Ancient and Early Medieval Prayer – 3: Sources

King David, Vespasian Psalter fol. 30v (British Library, Cotton Vespasian A I; 8th-century)
King David, Vespasian Psalter fol. 30v (British Library, Cotton Vespasian A I; 8th-century)

If one wishes to pray using the old words, the words of the ancient and early mediaeval Christians, where does one go? What are our sources for the prayers and prayer lives of these early Christians and their communities? These are good questions, and I will briefly outline them here. I am currently preparing a list of online prayer resources, so stay tuned!

The period I like to draw upon runs up to the 800s and 900s. Now, I suppose those who wanted the very earliest would want to stop sooner than that, say, at the close of the Patristic period. While that would be an idealised vision of how to seek out early Christian prayers, it is impractical for several reasons. First, the liturgical prayers of early Latin Christianity are sparse before the Carolingians (740s-880s). Second, while we can find structures for the daily round of prayer from the ancient Church (which are very helpful), the arrangement of liturgies and composition of prayers is most visible from Late Antiquity onward, especially the Daily/Divine Office (or ‘Liturgy of the Hours’). Finally, this stopping point is quite arbitrary, as the rich resources of the Central/High Middle Ages are worth examining as well, and I admit it.

Nonetheless, we need the Early Middle Ages to be able to touch Late Antiquity.

So what are the sources for ancient and early mediaeval liturgy?

We begin in the East. Basically, Eastern Christianity is divided into interrelated liturgical families that follow their ecclesiastical divisions. For us Chalcedonians, the most important from the East is what Roman Catholic scholars call the Byzantine rite, descended from Antioch, and including the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and that of St Basil the Great.

This is the liturgical heritage of Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholics (Ukrainian Catholics, Greek Catholics, etc.). Its Divine Office is very closely tied up with monastic spirituality, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Amongst its ancient and early mediaeval heritage (a great treasure-house!) we find the hymns of Ephraim the Syrian, the Octoechos, the hymns of Romanos the Melodist, the hymns and Great Penitential Canon St Andrew of Crete. Sources chrétiennes has published a ninth-century book of hours from St Catherine’s in Sinai (for those who know Greek and French!).

Greek liturgy also includes the early third-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus that provides us with liturgies for baptism and Holy Eucharist (baptismal regulations are also present in the Didache). The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America provides us with liturgical texts for daily prayer, some of which are ancient and early Byzantine as well. The living tradition of Orthodox liturgy is replete with ancient and Early Byzantine prayers.

In the West, our ancient and early mediaeval prayers come to us in a few forms. For collects and other prayers for use in the Eucharist, keyed to the church year, we have three main sacramentaries, each named after a pope although none of them definitively by its eponymous pope: the Leonine Sacramentary (c. 600), the Gelasian Sacramentary (two versions, one mid-600s and one post-750), and the Gregorian Sacramentary (most popular form from Charlemagne’s time, c. 800). We also have the Bobbio Missal, a seventh-century mass-book of Gallic type from northern Italy. These are great sources for beautiful prayers, and we know Cranmer used the Gelasian in preparing the Book of Common Prayer.

Beyond the Eucharist (which is what most secondary sources on liturgy discuss, except [of course] Robert Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West), we have access to the hymns of St Ambrose, Prudentius, Venantius Fortunatus as well as various prayers from the likes of St Columba of Iona and scattered amidst the writings of the various Latin Fathers. When the western Divine Office starts appearing in monastic breviaries and lay books of hours in the High and Late Middle Ages, the shape of the Office and the content of much of the prayers drew upon this early period.

In fact, in researching this post I became aware of several sources/areas for the Office in the Early Middle Ages. For example, one of our earliest office books the Antiphoner of Compiègne, from the 870s; images of the manuscript itself are online.  Elsewhere is a book whose title I’d seen but not apprehended, the Antiphoner of Bangor (mid-600s?). From 1079 in Ireland comes the Psalter of Ricemarch – many office books of the Early Middle Ages were Psalters with extra prayers added, to be used according to the custom of the Rule of St Benedict or one’s local monastery. The monastery of Sankt Gall was also a source for liturgical production (e.g. the lovely Alleluyatic sequence, ‘Cantemus cuncti melodum’, is attributed to Notker the Stammerer). Two sources from the early 1000s worth mentioning are Aelfwine’s prayer book (c. 1025), recently edited by Beate Güzel for the Henry Bradshaw Society in 2009 and The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, available as a Penguin Classic!

