Revivifying the tradition

One of the main thrusts of Gabriel Bunge’s book about patristic prayer, Earthen Vessels, is to drive Christians today back to the tradition and its fountainheads for our guidance on prayer. He believes that our faith fails in the West so often because our praxis of the faith — by which he means things spiritual, not naked activism — does not align with our doctrines. (NB: He wrote this while still a Roman Catholic member of the Order of St Benedict.)

What we need, then, are reliable guides to the ancient paths of prayer so that we can walk the Way that is Jesus in a manner compatible with the theology of the ancient faith we profess.

I noted in my post ‘Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?‘ that most of us, especially from within evangelical communities, end up going it alone. Indeed, we lack that living tradition of the contemplative life found in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In that post, however, I did mention James Houston of Regent College here in Vancouver.

Perhaps this tradition is starting to return to us.

This morning at church, the Houston effect was felt as a Regent student gave a wonderful sermon all about how to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). My own slightly tangential thoughts about Evagrius, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, The Way of a Pilgrim, and St Athanasius suddenly coalesced when the sermon began discussing a course the preacher had taken at Regent all about prayer, and how one of the pathways of prayer they learned was John Cassian’s invocation of repeating Psalm 70:1 over and over:

O God, make speed to save me / O Lord, make haste to help me. (BCP translation)

I’ve written on Cassian here a lot over the years, although I cannot seem to find a post devoted to this verse specifically. It matters little, I suppose.

Anyway, we were given some of Cassian’s own wisdom as well as the preacher’s own experience of putting into practice this ‘arrow prayer’.

I am encouraged beyond a reminder for my own self (a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer) but also for this wider world of Christian ‘spirituality’: Regent is teaching this sort of thing to its students. Regent is well-respected in the evangelical and academic worlds, both (as much as any evangelical seminary can manage both). And Regent students are sharing this wisdom in congregations.

This is tradition coming back to life!

John Cassian was himself, as has been demonstrated variously, a disciple of the great spiritual master, Evagrius Ponticus, who was a disciple of Gregory of Nazianzus before coming to Egypt, and then of the two Macarii (of Alexandria and the Great) when in the Egyptian desert. The full story of the mediaeval reception of Cassian is not germane today, though.

For Protestants, much of that reception gets cut off in the 1500s.

Nonetheless, we have editions and translations of Cassian’s works.

And so people like Steve Bell come to Regent College, equipped by the good work of (I do hope) Boniface Ramsey’s translation and share the riches of ancient ascetic wisdom to evangelical Christians. And suddenly, a roomful of people is plugged back in.

What we need, though, are the living people beyond well-known Manitoban virtuoso guitarists who prevent Cassian from being relegated to the Reserve shelf at Regent and who themselves take up Cassian’s wisdom and become, to cite the title of a book by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer.

The flowering of spiritual disciplines and the rebirth of these traditions may be taking longer than Richard Foster may have thought when he wrote Celebration of Discipline over two decades ago. But more and more people, whether the folks who preach at my church or Ken Shigematsu over at Tenth, or people beyond Vancouver, are reentering these ancient traditions and revivifying them.

That’s good. (Even if it’s not as full-on as Bunge would like.)

To close, here’s Steve Bell doing Psalm 70:1:

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Living tradition

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

I am reading Gabriel Bunge’s book Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, and he is discussing what tradition is and how it works in the first chapter. Tradition is much-contested ground ever since the days of the Reformation when everyone, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic (for want of better words), was trying to sift through the mass of the deposit as it stood in the midst of Renaissance decadence, late mediaeval scholasticism, corruption amongst clerics and princes alike, and true devotion.

Which parts were true devotion? And which true devotion was rightly placed? Which parts of this deposit are either apostolic by antiquity or at least Spirit-driven consequences of apostolic tradition, which are man-made things to be abandoned, and which are adiaphora?

These debates are often framed in terms of pitting Scripture and tradition against each other. In Browne’s very capable Victorian book about the 39 Articles, he makes a good case against there being an oral tradition of things not in Scripture that must, nevertheless, be believed. In good Anglican form, he is careful to state that the tradition of exegesis and liturgy, especially of the Fathers, is important for devotion and the right interpretation of Scripture, but nothing independent of Scripture is to enjoined upon Christian souls as essential for salvation.

In these terms, tradition seems fairly dead, doesn’t it?

