Weekend Digest 2021:05
12 February 2021
My dear sisters and brothers —
Greetings on this last weekend before Lent!These past few days have been familiar ones for me. By “familiar,” I mean they roll around every two years, and I recognize their approach. In my head, I call them the “Most Dangerous Days of the Year.”Let me explain what I mean.
To start, a quick digression about prayer because prayer is the reason this happens to me semiannually in the first place. Bear with me here — I hope you’ve heard me say (multiple times now) that there’s a shape to Anglican life, a “simply Christian” spirituality that is the “threefold Rule of prayer.” That’s how it’s described by Martin Thornton, a hero of mine, in his classic English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley, 1963). This shape of life is rooted in the Benedictine tradition, and it comprises:
- The Daily Office
- Private Prayer
- The Eucharist
No time or inclination to read Thornton’s book? There’s an easy, quick introduction in this 2013 blog post, and it pieces the three-fold rule together like this:
- The common Office (Opus Dei)
- Supporting private prayer (Orations Peculiar)
- Both of which are allied to, and consummated by, the Mass.
Simply put, Anglicans have traditionally arranged their lives around, first, praying the Daily Office — the daily cycle of Morning and Evening Prayer from the BCP. The Office is a delivery device for large doses of Sacred Scripture, most especially the Psalms, which can be prayed through every month (per the little italicized notations sprinkled throughout the Psalter beginning on p. 585) or according to the Daily Office Lectionary (p. 934f). The set prayers of the Daily Office are, in turn, supported by “private prayer” or “private devotion,” which Thornton describes as “short and frequent habitual recollections” of Christ’s presence and the practical pursuit of God’s will throughout the day. Both the Office and private prayer culminate in the Eucharist . . . and the Eucharist and Office form the essential prerequisite for private devotion . . . and on and on, the pieces interweaving and reinforcing each other to cohere into what Thornton calls an “ascetical system” — from the Greek ἄσκησις, áskesis, meaning “exercise” or “training.”
My friend Derek Olsen writes about this in Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spiritual Life (Cincinnati, Oh.: Forward Movement, 2016) — my favorite primer for the Prayer Book, and one of my top books of the past five years. Here’s what I’d say if I could write as well as Derek:
The Book of Common Prayer stands at the very center of Anglican spirituality. It gives us our core spiritual exercises. Furthermore, it relates them to one another in a sensible fashion, providing a baseline implicit rule of life . . . . The prayer book is best understood not as the Sunday service book, or even as a collection of services, but as a system of Christian formation.
What I’m trying to say is this — The “threefold rule of prayer” enshrined in our BCP is a system, an assembly line, a shop floor, or a protocol. The BCP makes saints, and the litmus test for whether it’s working in my life is: “Do I look a little more like Jesus this year than the last?” If it moves me on that line, it’s doing what it’s supposed to.
Now, I know this isn’t a slam dunk. No system of spirituality is absolutely foolproof, completely guaranteed to shoot saints out the end of the production line like widgets. And the BCP isn’t easy for everybody, either. Some of us don’t find resonance with its set or “canned” prayers (I do, to be honest; never was I so overjoyed as the day I found prayers that said what I wanted to say in exactly the same way I would’ve said it if I’d been a poet). Some of us lean toward the contemplative in a way that rewards the practice of silence in place of words (although there’s ample room for silence and contemplation in the BCP system, too).
So can I promise you this system will make you a saint? No. I can just say that after twenty years in the system, I find every year it makes me just a little more loving, a little more patient, a little more peaceful, a little less afraid.
(Hope Renée will back me up on that!)
End of digression.
Now back to the “dangerous days” thing from before. Being a person of prayer in our tradition means at least one thing: It means that every two years, I find myself face to face . . . with Isaiah. Specifically, chapters 58 and 59 of Isaiah. So whether I like it or not, whether I go looking for it or not, whether I’m ready or not — I am drawn back to the prophet’s warning that there is such a thing as a people who can rebel against God, even while “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways” (58.2). It is possible, Isaiah says, that iniquities can be “barriers between you and God,” and my sins might have “hidden his face” from me (59.2).
So how can I know? Is there some kind of rapid Covid-testy thing that can tell me I might be bluffing God here? Turns out there is, and that test — is justice. Chapter 59’s just shot through with it:
- The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths (59.8).
- Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance (59.14)
And my personal favorite:
- The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice (59.15)
The days turn dangerous when they force me to look inside and ask whether I’m really acting justly in the world. Is our parish? But I’m also grateful to be forced into this exercise every so often because it makes me ask “What is God doing in the world — and maybe could I be part of it with him?” So in these dangerous days I Google “What does the Bible say about Land and Housing?” and I find Vine and Fig Tree from Dr. Jill Suzanne Shook. Then my little 30 minutes of prayer of a morning has led to further thoughts about the Sabbath principle and Community Land Trusts, affordable housing, and the Year of Jubilee. Or I’m reminded of Dr. John Perkins, and I take time to read again the “3 Rs of Community Development” he has championed for decades as leader of the Christian Community Development Association. I search “What does the Bible say about refugees?” and I find this piece from WorldVision. Then, boom, I’m amazed all day that I was a refugee in need of grace when God welcomed me, so who, then, have I welcomed today? And what can I do to welcome more people tomorrow?
Dangerous days, indeed.
But I need these days, too. I need them because I don’t want to miss out on what God’s doing. I really don’t. And for me, the equal and opposite danger is continuing to go through life thinking of no one but myself, protecting my comfort, avoiding suffering on behalf of the other at all costs if I can. In Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful (New York: Scribner, 1982), Nobel Prize-winning author Alan Paton’s anti-Apartheid novel, we meet Emmanuel Nene, a black court messenger, visits Robert Mansfield, a white headmaster of an all-white school. The government has ordered Mansfield not to let his white students mingle with black students from another school after a football game. Mansfield resigns, and the two men talk of how they now may be “wounded.” If they act on what they believe, they will suffer at the hands of enemies and be ostracized by friends. If they give in, they’re safe. But in the story, Paton’s own Christianity rings in the character Emmanuel’s words to Mansfield:
I don’t worry about the wounds. When I get up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will say to me, “Where are your wounds?” and if I say, I haven’t any, he will say, “Was there nothing to fight for?”
Thank God I found a set of exercises — Daily Office, private prayer, the Eucharist — a kind of system that forms me, ever so slowly but inexorably, into a person who sometimes wants to bear the wounds of love like those my savior still bears. Those exercises are the third sail of our Barque — the “Worship God” sail — and I learned this week that one’s sometimes called the “mizenmast” and it helps balance the ship’s helm. Prayer, Scripture, the Eucharist — these balance us and keep us upright and afloat so God can steer us wherever, and to whomever, he pleases.
Thank God for these dangerous days — because there is, indeed, so very much in this world to fight for.
If you’re looking for distraction this weekend — here’s some of what I’m consuming:
- Thinking about the Psalter reminded me of our very own Dr. David Madeira’s guest stint on the Psalter Project Podcast! Listen to it here and learn why he cares so deeply, as do I, about us chanting the Psalms as a worshiping family, plus you hear the genesis of the 12-point technique that was the subject of his dissertation.
- On the subject of podcasts and prayer — Drop twenty minutes on our diocesan Bishop John Bauerschmidt’s take on the history and the value of the Daily Office in last September’s “The Daily Office 101” from the Living Church Podcast. A great line from the intro: “The critical nature of daily prayer for the life of the Christian is the logic behind that most venerated of Anglican devotional tools, the Daily Office — the life of the Christian is constituted in prayer.” Remember in last week’s Digest I said “habit happens”? Bishop John prescribes that we make the Daily Office a matter of habit, marking out the beginning and end of every day. Quoting Anglican poet and divine George Herbert: “Prayer should be the key of the day and the lock of the night.” The podcast even has a funny faux pas about slapping your enemies around the 7.45 mark. I laughed out loud!
- Seems like all my friends are listening to the Hillbilly Thomists! They’re “a group of Dominican friars banded together over a common love for bluegrass and folk music” (I kid you not), and you can read about them here). I’ve fallen deeply in love with Living for the Other Side, raspy voices and all, and their Quarantine Sessionsis my video of the week.
- Want to spend way more time than you need on identifying parts of sailing ships?
- One last thing — Read this amazing thing from friend of the parish Dave Zahl on blizzards:
Anyone who has taken a walk or a drive on the day after a massive snowfall will notice how sixteen inches of blanketing looks most beautiful in the places we know to be ugliest. Parking lots and strip malls, empty lots and cracked sidewalks, trash heaps, and construction sites transform from eye-sores into pockets of enchanted calm. No other catastrophe possesses such redeeming magic; no other disaster leaves everything in its wake more beautiful rather than less. Barring Calvary, that is.
Thanks, again, for reading. I’m thankful for any channel I can find to connect with you during this separated time. You are never far from my thoughts, and may God bless you this weekend.
Yearning for justice this time —