Ancient and Early Mediaeval Prayer – 1: An Invitation

La Sainte Chappelle, Paris
La Sainte Chappelle, Paris

A couple I know is involved in an exciting new church plant in Thunder Bay called ‘Urban Abbey‘, associated with the Anglican Mission in Canada but on friendly terms with local Baptists (from whom they gained their building) and such. One aspect of their mission that excites me is the Tower of Prayer. As I have been given to understand, this space will be open for anyone, any time to come in and pray. Not only that, but they will pray at the six hours of prayer throughout the day:

Prime at 6am: Greet the Day in Jesus’ name

Terce at 9am: Psalm Reading

Sext at noon: Pray for our World

None at 3pm: Pray for the Church locally – in Thunder Bay

Vespers at 6pm: Pray for Thunder Bay

Compline at 9pm: Prepare to Sleep in the arms of God.

For those uninitiated into the world of liturgical prayer, they have a one-page document, ‘Preparing for and Participating in Liturgy.’ Finally, they have available ‘A Week of Complines‘ to download.

This liturgical aspect of a missional church interests and excites me for more than the obvious reasons. I think that prayer must be at the centre of our lives as individuals as well as churches. If we want to see transformation occur in our own hearts as well as in the communities around us, we need to encounter the living God. The witness of Scripture and Christian history tells us that this happens when we set aside time for prayer and worship.

Indeed, Baptist preacher John Piper even notes that worship is our true end; mission exists because worship does not.

This is our chief activity.

I would have been really excited to hear about this venture and mission on behalf of Christ’s church — and in my old stompin’ grounds (well, almost — Port Arthur isn’t quite the same as Fort William) — regardless of anything else. I’m doubly pleased that a friend from high school and her husband (who is fast becoming a friend) are involved in this disciple-making movement of prayer in the broken heart of Thunder Bay.

And I’m humbled that I have been approached to assist with the liturgical angle of this moment of Our Lord’s mission on earth.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The request mentions that they are interested in using ancient/classical forms of prayer (the obvious reason why Urban Abbey interests me), and says:

Anyways, I was interested if you would ever be interested in sharing/creating some liturgies ( I know you don’t just “create” them, but I hope you get what I mean) that you feel would be meaningful/important.

Of course, I directed Scot to this blog, specifically to the liturgies you can see off to your right under ‘Classic Christian Texts.’

I’ve been mulling over this for the past couple of weeks — probably too much, but that’s just the way I am.

It’s true that one doesn’t just ‘create’ liturgies.

For example, I once led a study of a portion of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses that dealt with perfection — since Divine perfection is endless, then our own perfection will be endless too. This is the selection in Richard Foster’s book Devotional Classics. For prayers at the start of that evening, I took some of the prayers from the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great and modified them a little, making portions antiphonal and giving the selection a beginning and an end — these were prayers for perfection. Obviously, they were out of context. But it was a way to truly pray (one does not pray ancient prayers for novelty) but also to connect with the world of the Cappadocians more thoroughly than a merely intellectual study would or could.

The creation of ‘occasional’ liturgies such as that is a matter of looking at the needs of that community and that moment, and then looking at the resources — the rich and beautiful resources — available to us in the centuries of prayers that Christians have offered up to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I do not think I would ever truly create a Eucharistic liturgy, although once I put together something based upon research into first-century worship and St Hippolytus, but that was basically just the Anaphora/Canon of the Mass. I don’t know if it’s something I would use again, though. (Yes, we had a real priest in Apostolic Succession consecrate the elements that night.)

As a Latinist, I have an advantage over a great many other people in this regard. While some of our earliest Greek liturgical texts, such as St Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, have been Englished, most early Latin liturgical texts remain untranslated. I can thus more easily tap into the wellspring of ancient and early mediaeval prayer than those unschooled in the Latin tongue.

I think I will prayerfully read through these ancient and early mediaeval prayers and prepare some texts for my friends. They are the same sources that Thomas Cranmer used in the 1500s as well as some new ones that have come to light. They express beautiful truths that all Christians can stand behind. So I will see if we can make them live again today in Urban Abbey’s Tower of Prayer in Thunder Bay.

In my next post I’ll go into some actual thoughts on Christian prayer in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

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Too Awesome Not to Share

The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.

Liturgical Translations

Tonight I began translating the Gelasian Sacramentary (a digitised version is here). Given that a. my current research is into sixth-century Greek & Syriac saints’ lives and b. my future research is into fifth-century papal correspondence, this project will take a while.

Nevertheless, I believe a translation of this sacramentary is a worthwhile and important object — and not only of this sacramentary but of the Leonine and Gregorian Sacramentaries as well. Why?

