Thinking about the hours of prayer in the 21st century

‘Orans’ figure, Catacombs of Santa Priscilla. 3rd/4th c.

Prayer, I think, is the heart of the spiritual life. A certain breed of fellow Protestant may protest that fact, but I cannot help but think on the myriads of illiterate Christians in history and the world today whose only access to Scripture was/is in preaching, hearing others read, or looking at pictures. But any illiterate person can pray.

Moreover, I cannot help but think of the literate Christians who seem to know the facts about the Bible and have read the Bible but seem also to have little charity and grace in their dealings with others.

Third, and last, to get the most out of Scripture, before any of our methodologies or study guides, we need prayer.

So, of the two disciplines all evangelical children are encouraged to undertake — read your Bible, pray every day — prayer is at the heart of the spiritual person’s life. Of course, this probably makes too strong a distinction, for Scripture informs prayer, and prayer will lead the literate Christian to pick up a Bible and read it prayerfully, and (hopefully) better.

Anyway, although prayer is at the heart of the spiritual life, many of us seem to have trouble praying. Either we don’t make the time, which signals that we don’t really, truly believe it is worth the time (whatever our conscious minds tell us), or we have trouble going through with prayer when time is made. Our minds wander. Our lips are there, but our hearts aren’t in it. We race through our prayers (whether extemporaneous or written). We find ourselves saying the same things over and over and wonder if there isn’t more to it than this.

If God’s a person, then shouldn’t prayer be a conversation?

There are many ways to revitalise our prayer lives, as discovered through the ages of Christian belief and practice. Some are directly encouraged by Scripture, others come from the tradition, others are recommended by the experiences of particular Christians.

One that seems to arise in the tradition itself, and not amongst the monks, is praying at certain times of the day. I’ve noted it in relation to The Apostolic Tradition recently, as well as in relation to St Benedict, and as a general point of discussion, amidst other posts on the topic.

When I think about my own spiritual flabbiness in contrast to my high spiritual ideals, I wonder how this might apply to me. I used to own a copy of Benedictine Daily Prayer, but when we moved from England back to Canada, it was among many books left behind to lighten the load. I left it behind because I could never actually organise my day to pray most offices, so it was mostly dead weight or, to use an image of St John of the Cross, it was a symptom of spiritual gluttony.

In fact, since my first son was born, I have not really got into an ongoing, steady groove of devotion, including the Prayer Book office (once the heart of my daily prayer).

I think that many of us are spiritually flabby, and I also think that most of us do not have spiritual fathers like Archimandrite Sophrony to help us grow up, nor even spiritual friends like St Aelred of Rievaulx to encourage us to good deeds. Without guides, or in a world where our guides are books and blogs, how can we work our way to spiritual strength and fortitude?

Is it wimpy to suggest starting small?

The idea is to take the seven canonical hours and use them, but not to use the set liturgies. Or at least, not all of them. Take your phone or calendar on your computer and set reminders at the hours throughout the day. And then determine what sort of prayer will take up the different hours.

An example might be:

  • On waking: Thank God for day and commend it into His hands before getting out of bed.
  • Third hour (9 AM-ish): Arrow prayer (e.g.g. ‘O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me’; ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). Most people start work at 9 AM, so that may be all there is time for. Is there a better way to start work?
  • Sixth hour (Noon): 10-20 minutes of Jesus Prayer during lunch break (I think Dallas Willard would recommend a similar practice with the Lord’s Prayer). Or prayerful meditation on the Cross and its meaning since that is when Jesus died for us.
  • Ninth hour (3 PM-ish): The Lord’s Prayer.
  • Evening Prayer: Evening Prayer (take your pick: BCP, Celebrating Common Prayer, Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, Orthodox Daily Prayer)
  • Prayers before bed: Maybe Compline? Or time for prayer with spouse.
  • Middle-of-the-night prayers: Arrow prayer on the way to the bathroom to pee. Or more extended prayer if you’re involved in caring for an infant.

My two main thoughts are:

  1. Make sure there is a time for longer, undistracted prayer.
  2. Make sure the Lord’s Prayer is there.

Structure may not give the oomph! back to prayer life. It may not work miracles. But it will guarantee that we at least pray. And if we do it not because it is a duty or because we think it’s magical, God, Who is faithful, will turn up. Hopefully we’ll notice Him.

