Holy Week by the (Prayer) Book

Inspired by the post I shared from Biltrix about spending Holy Week in the daily readings, I thought I would post each day this week, drawing from the collects (special prayers for the day to collect our thoughts) and readings from the Book of Common Prayer. I missed yesterday (hence my re-post of a sonnet by Malcolm Guite in its stead earlier), so allow me to begin today with a few words of introduction.

It could be argued that the heart of the Prayer Book is not Cranmer’s soaring Tudor prose, nor is it the subtle reformational yet catholic Augustinian theology, but the Bible — consider how much of the book is taken up with the Psalter on the one hand and with the collects, Epistles, and Gospels for the Lord’s Supper on the other. And, of course, an important way the BCP differs from its mediaeval forebears is its daily lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer, which thrusts the reading of Scripture into the forefront of the office. Finally, of course, the liturgies themselves include entire passages of Scripture as part of them as well as phrases, words, and concepts of Scripture woven throughout the finely crafted prayers.

So if we’re doing Holy Week by the Prayer Book, then the selected readings are a most important part.

The tenor for Holy Week by the Prayer Book is set by the collect, and lived in the readings. I am using the Canadian 1962 BCP, for those who are interested. And here we have, Monday through Thursday, the same collect (with an added one on Maundy Thursday):

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The readings for Holy Communion today are Isaiah 63:7-9 and Mark 14, which is the beginning of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day, in fact, we read part of a passion narrative. Sunday: Matthew. Monday-Tuesday: Mark. Wednesday-Thursday: Luke. Friday: John. Saturday: The deposition and burial from Matthew.

Morning and Evening Prayer move us to the Cross as well. The Second Lesson (the New Testament reading) is from the Gospel of John at both offices every day, moving through the teachings of Our Lord at the Last Supper, His prayer in the Garden, His arrest.

The Book of Common Prayer is Christocentric and crucicentric overall. This week, these two centres of the book come out and come to the fore. There is nothing more worthy to consider, nothing more important to reflect on and pray through, than this. These Gospel lessons are woven together with prophetic readings from the Old Testament and with the reflections of the Epistles, bringing us to the climax of sorrow on Good Friday.

And as we feel the words of the hymn “never was grief like thine,” (“My Song Is Love Unknown”), as we consider the “Christ’s side-piercing spear”, we read and pray Psalms. Today, Psalms 20 and 21 (yet not 22: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”). The cross is the victory of God over the power of sin and death, especially when seen as part of the fullness of these days, in light of the power of Easter. And so, as we read the Passion narratives, we pray these words of Scripture:

We will rejoice in thy salvation, and triumph in the Name of our God: the LORD perform all thy petitions.

Now know I that the LORD helpeth his anointed, and will hear him from his holy heaven, even with the wholesome strength of his right hand.

Some put their trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the Name of the LORD our God.

They are brought down, and fallen; but we are risen and stand upright.

O LORD, save the king, and mercifully hear us when we call upon thee. (Ps. 20:6-9)

Hopefully you will find time in your devotional life to take the BCP’s cue and meditate on his priceless death, on the blood shed for our sin, on the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.

Living Scripture

In the Coptic Life of the fourth-century Desert Father Pambo, we read this story:

When he came to the brothers he went and found an old man and said to him, “Teach me a psalm,” for he was illiterate, and the old man began to teach him this psalm: “I said, ‘I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue.'” [Ps 38:2 (LXX)]. And after the old man had given him the beginning of the text, Pambo stopped him, saying, “My father, since I haven’t yet learned the beginning of the text, I will not learn the rest.” And when Abba Pambo went to his cell, he spent eight years putting into practice the saying that he had learned, for he came into contact with no one, saying, “Unless I first master my tongue, I will come into contact with no one lest I fall into sin on account of my tongue.” After eight years, he went and paid a visit to the old man who had given him the psalm. The old man said to him, “Pambo, why haven’t we seen you until today? Why didn’t you come to learn the psalm?” Apa Pambo said to him, “Since I hadn’t learned the first verse, I didn’t return to you to get the second since God had not given me the grace until now to learn it. In order not to act as if I despised you, I have come to visit you, my father. For if I learn the first verse, I will come to see you again.” And when he returned to his cell, he stayed there another ten years and did not come into contact with anyone. -Trans. Tim Vivian, Four Desert Fathers, pp. 58-59

This story is a perfect example of what may be called the Desert hermeneutic — Scripture is not learned or interpreted correctly unless it is lived. It is an approach to the Bible that is common not only to fourth-century Egyptian monks but to The Philokalia as well, as discussed by the chapter by Douglas Burton-Christie in the edited volume, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality. It’s an idea I first heard articulated in Christopher J. Kelly’s book Cassian’s Conferences, for it is a perspective shared by John Cassian.

