One week until Lent

Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris
Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris

Lent starts in a week (unless you’re Eastern Orthodox, in which case it starts in five days).

The question of Lenten discipline inevitably arises, whether simply in one’s own mind, or in conversation with friends.

“What are you giving up for Lent?” everyone asks.

Chocolate? Alcohol? R-rated films? Smoking? Coffee? Sweets? Meat?

Sure. Any of these will do.

The point of Lent is not the giving-up-of-things.

The point of Lent is disciplina, the training/teaching of ourselves, the preparation of our spirits for the Great Feast of Easter — the Chief Feast of the Christian year. We want to draw nearer to God. So we fast or abstain or pray more or study a particular book of the Bible or another work of spiritual edification.

I read James W. Kennedy, Holy Island: A Lenten Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne one year. Another year, it was Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline. Once I read Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. My Lenten reading seems to have been as eclectic yet predictable as ever.

One year I prayed BCP Compline every night. That was 2004. I fell in love with the BCP that year. Maybe this year you’ll choose to journey with us through the daily office over at The Witness Cloud.

Even if you belong to a church that has canonical demands for Lenten discipline (that is, observant Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), spiritual discipline — Lenten or otherwise — is not one-size-fits-all. I know one Cypriot Orthodox priest who gives up sweets for Lent because he does not eat a lot of meat, so the canonical discipline is not so demanding.

Thus St Mark the Monk/Ascetic/Hermit:

There are many differing methods of prayer. No method is harmful; if it were, it would be not prayer but the activity of Satan. ~ch. 22 in ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’, in The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, p. 111

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, provides us with similar insights, in particular from the introduction to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living in Appendix I.

What matters is not which discipline you take on in Lent. What matters is ordering our hearts and minds to the greater love of God and neighbour. So think carefully and prayerfully this next seven-day as to what you may do.

(And so I seem to have come around to Cassian and ‘purity of heart’ all over again.)

John Cassian in the Philokalia – Discernment

StJohnCassian_vice4The final selection from Cassian in The Philokalia is selections, primarily from Conference 2, about discretion/discernment. Here we meet various Desert figures and desert stories, including one of my favourite stories, which I’ll recount in a moment. (For a newcomer to these discussions, I’ve talked about Cassian in The Philokalia thrice recently: once on the eight thoughts, once on purity of heart, then on scopos and telos with a bit of textual background.)

The virtue of discretion/discernment is said to be the most important. Without it, monks go too far, after all — consider those, like John Chrysostom and Francis of Assisi, who end up with chronic health conditions because of extreme asceticism in their youths. I heard somewhere that Francis, for one, regretted having gone too far. On the other hand, some abuse the flexibility inherent in all communal life. Thus, ‘hospitality’ becomes an excuse for overindulgence.

The extreme examples given by Cassian are about monks who almost die of thirst or starvation because of their lack of discernment. One monk converts to Judaism at the instigation of a demon disguised as an angel. In John of Ephesus’ sixth-century Lives of Eastern Monks, some monks venerate a local woman whom the demons have disguised as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most of us are not likely to go as far as these.

Nonetheless, in questions of fasting, vigils, Scripture reading, prayer routine, discernment is needed. We have the wisdom of our elders in the faith — that great Cloud of Witnesses. But each of us is different. Thus, by prayerful discernment, we can consider with the guidance of Scripture, the Fathers, and the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts what is the right path to holiness for our individual selves.

If only most of us ever spent the time and energy involved!

(Fun fact: The BCP recommends putting together your own rule of life, after the Supplementary Instruction that follows the Catechism.)

To close, here’s the story I esteem from this selection so much. I’ve not got The Philokalia with me, so this is actually a translation from the Latin original at New Advent:

I will tell you a fact which may supply us with some wholesome teaching, without giving the name of the actor, lest we might be guilty of something of the same kind as the man who published abroad the sins of the brother which had been disclosed to him. When this one, who was not the laziest of young men, had gone to an old man, whom we know very well, for the sake of the profit and health of his soul, and had candidly confessed that he was troubled by carnal appetites and the spirit of fornication, fancying that he would receive from the old man’s words consolation for his efforts, and a cure for the wounds inflicted on him, the old man attacked him with the bitterest reproaches, and called him a miserable and disgraceful creature, and unworthy of the name of monk, while he could be affected by a sin and lust of this character, and instead of helping him so injured him by his reproaches that he dismissed him from his cell in a state of hopeless despair and deadly despondency. And when he, oppressed with such a sorrow, was plunged in deep thought, no longer how to cure his passion, but how to gratify his lust, the Abbot Apollos, the most skilful of the Elders, met him, and seeing by his looks and gloominess his trouble and the violence of the assault which he was secretly revolving in his heart, asked him the reason of this upset; and when he could not possibly answer the old man’s gentle inquiry, the latter perceived more and more clearly that it was not without reason that he wanted to hide in silence the cause of a gloom so deep that he could not conceal it by his looks, and so began to ask him still more earnestly the reasons for his hidden grief. And by this he was forced to confess that he was on his way to a village to take a wife, and leave the monastery and return to the world, since, as the old man had told him, he could not be a monk, if he was unable to control the desires of the flesh and to cure his passion. And then the old man smoothed him down with kindly consolation, and told him that he himself was daily tried by the same pricks of desire and lust, and that therefore he ought not to give way to despair, nor be surprised at the violence of the attack of which he would get the better not so much by zealous efforts, as by the mercy and grace of the Lord; and he begged him to put off his intention just for one day, and having implored him to return to his cell, went as fast as he could to the monastery of the above mentioned old man— and when he had drawn near to him he stretched forth his hands and prayed with tears, and said O Lord, who alone art the righteous judge and unseen Physician of secret strength and human weakness, turn the assault from the young man upon the old one, that he may learn to condescend to the weakness of sufferers, and to sympathize even in old age with the frailties of youth. And when he had ended his prayer with tears, he sees a filthy Ethiopian standing over against his cell and aiming fiery darts at him, with which he was straightway wounded, and came out of his cell and ran about here and there like a lunatic or a drunken man, and going in and out could no longer restrain himself in it, but began to hurry off in the same direction in which the young man had gone. And when Abbot Apollos saw him like a madman driven wild by the furies, he knew that the fiery dart of the devil which he had seen, had been fixed in his heart, and had by its intolerable heat wrought in him this mental aberration and confusion of the understanding; and so he came up to him and asked Whither are you hurrying, or what has made you forget the gravity of years and disturbed you in this childish way, and made you hurry about so rapidly?

And when he owing to his guilty conscience and confused by this disgraceful excitement fancied that the lust of his heart was discovered, and, as the secrets of his heart were known to the old man, did not venture to return any answer to his inquiries, Return, said he, to your cell, and at last recognize the fact that till now you have been ignored or despised by the devil, and not counted in the number of those with whom he is daily roused to fight and struggle against their efforts and earnestness—you who could not— I will not say ward off, but not even postpone for one day, a single dart of his aimed at you after so many years spent in this profession of yours. And with this the Lord has suffered you to be wounded that you may at least learn in your old age to sympathize with infirmities to which you are a stranger, and may know from your own case and experience how to condescend to the frailties of the young, though when you received a young man troubled by an attack from the devil, you did not encourage him with any consolation, but gave him up in dejection and destructive despair into the hands of the enemy, to be, as far as you were concerned, miserably destroyed by him. But the enemy would certainly never have attacked him with so fierce an onslaught, with which he has up till now scorned to attack you, unless in his jealousy at the progress he was to make, he had endeavoured to get the better of that virtue which he saw lay in his disposition, and to destroy it with his fiery darts, as he knew without the shadow of a doubt that he was the stronger, since he deemed it worth his while to attack him with such vehemence. And so learn from your own experience to sympathize with those in trouble, and never to terrify with destructive despair those who are in danger, nor harden them with severe speeches, but rather restore them with gentle and kindly consolations, and as the wise Solomon says, Spare not to deliver those who are led forth to death, and to redeem those who are to be slain, Proverbs 24:11 and after the example of our Saviour, break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax, Matthew 12:20 and ask of the Lord that grace, by means of which you yourself may faithfully learn both in deed and power to sing: the Lord has given me a learned tongue that I should know how to uphold by word him that is weary: Isaiah 50:4 for no one could bear the devices of the enemy, or extinguish or repress those carnal fires which burn with a sort of natural flame, unless God’s grace assisted our weakness, or protected and supported it. And therefore, as the reason for this salutary incident is over, by which the Lord meant to set that young man free from dangerous desires and to teach you something of the violence of their attack, and of the feeling of compassion, let us together implore Him in prayer, that He may be pleased to remove that scourge, which the Lord thought good to lay upon you for your good (for He makes sorry and cures: he strikes and his hands heal. He humbles and exalts, he kills and makes alive: he brings down to the grave and brings up) , and may extinguish with the abundant dew of His Spirit the fiery darts of the devil, which at my desire He allowed to wound you. And although the Lord removed this temptation at a single prayer of the old man with the same speed with which He had suffered it to come upon him, yet He showed by a clear proof that a man’s faults when laid bare were not merely not to be scolded, but that the grief of one in trouble ought not to be lightly despised. And therefore never let the clumsiness or shallowness of one old man or of a few deter you and keep you back from that life-giving way, of which we spoke earlier, or from the tradition of the Elders, if our crafty enemy makes a wrongful use of their grey hairs in order to deceive younger men: but without any cloak of shame everything should be disclosed to the Elders, and remedies for wounds be faithfully received from them together with examples of life and conversation: from which we shall find like help and the same sort of result, if we try to do nothing at all on our own responsibility and judgment.

