I am reading the chapter on Philo in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, so it warmed my heart during devotions with my wife last night to see the Middle Platonist, Alexandrian Jewish exegete in the Mosaic Holy Bible readings for Easter, Week 4 — with the BCP readings, 1 Pet. 2:19-26 and John 10:1-30, and, of course, Psalm 23. I hope you enjoy his words as much as I do. Philo says:
Indeed, so good a thing is shepherding that it is justly ascribed not to kings only and wise men and perfectly cleansed souls but also to God the All-Sovereign. The authority for this ascription is not any ordinary one but a prophet, whom we do well to trust. This is the way in which the Psalmist speaks: “The Lord shepherds me and nothing shall be lacking to me” (Ps. xxiii, 1). It well befits every lover of God to rehearse this Psalm. But for the Universe it is a still more fitting theme. For land and water and air and fire, and all plants and animals which are in these, whether mortal or divine, yea and the sky, and the circuits of sun and moon, and the revolutions and rhythmic movements of the other heavenly bodies, are like some flock under the hand of God its King and Shepherd. This hallowed flock He leads in accordance with right and law, setting over it His true Word and Firstborn Son Who shall take upon Him its government like some viceroy of a great king; for it is said in a certain place: “Behold I AM, I send My Angel before thy face to guard thee in the way” (Exod. xxiii. 20). Let therefore even the whole universe, that greatest and most perfect flock of the God who IS, say, “The Lord shepherds me, and nothing shall fail me.” Let each individual person too utter this same cry, not with the voice that glides forth over tongue and lips, not reaching beyond a short space of air, but with the voice of the understanding that has wide scope and lays hold on the ends of the universe. For it cannot be that there should be any lack of a fitting portion, when God rules, whose wont it is to bestow good in fullness and perfection on all that is.
XIII. Magnificent is the call to holiness sounded by the psalm just quoted; for the man is poor and incomplete in very deed, who, while seeming to have all things else, chafes at the sovereignty of One; whereas the soul that is shepherded of God, having the one and only thing on which all depend, is naturally exempt from want of other things, for it worships no blind wealth, but a wealth that sees and that with vision surpassingly keen.-De Agricultura or ‘On Husbandry’ 50-54, Loeb translation by F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker
One of the (chief) reasons many people love The Book of Common Prayer is the beauty of its language (I have already blogged about catholicity, ‘Protestantism’, and theology). This past Thursday, this beauty was in full force at the evening Eucharist at my local Anglican church, as the clergyman’s rich voice read out Cranmer’s Preface for Whitsuntide (as in 1662; very different text in Canada’s 1962 BCP!):
THROUGH Jesus Christ our Lord; according to whose most true promise, the Holy Ghost came down as at this time from heaven with a sudden great sound, as it had been a mighty wind in the likeness of fiery tongues, lighting upon the Apostles, to teach them, and to lead them to all truth; giving them both the gift of divers languages, and also boldness with fervent zeal constantly to preach the Gospel unto all nations; whereby we have been brought out of darkness and error into the clear light and true knowledge of thee, and of thy Son Jesus Christ. Therefore with Angels, &c.
Beauty and theology! It is beautiful, catholic, and deeply theological. This preface encapsulates all that is best in the Prayer Book, I think.
I first found myself truly entering into the Prayer Book in Lent 2004. My Lenten observance that year was the praying of Compline every night before bed. Compline is not one of Cranmer’s or 1662’s offices, but it is in the Canadian BCP on page 722. I do not actually know where the service originated; I imagine it is Victorian.
Whatever the origins of this service of Compline, it is written with the same beauty of language as Cranmer/1662. The traditional Compline hymn, ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, is presented in J. M. Neale’s translation:
Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world we pray
That with thy wonted favour thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now.
From all ill dreams defend our eyes,
From nightly fears and fantasies;
Tread under foot our ghostly foe,
That no pollution we may know.
O Father, that we ask be done,
Through Jesus Christ, thine Only Son;
Who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
Doth live and reign eternally.
This is a wonderful, rhythmic Englishing of the hymn, and it is eminently memorisable — my wife and I often pray it aloud before going to sleep. One aspect of the sort of beauty found in the BCP and other, older English texts designed to be read aloud is their attention to the cadence and rhythm of the English language. This makes memorisation easier.
Now, I don’t want this series on the BCP to simply become a clash of liturgies. Other liturgies have their glories and their place. I am especially fond of the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great, myself, and I’ve blogged here before about some of the Late Antique and Early Medieval offerings that have touched me.