Most of us, when we think about “learning” a Psalm probably think how I expect Abba Pambo’s spiritual father was thinking in the story: Pambo will memorise the Psalm and learn how to sing it. And if we think about interpreting a Psalm, we’ll think about dissecting it in various ways: its original poet and audience; its later use in the Temple and Synagogue; its theological significance at the time of composition as well as today; how it can inform our own life of prayer and worship.

For Pambo, the Scriptures are not learned unless they are lived.

He hears, “I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue,” and determines that unless he is unable to sin with his tongue, he has not learned the Psalm. So off he goes to practise.

This is similar to Antony who hears, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” (Mt 19:21 NIV) and, rather than relativising or contextualising it as we all have since Clement of Alexandria, he did exactly what the Scripture commands.

It is interesting that this lived hermeneutics, this mimesis or imitation as interpretation, also typifies the Pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim; he hears 1 Thess. 5:17, “Pray without ceasing,” and will not rest until he learns the secret — and The Way of a Pilgrim is a book steeped in The Philokalia, a great popularising text of Philokalic spirituality.

I also think this slow approach to the Bible is interesting. I find I have trouble doing things in bits and bobs. Give me a different large-ish chunk to read every day, and I’ll try and read it. Give me one verse to read and meditate on every day, and I’ll get sick of it. I want to blitz through a text — the Bible, a novel, a book of theology. If I divide something up into small bits, it becomes disjointed in my mind.

But for Abba Pambo, internalising the Scripture so that it becomes a characteristic of his own life requires dealing with it one bit at a time.

I have to admit that I’m not the greatest Bible reader. I miss days, sometimes weeks and months, in fact. Sometimes I read quickly and digest nothing. I’d rather be reading a science fiction novel or watching Frasier or Star Trek much of the time. But I am also stirred by high, lofty ideals. Imagine internalising Scripture. Just spending time in it, verse by verse, little by little, learning how to live it, really and truly live it.

It would require grace. I think it may also require a spiritual father — or, at least, a spiritual friend.

As the great Abba Antony said:

Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved. –Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Antony 3 (trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 2)

Digital resources for the daily office during your daily confinement

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that a Desert monk of the fourth-century Egyptian desert would have spent most of his or her time confined to the cell praying and reading Scripture. In particular, in fact, they were devoted to praying the Psalms. One example of many:

Oblige yourself to practice the discipline/attention of the psalms, for that will protect you from being captured by the enemy.-Isaiah of Scetê Ascet.
logos 9 (p.84)/Sys. 5.53. (Cited by John Wortley in his article “How the Desert Fathers ‘Meditated’“)

Evagrius writes:

The singing of Psalms quiets the passions and calms the intemperance of the boy. Prayer, on the other hand, prepares the spirit to put its own powers into operation. –Chapters on Prayer 83 (trans. John Eudes Bamberger p. 69)

Prayer in the Egyptian Desert of antiquity happened at fixed times, and it involved singing Psalms.

This practice, variously called the divine office, daily office, liturgy of the hours, fixed-hour prayer, etc., is older than monastic asceticism, attested as early as Tertullian around 200 and the Apostolic Tradition a few decades later (I’ve talked about the latter at least once). Scot McKnight, in his excellent, readable book Praying with the Church, shows the New Testament and Jewish roots of this practice.

So if you’re stuck at home, alone, wondering what to do, seeking some tools to kill time and grow spiritually, maybe even seeking hesychia, here are some resources to help you pray the fixed hours of prayer, beginning with apps for your phone, then online resources, then digitised books.

Apps for your phone

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – This app has Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer in both BCP language and “contemporary.” It gives you the daily readings, including Psalms and both main lessons, and the Collect. This is an advantage over flipping through a BCP and a Bible for ease of comfort — an advantage all born-digital daily office resources tend to have!

iBreviary – This Catholic resource has the Roman Breviary in Italian, English, Spanish, French, Romanian, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish, Ambrosian Rite in Italian, Monastic Rite in Italian, and Latin, both Tridentine and Novus Ordo. I use the Tridentine Latin, myself, but that’s because I’m old-fashioned and weird. It does the full round of offices of day and night.

