‘Daily devotions’ in ancient Christianity (more 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)
  • Bed-time
  • Midnight
  • 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?

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Still thinking about catechesis and spiritual growth

Whenever (like last post) I think about the idea of reintroducing some sort of period of training or waiting for new Christians before (and even after!) getting baptised — catechesis or even the catechumenate — I start thinking about two things:

  1. What educational resources could I make? What already exists?
  2. Information is not enough. We need to make this about people entering into the school of the Lord

There is lots of stuff out there for Number 1 (would my own Anglo-Patristic catechesis be superfluous, then?), both in terms of basic introductions such as Alpha and Christianity Explored and in terms of spiritual growth like the Church of England’s Pilgrim Course (depending how you cut it, all three of those are from the C of E!). There are also readable books for topics you might want new Christians to get into, and I’m sure a lot of pastors and parishioners who read could work on getting these sorted for one’s own congregation.

What I don’t think we can really plan in any such endeavours, however, is the growth of people who take the course and their developing commitment to Jesus. And that’s really what matters. Who cares if you are well-informed about Christianity and its doctrines if you aren’t abiding deeply with its Lord Christ?

What we can plan, however, is what any committed disciples do in terms of discipling the undiscipled. Say your church is running a course for new believers either as a preparation for baptism or some other membership event. Something beyond just volunteering on a Wednesday night, right?

People first and foremost need to be deeply invested in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And then all-in in terms of seeing new disciples made. And then invested in the knowledge being imparted in the course. And then — pray!

Actually, let’s backtrack a bit.

Prayer and Scripture-reading are the two bedrock spiritual disciplines. Let’s assume these as daily practices for the people coming alongside the catechumens.

What if everyone involved in a catechetical course was also fasting as part of their intercession for the new believers? And praying for them every day. Or, even bigger, what if a congregation went through a big shift so that everyone had a rule of life and was committed to spiritual disciplines, and then catechesis of new believers grew out of that?

Well, there’s a new gap to fill in Christian educational material, then. How to help ‘mature’, committed Christians get a grip, grow spiritually, and live out spiritual disciplines. Maybe that’s where my Anglo-Patristic work can go…

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:

Evagrius and Scripture

I am revisiting my decade-old work on St John Cassian’s reception of Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399) in his demonology. One false conclusion I drew then was that Cassian had a stronger commitment, or a higher view, of Scripture than Evagrius, explaining some of their differences. As soon as I saw that I had written that, I knew it was not true.

I just need to demonstrate it.

I also think that, if more Protestants, especially evangelical ones, are to read the monastic fathers, then understanding the monastic and patristic use of, regard for, and theology of Scripture is critical.

One of the first places to look for Evagrius’ view of the Bible is Evagrius’ Antirrhetikos, translated by David Brakke as Talking Back, a book I did not have access to 10 years ago. This handbook for battle with demons and their temptations is a topical arrangement of 498 passages of Scripture for the monk to familiarise himself with to be able to readily pull out ‘the weapons of the spirit’ (Prol. 5) when attacked.

The existence of the Antirrhetikos alone should tell us that Evagrius thinks highly of Scripture. It is the chief weapon of the monk as he fights.

The letter Evagrius wrote to Lucius (rendered ‘Loukios’ by Brakke; Epistle 4) in response to the request for the Antirrhetikos gives some detail. Chapter 5 says:

And so everyone who has enlisted in this army must request discernment from the Lord without neglecting the things that contribute to the reception of this gift, which are, to speak in outline, self-control, gentleness, keeping vigil, withdrawal, and frequent prayers, which are supported by reading the divine Scriptures — for nothing is as conducive to pure prayer as reading. Ascetic practice cuts off the passions by destroying desire, sadness, and anger, but the reading that follows it [ascetic practice] removes even love for the representations by transferring it to the formless, divine, and simple knowledge … (my emphasis)

The references to ‘reading’ in the passage should, I hope, be clearly seen as references to reading the Bible. Pure prayer is what monks aim for, and reading the Bible is the best way to get there. What he implies here, and states more clearly in the Kephalaia Gnostica (‘Gnostic Chapters’) is that the goal of pure prayer is the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity.

Reading the Bible, then, is a short-cut for progress in both the ascetic and contemplative aspects of the disciplined life.

In the Prologue, Evagrius equates the words of Scripture with Christ Himself. We meet Him in the Bible.

