I abandon myself: Abraham in St Paul’s letter to the Romans

Christ Church Cathedral

Lent 2 

28th February 2021

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Sources:

Schoeps, Hans Joachim. “The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul’s Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 65, no. 4, 1946, pp. 385–392. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3262158. Accessed 27 Feb. 2021.

Paul and the Patriarch: The Role of Abraham in Romans 4

N.T. Wright

Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35(3) 207–241

Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A; Baker Academic 2007

Well, we now know the road map. there is light at the end of the tunnel. If all goes well by June 21st we will be out of lockdowns.

I expect there are things you are yearning to do.

I am yearning to see my dad in his care home. 

To go for a long walk that ends up with a pub lunch.

To invite people for dinner and sit at a table with friends.

I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly a travel addict but I am also yearning to go abroad, to hear people chatting in other languages, to see places I’ve never been before.

And I am yearning to worship in other languages. I love to go to church in France and pray in French.

One of the places I am missing most is the little Burgundy village of Taizé perched on a hill a few miles east of Cluny. I first went there when I was 17 and I have been most of not quite every year since. It’s the home of an ecumenical monastic community where thousands of young people gather over the summer months. I am excited that Clare, our college Chaplain, and Dirk an academic in chemistry and next year’s senior academic (Senior Censor) at Christ Church have agreed to come with me and a group of of students on a chaplaincy pilgrimage in June 2022.

When I am Taizé I maintain my discipline of celebrating Mass, the Eucharist every day by concelebrating with one of the monks in the little crypt chapel under the main community church. the chapel is full of icons and very beautiful. In the corridor outside there is a stunning stained glass window. It is tall and narrow and this canvas is a photo of just the lower half of it. It’s an image of a boy, perhaps seven or eight years old and you can just see adult hands , one on each shoulder. In the whole window you can see that the hands belong to the man stood behind him, a man with a long beard.

The window, made by one of the brothers of the community at Taizé portrays a story from Genesis 22. It’s a searing and heart breaking story. And even though I have this canvas on the wall in my cellar chapel here at Christ Church I can hardly bear to look at it. The boy is Isaac and the man is his father Abraham.  The story in Genesis 22 is the account of God asking Abraham to take his son, his first and most beloved son up a mountain and slaughter him, to kill him as a sacrifice.

Looking at this picture, this stained glass, the trust on Isaac’s face for his father is total.  His faith in him is total. His eyes look up secure in the knowledge that his father will care for him.

Genesis 22 is one of the most powerful passages, among many, in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jews today read this account on the High Holy Day, the Days of Awe, the Day of Atonement and the Jewish New Year each Autumn. 

In our first reading today St Paul reflects on the Abraham cycle of stories. The letter to the Romans where our first reading comes from is notoriously complex and Paul’s argument is difficult to understand. It is particularly hard for us to follow when we get snippets to read like today’s passage which really make no sense without the larger context, the whole argument. It is even harder to understand because our minds are full of the arguments of history. Our reading of St Paul is overlaid with thoughts about faith and works that owe more to the sixteenth century Reformation than to first century Judaism. Finally, it is hard for us to lay aside centuries of Christian anti-semitism that makes us think of the ‘superior’; Christian grace taking over from the supposed ‘inferior’ Jewish law.

Romans 4 is a key passage in Paul’s letter. Almost all of the commentaries will point you to Genesis 15 as the key text on which Paul is commenting. They do so because Paul is clearly reflecting on the promise made to Avram – who has not yet been renamed Abraham – that his seed would many. That Abraham would be the father of many nations.

However, I want you to think of this picture of Isaac as vital to understanding Paul’s viewpoint. Paul was clearly familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, almost certainly in the popular Greek translation made at Alexandria. he would certainly have been familiar with what we know as chapter 15 of Genesis. The covenant God makes with Abram. But chapter 15 is hardly the most memorable , the most colourful, the most dramatic of the stories of Abraham.

The covenant is in some ways an important turning point in the story but it is not the heart of who Abraham is. It tells us very little about Abraham’s character or history.

The whole of that character, all of that history would have been in Paul’s mind as he wrote his letter and as he reflects on Abraham here.

Abraham is fascinating because (in Genesis 12) he leaves his homeland, his family and community behind. He leaves everything. In his travels he meets  Melchisdech, an otherwise unknown king and priest; a priest without lineage. God makes this covenant with Avram that his descendants will be as many as the stars of heaven and then he is asked to sacrifice his son, presumably necessary to make that happen on the mountain of Moriah. And Abraham obeys. he takes a knife, would to burn the body of his on on and goes up the mountain.

Only at the last minute does God intervene and halt the sacrifice.