Advent 4: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome

According to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lectionary, today’s Gospel reading is John 1:19-28. Out of mercy, here it is in the ESVUK (rather than BCP):

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Another great passage involving St John the Baptist comes in John 3:30, when it is reported to the Forerunner that Jesus’ disciples are baptising more than he; his response: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

The lives and teachings of God’s holy ones (‘saints’) serve as lessons, especially when the holy ones are prophets or apostles. Here, the last prophet of the Messiah (a prophet who, as St Augustine observes, was able not only to predict the Messiah but point at him with his own finger) provides us with an attitude that we, too, should adopt, not just in this Advent Season but all the time.

It is, admittedly, a difficult attitude to keep. ‘He must increase’ — oh, how we wish to increase! We want to get it our way, at work, at study, in social engagements with friends, in dealing with family, even in determining the meals for the week or entertainment at evening. We wish to increase, to choose exactly which courses we teach, to divest ourselves of administrative duties, to read only the books that are interesting, to get a big paycheque, to gain renown in our own field of work.

But he — He — must increase.

And when we consider His ethical teachings, as in the Sermon on the Mount, He (and thus His increase) is found in the good and progress of others. He is found in sharing the burdens of others. He is not found in getting my way. Indeed, getting my way is likely to get in His way.

And, like St John the Forerunner, we should point the way to the One ‘the strap of whose sandal [we are] not worthy to untie’. As I posted here in an Advent not long ago, ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’. Christ is still in the midst of us risen and ascended and reigning, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost. John the Baptist points the Pharisees to Him.

Whom are we pointing to Him today?

(A worthy question, and I am myself unsure of my own answer. Nonetheless, a question more worthy than culture wars and fighting the war for ‘Christmas’.)

St Ambrose on Scripture

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper's House, Toronto
2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

I missed getting this post out time for Advent 2 — called ‘Bible Sunday’ in some circles because the Book of Common Prayer’s collect (at the bottom of this post) is a masterpiece about Scripture. Here’s a bit of St Ambrose for you:

The Divine Scripture is a sea, containing in it deep meanings, and an abyss of prophetic mysteries; and into this sea enter many rivers. There are Sweet and transparent streams, cool fountains too there are, springing up into life eternal, and pleasant words as an honey-comb. Agreeable sentences too there are, refreshing the minds of the hearers, if I may say so, with spiritual drink, and soothing them with the sweetness of their moral precepts. Various then are the streams of the sacred Scriptures. There is in them a first draught for you, a second, and a last. (Letter 2.3: To Constantius, A Newly Appointed Bishop)

Taken from the blog Classical Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy for Today.

My previous Bible Sunday posts:

Some Cassiodorus for “Bible Sunday”

In light of Bible Sunday … (a catena of quotations)

Happy Bible Sunday!

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.  