Common Prayer – This ecumenical Protestant resource comes from Shane Claiborne, drawing from different traditions but also with a good amount of Scripture. It also means that there is more of an emphasis on social action in the prayers and meditations included. Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer.

I see some Orthodox resources in the Google Play store, such as Orthodox Daily Prayers from the Orthodox Church in America, but I haven’t tried any out. I’m also sure Lutherans have come up with something, too.

Online Resources

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – Like the app but a website.

Celtic Daily Prayer – The daily offices of the Northumbria Community, providing Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer. Typically rooted in mediaeval Irish and Scottish sources but with some Desert Fathers in it as well.

Celebrating Common Prayer – This is the daily office of the Anglican Society of Saint Francis with Morning and Evening Prayer as well as Compline.

The Synekdemos: Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians – Provided by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Divinum Officium – This Roman Catholic resource appears to be similar to the iBreviary app noted above.

There are undoubtedly many others, but I’ve never used them!

Digitised Books

Coptic Offices – It seems only right (rite?), given our inspiration here, to include the daily office of the Coptic Orthodox Church, here translated into English.

Breviary Offices from Lauds to Compline – An English translation from mediaeval Use of Sarum, that is, the mediaeval English office. I do not know how easy this would be to use digitally!

The Lesser Hours of the Sarum Breviary – An English translation made principally to fill gaps in the Book of Common Prayer.

Orthodox Daily Prayers  – A 1982 publication from St Tikhon’s Monastery.

Poetry, Prayer, and Praise

Today we commemorate Caedmon, our first recorded English poet. You can read my translation of Bede’s account of Caedmon here. Since I’ve blogged about Caedmon before (here and here), my mind is moving in other directions upon this commemoration of the poet, namely “religious” poetry more widely.

Poetry is the imaginative aspect of human language, the grasping after symbol and metaphor and those moments that dance around the periphery of our vision, seeking to translate the sublime into ink and paper (or pixels on a screen — or carvings on a stone). The poetic mode is not simply verse, not simply the arrangement of human language into line and meter making use of literary devices.

It is that, of course. It is also more like … the grasping of language at the numinous? Even (especially) when it is ordinary.

When we reach for that, when we attempt to rearrange language into line and verse with metaphor and simile, symbol and personification — then even the gore of the dead, the crushing of corpses, in the plains of Ilium rises to the sublime. The horror of the Iliad, that is, is transposed to a higher mode of language through Homer’s poetry than a simple synopsis would make it out to be.

What is interesting is that poetry is not simply there at the fundaments of religion.

It is there at the fundaments of language and literature.

From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Dr. Suess

Poetry, like the “funny things” of Dr. Suess, is everywhere. Greek literature does not begin with a prose treatise on government. It begins with Iliad and Odyssey, followed quickly by Theogony, and then, soon thereafter, the Homeric Hymns. Deep in The foundational works of Greek literature are not only poems but also the foundational works of the Greek religious thought-world.

Christianity was born from Judaism, and thus born already with the Psalms, those hymns to YHWH composed and sung by the Jewish people over generations. But it was also born with the canticles in the Gospel of Luke (Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis), with the poetic (if not formal verse) prologue to John, with the prose hymn of Philippians 2.

You may say:

Hey. Prose hymns aren’t poetry.

They aren’t verse.

But can prose not also be poetic?

Be that as it may, Christians began celebrating the blessed Light of salvation in hymns and poems fairly early on (see, ‘O Gladsome Light‘ — second century, maybe?). Latin was a bit slower than Greek in this as in other respects, but in the fourth century, Latin Christian poetry takes off with such people as Ambrose of Milan and Prudentius with his Psychomachia, and there has been no looking back since. (If you want to read some Christian Latin poetry, I recommend One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas.)

Every culture that has Christians in it ends up writing poetry. In the ancient world, this means we get to enjoy, besides the Latins I tend to mention, the Greeks such as Romanus the Melodist and Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Syriac authors like St Ephraim (how many times have I mentioned Ephraim the Syrian on this blog, I wonder?), Jacob of Serugh, and beyond. Medieval Armenia produces Gregory of Narek.