Puzzlingly St Paul doesn’t make much of the obvious parallels between Isaac and Jesus, later Christians have often done this. I think that’s because Paul is much more concerned with Abraham as the image of the true believer whose faith is absolute trust in God.

Paul must surely have known what we call the Lord’s Prayer. The remarkably simple, seven clause prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray. Again it is so familiar to us that it is hard for us to read it as if for the first time. It is the fourth clause that stands out for me every time I pray it. “Thy will be done”.

Just think about how extraordinary this is. We spend our whole lives making plans, making sure we are in control of things, and then we pray Thy will be done.

We pray it but we don’t mean it. We get ourselves worked up for job interviews, we pray Thy will be done: but mean: God, make sure I get this job.

Abraham really meant it. If God’s will meant leaving home and everything he knew he would do it. If it meant killing his beloved son, he would do it.

As I’ve already said I miss worshipping in French. So I ahve been using some French in my prayers lately. One of my favourite French prayers is by Blessed Charles de Foulcauld, a hermit priest who died early in teh twentieth century and will soon be formally named as a saint:

The paryer begins Mon Père, Je m’abandonne à toi. My Father, I abandon myself to you.

It’s an impossibly hard paryer to really mean.

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

An impossibly hard prayer to mean. But really all it does is extend that clause of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done.

That is Paul’s faith, that is Abraham’s faith. Total abandonment to the divine will. 

This picture of Issac reminds us of nothing ore, but nothing less than all the crosses and crucifixes in this building. It is the sign of abandonment. The sign of giving ourselves totally and utterly to God.

This is the heart of the Christian faith. This is what Paul understands: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Forget sterile arguments about faith versus works. Pauls’ understanding of Abraham is utterly simple. As simple as the faith of a child. Into your hands I commend my spirit, my life my all. Je m’abandonne à toi.

Sources: the Beginning of the Sodality

This talk used to be available elsewhere and several people have asked me for it recently. In the Sodality we are in a review period as we prepare for a new Superior and for the first cohort of life commitments (which will new in 2022). It seems appropriate therefore to post this here for reference. I put this talk on my then blog, there was. amigo response which led to organising the first gathering at St Saviour’s, Pimlico and after that the creation of. aFormation Group who wrote the Manual together. And thus began the Sodality …

A talk to the Southwark Chapter at Trinity All Through School, Lewisham on Wednesday 14th January, 2015
Fr Richard Peers SCP
UIOGD

Father David (our co-Rector) has suggested that we reflect on our Rule and life as a Society. I hope you will forgive me for doing so in my usual forthright, headmasterly manner; even though I do feel a little trepidation in the presence of some of our founders. I suggested a ten minute talk which he thought wasn’t quite long enough; so blame him when you look at your watches.

It is not good, the accepted wisdom has it, to label people. Clergy don’t like to be labelled. Or they claim so many labels that they become meaningless, everyone seems to be a ‘liberal catholic with charismatic tendencies and an evangelical love of the bible’ or a ‘liturgy loving evangelical with a celtic hinterland’.

So let me be clear: I like labels, I am happy to claim a few for myself and when it come to ‘churchpersonship’ mine is pretty clear, I am an Anglo-Catholic. That is to say I am an Anglican who looks to the great heroes of our faith in the Oxford movement and the ritualist pioneers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I delighted in being a parish priest and then school chaplain in the same patch of Portsmouth where Father Dolling had ministered. Where he built the magnificent mini-basilica that was St Agatha’s (now a church of the Ordinariate) and from which he fled when his bishop opposed the erection of a requiem altar. I delighted in serving my title in the biretta belt along the south bank of the Tees, where the Catholic faith was strong and a minibus collected the clergy for all the deanery patronal festivals and delivered us home gin-soaked, following the after-party.

Back in those heady days of the early 90s I fully expected to become a member of the Society of the Holy Cross following in the footsteps of my hero priests. We used the Roman Rite, we prayed the Divine Office from the Breviary and we considered ourselves priests of the latin rite hoping one day to be re-united with the successor of Peter. In addition to daily Office and Mass; daily Rosary and meditation were part of the priestly life we were signed up for. Deep devotion to Our Lady and to the saints were the backbone of who we were.

The ordination of women has forced many of us to take positions. But the positioning of the catholic organisations since then has followed a division in the catholic movement that dates to an earlier period and perhaps has always been present. The division between the Sarum and Roman forms; the division between the Percy Dearmers and the Father Tooths.

For those of us who feel most comfortable with, for want of a better word, the ‘Romanisers’, but who believe profoundly in the ordination of women and equal marriage, there is a key question: Where is home?