The Prayer Book and the Bible

Big Bibles from Troll Keeper's HouseIf one were to ask the average Protestant on the street what is wrong with the faith of many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, they would probably say, ‘Not enough Bible.’ This is, of course, an inaccurate statement, although there are certainly individuals in all Christian traditions who read, mark, and inwardly digest far too little of the Bible.

If one were to ask the average low-church, non-Anglican Protestant on the street what is wrong with the faith of Anglicans, there is a chance that, once again, they would say, ‘Not enough Bible.’ Some, including at least one low-church Anglican I know, would point to The Book of Common Prayer as part of the flawed faith of Anglicanism. Too much BCP; too little Bible.

Well.

Holding in my hands the Canadian BCP of 1962, let me tell you a few things:

  • Out of 736 pages, 190 are taken up with the Psalter (that is, the Book of Psalms).
  • Immediately prior to the Psalter are ‘The Collects, Epistles, and Gospels to be Used Throughout the Year’ — no more than a quarter of this section is taken up by the Collects; the rest are passages from the Epistles and Gospels for use at Holy Communion; 235 pages of text. Imagining 1/4 Collects, that’s 176.25 more pages of Bible, bringing us to a total of 366.25 pages of Bible — almost half the BCP right there.
  • Morning Prayer: Begins with a Bible verse, options filling up c. 3 pages. Includes the Lord’s Prayer twice, Psalm 95, one or two more Psalms, two significant Bible readings, the song of Zachariah from Luke 1, several responsory Bible verses, and closes wth 2 Corinthians 13:14.
  • Evening Prayer: Like unto Morning Prayer, but instead of Psalm 95 we have the song of Mary from Luke 1, and instead of the song of Zachariah we have the song of Simeon from Luke 2.
  • If one becomes concerned that all these repetitive Biblical Canticles are a bit much, 5 pages of Scriptural options are provided, besides recommended Psalms in the rubrics.
  • At Holy Communion, we have the Lord’s Prayer twice, either all Ten Commandments or Christ’s Summary of the Law, the aforementioned Epistle and Gospel readings, a Bible verse to introduce the offertory, another Bible verse after the offering has been collected, the Comfortable Words after confession of sin which are all Bible verses, and the Words of Institution which are taken from 1 Corinthians.
  • In the book The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, we learn the many Scriptural phrases and ideas that make their way into the Collects.
  • In the lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer as set out in the 1549 through 1662 Prayer Books you read through the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament twice a year, as well as the Book of Psalms once a month. In the Canadian BCP of 1962, the Psalter takes two months.
  • At every service of the BCP one recites either the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, and sometimes the Athanasian. These are summaries of Scriptural teaching.
  • On page 544 is ‘The Catechism: An Instruction to be learned by every person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’ — and Confirmation is one of those nasty, ‘unbiblical’, Prayer-Book Anglican things — much of which is recitation of Scripture, such as the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
  • In the Solemnization of Matrimony, besides various references and allusions to Scripture (such as are abundant throughout the BCP), we have either Psalm 128 or Psalm 67, the Lord’s Prayer, responsory Bible verses, a Bible reading from Colossians, and a Bible reading from Matthew.
  • The other, less common, services demonstrate a similar combination of straight Scripture and scriptural allusion or concept.

Frankly, it is hard to find an order of worship more imbued with Scripture than Prayer-Book Anglicanism (although the Orthodox in Holy Week give us all a run for our money!). If we actually followed the rubrics and read all of this Scripture, and then followed the BCP’s exhortations concerning Scripture — to read, mark, and inwardly digest it; to truly pray for God to write His law on our hearts — Anglicans would be soaked and saturated with Holy Scripture to an extraordinary degree.

Finally, as my last piece of evidence for Prayer-Book Anglicanism loving God’s Holy Word, I give you this from the Supplementary Instruction (pp. 554-555, 1962 BCP):

Question. Why ought you to read God’s holy Word, the Bible?

Answer. Because it tells how God has made himself known to man; and how we may come to know him, and find salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ in the fellowship of his Church.

Question. What does the Church teach about the Bible?

Answer. The Bible records the Word of God as it was given to Israel, and to his Church, at sundry times and in divers manners; and nothing may be taught in the Church as necessary to man’s salvation unless it be concluded or proved therefrom.

