to Malcolm 17: Pathways to Adoration

This past Tuesday at the Christian Classics Reading Group, we read three of C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.  This book is a series of  imaginary letters to an imaginary interlocutor named “Malcolm” (naturally).  They revolve around prayer primarily (naturally).  The letters we read were 17, 18, and 19, if you wish to catch up with us.

Letter 17 is essentially about pathways to adoration.  Lewis reminds Malcolm about a time they were walking in a wood and Malcolm recommended him to start where he was to move towards adoration — with splashing cool water from a spring on his warm face.  From there, Lewis discusses the use of pleasure as a pathway to the worship of Almighty God, saying that he finds it easier to move to adoration from tangible pleasures than from thinking about the doctrines of God.

He makes a good point about “bad” pleasures, that it is not the pleasure itself that is bad, only the method of acquiring it:

It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness.  The sweetness is still a beam from the glory.  That does not palliate the stealing.  It makes it worse.  There is sacrilege in the theft.  We have abused a holy thing.

This is important to consider, although Lewis later in Letter 18 does point out that there are pleasures that are actually bad, such as the pleasure derived from nursing a grievance.  Yet by and large, the pleasures of this life are “patches of Godlight”.  As a paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton says:

Life is like a waking up after a shipwreck and moments of pleasure are remnants washed ashore from the wreckage, pieces of paradise extended through time. We must hold these relics lightly and use them with gratitude and restraint, never seizing them as entitlements.

I believe this is important advice to take hold of.  The world is God’s creation — by nature, it is good, even having been pronounced so by the Almighty in Genesis 1.  In Soliloquy of the Soul, St. Thomas a Kempis contends that the pleasures of this world, being transient, are not to be sought, but that we are, instead, to live lives of self-deprivation (a form of the Way of Negation).

Lewis and Chesterton would vehemently disagree.  Yes, there is pain in this life.  Yes, we are destined for the New Country, for the Kingdom of the Heavens, for the New Heaven and the New Earth, for the Resurrection, for the Recapitulation of All Things.  Yet here we are on Earth.  The present life is transitory, but the pleasures of it are not to be shunned.

And Lewis shows us a way forward, a way to enjoy transient pleasures without compromising the future life — these pleasures are from the God of Glory Himself.  They are moments where the Kingdom of the Heavens breaks through into our transitory lives and shows us a bit of His glory.  They are vehicles of grace and pathways to adoration.

We live in a world of pain and sorrow — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where the Church is having something of a crisis around public worship — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where materialists tell us that this material thing is all the reality there is — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where materialists of a different ilk tell us that the value of this material thing lies within the thing itself — pathways to adoration are necessary.

Seek to worship God daily through pleasure, beauty, theology, hymns, Psalms — follow the paths to the adoration of the Majestic One seated on the Sapphire Throne.