The sources are many, but for the West the earliest liturgical books exist only in Latin; I’ll put something together for them like I did for medieval mystics. If you do get to access these, you will enjoy rich treasures from the storehouse of our forebears in the faith. I promise.

Before I leave the topic, modern books of translated prayers from early mediaeval insular Christianity (‘Celtic’ and Anglo-Saxon) abound. Some of these prayers are genuine, some are not; of those that are not, some are better than others. These prayers have proven very popular of late in the generation of new liturgies, though. I’d like to see what modern liturgists could do if they had available the riches of the earliest sacramentaries, missals, hymnaries, and office books!

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Protestant — but not Calvinist

¡Viva la Reformación! (credit: E Martin)

This week, for a course I’m taking, I had the opportunity to hunker down and read some confessional documents.  First I read The Augsburg Confession and the Catholic response, the Confutatio Pontificia, and then the more recent Joint Declaration on Justification.  I also read chh. 12 & 18 of Althaus’ The Theology of Martin Luther.

You may have noticed that sometimes I tag posts with “i might end up eastern orthodox at this rate”.  I think I may have used it only twice, but I could have used it more frequently.  Anyway, this feeling was increasing over Christmastide, not only with a lot of reading of St. Leo and a couple of trips to St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church, but also because of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book, At the Corner of East and Now.  I admit there is something compelling in Eastern Orthodoxy.

But then I read Augsburg and Althaus’ discussion of Luther’s theology.  And I realised that I am still a Protestant, for I found Luther’s explanation of Justification by Faith entirely reasonable and compelling, remaining faithful to Scripture whilst setting forth its doctrine with reason.  It holds in tension simul justus et peccator and faith-works and law-gospel — all of these things that, beautiful as so many Orthodox descriptions of the Christian life are, make the most sense to me and give me the greatest spiritual comfort of all explanations.

We are all bound by our understanding of Scripture.

Tonight, for the same course, I finished reading the Second Helvetic Confession.  I am clearly not a Calvinist.  Certainly not of this Confession’s ilk.  This is not just the predestination issue.  It is the overbearing, heavy-handed reliance upon public preaching of the Gospel.  As though this and the rational world of the mind were all that true piety consisted of — thus, even if the confession didn’t consider images in holy spaces as idols, it would still oppose them on grounds of their needlessness.  People don’t need pictures if they can hear the Word of God preached to them (so says this confession).

This Confession also shows many Protestant weaknesses.  It gives a fairly decent account of Eucharist when discussing it directly, but sidelines it the entire time whilst always talking about preaching.  Indeed, the Eucharist seems at one point to be best understood as basically a sermon that you eat.

It seems to support a presbyterian church order over all and rejects the Daily Office out of hand, making claims about the order of the church as handed down from the Apostles — but makes the claim that the Apostles celebrated together on the Lord’s Day!  This is a practice that has evidence for it of the same antiquity as the episcopacy and the Daily Office — evidence not clearly shown forth in the apostolic writings.  What has happened has that the Church, seeking to submit itself to nothing other than Sacred Scripture has become not only the judge of tradition but, at times, even of Scripture herself (see the bit where James is subordinated to Paul to the extent that they would be willing to jettison him from the canon if he disagreed with “the Apostle”).

Some of Helvetic II mirrored the 39 Articles.  But much did not.  So if I must turn anywhere in the Reformation, it is not to Calvin, whose followers haughtily claim that he finished what Luther began, but to Luther and the Book of Common Prayer.  No matter how hard I try, I always come up Anglican.