Question. Where then is the Word of God to be found in all its fulness?

Answer. In Jesus Christ, his only Son, who was made man for us and for our salvation.

Question. What is the vocation of a Christian in this world?

Answer. To follow Christ and bear witness to him; to fight the good fight of faith and lay hold on eternal life.

O tempora! O mores! That we have laid aside so rich a heritage as the Prayer Book in these last decades for the modern and mundane!

Loving the Book of Common Prayer 4: Beauty

Baskerville_titleOne 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)

Living the Daily Office (a guest blog post)

A guest post from my brother Jonathan, an Anglican priest out in rural Sasquatchenon. You can find him blogging over at his parish’s blog as swiftcurrentparishrector. The stories of the people who are joined in the ancient practices today are as vital as the teachings of ages past. I asked him to write a post about his experience praying the office four times a day, which he said kept him running on a ‘more even keel’.

When Matthew first approached me and asked me to contribute to his blog, I wondered what I would have to add that has not already been said.  The Lord has moved me to accept that my voice – another voice than just Matthew’s – is contribution enough.  If all content is repetitive; if all insight is un-sight; if my words come across to you, the reader, as less-than-inspiring; yet, you will know that there is another who considers regular prayer a valuable discipline.  For all the words that may be written, if I can bring glory to God, and not to myself through some sharp wordplay or self-aggrandizement – if I can simply present the truth of my walk, and having done that to stand… that is enough.

I have been an ordered deacon of the Church for eleven years; an ordered priest for ten and a half of those.  Morning and Evening Prayer have been a regular part of my life for that time – though at times a more regular part than at others.  They were certainly a part of my daily discipline for the three years prior to Christ’s reception of me among the holy orders of His Church, while I was in seminary.  Even for two (or so) years prior to that, when I first began to step into responsible Christian leadership – which I was sometimes more responsible with, sometimes less.  Sixteen years is a short time, and I am no master of daily office prayer.

Certainly I can navigate a few good prayer books.  I can handle the lectionary charts printed in obscure locations throughout them.  But there have certainly been times my mind has wandered while I’ve been in prayer; there have certainly been times when I’ve found it difficult to find the words to pray (even when they’ve been printed on the page in front of me!) through my own weakness.  There have also been times when I’ve been powerful in prayer, when the devil has fled before me (because of Him in whom I stand), when the world has fallen away and God has granted me the serenity of stillness with Him – when I have been granted the grace to know not just that He is God, but to know Him as He is.  As the Greeks say, God grants the grace of the discipline of prayer to those who pray.  As the English say, Lex Orandi Lex Credendi Lex Vivendi.

First Steps

My first foray into daily office prayer began with the 1962 Canadian Prayer book.  A book of beauty and vision, a book of wisdom and Word.  At first I would seek the counsel of my father, in searching the lectionary and the psalter.  I found the prayers deep, uniting the words of Scripture from scattered and diverse locations into beautiful phrases and meaningfully complete thoughts on broad topics.  Still, I was not “of” the prayer book, nor “of” Scripture (in that same sense), and so I searched for other meaningful prayers to supplement my usage with.

I devised a series of dedications of my fleshly faculties to God, to be used each day: my eyes, to see and understand; my ears, to hear and know; my hands, to do what He willed; my feet, to go where He led; my mind, to perceive and discern; my lips, to speak Life.  I employed the Mid-day prayers of the prayer book, for Mission and Ministry, and added to them various topically related prayers from elsewhere in the book.  I had names of missionaries and missionary societies that I cycled through each week, with these prayers.  I always used the option to the Nunc at Evening Prayer, knowing that I would arrive at it by Compline.

Second Steps

In seminary we were challenged to pray the daily offices in community.  This was foreign to my practise.  We alternated months from the BCP to the BAS ([Book of Alternative Services, the Anglican Church of Canada’s modern liturgy].  I found it difficult to show up during BAS months (though I generally did).  I had met an incredible retired priest during a pastoral internship in the summer before seminary, Fr. Robert Lumley.  He wrote a book entitled “Finnegan’s Prayer Book” – a fascinating read, though I imagine it is very difficult to get hold of.  He would take me out in his yacht, and we would anchor in the middle of the lake, and we would read the psalter together, and pray.  I missed that, in seminary.  My consolation was that any month, any day, my fellow seminarians were up for going to the chapel for un-officially-sanctioned Compline.