And so the Gospel washes ashore in England, headed for Canterbury from Rome and for Lindisfarne from Ireland. Both continental ‘Roman’ Christianity and insular Irish Christianity are versed in poetry — and the Irish in both Latin and Irish verse (I am fond of St Brigid’s and St Columba’s poetry). With such tutors as these, it comes as no surprise that the English start singing praises of their new God and King.

And our own English tongue has produced a wealth of poetry, of expressing with words something of the inexpressible, of coming close to the Uncreated Light, finding your mind so small, yet wishing, nevertheless, to praise the Holy Trinity, or to attempt to trace the outlines of your own beating heart as you catch a glimpse of Him, whether in the Holy Communion or maybe simply some daffodils.

In today’s utilitarian world, where the Prosperity Gospel wants to use Jesus to get rich quick, where we try to parse the mystery of the Eucharist to its last moment, where people walk out of sessions on biblical theology saying that they didn’t ‘get anything out of it’, where we want our sermons served up with a good side of ‘what should I do’, where we forget transcendence in favour of social action —–

God breaks through.

And He has some poets to help us see Him — Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, as well as singer-songwriters Steve Bell and John Michael Talbot all spring to mind.

Maybe you could be one of them, too.

What did ancient/early medieval monks read?

John-Incipit-web1-copy
Incipit of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, Anglo-Saxon gloss

A couple of years ago, I posted about why ancient/early medieval monks read, sharing an excellent quote from Pierre Riché’s book about early medieval education. Lately, I’ve been looking into the libraries of some famous monasteries that gave us copies of Leo’s letters, and I thought I’d share a bit of what these late antique and early medieval monks were reading.

The two monasteries I’m really interesting in sharing with you about are Bobbio, founded by St Columbanus (famously Irish and therefore ‘Celtic’ — for my misgivings about ‘Celtic Christianity’, start here), Corbie, founded in the seventh century by monks from Luxeuil — Luxeuil was also founded by Columbanus.

Bobbio

The monastery of Bobbio was founded in 614 and is considered the ‘Montecassino of northern Italy’ — Montecassino being St Benedict’s monastery. However, whereas Montecassino is still a functioning monastery, Bobbio is not, having been suppressed by the French in 1803 along with many Italian abbeys.

Like many monastic centres on the continent, Bobbio maintained contact with Insular Christianity throughout the Early Middle Ages, visible in both the persons who passed through, their way of writing, and sometimes the language they wrote in. For this reason, I think Bobbio is of interest for those who invest themselves in ‘Celtic’ Christianity.

Here’s what they were reading in the early days, gleaned from Richter, Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages, a book more interested in discussing Bobbio’s relationship to Ireland than the contents of the manuscripts.

The contintental fathers of the church:

  • One of the earliest Bobbio manuscripts is a copy of St Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, S. 45 sup. [saec. VII]).
  • Another potentially seventh-century Bobbio manuscript is a fragment of Pope St Gregory the Great, Dialogues — a collection of lives of Italian saints, include St .Benedict (Stuttgart, Wurttemburgische Landesbibliothek Theol. et Philos. QU. 628).
  • Orosius (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana D. 23 sup.)
  • St Augustine of Hippo (Turin A. II.2)
  • St Basil (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, C. 26 sup.) – Columbanus liked Basil; this is presumably from the ascetic corpus, the Asketikon
  • Gennadius — presumably his Lives of Illustrious Men (Milan, O. 212 sup.)

One of the things I like to point out is that, even if culture and isolation and history and other factors meant that Irish Christianity took some of its own interesting turns along the course of the Early Middle Ages, Irish Christians still saw themselves as part of this big, catholic family.

Law! Apparently, our earliest copy of the first surviving Lombard law code survives in many fragments from Bobbio (St-Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek 730). This makes sense — monks, no matter how hard they try, are still part of wider society.

The Bible! Because of the difficulties facing manuscript survival and the sad history of the monastery, we only have some fragments from the Bible. But if you consider the Rule of St Columbanus, they must have had Bibles!!

Manuscripts that were at Bobbio a bit later include The Life of St Columbanus, the Rule of St Columbanus, a commentary on the Psalms (logically enough, given how much Psalm-singing Columbanus required), Adomnán of Iona’s On the Holy Places, St Augustine of Hippo on Matthew and Luke, and some other material connected with Ireland.

