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)


Christ Pantokrator, Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens

The little chapel was lit only by ambient light from the sides, the chandelier from the ceiling turned off — this, of course, augmented by the lights on Fr. Raphael’s lectern and the glowing candles in the lamps before the iconostasis and those lit by the faithful before the icons near the door.

Icons hung on the four walls of the room as well as on the iconostasis, although not completely covering this piece of ecclesiastical furniture which was made from simple timbers and boards, no fancy carvings in sight.  Although the chapel had no dome (I believe Fr. John lives upstairs), a circular icon of Christ Pantokrator was mounted to the ceiling above the nave.

When the curtain in the iconostasis opened, I could see the Holy Table* with an ornate cross with two other ornate objects flanking it; they reminded me of monstrances, but I knew they couldn’t be since Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a western phenomenon associated with the 13th-century feast of Corpus Christi.

Fr. Raphael stood at his lectern in the back left corner of the chapel and chanted and sang Vespers.  There were Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, Kyries, and many others.  Amidst these beautiful hymns and chants were hymns for St. Ambrose of Milan whose feast was the next day.  These were beautiful and complex, verse homilies in miniature, teaching us of the life and teachings of St. Ambrose, praying that our faith might mirror his.

My Sundays of worship at Evensong at St. Alban’s in Ottawa as well as the many nights I have prayed Compline alone gladdened my heart when Fr. Raphael sang the Nunc Dimittis.  I mouthed the words silently along with him.

Every once in a while, I would see Fr. John behind the iconostasis, standing before the Holy Table, bowing, praying, and chanting a few portions of the order for Vespers himself.  At one point, Fr. John censed the Holy Table and then proceed out from behind the iconostasis with the censer.  He censed the doors, the icons of the day posted near the doors, Theodore, me, and Fr. Raphael, before proceeding back to his position behind the iconostasis.

Theodore, a young Romanian student of electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and I were the only two congregants for most of Vespers last night.  We stood at the back, crossing ourselves at the right moments and lifting up our hearts to God.  Using skills developed at Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic services, I kept half an eye on Fr. Raphael to know when to cross myself.  I tried to listen to the words of the service, but sometimes, especially when the chanting became singing, I got caught up in the melody and lost track of the words.

I prayed the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) many times over.  My charismatic upbringing also manifested itself in the quiet praying in tongues through the movement of the Holy Spirit in that quiet, holy space.  At times, my mind wandered as I stood there, thinking about Eastern Orthodoxy, liturgy, and worship, as well as St. Ambrose.  Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the fact that my back was hurting.

I sat down.  Theodore had already done so, so I didn’t feel bad about it.

Within about a minute of having sat down, Fr. Raphael called me over to his four-platformed spinning lectern to read.

I read the Trisagion, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer to St. Ambrose, and a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I may have prayed something else, but those are the prayers that stand out in my mind.  Fortunately, I know enough of Orthodox liturgy to have been able to pray the Glory Be without printed words properly.

After this beautiful service, we retired to the church hall for tea and cake.  I met Theodore and Dimitri, and had a conversation with Fr. Raphael about Pope St. Leo the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria.  Then, as it was about 8:15 and I hadn’t had supper, I went home.

I’m glad I stopped in at the Orthodox Community of St. Andrew the Apostle.  The Lord blessed me through that visit, and I worshipped him in spirit and in truth.

*If I recall Fr. Alexander Schmemann properly, the entire space involved in the iconostasis is the altar.  Not knowing the Orthodox word, I give you the Anglican.

Asceticism: Day 3

Thoughts during Day 3 of the Ascetic Revival:

1.  I’m not a true ascetic like St. Francis or St. Antony.  If I were, I would sell all of my books save those required for my work and give the money for the poor.  However, we did sell a bunch of books today and are looking to get rid of more.  I would probably also get rid of DVDs, excess clothing, and use the Internet less.

2.  Jonathan wanted to know about Compline.  Jennifer and I pray together before bed.  This covers prayers at lamplight (ie. Compline) and also fulfills Tertullian’s exhortation for married men to pray with their wives before going to bed at night.

3.  Jumping straight into this sort of thing, as Sophia warned, is not necessarily the brightest idea out there.  I’ve been easing myself into this for a few years with various stops and starts at various aspects of the disciplined life.  What I have done now is consolidate these things into a regula.

4.  Robin wisely reminded me of the need for community.  If you want to lead a more disciplined life, spending time with friends and family must be incorporated into the various aspects of askesis.  St. Basil the Great was opposed to hermits because people who live alone cannot fulfill the commands to be the servant of all and love as Jesus loved.  Perhaps, then, we should seek to deepen our relationships with friends and family.  Grow with our Christian brothers and sisters and help those who do not know Christ draw nearer to Him.  I think that a disciplined life helps cultivate an inner person capable of such relationships.