I’ve been thinking about the (New) Liturgical Movement — the move for modern liturgies that began in the 1960’s and has given us the Book of Alternative Services (BAS) for the Anglican Church of Canada, the Alternate Service Book and Common Worship for the Church of England, the Novus Ordo for Roman Catholics, similar liturgies for Lutherans (Book of Worship?), a host of prayer resources such as Celtic Daily Prayer or Celebrating Common Prayer, and a proliferation of liturgies for special occasions or individuals at the local church or small group level. And the Taizé office and music.

All of this is well and good, although sometimes I have my reservations about particular moments in the Liturgical Movement. One of the reservations I have is that sometimes the Liturgical Movement, like the evangelical equivalent of Contemporary Worship, does not drink deeply enough.

Edith M. Humphrey, before she became Eastern Orthodox, recommended that writers of new songs of worship begin by drawing on the Psalms. I would echo that, calling them also to immerse themselves in the old hymns both musically and textually for a while.

For the liturgists, an immersion in the Psalms would be helpful. Also helpful would be the vast resources of the ancient and mediaeval church. For the liturgical reformers of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, this was a real possibility. Men like Quignon, Luther, Cranmer, and the editors of the 1570 Roman Missal, all knew Latin and probably Greek as well.

This meant that as they sought to reform the liturgy, they had access to centuries of liturgical writing, and we can see that Cranmer certainly put this to good use in his famous Collects that draw heavily upon the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries and his daily office includes a prayer from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (which, incidentally, is also present in that of St. Basil the Great).

Today’s liturgists, be they clergy or worship leaders or diocesan committees or church-wide committees often lack this knowledge of obsolete languages. Thus, it is harder for them to drink deeply as did their forebears. One result is collects that aren’t even properly collects, for example (as lamented somewhere on Liturgy).

Accessible translations of ancient and mediaeval liturgical texts is a worthy endeavour. As you can see, I have already done some of this with the Mediaeval Wedding and the Mediaeval Vespers (both Sarum Use). More needs to be done, for although the Sarum Missal has been translated into English (here for the Mass, here for the book on Amazon), the Sarum Breviary has not (at least, not in its entirety).

I believe that translations of liturgical texts from the long and venerable tradition of western liturgy would be a blessing to the Liturgical Movement. What do you think?

The Interconnected Nature of the Patristic World

My musings upon the impact of the Desert Fathers are a reminder that the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity is a very connected place, and thus patristic writers and thinkers do not operate in vacuums.  There is, indeed, a fundamental interconnectedness of all things (to quote Dirk Gently as well as recall Robert E Webber, Ancient-Future Faith).

The ascetic world produces some of the interconnectedness, as seen in yesterday’s post.  St. Athanasius and the Desert Fathers knew one another.  He was not only the biographer of St. Antony, but a great theologian who lived with the abbas and ammas whilst in exile.  Evagrius Ponticus came to the Desert from the court in Constantinople.  He brought with him the teachings of Origen, and although he had to learn humility, there is no doubt that Origen and other non-monastic teachers had an impact upon the thoughts and lives of the abbas and ammas.

St. Basil the Great spent time with the monks of Egypt, after which he decided that coenobitic (or cenobitic) monasticism was the way forward, for how can you love your neighbour or be the servant of all if you live alone?  Thus he wrote his Asketikon which influences Eastern Orthodox monasticism today.  He was also a brilliant theologian, whose work On the Holy Spirit I have blogged about here.  The relationship between Egyptian monasticism and St. Basil’s ascetic writings is worth exploring.

St. Basil wrote/edited a/the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic liturgy in Caesarea, Cappadocia.  This work resounds with words, images, and ideas found in the later and more commonly used Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople.  Both of them demonstrate that they are of the same lineage as the 1st-century Didache and second-century Apostolic Constitutions of St. Hippolytus in Rome.  They are also clearly related to the liturgy of St. Gregory of the Great in the sixth century.

The liturgical world of worship was very much rooted in the same tradition, as we see in Taft’s work The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West where we see the daily office’s similarities in the Spanish, Celtic, and Roman traditions of the West, as well as of the Byzantine, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Assyrian, Indian traditions of the East.  There is a common ancestry amongst all the historic churches of the world, and we see it in the fundamental interconnectedness of their worship.

It is present as well in the world of theology, although cultural and linguistic differences begin fraying the fabric of the Church Catholic by the fifth century at latest.  St. Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity does not differ from the Cappadocians‘.  The doctrine of impassibility — troubling to moderns — was held by so many so strongly that St. Cyril of Alexandria had to defend himself from accusations surrounding the alleged heresy of “theopaschism,” the idea that God can suffer.

The core of the faith, the rule of faith, is subscribed to by Justin, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and all the Fathers after Nicaea.  There is one faith, one hope, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

I’m running out of specifics from my mind itself; I’ll write more on this later when I have my notes on hand.  Keep a lookout!  The tag will be interconnectedness.