Richter (pp. 146ff.) also discusses the presence of books on computistics (something Irish and English Christians were very into back in the day), Roman secular authors, and grammars.

What I have not found in Richter’s book is any reference to the Bobbio Missal (Paris, lat. 13246), somewhat suprisingly. This Missal is an important witness to seventh- or eighth-century liturgical practice in places that we might cautiously think of liturgically as ‘Gallican’. However, it seems that it was probably not at Bobbio at the time. Oh well. Still, follow the link above and see what it looks like.

Corbie

Corbie was founded in the mid-600s by monks from Luxeuil and flourished throughout the Early Middle Ages. It originally followed the regula mixta — a blend of Benedict and Columbanus. It was dissolved during the French Revolution. My source here is more intensively focussed on the manuscripts than for Bobbio — David Ganz, Bobbio in the Carolingian Renaissance.

First things first: One of our oldest canon law manuscripts is the Collectio Corbeiensis (Paris, lat. 12097, sixth-century: this manuscript is from the patristic era itself!). This manuscript was not copied at Corbie, but it came there in the seventh century, so it is relevant to the discussion. It is comprised mainly of the canons of church councils and papal letters. On the one hand, law is important for the running of a monastery. On the other hand, the sources for canon law are not themselves beyond the scope of theology (as demonstrated by John C. Wei, Gratian the Theologian).

Ganz lists these manuscripts as having been written at Corbie in the Merovingian age (so before the later 700s):

  • Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum I-VI (abridged; Paris, lat. 17655)
  • Pope St Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel (St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 14).
  • A manuscript with Gennadius On Ecclesiastical Dogmas and select letters of St Jerome (St Petersburg Lat. Q v I 13)
  • Rule of St Basil (St Petersburg, Lat. F v I 2).
  • Gospel of Matthew (St Petersburg, Lat. O v I 3).
  • Gospel of Mark (St Petersburg, Lat. O v I 2).
  • A manuscript of Origen, On Balaam and Balak and John Chrysostom, De Reparatione lapsi (London, British Library, Burney 340 + St Petersburg, Lat. F v I 4)
  • St Augustine, On the Agreement of the Gospels (Paris, lat. 12190)
  • Jerome-Gennadius, On the Lives of Illustrious Men (Paris, lat. 12161)
  • Isidore of Seville, On Laws — Etymologies V 1-27, IX 4-6, 22, and Lex Romana Visigothorum (Paris, lat. 4403A)

Since St Isidore of Seville is sometimes considered the last of the western church Fathers, what we see them writing at Corbie is the Church Fathers and the Bible.

They also acquired some manuscripts from elsewhere:

  • A manuscript containing various works of St Augustine on grace, the Institutes of Nilus the MonkThe Rule of the Four Fathers, and The Rule of the Master (Paris, lat. 12205, sixth-century)
  • St Augustine, City of God books 1-10 (Paris, lat. 12214 + St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 4, sixth-century)
  • A manuscript containing: Rufinus, De Fide; Fulgentius, De Fide Catholica: Origen on the Song of Songs; Jerome On the 42 mansions; Jerome To Demetrias (St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 6-10)
  • A variety of works of St Augustine (Paris, lat. 13367, sixth-century)
  • Pope St Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job I.18-V.38 (Paris, Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2061).
  • Another patristic volume containing a selection of texts falsely attributed to St Cyprian as well as works of Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Sedulius (Paris, lat. 13047)
  • St Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch (Paris, lat. 12168)
  • Old Latin translation of the Gospels (Paris, lat. 17225).
  • Fragments of Ephrem the Syrian
  • Various saints lives
  • A volume with Isidore, Augustine, Chrysostom, Caesarius (Paris, lat. 14086)

Alongside these many patristic works they would add the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. Something to think about — I’ve blogged before about Bede as a church father.

What we see is that monks were reading the Fathers and reading the Bible. Bibles don’t survive as well, it seems. More specifically, they were reading Bible commentaries and books about the ascetic life.

This is not so different from the high medieval highlights from Durham I mentioned a while ago, is it?

And what is the lesson we gain from these old monkish books?

Ad fontes! What nourished these souls, alongside their rigorous regime of prayer, were the Scriptures and the Fathers. It was not the latest, newfangled spiritual teacher. It was not ’40 days to mountain-top experiences of God’. It was not the prosperity gospel. It was the austerity of asceticism, reading the Fathers, singing the Psalms, studying the Bible.

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:

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.