But I learned to use and appreciate the BAS at that time, and I still can do so.

Ordained Life

As a clergyman, my preference and usual use has been with the 1962 BCP.  Except while I served at Holy Trinity Church in Calgary, where Stephen Hambidge and I would gather together on weekdays for Morning Prayer – alternating weekly which of us led the prayers, his week BAS, mine BCP – this standard has held true.  My experience has shown me that if I am not praying, I am not inclined to pray.  If I am praying, then I am inclined to pray.  In many ways, it seems to come down to the orientation of my life.  These things move in concert – my prayer life and participation in praying the daily offices is not dictated by the way life is going, any more than the way my life is going is directed by my prayer life and participation in praying the daily offices.  Nor less so.

What Matthew has really asked me to write about, then, is this: recently I have begun to pray four offices a day, rather than the standard two.  Why?

Every now and then I pull out an illustration which has particular resonance with me (whatever value it may or may not have to my congregations).  Perhaps you remember the toothpaste commercial that contained the tag line: “…helps you maintain a dentist-clean at home!”  Consider that vision for your dental health.  Dentist-clean.  Not just when you’re walking out of the dental office after a cleaning, but all the time in-between, leading up to your next visit.  Wouldn’t that be… awesome?  I’ve heard too many stories of hygienists who were disgusted by the mouths they’ve had to stick their hands into, to think that it doesn’t matter.  My tooth-cleaning routine involves rinsing, flossing, rinsing, brushing my wisdom teeth (end-tuft toothbrush), brushing my teeth (regular toothbrush, though gum massagers beside the bristles are a preference, and wedge-shaped bristles at the tip are a plus), brushing my tongue, rinsing with fluoride, scraping my tongue.  Extreme?  I suppose.  But the hygienists aren’t concerned about putting their hands in my mouth.  And they don’t find much that needs cleaning.

How much more, as God’s people, should we devote ourselves to spiritual growth – to the process of maturation whereby we move from being spiritual infants to being saints?  If baptismal vows involve commitment to arriving at the fullness of the stature of Christ (which, I don’t know about yours – but mine sure do!), then why would we placate ourselves with barely moving beyond conversion?  Have I been gathering to worship God in the company of His faithful people for thirty years, or have I only gathered with them once – and been doing it every Sunday for the last thirty years?  Yet how many of us content ourselves with the idea that Sunday worship refills us spiritually for what has been drained over the past week?  When the means for maintaining a dentist-clean at home are available, why would I let my teeth rot the entire time between dental visits?  Similarly, when the means for growing in love and grace with God and humanity is available, why would I expect to simply maintain the level I am at through such infrequent worship as once a week?  Even occasionally supplemented by a weekend retreat that “boosts” the level of status quo, why would I be content with this?

My point is this: we all know that spiritual formation is a long, gruelling work that is not likely to be completed in this life (though the Wesley’s believed it could, and the witness to some of the Orthodox hesychasts is that it was); we also know that spiritual formation is not something that we’re particularly good at (tell me otherwise, and you stand self-condemned).  Why, then, would we put off for tomorrow what we could do today?  Why would we hesitate to push forward towards the fullness of the realization of God’s grace and the Spirit’s fruit and gifts in our lives?  Love of the world?  Love of reputation?

At the time of writing this, I have been contemplating a move from four to seven daily offices.  We must move as the Lord grants us grace to move – otherwise discipline, because in our own strength, can be destructive.  What difference has the move to four offices, from two, made for me?  I find my days are structured in a more fruitful way, to encourage the development of faithful (and faith-filled!) trust in God.  Morning and Evening are rather ambiguous.  They are am and pm.  Those are twelve hour blocks each day.  But when broken by Mid-day, and expectant of Compline, and attempting to keep them at some kind of equidistant time-spread from each other – these four provide necessary structure that keeps my heart ever-near to His.  These four create the contextual space in which I abide in Him, and He in me.  And Sunday worship doesn’t refill what has been depleted throughout the week – every time dedicated to prayer is a time of growth.  Subtle growth.  And that’s enough.