Nonetheless, if we are drawn to the beauty of the Prayer Book, this is because said beauty is often what other liturgical books lack. A few years after Neale’s ‘Before the ending of the day’ was embedded in my heart, I was browsing a Roman Catholic book shop, and I picked up a book of hours, flipping to Compline. What I found … oh! the horror! I do not now recall which book it was, but given that Neale is public domain, they should have stuck with the Anglicans in Englishing the Breviary. If not this actual translation, it was similar to the one in Benedictine Daily Prayer:
Before we reach the close of day,
Creator of the world, we pray,
That in your mercy you will keep
A guard around us while we sleep.
As we to end of life draw near,
Console us Lord, remove our fear,
May we with light and grace be blessed
And find in you eternal rest.
Most loving Father, hear our plea!
You rule the world with equity,
Together with your only Son,
And with your Spirit, three in one.
I’m not saying this is bad. It’s just not as good, largely on aesthetic grounds, although the content of the two is remarkably different.
In a world stripped of beauty, where the natural world is turned into a moonscape in search for oil, where contemporary architecture is vapid and utilitarian and ugly, where people graffiti (and non-artistically!) all the time, where Naples is falling apart before your eyes, where unbeautiful and ugly and painful things occur — cancer, terrorism, earthquakes — beauty is an imperative.
Beauty is redemptive, even.
Christ came that we might have life, and life abundantly. (John 10:10) Beauty is abundant living. It is a reflection of the Creator Who is Himself Beauty in all His glorious Oneinthreeness.
And remember, ‘Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.’ (Psalm 96:9 BCP [Coverdale] & KJV)
On Sunday, the minister preached about fire, about the Holy Spirit as fire, recalling some of the famous biblical images of fire, such as Elijah’s chariot of fire (2 Kings 2), the fire burning in the hearts of the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and the ‘fire’ of love that the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts. I do not dispute any of what was said, nor its significance. Nonetheless, I was drawn to fire of a different sort.
When I was a teenager, the song ‘The Lord Reigns‘ by Bob Fitts was very popular amongst youth in the Anglican Diocese of Calgary. One of the verses runs:
A fire goes before him
And burns up all His enemies
The hills they melt like wax at the presence of the Lord
If we think on the Psalms that inspired that song, such as Psalm 97, the allegorical reading of the Psalms as described by John Cassian (d. 430s; see my posts Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2) allows us, as Christians, to consider the enemies in question as not human but spiritual (like the Babylonian babies in Psalm 137:9) — sins, vices, demons. The enemies that the Lord’s fire consumes are within us; in the language of Cassian’s spiritual master, Evagrius of Pontus, these are logismoi; they are also the passions when disordered — but most importantly, they are sin when the logismoi and disordered passions incarnate themselves in our actions.
My thoughts were next drawn to the words of another song from my Albertan Anglican youth, by fellow Canadian Brian Doerksen, ‘Refiner’s Fire‘. I loved this song back in the 90s, and I still agree with its sentiment and the cry of the charismatic heart from which it issued. In Doerksen’s words, thousands of us have prayed for God to purify our hearts, to make us holy, to cleanse us from our sin (deep within) — using the image of a refiner’s fire, to make us pure like gold and precious silver.
I can only imagine that a refiner’s fire, and the crucible that rests in it, must be very, very hot.
One of the facts about fire that was brought forth on Sunday is its destructive force, as in the recent wildfires in northern Alberta, most notably at Fort McMurray. We have all seen images in the past few weeks of these fires in action, and now photos of the devastation are starting to come in.
Doerksen’s prayer never made me uncomfortable when I was a teenager. Often, but neither always nor everywhere, the charismatic movement has been more interested in such purification as being comforting, as the warmth you feel in moments of ecstatic contemplation. And it can be. And it is.
But not always.
My readings in the ascetic and mystical tradition as an adult have made me realise that if we wish to enter a crucible (refiner’s fire) so as to emerge as gold (pure gold), or if we want, to quote another song from the Vineyard, ‘more love, more power, more of [God] in my life’, we will struggle for it — the dross wishes to remain. Our sin, the disorder of fallen passions, and the temptations of logismoi fight back at every turn. The daily battle with temptation and long, slow progress in holiness prove this.
None of this is to say that my minister and the charismatics are wrong. Rather, it is to see the purifying flame of the Holy Spirit from a different angle. One of the Desert Fathers says that prayer is struggle to your last breath. Another says that if you are not being tempted, this is because you are already sinning. The modern Athonite mystic Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex (d. 1993) says, in His Life is Mine, that living as a Christian will always mean struggle.