But, as the Eastern Orthodox apologists like to point out, we are all part of traditions, even Baptists at Bible study.

Bunge’s idea of tradition is something different:

The meaning and purpose of preserving the “tradition” is, then, for the Fathers, just as it was for the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, not an unthinking adherence to what has been handed down, but the preservation of a living fellowship. (p. 24, emphasis original)

Two years ago, the book I read on the bus to visit my wife and son at hospital after he was born was Archimandrite Zacharias’ book Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony. I was given this book by Father Raphael, from whom I have received much spiritual insight. The main source for Archimandrite Zacharias’ teaching is actually sacred Scripture, but the second-most popular citation in the notes is Elder Sophrony, followed by St Silouan the Athonite. Elder Sophrony was Archimandrite Zacharias’ spiritual father, and St Silouan was Sophrony’s.

As I read the book, I felt like I was encountering a living tradition, not simply a bunch of facts handed down, but an entire way of life, from Athos to Essex. In fact (now that I write it), Archimandrite Zacharias is Father Raphael’s spiritual father (after the falling asleep of Father John [memory eternal!]), and if I were Orthodox, I would hope Father Raphael would be humble enough to accept the challenge of being my spiritual father.

Tradition is the encounter and fellowship with those who have gone before, seeking to live and apply their encounter with Jesus to our circumstances now.

One of the richest loci for the tradition is, of course, the liturgy. As Father Andrew Louth points out in Discerning the Mystery, when St Basil the Great discusses the unwritten tradition of the church in On the Holy Spirit, the things he talks about are all liturgical.

Given that I am now reading Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, this point takes on a new kind of resonance. The Prayer Book was a way in which Christians of Cranmer’s world were able to accept that fellowship with what has gone before, but also sift through it, seeking what had gone awry (a task Rome was also doing; let’s not fight that fight today). I have written on the catholicity of the Prayer Book before, but it is worth repeating. When we pray with the Book of Common Prayer in spirit and in truth, we truly join in fellowship with the Christians of the centuries who have also used so many of those forms, from (at the latest) the Apostolic Tradition (modern attribution: Hippolytus of Rome, mid-200s), whether in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Elizabethan English.

We also, with greater specificity, join with the Anglicans around the world and through the centuries (until the liturgical movement of the later 20th century), whether in Australia or Kenya or Canada or Canterbury. We enter into that fellowship of faith, a Reformational liturgy rooted in the catholic tradition (note the lower-case c).

Arguably (and here perhaps I  become controversial), inasmuch as the Prayer Book’s theology is an attempt to restore to prominence certain apostolic and Augustinian themes obscured in England at the time of the Reformation, we could also argue that in using it we find ourselves in the august company of St Paul and St Augustine.

At prayer, we seek God. And God comes to us. We find ourselves in communion, in fellowship with Him, and through Him, with the Christians through the centuries who have also sought Him. And if we choose to submit ourselves to them in our own seeking of God, to fellowship with them — then that is living tradition.

Confronted with the glory of God

The Transfiguration

This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the BCP was from Luke 5, the story of the miraculous catch of fish. When St Peter witnesses the miracle, here is his response to Jesus:

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken

This is the biblical response to meeting the divine. When God the Father spoke on the mount of Transfiguration, St Peter went from, ‘Let’s build tents,’ to falling on his face terrified (Mt 17:6).

At the moment of his throne-room vision, the prophet Isaiah declared:

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:5 ESV)

When Ezekiel has his super-intense vision of the divine:

So when I saw it, I fell on my face (Ez 1:28 NKJV)

Moses was told by God that he would not be able to look on God’s face and live, so God hid him in a cleft in a rock and covered him with his hand as God passed by. Moses only saw the divine back. Later, when Moses descended from the mountain, even his own reflected glory was too much, and the people veiled his glowing face.

When St John had mighty things revealed to him by an angel, he, too, fell on his face (Rev. 22:8).

Angels and people who have been close to God are more than we can handle, so far as the Bible shows us. God Himself … well. He’s a different story.

And yet we figure that making the worship of the Most Holy Trinity a combination of rock concert and stand-up comedy routine will help us encounter the Most High God.

The Bible, on the other hand, says:

Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! (Ps. 96:9)

And so the tradition feels that incense and icons, Gothic architecture and polyphony, stained glass and the ringing of bells, the prostration of human bodies on the floor, are the way to best encounter the Most High God. God is mystery, and true mystery is not a puzzle to be solved but an immensity to be embraced and entered into.