Tap into the Tradition: The Remedy for “Matthewism”

As may be known, I have a habit of listening to Ancient Faith Radio and reading Eastern Orthodox books (the most recent being Being As Communion).  The Eastern Orthodox are a voice worth listening to, and one of the main reasons they are worth listening to is because they, in turn, listen to the Fathers.  They are, thus, deeply traditional, preserving that which has been handed down to them.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of the many Orthodox converts on Ancient Faith Radio, says:

I realized that my selections [in my spiritual life] were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices, and blind spots. I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than five foot one. (Quoted here.)

This is the Christianised version of the religion cited by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace of “Sheilaism” — whatever you feel like believing, however you feel like worshipping, however you feel like living is what comprises your worldview, religion, and lifestyle.

What Mathewes-Green discovered in Orthodoxy was the corrective of tradition.  We all have our idiosyncrasies that we bring to how we think and live, and as Christians we have them when we approach Scripture and worship.  Tradition is the accumulation of what has been handed down from the Apostles and generally approved of in each generation.  It challenges our presuppositions and idiosyncrasies, sometimes very uncomfortably, but when entered into prayerfully, the Spirit will use it to conform us more and more into the image of Christ rather than the accumulation of stuff and culture and self that we bring with us to begin with.

I decided that, while Orthodoxy is interesting and all, I already have a tradition of my own, and it sprang up in England around 596 with the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury.  To ensure that I actually am part of this tradition, I recently re-read the 39 Articles of Religion, and I find myself in agreement with them.  So, besides reading the 39 Articles, what am I to do to engage with the Anglican tradition in all its richness?

1.  I have decided to plug into the Book of Common Prayer more frequently, using Morning & Evening Prayer and Compline, but also on occasion the Anglican Society of Saint Francis’ Celebrating Common Prayer for the divine office.  The daily office is an important part of traditional English spirituality.  It is a way to pray to and draw near to God while at the same time joining with believers within the tradition throughout the world and throughout time.

2.  I want to read the classics of the Anglican moral/ethical tradition.  This will first mean finishing off William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but moving on to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  This aspect of the tradition includes both virtuous living and the call to social justice, both of which are part of the endless movement towards holiness and perfection (on this endless movement, see St. Gregory of Nyssa).

3.  The Anglican tradition also includes the English Reformers, so the Book of Homilies and Richard Hooker at large are to be part of my long-range plan, as is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

4.  The Anglican tradition has a large component of hymnody worth exploring, and since I have 3 copies of Canada’s 1938 Hymn Book, I am well-prepared for this angle.  Alongside hymnody are the poets — Donne, Herbert, et al.

5. The pre-Reformation English tradition, from St. Augustine of Canterbury to the Venerable Bede to St. Anselm to Lady Julian of Norwich and more is part of the tradition as well.  I think a study of the mediaeval roots of “Reformation” thought would be a worthy activity.  Despite the arguments over the date of Easter and monasticism, mediaeval English Christianity tried to adapt local Celtic customs as part of their own, thus making “Celtic” Christianity also fair game.

6.  Patristics is fair game, being the root of much mediaeval Christian thought as well as much Reformation thought.  The Fathers are the Fathers of all Christendom, not just the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bits.

7.  The theologians other than the Reformers, up to the present day.  The emphasis on Tradition means that, while I should probably grapple with the likes of Spong, Ingham, and more, my emphasis should fall on the Wesleys, the Anglo-Catholics/Oxford Movement, C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and their ilk.

The above should probably last me until I’m dead.  Re those within Anglicanism who are divergent voices of dissent who attack and judge the tradition, I believe that the way to approach them is to look at them through the lens of the tradition, taking those bits that fall beyond the bounds of Scripture, the Creeds, and the 39 Articles, and providing cogent, reasonable, biblical, and traditional critique.

What about your tradition?  What are the roots and classic writings of Baptists, Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism?  With these in one hand, the Bible in the other, large doses of prayer, and the enlivening of the Holy Spirit, we should be more clearly drawn towards the image of the likeness of Christ than when our own idiosyncrasies take control as we read our Bibles all alone in our rooms.  Oh, also, take along a worshipping ecclesial community for the journey.  God will use them to shape you mightily as well.

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.