Struggle: What I learned this Lent

Now that the warm glow of Eastertide is starting fade for most, being a week and a half into the season, I’d like to share with you what I learned this Lent. In short:

I am undisciplined.

If you recall, I decided to set my sights mid-height for Lent 2015 — take on two spiritual disciplines I long to incorporate into my everyday life during Regular Time (you know, when everything at church is green). I wanted to pray morning prayer every day and fast once a week.

Not once did I manage to fast an entire day — some time around lunch I would give in. And then I fell ill, so for the last two weeks of the season I didn’t even skip breakfast. For just over half of Lent I prayed morning prayer. Then the unbearable pressure of feeling like I need to be writing, writing, writing this PhD starting pressing upon me every morning as I breakfasted. I’ve read enough monks to know that this is precisely how the tempters draw us away from prayer — the lure of the ‘important’.

I also wanted to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus (as mentioned here), but found that too difficult to process and apply. The sheer mental energy of my PhD has made spiritual reading a challenge, and sixth/seventh-century monastic texts even more so.

I am undisciplined.

And what is discipline for? It is for making us Christlike, right?

If I can keep Christ in my heart and love those around me as He would, and do so without these two disciplines or reading spiritual books, all the better.

And some days I can.

But most days I can’t.

Then again, not being a monk, I can tailor my daily devotional and discipline needs to my temperament and lifestyle.

So I need to think about what I can handle in the high-stress, time-consuming world of two-and-a-half-months-until-submission(!!!) — and what suits my temperament. Not what I can writer ‘clever’ things about here. Not what everyone else recommends. But what actually helps me and what I can handle without false guilt.

Time to take stock — perhaps you should, too.

The Ascetic Revival Begins Today

funnelbuttMy apologies for not warning you.  Put down that burger!  Lower the Slurpee!  Don’t even think about eating candy!  Flex your knees and get ready to pray!  Turn of the TV!  Rearrange your Internet schedule!

The ascetic revival has begun!  To read about the environmental benefits of asceticism, click here.

I’ve decided to take seriously the books I’ve read about simple living, prayer, and self-denial.*  I’ve read a lot of them.  But reading doesn’t mean learning.  A person could read the entire corpus of ascetic and spiritual literature and conceivably come away unchanged.  Or a person could simply hear the Gospels read once a week and be transformed from the inside out; or, like Abraham, someone could hear the voice of God without having any spiritual instruction or access to Scripture.  Palladius writes:

Words and syllables do not constitute teaching — sometimes those who possess these are disreputable in the extreme — but teaching consists of virtuous acts of conduct, of freedom fro injuriousness, of dauntlessness, and of an even temper.  To all these add an intrepidity which produces words like flames of fire. (The Lausiac History: Letter to Lausus 2, trans. Robert T. Meyer, ACW 34)

Therefore, a simpler life dawns.

I shall pray morning, noon, and evening.  Morning shall follow the daily office and sometimes noon and evening as well.  The flexibility will allow me to spend time using different forms of prayer.

I shall fast once a week.  You won’t know which day, and this isn’t the bragging Christ warns of.  It is, rather, an exhortation that we should all fast at least once a week.  They say it accrues much spiritual benefit.

My eating shall be moderate.  This includes no pop or Slurpees save in time of celebration.  I guess that’s the old rule surrounding wine, but I’m already too cheap to drink wine.  This also includes avoiding overeating and snacks between meals — this latter is practised by monks who follow Augustine’s Rule, such as Dominicans.

I shall spend time in Scripture-reading every day.  This has been a lifelong discipline that every once in a while I fall out of for days, weeks, or months at a time.  By God’s grace, I shall maintain this discipline.

I shall exercise my body.  The Benedictines believe in hard, physical labour.  I am an urban apartment-dwelling middle-class Canadian.  I have no garden, no chickens, no building to maintain or to build.  Therefore, I shall discipline my body through exercise, chiefly through my bicycle and through walking almost everywhere.  I’ll ride my bike three to five times a week.

What else?  Buy no unneeded stuff — books, CDs, DVDs.  Don’t rent when it can be borrowed for free.  Don’t waste time watching it or reading it when there’s a better option.  Spend more time with people in pleasant occupation and company, less time simply entertaining oneself.  Continue weekly attendance at church; possibly add an extra to ensure I receive Eucharist.  Hunt down time for solitude.  Talk with Jennifer about how we might be able to spend time in service to others.

Do you have any ideas how you and I can help start the ascetic revival of the 21st century?  If you think it’s already begun, show us where and how!

*The Lessons of St. Francis by John Michael Talbot; Celebration of DisciplinePrayer, and Devotional Classics by Richard J. Foster; The Inner Experience by Thomas Merton; Flirting with Monasticism by Karen E. Sloan; Finding God: The Way of St. Benedict by Esther de Waal; Ecstasy and Intimacy by Edith Humphrey, and other moderns.  The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius; The Life of St. Benedict by St. Gregory the Great; The Institutes and The Conferences by John Cassian; The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa; The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila (well, most of it); The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross; The Letters of Saint Antony the Great; the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto; The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus; The Rule of St. Augustine and other classics.

Because the Book of Common Prayer is that amazing

Here’s a point scored for Anglicanism.  In The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West,* Robert Taft, SJ (that makes him a Jesuit), writes:

Easily the most important of all sixteenth-century reformed offices is that of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  To its great merit the Anglican communion alone of all Western Christian Churches has preserved to some extent at least the daily services of morning praise and evensong as a living part of parish worship.  As Louis Bouyer said in his Liturgical Piety, . . . morning and evensong in the Book of Common Prayer

. . . is a Divine Office which is not a devotion of specialists but a truly public Office of the whole Christian people . . . we must admit frankly that the Offices of Morning Prayer and of Evensong, as they are performed even today in St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, York Minster, or Canterbury Cathedral, are not only one of the most impressive, but also one of the purest forms of Christian common prayer to be found anywhere in the world.

*Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1986.  Quotation p. 323.

Liturgies

booksforwebI have a strange habit of collecting liturgies.  Right now I’m house-cat-dog-sitting for my parents while they’re out of the country.  For this trip, I brought both the Book of Common Prayer and Celebrating Common Prayer.  Back home in Toronto, I have an older BCP with the text of 1662, the Book of Alternative Services, and The Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom. I used to own the Roman Lauds, Vespers, Compline, but I found that it was just modern translations of things for which I had better, more beautiful translations in the BCP.  I think that is all the books of liturgies I own.*

In a file folder I also have liturgies borrowed and pilfered from various churches and events, including at least one I composed myself.  On this computer, I have a folder called “Medieval Liturgy,” in which you can find “Tridentine Vespers” (a translation of the same cut and pasted from www.breviary.net), “OE Benedictine Office” (containing prefaces for Morning and Evening prayer in Old English from a Benedictine breviary), and “A Mediaeval Vespers” (my personal translation and tweaking of the Sarum Vespers for Tuesdays).  Lying on my desk at home is a liturgical reflection on the Trinity from a mediaeval English prayer book waiting to be taken from Latin into English.

Today I was quite pleased to receive in the mail more liturgies!

Huzzah!

These are those used by an Anglican priest of my acquaintance in Cyprus.  They are “A Service of Scripture and Prayer for Morning and Evening,” “Canticles,” and two different versions of “A Service of Morning Prayer.”  Just before writing this I used “A Service of Scripture and Prayer for Morning and Evening.”  I liked it!  Since I’ve been using the BCP lectionary for my personal Bible readings, I just slipped them in for the lessons!

I like liturgical prayer for various reasons, some of them noted in my post on the Daily Office.  Sometimes I feel a bit bewildered by the array of liturgies available for use these days — for the office, for the Eucharist, for specific occasions, for use by families, for all sorts of reasons, times, and places.  However, there is some comfort in it.  The regularity of the BCP is strong, sustaining, comforting, rooted.

But sometimes . . .

Sometimes, you want new words, and not necessarily your own.  Raised evangelical/charismatic, I’m well-acquainted with extemporaneous prayer.  Sometimes, though, it’s nice to try out new words that aren’t your own.  Words or structures of prayer that you haven’t seen yet.  Or a new version of an old thing.  These arrays of liturgies now pouring out into the world since the liturgical “renewal” of the sixties/seventies can be a blessing to those things.

Nevertheless . . . nevertheless, with all my liturgies, I’m still rooted to and with the BCP with its beautiful Elizabethan language and strong Reformation theology.  Were I stranded on a desert island and could have only two books, one would be my travel-sized NKJV (you need something portable on those desert islands) and the other would be my aged, weatherworn BCP.

*I have other books of prayers, though, such as A St. Francis Prayer Book, and a book of prayers for men, and Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation of The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm.  Plus, of course, the Hymn Book.

(St.) John Cassian: Pt 3, Legacy

More important than the controversy surrounding him is John Cassian’s legacy.  This legacy can be seen in East and West in the history Christian spirituality and monasticism.

In The Institutes, John Cassian presented his adaptation of Evagrius Ponticus’ teaching of the eight thoughts most to be avoided.  Cassian’s eight vices — Gluttony, Fornication, Avarice, Anger, Sadness, Acedia, Vainglory, Pride — were adapted by St. Gregory the Great (540-604) into a list of Seven Deadly Sins.  He combined vainglory with pride since the two vices are so similar.  The Seven Deadlies have influenced thought right up to this day; the only person I can think of whom you might be interested in reading on this topic is St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, Cassian’s Conferences are recommended reading for the monks.  The result of this is that many aspects of Cassian’s spirituality run throughout the spiritual writings of the Benedictines (and thence the Cistercians, Carthusians, and so forth).  As well, however, St. Benedict encourages his monks to begin their prayers, “O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me.”  This is a bit of advice from Cassian’s 10th Conference, where he waxes eloquent on the usefulness of that phrase from the Psalms.  To this day, if you go to a Prayer Book service in the Anglican Church, that is right near the beginning of Morning or Evening Prayer (it usually follows, “O Lord open thou our lips, / and our mouth shall show forth thy praise).

This is probably the best we can do for the obvious, visible legacy of Cassian in the West.  The controversy and the centuries have not dealt with him over here kindly.  Nonetheless, his influence no doubt runs through the whole current of monastic spirituality, which is itself the spring from which much of the rest of Christian spirituality draws.

In the East, Cassian’s teaching on Grace & Freewill is understood by some to be the orthodox Orthodox position.  I’m not sure that they are as obsessed as we are about having a perfect definition of this doctrine, however.  Nevertheless, he has the notable distinction of being the only Latin writer who is included in the Philokalia, the Eastern Orthodox collection of teachings from the 2nd through 15th centuries.  These teachings centre on prayer and are the core of most Orthodox spirituality.  This is where the bulk of his influence in the East is found.

Since Cassian holds a position within the central texts and traditions of Christian spirituality, both East and West, I believe that we should all read him — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant.  We should seek to understand his teachings and draw towards purity of heart and the vision of the divine.

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.