By Derek Olsen
The secular New Year has come and gone—and that means it’s time for resolutions for the year that will be 2008. Like many Americans, I’m making a resolution to do something about my physical health. Now, I could just resolve to “be healthy” but something that vague and general will never translate into actions, something that vague and general will never be formed into habits. And that’s what we’re really talking about, right?—habits, dedicated ways of being.
I’m not just resolving to “be healthy”, I’m resolving some specific things: to buy organic food whenever possible, to buy local food whenever possible, to eat my five servings of fruits and veggies daily, and to exercise at least three times a week.
So far so good, but now—what about my spiritual health? Doesn’t it require just as much nurture as my physical health? And again, what sort of resolution should I make? Let me give you a hint: if “be healthy” didn’t cut it, neither will “be holy”… Just like the physical goals, we need something that we can be accountable for. As a Scripture scholar, I’m always partial to the goal “read more Scripture” but even that’s too vague and general to form a habit.
One option is to select a plan that reads through the whole Bible in a year. Some folks may be wary of such a thing…as if it weren’t properly Anglican or something...but let me assure you, nothing could be farther from the truth! As it turns out, the earliest one-year Bible reading plan that I know is thoroughly catholic. It’s a set of instructions from the 8th century that lays out the cycle of readings for the monastic Night Office. Biblical books were read straight-through in patterns that coincided with the liturgical seasons: for instance Exodus was read in Lent, Isaiah in Advent, Acts and Revelation in Easter, etc. It was a plan with staying power, too—I’ve seen versions with minor edits and tweaks from the 11th century and we can even find references to it in the very first Book of Common Prayer.
In the preface to the 1549 BCP, Archbishop Cranmer (following the work of the Spanish liturgist Cardinal Quiñonez) laments the loss of this yearly reading system and goes on to present a new version of it in the body of the prayer book. No longer restricted to the Night Office for monastics and clergy alone, Cranmer incorporated it into reworking of the monastic liturgies that we know today as the Daily Office—Morning and Evening Prayer. This revised system offered two readings per service for a total of four daily that read sequentially through the Old Testament (except for some bits of Leviticus, Chronicles, and Ezekiel) once every year—and through the New Testament (except for Revelation) three times every year. This system remained in place until sometime after the authorization of the 1662 prayer book. In short, a one-year Bible reading plan is about as Anglican as you can get!
If a one-year plan sounds like a little much, another terrific option to work on your spiritual health is to move to the modern two-year plan. Cranmer’s one-year system eventually gave way to longer versions with shorter readings. The Daily Office lectionary in the back of our current prayer book stands in direct continuity with these. It reads through most of Scripture with three readings a day stretched over two years. Perhaps taking up the discipline of the Daily Office and utilizing this Scripture reading plan might be a good option for you.
While either of these plans appears daunting at first glance, remember that we’re talking about habits here, not one-time—or even one-year—events. If you want to start reading through Scripture or praying the Daily Office, approach it with the same strategies as you would a physical exercise plan. Find some buddies to help out! You don’t have to read or pray together—though it may help—but checking in and being accountable to others is often a great motivator. Also, commit to reading your Bible or doing either Morning or Evening Prayer a certain number of times each week and increase it as you are able. If you pick a sequential plan and you miss a few days or even a week, show yourself a little grace; don’t beat yourself up or even try to make up what you missed—just continue on with your plan. After all, it’s a cycle—you’ll catch it the next time around!
Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.