Our hearts are fickle. We need the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and destroy the Lord’s enemies in our lives; we need the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and melt us and burn away the dross in our hearts. And this will hurt as the Spirit burns away our tendencies towards gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory, and pride (to cite Evagrius’ and Cassian’s Eight Deadly Thoughts/logismoi, later shifted into Seven Deadly Sins by Gregory the Great).
Truly becoming holy will require struggle as we stand guard over our hearts. The fifth-century Egyptian monk St Isaiah the Solitary writes:
I entreat you not to leave your heart unguarded, so long as you are in the body. Just as a farmer cannot feel confident about the crop growing in his fields, because he does not know what will happen to it before it is stored away in his granary, so a man should not leave his heart unguarded so long as he still has breath in his nostrils. Up to his last breath he cannot know what passion will attack him; so long as he breathes, therefore, he must not leave his heart unguarded, but should at every moment pray to God for His help and mercy. -Ch. 15 of ‘On Guarding the Intellect: Twenty-Seven Texts’, in The Philokalia Vol. 1, p. 25, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.
It will require struggle.
But it will be Good.
This is the path to holiness and freedom, and the Holy Spirit will not only purge but warm — the Paraclete will come alongside us to comfort us. As Theophan the Recluse (d. 1894) reminds us, while we need to do this work ourselves, it is precisely in the Spirit’s power that we are able to do it. Therefore, let us be of good cheer as we prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit to burn up all the Lord’s enemies and purify our hearts this Pentecost season. Yes, this burning flame will hurt — but it is the pain of a doctor curing a wound. We must not let desire for comfort and a life of cheap grace stand in the way of holiness and life abundant.
Back in 1662, it wasn’t the plan to have a separate service of Morning Prayer from Holy Communion. On those Sundays that you didn’t administer the Lord’s Supper, a normal service would consist of Morning Prayer, the Litany, and the Antecommunion (basically the Liturgy of the Word part of the service). This is why BCP Sunday readings appear so few.
Anyway, I think the historic Prayer Books are the best expression of historic-traditional-biblical worship in the English language, expressing the fullness of Gospel truth in the fullness of the beauty of the English language. Part of the glory of the Book of Common Prayer is its relationship with the English Bible. Extensive passages of Scripture are read at Morning and Evening Prayer, multiple Psalms are recited, and, at Communion, more Scripture is read. Throughout the services, more set passages and verses are used, let alone the biblical phrases and ideas inextricably intertwined with the historic translations and prayers original to the BCP.
I have no doubt some Anglicans have a ‘low’ view of Scripture, insufficiently reverencing it and failing to trust in its authority. Such Anglicans have not taken the Prayer Book to heart. For the rest of us, we revel in the quality and quantity of Bible readings throughout a Prayer Book service.
For Easter, the 1662 readings for Morning Prayer are:
To highlight the glory of the Resurrection and our salvation thereby, 1662 replaces the Venite (Psalm 95) with these verses:
CHRIST our passover is sacrificed for us : therefore let us keep the feast; Not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness : but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 1 Cor. v. 7
Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more : death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once : but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin : but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Rom. vi. 9
Christ is risen from the dead : and become the first-fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death : by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die : even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 1 Cor. xv.
The 1662 readings for Holy Communion:
Epistle: Colossians 3:1-7 – If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.etc.
In these passages of Scripture, plus those interwoven throughout the Prayer Book, we encounter the Gospel event, the ancient typologies, and the eschatological fulfillment. And, in the Psalms, the Praise of God Most High. There is so much more truth and beauty awaiting us in the treasurehouse of the Scriptures than we realise if all we ever meet are but one or two passages each Sunday.
Furthermore, the Resurrection is the fulfillment of the hope of Scripture, Old and New. In Christ all of God’s promises find their yes. Let us bless the Lord for the benefits he has given us through the prayerfully constructed lectionaries of His Church.