5.  I haven’t ridden my bike yet.  However, I walked for approx. 2 h yesterday and was on my feet for a similar amount again today.

6.  I keep forgetting prayers at midday.  This, no doubt, means I am a glutton.  Gluttony, for those of you unacquainted with John Cassian and the Eight Vices, is often the root of other sins.  If you cut off gluttony, you can deal with your anger and lust more easily.  Gluttony includes eating what you ought not to eat, eating when you shouldn’t, and eating more than you should.  It involves putting food and the belly before the things of God.  Thus — not praying at midday is a form of gluttony.  Not like in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life when the guy gorges himself and projectile vomits, but gluttony nonetheless.

7.  If you don’t practise any of the disciplines, start with prayer and Scripture-reading.  Set aside a time once a day for these, either both at once or two separate times.  Yes, we are to pray everywhere all the time, but, as Richard Foster notes in Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, we have to pray somewhere at some time for this to work.

The Daily Office

There is an ancient Christian practice to pray three times a day, once in the morning (either at rising or at the third hour), at noon, and in the afternoon/evening (ninth hour or before going to bed).  This practice evolved into what Rome now calls “The Liturgy of the Hours,” and is also known as The Divine or Daily Office.  There are now seven “offices” derived from the monasteries and cathedrals of Western Europe.

I have been trying to experiment with praying one Office every day, preferably Morning Prayer but sometimes Evening Prayer or Compline (Night Prayer).  I’d hoped that by now I would be able to write a blog post about having done this for two months and what the effect on my spiritual life has been.

Unfortunately, I keep missing days, and one time I missed almost a week.  Be that as it may, I commend this experiment to you.

First, praying the Office helps ground the day.  Morning Prayer sets the whole day ahead of you in perspective, and Evening Prayer and Compline set the whole day behind you in perspective.  Your thoughts are turned towards God and His will.  If our life with God is meant to be a relationship (as The Shack, The Dark Night of the Soul, JI Packer, Dallas Willard, and — in fact — St. Paul would have us believe), then spending time with Him at key points of our day is a truly grounding reality.

Second, praying the Office means you actually set aside time for prayer.  Prayer is our lifeline to God.  It is conversing with the Almighty.  It is vital to the Christian life to stay grounded with God.  In Prayer, Richard J. Foster points out that we will not pray everywhere at all times until we pray somewhere at some time.

Third, praying the Office usually means praying at least one Psalm.  Suddenly, you are praying with words shared by the whole Communion of Saints from Israel to today.  The Psalms are God’s Prayer Book, the hymnal of Israel.  Praying the Office helps tie the pray-er into a spiritually formative world of prayer.  Most of our predecessors have recommended the Psalms for our use; the Psalms teach us to pray, so we ought to use them in our prayers.

Fourth, praying the Office usually means praying prayers with Christians throughout the ages and around the world today (this is a similar thought as praying the Psalms).

Fifth, the value of liturgical prayer comes in the fact that we are likely to forget things, being caught up in our anxieties and worries half the time.  While anyone can easily rush the Office, those who choose to take their time will benefit most by slowing down and praying prayers for things they may not have prayed for otherwise (such as for the Queen and All in Authority or for the salvation of the world or for the sick or who knows what).  Liturgy slows us down and brings things to our mind that someone external to ourselves thinks ought to be brought before God.  My petty concerns, though no doubt of importance to the Almighty, are not the only concerns out there.  As well, the Office leaves space for extemporaneous prayer if this is a concern for you.

Sixth, if you use the same liturgy or liturgical scheme every day, the scriptural prayers contained in the Office begin to get into your blood, your head, your heart, your soul, your spirit.  You find scriptural truths becoming more a part of who you are, informing how you pray without the liturgy.

If you don’t own a Book of Common Prayer, I recommend you get one.  Or Celebrating Common Prayer.  These are the books with which I pray the Office.  If you’d like to experiment before committing yourself, here are some resources for praying the Divine Office online:

The Prayer Book Society offers the BCP online.

Celebrating Common Prayer, the Anglican Society of St. Francis’ version of the Daily Office, is online here.

The Daily Office Blog provides Morning and Evening Prayer every day based upon the 1979 Episcopal BCP.

The Northumbria Community, a Celtic neo-monastic community, offers their version of the Daily Office online as well.

There are, no doubt, other resources for praying the Daily Office.  I have seen some of them on other websites as I surfed my way through the Internet.  However, these are those which I have actually used and I recommend them.