By W. Christopher Evans
It is often remarked by insiders and outsiders alike that Anglican Christianity, among all traditions of Christianity, seems distinctly shaped by Benedictine monastic traditions. This is not a surprise in light of how deeply Benedictine traditions shaped Isles practices and life onward from the mission sent by St. Gregory the Great of Rome as led by St. Augustine of Canterbury up to our series of reformations. And precisely in the central piece of work arising in and surviving through our reformations, The Book of Common Prayer, this Benedictine influence remains with us today and shapes us if we dare take it up and pray.
It has often been remarked that Thomas Cranmer intended to remake the Isles peoples into a vast monastery. I think this romantic notion gets Cranmer’s intent backwards. Rather our Prayer Book reforms the basic pieces of monastic piety and life precisely because in the first instance these matters should concern all Christians, not just monastics: Daily prayer and a life lived toward God and for neighbor in all the cares of daily and national life, including disputes over gentry seizures of commons and political intrigues at court. In other words, he intends to remake the Isles peoples into more well-formed and single-hearted, that is, praising Christians at work, in their home, and in their everyday community. It is within this generous framework that the particular dedications of our monastics should be placed, not vice versa.
In some ways then, Anglicanism is a version of Benedictine tradition for all comers, for all persons, for the sake of our social worlds, not away from or despite these. That is, ours is a common praying and communal discipleship tradition that takes seriously the corporate “I” or persons-as-persons-in-community-participating-in-the Life of Three Persons One as well as God’s care for each unique person as a person with a particular makeup and needs and mission and ministries all within the container of God’s faithfulness to us and our responses of trust in Who God shows Godself to be in Jesus Christ. And we take this service into everyday life. As Br. Anselm Grün observes,
God is present to us as one who speaks to us. The initiative comes from God….God speaks to us before we have asked him. He speaks to us in the words of Scripture. Benedict places the words of Scripture in God’s lips in such a way that they are personally addressed to us. This is no abstract word of God, but a word in which God speaks to me now, concretely, in my present situation….God’s presence is not something that is always the same; it is not like an impersonal space that surrounds us. Instead, it is like a trusted person who addresses us in ever new ways. Of course, for Benedict, God is also the Spirit who dwells within us and is ever-present to us. But we do not melt into God. We are not dissolved in God. Instead, God always approaches us as a partner, as someone who challenges us. Depending on the situation and the word with which God addresses us, God always encounters us in a new and often surprising way. When we sit silently, alone in our room, we find God in the words “Here I am” differently than when we recall those words in the midst of a quarrel with another person. But we never experience God as a vague atmosphere of the divine; we encounter God always as a person who confronts and challenges us. God wants to change us through the word….Nowadays we are in danger of avoiding this stance of being addressed….the word of God…addresses me, touches me, calls me into question, wounds and judges me, but also heals and frees me.
Our Prayer Book itself forms the core of a shared or common rule of life, a way of ordering our lives together as instructions on living out of God’s gospel to us in Jesus Christ as gospel responses in our own lives through thanksgiving and praise in all things—singing, praying, working, recreating, loving, living, struggling both with ourselves in examination and with others in solidarity for shaping a world more transparent to and reflective of the heavenly and earthly chorus: Holy, holy, holy, God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Our Prayer Book is our version of Eat, Pray, Love
The Prayer Book makes Holy Baptism the center and ground of our always reality: We are marked as Christ’s own forever in “indissoluble bond” (BCP, 298). The round of daily prayers and Sunday Holy Communion shares the same core as that of The Rule of Saint Benedict and is intended to turn us again and again to God who chooses us in the baptismal font and nourishes us for the race as disciples, as witnesses to and bearers of God’s gospel, God’s creative, redemptive, and sustaining eternal and incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and the implications this Word has for the ordering of our lives together, not just as Christians, but as human beings—lives reoriented to thanksgiving and praise in all things, that is, the Kingdom, the Kin-dom, the Reign of God among us here and now with a hope of our very messed up lives and social worlds becoming more proximate. This implies that the Word, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are ever at work among us as Church and in the life of our social worlds. We pray so.