Advent 2 in the BCP is Bible Sunday, on which I’ve blogged in other Advents, here and here. Here’s some Cassiodorus (6th c) to keep it real:
Note, excellent friends, how marvellously and how harmoniously the arrangement of words moves in Divine Scripture. There is an ever-increasing desire, a fullness without end, a glorious hunger of the blessed where excess is not reproved but constant desire is, instead, praised — and rightly so, since Scripture both teaches beneficial knowledge and offers eternal life to those who believe and act on their belief. They describe the past without fiction, and reveal more of the present than is seen, and tell of the future as if it had already taken place. Truth rules everywhere in them; everywhere divine excellence shines forth; everywhere benefits to the human race are revealed. While the present situation exists on earth, heavenly truth, in so far as we are able to grasp it, is revealed by parables and mysteries, as God himself bears witness in the seventy-seventh Psalm: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter mysteries from the beginning’ [Psalm 77:2]. For they pass on to us, in order that we may discharge all duties, a prayerful knowledge of the holy Trinity (which, over the great passage of time, humanity, blind, sad, and enslaved to idols, has not known). They tell us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, creator and director of all created things does ‘all that he wills in heaven and on earth’ [Psalm 134:6]. If you seek its faithfulness, listen to the brief statement: ‘A stronghold for the oppressed in times of distress’ [Psalm 9:10]; if you seek power, hear: ‘Who can withstand your power?’ [Psalm 75:8; Wisdom 11:22]; if justice, read: ‘He will judge the world with justice’ [Psalms 9:99 and 95:13]. For Scripture declares most obviously that God is everywhere; in the words of the writer of the Psalms: ‘Where can I go from your spirit? from your presence where can I flee? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there’ [Psalm 138:7-8], and likewise the other aspects of God’s majesty are embedded in the holy writings. -Cassiodorus, Inst. I.XVI.1, trans. J W Halporn, p. 146
The question arose in the comments to one of my posts (The difficulty of the ‘high-church’ evangelical) some weeks ago as to what my ‘perfect’ worship service would look like. This is an interesting question, and probably unanswerable. Half in jest, I am tempted to say, ‘1662’, but, then, maybe not…
Nonetheless, there are some elements that I would like to see for a regular Sunday morning service:
Regular communion. Preferably weekly or biweekly. I grew up with weekly, but in Toronto biweekly worked well with BCP 1959/62 Morning Prayer the other weeks.
Lots of Bible. Whether Communion or not, read out at least two, if not three or four, passages of Scripture. They don’t need to all be the text preached on. The Bible just needs to be proclaimed to us as a people and assimilated into our hearts. The regular reading aloud of the Word before the congregation helps that. It is an ancient component of Christian worship.
Psalms. Sung, preferably. A cappella if possible. I’m not joking. The Psalms were Israel’s hymn book/prayer book. These are the prayers and hymns of Jesus’ worship life. Make them those of your church as well.
Liturgy. For some, the perfect church service is obviously 1662 or the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom or the Roman Mass. For many, and for the sort of Protestants I have in mind, pure, undiluted liturgy may be too much. Worship is about giving glory to God. If you are distracted by the printed words or the incense or the procession with candles, you aren’t glorifying God. There is a place for out-and-out high liturgy, but I don’t think it’s necessary all the time, nor preferable.
What I’m thinking of is something basic and structured, especially for the Communion. I think a regular service of Holy Communion is not only to include the words of institution from the Last Supper but is best done with a liturgy that ties in traditional liturgy running from ‘Lift up your hearts’ to the receiving of the elements — words that have been in use since the late 100s in Hippolytus.
Responsive/antiphonal readings/prayers are also part of my preferred service — litanies, for example. And a set-piece confession can provide us with theologically precise words to express our sorrow and the lowly state of the human soul before Almighty God.
Confession — a time of silence to offer a private confession, whether accompanied by liturgy or not, is worthwhile. Obviously, we are to confess every time we sin in real life, but this sort of communal activity in public helps teach us and remind us what to do in private. It is a healthy part of public worship not only to revel in God’s glory together but to look into the depths of our murky hearts as well.
Old and new. The Christian faith has produced hundreds — nay, thousands — of hymns over the centuries. Churches ignore the treasure house of hymns to their peril. If your church is going to be using contemporary worship, I recommend adding at least two hymns into the mix each Sunday. Alongside the latest hits from Stuart Townend or Matt Redman, sing also the old hits from Prudentius, Charles Wesley, or J M Neale.
As regards the new, while I prefer classic hymns, I do not disparage all new music. I simply urge discretion — why sing something simply because it’s new and popular? Is it poetically, theologically, and/or musically worth singing? While people approach the Lord’s Table for Communion is a good time to sing new songs, I have found.
Sermon. Sermons are good. In a service such as this, where we are worshipping God, praying, confessing sin, receiving Eucharist, reading Scripture, and so forth, I don’t think the sermon needs to be big and long and even the central or most important aspect. I think people should be encouraged to get into the meat of Scripture in smaller Bible studies during the week, not in long, lecture-style sermons on Sunday. Preach from one or more of the given texts, clock in at 20-25 min (which is long for Anglicans!).
Other trappings? I like candles. I admit it up front. Sometimes I like incense, too. The presence of beauty in the worship space is important to me. If I were to blend traditional and low-evangelical worship styles, I’d go for candles at least. Robes preferably, maybe even copes and chasubles on occasion. The latter two, I think, should only appear on super-special feasts, though. 🙂
That is to say: My ideal worship service is liturgically structured with words and truths grounded in Scripture and tradition but with a flexibility of certain pieces of content — new songs and hymns are to be used with wisdom, similarly new litanies for the prayers of the people.