“Evil here and evil there” “The burden of them is intolerable”

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

St Anselm, ‘Prayer to St John the Baptist’:

Flee, flee,
you who are of I know not what horrible substance;
flee from yourself; be terribly; afraid of yourself.
But, alas, you cannot flee from yourself,
nor can you look at yourself, because you cannot bear it.
For if you could bear it, without a horror of grief,
you would find your toleration intolerable.
Insofar as you can tolerate yourself
you are like the first sinner,
and thereby you are less tolerable to god,
for to tolerate yourself is not courage,
but the blunt edge of death;
it is not health, it is hardened sin;
it comes not from consolation but from damnation.
I cannot bear the interior horror of my face
without a huge groan in my heart.
So then, I cannot fly from myself,
nor can I look at myself, for I cannot bear myself.

*

But see, it is worse still if I do not look at myself;
for then I am deceived about myself.
O too heavy weight of anguish.
If I look within myself, I cannot bear myself;
if I do not look within myself, I do not know myself.
If I consider myself, what I see terrifies me;
if I do not consider myself, I fall to my damnation.
If I look at myself, it is an intolerable horror;
if I do not look at myself, death is unavoidable.
Evil here, worse there, ill on every side;
but there is too much evil here,
too much that is worse there,
too much ill on every side.
For his very wretched whom his conscience torments,
when he cannot flee from it;
and even more wretched is he
who looks into his own damnation,
when he is not able to avoid it;
very unhappy is he who is horrible in his own eyes;
and more unhappy still will he be
when he undergoes eternal death.
Very wretched is he who is continually afraid
of the filthy horror of himself;
but more wretched still will he be
whom anguish will torture eternally because of his sins.
Evil here, and evil there;
too much here, and too much there.

-Trans. Sister Benedicta Ward, The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, pp. 130-131

The Book of Common Prayer 1662:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Family Traditions

Today we dedicated our youngest son at church (our current church is not Anglican, and they don’t baptise infants). For the event, he was decked out in style. 1890s style:

This is the same gown that his brother was baptised in. And three of his cousins. And me and my siblings. And some cousins. And my dad and his generation. And my granny. And my granny’s granny. I forget if it goes back farther. It is a real-live family heirloom.

It is tradition.

This is probably the most-used such item.

My dad has my great-great-grandfather’s cope, and my great-grandfather’s hymn book, though. He also had some of my great-grandfather’s stoles, but they were getting worn out. My sister and I played our grandpa’s clarinet. My wife and I have been putting our sons in as many vintage outfits as possible, for example.

When I was confirmed, my Granddad gave me, as to his other grandchildren, a Book of Common Prayer, inscribed by him in calligraphy.

This prayer book and the gown represent important family traditions — not merely items, but objects connected to my family’s history of faith, our tradition of faith.

My sons have been baptised and dedicated in the same gown as myself and ten or eleven other relatives. This means that my wife and I have stood in public before our church and dedicated ourselves to God, vowing to raise our sons in the church, to teach them the ways of Christ, and to help bring them into the community of faith, to help them encounter the Triune God.

This means praying with them, taking them to church, reading the Bible with them. I am not sure what else, besides living our own lives of faithfulness. How do you help a small person encounter the immanent, transcendent God?

In doing this, we are part of a great family tradition, as my parents passed the faith on to me and my siblings, and their parents to them, and the generation before — back to before the Victorians stitched that baptismal gown.

The best of family traditions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Herbert, The Holy Scriptures

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

THE HOLY SCRIPTURES

PART I.

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

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

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

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

PART II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modifying ancient liturgies

Sherborne Missal, 15th-c British liturgical book

I must confess out front that I am no great friend of liturgical innovation. I realise that much of what we do at Christian gatherings was, at some point, an innovation, such as using a language other than Greek (be it Latin or English or any modern vernacular), or singing hymns, or using an organ, or stained glass windows, etc. Nevertheless, I am not generally interested in the creation of wholly new liturgical developments that do not interact with or grow from the existing traditions.

Indeed, one of the great things about the BCP is the fact that most of it is simply an Englishing of Sarum with a few new prayers, and some collects and other prayers translated from other sources. It is a completely traditional innovation in liturgy. It was an attempt to keep in step with both tradition and scripture, being catholic and reforming.