Our beloved Lutheran kin have somewhat of an allergy to anything smacking of rules, so I have taken to coining a phrase, “patterned gospel responses,” that I think reflects an Anglican concern for a habit-forming life of discipleship. This phrase acknowledges also the Lutheran concern for the gospel we must always keep before us and that our lives are lives of response. Framed within our central rites, we find patterned gospel responses or the ordering of Church life in various ministries to the Body such as ordination and of our lives as gospellers flung far and wide in our ministries in and to and with and within our social worlds in such things as marriage and death and prayer in trials and tribulations as we work for a more proximate peace and justice of Christ among us here and now on earth. And as we regularly confess and profess, a peace and justice, that finally is God’s work and completing.
Intended primarily for parochial use, the Prayer Book has often been a beloved companion of Anglican Christians. I have several copies, a sign of our own age, but one tatty copy of poor binding is still my preferred praying companion even in the age of cool iPhone apps and fine internet sites. In our time partially because of a very positive development, the recovery of regular Sunday Eucharist, the Offices have become increasingly a householder practice and the canonical discipline of the ordained. Never private prayer, the Church’s public, and yes, personal prayer—remembering we are persons-in-community-participating in the Life of the Persons Three —may require adaptation when used by householders depending on one’s circumstances—maybe only one lesson morning and evening, for example. Lectio divina fits very nicely within the framework of the two principle Offices, Morning and Evening Prayer following the lesson: Silence may be kept after each Reading.
While lectio divina has often been characterized as holy or spiritual reading, I would characterize lectio in words similar to those of Dr. Martha Stortz, “The Bible reads us.” God reads us and does so by and through the words of Scripture and sometimes our theologians besides. Lectio divina is a way of strengthening us in the race by making room for to God read us and speak to us how it is each of us might best serve God’s Reign in our life this very day. In classic Benedictine tradition, there are four moments: Lectio (Read), Meditatio (Meditate), Oratio (Pray), and Contemplatio (Contemplate). What I offer here unfolds lectio in eight steps arising from a Cranmerian Collect in The Book of Common Prayer. The Eight moments are simply an expansion on the four. All that would happen within the four is simply given more distinction in the Eight.
Eight Moments in God’s Reading of Each of Us
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
We chose a scripture passage. I usually do this within the framework of Morning or Evening Prayer, so I go with a text from the Daily Office Lectionary (BCP, pp. 933-1001). Currently we’re in Year One, Week of Lent 5 (p. 956).
The scripture passage is then read aloud slowly and reflectively. We simply listen to the word as it is proclaimed to each of us, and God’s Voice in its being spoken or sung comes to and wells up within you, me, each of us by the power of the Holy Spirit. At least one minute of silence follows.
The scripture passage is read aloud again slowly and reflectively. We now listen for what the still small voice of God is speaking to each of us personally through a particular word, an image, a phrase, an action, a person. In other words, God reads us. At least one minute of silence follows
The scripture passage is read aloud again slowly and reflectively. We deepen in the resonance God creates in our being by that word, image, phrase, action, person. We are invited as we feel comfortable to share aloud or to write down the word, image, phrase given to us. A journal is a good place to keep these words God gives to you.
We have a conversation with God. That is, we pray. We lift up our own joys and concerns, delights and sufferings. We ask God to show us what this word, phrase, image, action, phrase may be calling us to do in our own life this very day.
We “chew” on the word, image, phrase, action, person like cattle or sheep might digest grass. In other words, we wrestle with God’s word to us and with what this word means for our life this very day.
We simply and gently rest in God who first and always embraces us, trusting that God will give us the grace needed for this day to do what God is calling us to do. If we choose, we may use the word God has given us for today as a mantra or koan for focus or for setting aside distracting thoughts when they arise. Or we may use our regular prayer word if we have one for meditation.
Having rested in God who first and always embraces us, we ready ourselves to embrace others (our neighbors, friends and enemies alike), holding fast to the love of God in Christ in all that we do this day, and especially in doing the word God has given to each of us. We remind ourselves of God’s promises to us to be with us this day and always no matter what by making the Sign of the Cross and praying The Lord’s Prayer. At the close of the day, we will confess we cannot do it ourselves and we need God to do anything good.
We go forth, with God’s word to each of us, into all that makes up our daily lives, our social worlds, living out of the Eighth moment, the Eighth Day, the ever-present power and presence and promise of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has made us a new creation in Holy Baptism and gives to us eternal life to live here and now. In all that we encounter this day, we turn to the word God has given us for strength and solace, and so, live.
Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular
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