One final element is the occasional liturgical sermon. Every once in a while, have a sermon that helps explain why and what is going on in the worship service. Or preach a sermon that investigates the biblical basis for some of the popular words and phrases in the prayers and songs. Or investigate the theological foundations for the sacraments. Run a series on the Creed(s). This sort of preaching will help keep the liturgy from becoming a dead beast performed by rote.
The question should always be about the end goal of worship, of the showing to God His worth, the praising of Him, the offering Him thanksgiving, and the beseeching Him of our prayers. As the BCP puts it:
…we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.
Do our worship and liturgical practices encourage this? That is the great question.
One of the things I like about the church I currently attend is its tradition of Psalm-singing. A cappella Psalm-singing. I have long been appreciative of the use of Psalms in worship. Worshipping regularly with Anglicans for over 27 years, the Psalms have always had a place in the weekly liturgy, whether Morning/Evening Prayer or Eucharist, whether BCP or BAS. The Psalms were there. Being recited alternately between a leader and the congregation.
This tradition of Psalm-praying is good. Is, indeed, very good. But what the Free Church of Scotland gives us is, I believe, a different sort of engagement with the Psalms. On a retreat with some fellow Anglicans once, the theme was the Psalms. We were reminded that the Psalms are God’s Prayerbook. This is a very Anglican way of putting it. In fact, however, the Psalms are God’s hymn book.
The singing of Psalms is not unique to the Wee Frees and related Presbyterians. The Eastern Orthodox sing them. Anglo-Catholic choirs sing them to Renaissance settings. Some Anglicans sing or chant them together as a group (though most do not). St. Athanasius, in his ‘Letter to Marcellinus’ appended to the end of the SVS translation of On the Incarnation (until Fr. Behr’s supplants it, at least) recommends singing Psalms. So does the Anglican William Law in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
Indeed, Law says that you should sing or chant them as part of your personal devotions every day. If no one can hear, it doesn’t matter. If someone can, good. Remind them of their own duty to pray. (That’s the sort of advice Law likes to give.)
Singing or chanting is not quite the same experience as simply speaking. Athanasius envisages the reader entering into the voice and persona of the Psalmist through singing the Psalms. In so doing, we take up these prayers as our own. The Psalms are not simply occasional poetry for a single person to pour out his heart to God. They are songs to be sung by us all, connecting the individual with the community, the living with the dead, humans with angels, Christians with Jews.
The Psalms are worth getting to know.
So I find it a most excellent thing to sing two or three Psalms a cappella each Sunday morning or evening (depends on the week). I like to belt songs out, so the fact that usually they are set to old hymn tunes works in my favour. Rather than passively receiving the words of Scripture or the prayers, I am putting myself into them, worshipping God in spirit indeed.
And when Colin R is behind me and a little to one side, I can sing the bass part (still no good at finding harmonies solo — one reason it was good to sit with Philip S at Little T!). The harmonies of a hundred or more voices lifted up in song with no organ, no piano, no guitar, nothing. It is a beautiful thing. When the church is packed to bursting at the joint services with Edinburgh’s other Free Churches — oh, the power and might of those voices lifted up in harmony with one accord! The beauty of it. This is a church against which the gates of Hades cannot prevail, indeed!
Because there is power in God’s word written. Power in faithful hearts joined together in worship. Power in the beauty of God’s presence whenever we come before Him.
Power in the simple beauty of human voices singing harmony.
This is a beauty I appreciate in Gregorian Chant or the wonderful concert of Byzantine Christmas Hymns I attended in December. There is a different beauty in Renaissance polyphony, in the Mass in 40 Parts by Striggio or in Mozart’s Requiem. I do not wish to play down that beauty. I enjoy it immensely and find the wonder and beauty of a well-rehearsed choir or organ as at St. Mary’s Cathedral or Old St. Paul’s can bring me well-nigh to ecstasy or that Buddhist ideal of being in the moment. When I first listened to Striggio’s forty-part Renaissance glory, I almost cried.
But this beauty of around 100 Wee Free voices on a Sunday is wonderful in its own right. The beauty of simplicity in an old-fashioned but moderately unadorned sanctuary as we join together in song, aided by nothing but what God has given us. Our naked voices approach the Almighty as our souls ought — no hiding, no vain pretense, no embellishment. Just the beauty of the wonderful gift already given.
So sing a Psalm this Sunday! (Even sing one right now!)