I can also see circumstances for the creation of new orders of worship, of new prayers, as well as adaptations of old ones.

For example, I recently spoke warmly of my church’s use of the ancient Liturgy of St James on the apostle’s feast day.

What I did not say is that we did not use said liturgy precisely as it exists in the editions, translations, and manuscripts.

Why?

Well, first of all, the Liturgy of St James takes around three hours. In the economy (oikonomia) of church life, not every congregation can handle that. My church is a diverse group, not all of whom are yet comfortable with any liturgy, let alone three hours of it. Most lack the stamina for these ancient services. So our priest cut it to an hour and a half, mostly by cutting repetitions.

He also made necessary changes because the rubrics require the presence of quite a few clergy, and all we’ve got are a priest and a deacon (so we’re better off than many other congregations!).

A third set of changes was a modification of the wording because a great many people in our congregation are ESL, often from East Asia but also some Europeans. This was a way to make using this ancient form of worship accessible to them.

A fourth set (I imagine) was the cutting of aspects of the text as we have it that would be simply unacceptable to those of evangelical background who attend our church. This I am not sure of, because I’ve never read the entirety of the text. But, given that some invocations of saints slipped through, I bet others were cut. Now, our priest is himself edging ever higher, but in the oikonomia of parish life, clergy have to tread carefully.

These strike me as four acceptable reasons to tinker with an ancient liturgy, for their main purpose is, while maintaining the heart and core of the worship as laid out, to make it more accessible to the congregation at hand. I think this is the sort of thing that must be done carefully and prayerfully, mind you. We live now over fifty years after Vatican II, and all the liturgical churches of the West have suffered through their share of poorly-executed liturgical experiments done, one hopes, with the best of intentions.

But if we tinker and prod and sometimes shorten the ancient texts with care and reverence, doing so as a means of opening them up to others — surely this is no bad thing?

Mysticism and Eucharist (some Pseudo-Dionysius)

Ages ago, when I was an undergrad, I was thinking about mysticism and the idea of union with God being the goal of mystical activity. And then I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t that make Holy Communion the most mystical act of all?’ After all, whether you bring Aristotle into it or not, Holy Communion is an encounter with and union with Christ. This is, in fact, the explicit teaching of the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles, so I’ve not turned Papist just yet.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (ca 500), The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy confirms this idea (emphasis mine):

…it scarcely ever happens that any Hierarchical initiation is celebrated without the most Divine Eucharist, at the head of the rites celebrated in each, Divinely accomplishing the collecting of the person initiated to the One, and completing his communion with God by the Divinely transmitted gift of the perfecting mysteries. (ch. 3, trans. J Parker)

What matters here is not the initiation but the Eucharist — where the person who partakes is collected to ‘the One’. ‘The One’ is part of the Dionysian vocabulary for God, for unity and simplicity are two of the things he most associates with the Divine. Our union with God, then, is the goal of much in Pseudo-Dionysius.

Later he writes:

For the Blessedness, supremely Divine above all, although through Divine goodness it goes forth to the communion of those who participate in itself, yet it never goes outside its essential unmoved position and steadfastness.

Further, it gives to all, according to their capacity, its Godlike illuminations; always self-centred, and in no wise moved from its own proper identity. In the same manner the Divine initiation of the Synaxis [service of Holy Communion], although it has an unique and simple and enfolded origin, is multiplied, out of love towards man, into the holy variety of the symbols, and travels through the whole range of Divine imagery; yet uniformly it is again collected from these into its own proper Oneness, and unifies those who are being reverently conducted towards it. (ch. 3.3)

Here, Pseudo-Dionysius is doing at least two things. First, he is guarding the simplicity of the Godhead — don’t forget his apophaticism! Nothing can change God, not our union with Him, not His movement out to us. He is eternally Himself. I cannot help but think of Exodus: ‘I am that I am.’

Second, by participating in the Eucharist, we are participating in God, being united to Him, and being unified to one another.

I am still working through this treatise — there is likely more of relevance to come! Nonetheless, this is more than enough to mull over the next time you partake of the most holy mysteries of the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, that oblation once offered, a full and perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. (If I misquoted the BCP, forgive me; it was by memory.)