God, that is, is neither your boyfriend nor your best friend.

Let’s restore some reverence to our worship and devotion.

Some favourite Orthodox prayers fit for Easter

I realise we are a week off from each other this year, but I’ll still commemorate western Easter with Orthodox prayers! These are some favourites from the book of prayers called the Octoechos. Father Raphael says that the Octoechos contains all the theology of the Orthodox church. Here are three prayers from the Octoechos:

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad! For the Lord hath shewed strength with his arm, and trampled down death by death. He is become the first-born from the dead. He hath delivered us from the pit of hell, and hath bestowed his great mercy upon the world. -Tone 3 for Sundays

O praise and worship, O ye faithful, the Word, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost together is everlasting, born of the Virgin for our salvation: for he was pleased in flesh to mount the Cross and suffer death, and in his glorious Resurrection to raise the dead. -Tone 5 for Sundays

Thou from on high didst come in tender mercy, and didst endure the three days’ burial to free us from our passions: O Lord, our Resurrection and our life, glory to Thee. -Tone 8 for Sundays

My absolute favourite has been blogged here before, an Apolytikion of the Resurrection.

Christ is Risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Liturgy and Scripture (reflections on a phrase of Sr Benedicta Ward)

In the thorough Introduction to her translation of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations, Sr Benedicta Ward discusses the relationship of the liturgy to St Anselm’s works. At one point, she writes:

here … it is impossible to distinguish between the influence of the Bible and that of the liturgy, which after all is composed almost exclusively of biblical material. (p. 34)

This is a noteworthy statement. It is certainly true of the Book of Common Prayer — as a meme I encountered a while back noted, ‘Ever notice that the Bible quotes the Prayer Book so much?’ Indeed, I have spent a lot of my life happily discovering bits of liturgy hiding away in my Bible readings.

Now, praying a liturgy assembled from bits of Scripture is not the same thing as sustained study of Scripture and meditation upon its application to our own lives. Nonetheless, it strikes me as good practice.

It also reminds of an oft-repeated falsehood. Someone (indeed, employed by an Anglican church) said that neither the BAS nor the BCP would do. I asked what would be better. Answer: the Bible.

Well, pull out BCP! Pull out your Missal! Pull out the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom! Pore through the Liturgy of the Hours. Not only do the services of church contain space for reading Scripture, they are also full of Scripture, as we make the words of God our own.

Anyway, I have little to take away. But if you find yourself praying a traditional liturgy, be aware that you are soaking yourself in Scripture in a particular way. Thank the Holy Spirit for the grace of the liturgists and let the Word dwell in you richly.

George Herbert, The Holy Scriptures

For we who pray the Prayer Book Collects, Bible Sunday has come around again. I have no deep meditations on Scripture and its role in our lives this year, so what I do have I offer you — George Herbert:

THE HOLY SCRIPTURES

PART I.

O Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart
Suck every letter, and a honey gain,
Precious for any grief in any part;
To clear the breast, to mollify any pain.

Thou art all health, health thriving, till it make
A full eternity: thou art a mass
Of strange delights, where we may wish and take.
Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glass,

That mends the looker’s eyes: this is the well
That washes what it shows. Who can endear
Thy praise too much? thou art Heaven’s Lieger here,
Working against the states of death and hell.

Thou art joy’s handsel: heaven lies flat in thee,
Subject to every mounter’s bended knee.

PART II.

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse doth sine,
But all the constellations of the story.

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie;
Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christian’s destiny.

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
And comments on thee: for in every thing
Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.

Stars are poor books, and oftentimes do miss:
This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.

And, in case you need a reminder, the Collect for Advent 2:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

One of my favourite prayers (from St Anselm)

At the back of my Book of Common Prayer I have this Post-It note:

It says, for those with difficulty reading text of images:

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. (trans. Benedicta Ward from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm)

I cannot tell you where in St Anselm’s prayers and meditations this is to be found. I found it originally for Evensong one year when I was precenting and it was the feast of this Archbishop of Canterbury (although he wrote this when still a monk at Bec).

Nevertheless, it has been a go-to prayer of mine ever since, and I am glad that I stuck this Post-It in the back of my prayer book — the expectation was a single use, but grace decided otherwise. I hope it can similarly inspire you.

Do you have any favourite prayers? I’m thinking of sharing some others here over the coming weeks.