In sum, based upon this work, Evagrius has a high view of Scripture, and he also, if you will, puts Scripture in its place. God gave us the Bible for us to get to know Him. Therefore, we read the Bible not simply to gain knowledge about the Bible but as a pathway to encountering God. What matters more than Bible study is knowing God, who is encountered through both prayer and Scripture.

Finally, this is important because Evagrius’s reputation has suffered due to some aspects of his speculative theology as outlined in the aforementioned Kephalaia Gnostica. It is important, then, as we unearth and retrieve the teachings of Evagrius, that we come to understand the place of the Bible on this ascetic master who was so influential — despite his condemnation — on both Eastern and Western Christian asceticism.

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.

Experimental thoughts concerning General Synods and the theology of councils

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Chances are, after the Anglican Communion explodes and the Anglican Church of Canada finally snuffs itself out with a whimper, the most important achievement of General Synod 2019 will have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical province for indigenous Anglicans, on the grounds that it will probably outlast white Anglicanism. In other news, we white Anglicans are all dissatisfied with how things went regarding marriage.

For the liberals/progressives/post-liberals, the dissatisfaction stems from the marriage canon remaining unchanged.

For the conservatives/evangelicals-catholics, the dissatisfaction stems from an amendment thereto allowing bishops to interpret the canon in such a way that it would allow for same-sex marriage, anyway.

A priest I know posted an interesting reflection on Facebook about how the Holy Spirit was invoked and called upon at General Synod, and these were the results. Whatever else is going on, this seems to be His will right now, even if it makes no sense to any of us.

As a person with a background researching the history of ancient church councils, this is an interesting point. If you read Eastern Orthodox discussions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, you will find that they cite the precedent for the idea of an ecumenical council in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 where it was decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised or follow Mosaic law. The telling phrase for the history of the councils is, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28) in the letter documenting the council’s results.

Ecumenical Councils are considered to be unerring in their doctrinal statements and universally binding in canon law. The reason why we didn’t get any between Acts 15 and Nicaea in 325 was the difficulty of getting church leaders together before Constantine’s conversion — at least, that’s what mediaeval accounts of events tell us.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is God
  2. Constantinople (381): Jesus is God (round 2), also the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is a single, united person
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus is a single, united person with two natures
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus is still one person, that’s the main thing. Also, let’s condemn a few people while we’re at it.
  6. Constantinople 3 (681): Jesus had two wills because he had two natures.
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Make pictures of Jesus and kiss them.

The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all agree that these are ecumenical councils and accept their canons and doctrine. Anglicans are fuzzier. We have historically embrace 1-4 with gusto, and the only recent statement on them I know of is GAFCON (bafflingly) saying that they also embrace 5-7 so far as they are in accordance with Holy Scripture (but, based on the understanding of the people sitting in those councils, everything they did was in accordance with Holy Scripture, so what does GAFCON mean? Don’t kiss icons? Ignore canon law?)

The argument that the Holy Spirit speaks through the ecumenical councils is something along the lines of the fact that an invitation went out, every bishop who could made it, and then the major bishops who weren’t able to be there ratified the outcome later. Bishops in the Late Antique church are elected by the clergy and people of their dioceses and anointed and consecrated by three other bishops after their selection has been approved as valid by the Metropolitan bishop. Their duty, in part, is to preserve orthodoxy.

The ancient church may not have been a representative democracy, but this is vaguely kind of what this is. Maybe. But not really. Moving on.

But a General Synod is not an Ecumenical Council. Not only that, but we Anglicans, outside of those who don’t give a rat’s behind about the 39 Articles, theoretically believe that ‘general councils’ can err and sometimes have erred (Article of Religion XXI). This Article is mostly directed at the mediaeval ‘general’ councils of the western Church, which may not even technically be ecumenical even by Rome’s own canons, as lucidly and provocatively argued by Norman P Tanner in an article in  Studies in Church History 38: The Church and the Book.

Anyway, what has this to do with General Synod?

By the Anglican view of things, General Synod can err. But did the Holy Spirit not show up? He was invoked. People prayed. This time, it seems delegates actually tried to act in love. Well, what about Lateran IV when it approved transubstantiation in 1215? I do not believe in transubstantiation. But I also believe that Innocent III and his cronies were praying men. Did the Holy Spirit show up?

