By Derek Olsen
The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer offers us a vision—one of many possible visions—of what the Christian life can look like. It’s a vision of a life lived in liturgical time, grounded daily by adaptations of monastic hours of prayer at morning, noon, evening, and night, punctuated by Eucharists on Sundays and Holy Days, of the great transitions—entrance into the church, coming of age, commitment, and death—lived in the midst of Christian community. It’s a life centered in the Spirit, steeped in the psalms, yet spacious enough for people who live in the world with families, jobs, responsibilities. And yet—it’s not easy. It’s a vision; it’s rarely reality.
The basic pattern found in our prayer book is not new to us, of course, but has been handed down for centuries. This pattern, this vision, has been (and is) at the heart of every prayer book of every Anglican church—and it comes from a yet older source. It represents the vision of the great monastic tradition that extends from St. Anthony of Egypt through John Cassian most clearly and concisely captured by St. Benedict and lived by thousands upon thousands through the ages. It’s a vision of a life of Christian service bolstered by liturgical prayer and spirituality.
The difficulty, the tension, of holding a life of prayer together with a life of work is not new to our generations either. Rather, the monastic tradition from its inception struggled with the balance between Benedict’s great tripod: work, prayer, and study. Sometimes they succeeded; sometimes they strayed. And the reform movements—the Cistercians, the Carthusians, the Trappists, and so forth—were all efforts to correct the balance, to keep the tradition centered in Christ.
Our prayer book sets before us a vision. Our challenge is to embrace the vision, to take it into our lives, to conform our lives to its pattern that it may draw us deeper into the life of God and the mind of Christ. It’s not easy—but neither are we on our own. The Spirit speaks to us in many ways, including through the lessons of the past, offering a monastic wisdom for a modern world. From that storehouse of experience I’d like to offer three disciplines.
The discipline of stability flies in the face of our current consumer culture. The consumer culture mentality tells us that we should not be satisfied with anything less than what we want when we want it; if you’re not completely satisfied, go somewhere else, do something else. The monastic mentality puts formation—a process that occurs slowly over time—in the foreground. It reminds us that growth flows from grounding—being grounded in relationships, in communities, and in practices. (Speaking of relationships and communities, there is a series of long posts that could be written on stability in relation to local church communities, global ecclesial bodies, and Christian family life—but that’s for another day…)
Stability in regard to the prayer book vision of life means finding a pattern and dwelling inside of it. It means discipline and constancy. My perennial temptation is to be a liturgical wanderer, always looking for the next neat liturgy or form of prayer—but stability draws me back. Stability insists that whatever my other pursuits my true home is fixed for only then will it shape and mold me. It means committing to a set of liturgies not until I get tired of it, or until I find the next new one, but for a space of time measured in seasons and years.
Stability is praiseworthy—but it can’t work on its own. Stability unmonitored can turn to stagnation. Alternatively, stability may be counter to our spiritual nourishment if we fall into a toxic environment or practice. To be life-giving, stability must be governed by the next discipline:
If stability is counter-cultural, this one doesn’t follow too far behind. We don’t want other people telling us what to do, especially in a realm like religion and spirituality. After all, don’t we know what we need better than anyone else?
I ‘m constantly amazed at the almost daily verification of the simple truth that humans have a boundless capacity for self-deception. We think we know why we do what we do—but we are black-belt masters in the arts of rationalization and self-justification. Why do we do the good that we do? Is it from pure altruistic motives like we tell ourselves—or for what we get out of it…like that little thrill of pride at observing what spiritual and holy people we are? The counter to our own efforts at self-deception is obedience, to turn the reins over to another not caught within our internal web of justifications but one who, seeing the web with compassion, can teach us to use it to our spiritual advantage.
In the monastery it is the abbot. For we who live outside monastic walls, it’s a bit more difficult. A spiritual director, a confessor to whom you can bare your soul, these must take the place of the abbot for us. Sometimes your parish priest can fill this role—but not all have the training or experience, and another person may serve as a better guide. (Your diocese may have a listing of trained spiritual directors in your area—try the website or give them a call…) Your spiritual director can guide you as you seek a liturgical rhythm, pushing you when you need it or cautioning you from too heavy a load.
Sometimes a group of trusted friends who make a covenant to follow the same practices and to meet to discuss the joys and struggles can fill this place. Obedience, then, is not necessarily to one person but to the group and its common discipline. A classical model is provided by that famous priest who strove to be “Anglican in earnest”—John Wesley—with his rules for the united societies.
Stability and Obedience are disciplines with a purpose. They open up the space for the third:
Conversion of Life
Stability of place and liturgy with a skillful guide is beneficial—only when we open ourselves to it. The best, most spiritual environment in the world will not draw our souls to God if we refuse to let go. The Spirit moves as it wills, but we must look for signs of its passing and feels its breath on our face and heart.
The best of liturgies, the most poignant of Scriptures, remain only words on the page if we do not put them into practice. Those who criticize liturgical prayer as an empty piling of words are not wrong if we are not engaging those words, rolling them around within us, and embodying them to the world. This is the call of conversion of life—to not just see the footsteps of Christ but to follow them, to tread the way of the cross.
Our received common wisdom tells us that the monastic vows are poverty, chastity, and obedience—and the common wisdom is half right. These are the vows of the friars, the mendicant orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans who arose in the 12th century. The older vows, the vows of Benedict, are these three: stability, obedience, and conversion of life. As they have grounded monastic life for centuries, these same disciplines offer grounding for we who seek to live into the vision of Christian possibility presented by our prayer book.
Derek Olsen is 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.