What if sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up just to mess with us? I dunno, this is just an experiment. Setting aside medieval councils, consider:

  • The Council of Rimini, 359: the imperial church officially adopted a creed that said Jesus was ‘like’ (homoios) God the Father, rejecting all talk of essence (ousia). Given the engineering behind other councils, to say that Rimini was imperially engineered to that end need not necessarily take it out of the running as an ecumenical council. That homoian Christianity is heresy does. Hm.
  • The second ecumenical council, Constantinople (381), was probably not originally conceived as ecumenical, and certainly not received as such in the West at the time, possibly not until after Chalcedon in 451. Anyway, the Bishop of Constantinople who presided, Gregory of Nazianzus, resigned and left in a huff because they did not craft a creed that was completely unambiguous about the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit. So even an ecumenical council may be perceived as messing up at the time. Hm.
  • In 448, a second council met at Ephesus and approved a one-nature formula of Christology. One of the reasons it was rejected was because of how it was run by the bullying Bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus. Funnily enough, his sainted uncle, Cyril, was about as much a bully at the first council of Ephesus, and we accept it as ecumenical. Regardless, from 448 to 450, as far as anyone could tell, the imperial church was going to accept one-nature Christology. Hm.
  • In 754, there was an Iconoclast council at Constantinople that considered itself an ecumenical council. Iconoclasm, from the perspective of history as lived on the ground, had a lot of staying power until 787 at Nicaea 2, and was even reinstated by the imperial powers after that. Hm.

If we look at the ecumenical councils, we’ll see that there was a lot of arguing back and forth before and after them. They were not accepted immediately. Some spent a period of time being overturned, like Nicaea 1 and Nicaea 2. What makes them ecumenical is their long-term acceptance by the church — and even then, the so-called ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East only accepts two of seven, and the Oriental Orthodox of Miaphysite persuasion only accept three.

So what does this mean regarding Anglican General Synods?

Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep searching the Scriptures and their authority and figuring out what Truth is. Keep listening to the Holy Spirit. Hold fast to faith once delivered. Remember that the Church is Christ’s, not General Synod’s. Who knows why the Holy Spirit lets things happen that seem contrary to how we interpret Scripture and Gospel. But I like to think there was a purpose behind allowing the Council of Rimini to occur.

Oh, and if you’re a bishop: Obey canon law, for Pete’s sake.

Eucharistic Soteriology

This phrase came through my mind while reading 1 Corinthians a while ago, and I can’t get it out of my mind. I’ve decided to write at least something on it today, since it’s Corpus Christi — the feast of the Body of Christ, the Most Blessed Sacrament. Eucharistic, of course, is the adjective to describe Holy Communion, and soteriology is the -ology of salvation.

If I were to attempt something along these lines, I would start with my slow drift away from statements like Luther’s, that justification by faith is the whole Gospel. I would explain why I feel that, without denying justification by faith alone, there is a bigness to Gospel that extends beyond courtroom metaphors, that, once our juridical position with God is settled, we enter into relationship with Him. I would express concern about corners of Protestantism that cannot see salvation in any terms but justification by faith.

I would then discuss the different ways in which the Bible and the Greek language talk about the word salvation and related verbs, maybe even the word Saviour. This sort of philological pedantry can be fun, but there would be a bigger point related to the above, a point about how our theological battles of past centuries have diminished our understanding and appreciation of the greatness of Who God is and what He has done to save us.

All of this is preliminary, of course. One further preliminary, having laid a foundation, is to talk about participation in Christ in particular. I would use Scripture such as John 15:4, ‘Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.’ (NKJV) I would also talk about the Fathers seeing salvation as a whole as participation in the life of Christ — in fact, not only the Fathers, but the whole pre-Reformation tradition.

I always think it’s worth time for us children of the Reformation to take stock of what came before, whether we agree with it or not.

I would now get around to Holy Communion, pulling out verses like John 6:53-55:

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.55 For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. (NKJV)

More patristic, mediaeval, and Byzantine evidence would follow, of course. And I would talk about Martin Luther’s theology of the sacrament because it interests me, followed by Cranmer and the BCP. How does any of this related to the 39 Articles, and why should we care?

Then I would meditate on what this means for us. How is the sacrament of Holy Communion abiding in Christ? How is it salvific? How does this change how we live daily life, read Scripture, eat food, do church, love our neighbour? Because if salvation is a participation in the life of Christ, then it is a transformation of your own life.

Beginning with what you eat and drink.