SCP has clearly inherited the Dearmer style of Catholicism. All organisations are coalitions; span spectrums of belief and practice; but is this Society wide enough to include people like me? Many of my friends, many members of the Society have said to me in one form or another over the years ‘it’s not catholic enough for me’. I have had a few conversations about forming another grouping of Catholic clergy, a more devotionally minded sodality. Perhaps there is room within the Society for some such sodality? Or perhaps the Society itself can change and grow to provide enough for the needs of those like me who look to a more Anglo-Catholic, even Anglo-Papalist position.

It is well known that in education there has been, certainly since the 1970s, a predominant mind-set that was hugely committed to multiculturalism among other things. Superb work was done that challenged prejudice and ignorance and gave many children experiences of other cultures and faiths that they would never otherwise have had. However, the shadow side of this was a watering down, a secularist led agenda that sought to create a neutral, religionless space. To make everyone the same. I’m afraid that many church schools took a similar route, one book about church schools describing them, in its title, as “An Uncertain Trumpet”.

As many of you know we have taken the very opposite path here at Trinity. My great mentor and time of apprenticeship at this was at St Luke’s school in inner city Portsmouth at the turn of the century where I was Chaplain to an amazing Headteacher, Krysia Butwilowska.

All theology is, of course, contextual, and specific. Anglo-Catholicism is tied inexorably, I believe, to the margins; it is an option for the poor and has always been practised, at its best, among and by those on the edge. St Luke’s was very much on the edge, serving the same area as Fr Dolling had served a century earlier. In the same way I am aware that what we do here at Trinity works because we are a black majority school in Lewisham. It works because of the overwhelming influence of Pentecostal christianity on our families and children.

So I would characterise the form of Anglo-Catholicism practised here in a number of ways:

it is pious and sentimental

unapologetic

maximalist

The Mass is at its heart and priestly ministry and vocation are unashamedly a key ingredient – as they must be if we are to be properly ecclesial – the church being an ordered, hierarchical society.

Brother Alois the current Prior of Taizé says that “God wants nothing but that we live intensely.” It is a strong catholicism, an intense catholicism that we seek to live out in the school.

Inclusion has taken, I believe, a wrong turn when it becomes a watering down; a lowest common denominator. Inclusion works best when everyone can most be themselves. The more we are ourselves the more we give others the permission to be themselves. Inclusion does not diminish difference but celebrates it.

At Trinity our Muslim and Hindu families have no problem with what we do. We have an Arabic school for Muslim families that meets here every Saturday. When our Muslim children want a prayer room we provide it. The current Head girl is a Muslim – one with a great devotion, as it happens, to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta – and Muslim pupils have travelled with us regularly to Taizé where we provide a tent for them to use for prayer, although they are also expected to join in the community prayer as well – so a mere 8 prayer sessions a day for them.

I am second to no one in my affection and respect for our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, but like all of us he is a man of his time and I think he has been unduly influenced by the multiculturalism of the last part of the twentieth century. In an introduction he once wrote for the Society of Catholic Priests he said:

“Anglican clergy identifying themselves as within the Catholic tradition used to have all sorts of ‘tribal’ habits, in dress, speech and style of life, to set them apart from those they thought of as less enlightened. No-one is going to regret that we have begun to grow up a bit in that respect.”

Well, perhaps I haven’t grown up, but I do regret that passing and I think it is to our detriment. The human need to belong is profound and deep. Gangs attract teenagers precisely because they give a sense of belonging. A place to belong is nothing more than a home, a family in which we can genuinely grow and flourish. It is a mark of the Incarnation that all human existence is specific, it belongs to a time and a place, it owns its culture and community.

This is really the heart of inclusion, that we accept and celebrate difference and diversity; we do belong to different groups and clubs; to some extent these are exclusive; but we are richer for that. Inclusion would mean nothing at all if it didn’t involve difference. We might even consider the possibility that the arrangements required to pass the legislation on the ordination of women is itself God’s will, an opportunity to test our inclusiveness.

Perhaps part of the problem – if there is one – is that our Society is just too establishment. One of my favourite and one of the most influential books for me as an educator is Teaching As a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Anglo-Catholics were always subversive, perhaps we have become too comfortable, too used to promotion and acceptability. Perhaps we need to fight a few battles?

I think we do need to because I don’t think the key battles have been won. In fact I think we have capitulated on some of the victories that our forebears in the Catholic movement won at such a price.

So let me try to be a little more specific in thinking about what would make our Society or some sort of sodality within it a place where I felt more at home:

First and foremost a recognition that Anglicanism is a current that flows within western, catholic, Latin-rite Christianity. We’re not ‘a church’; the Archbishop is not a Patriarch. Lets look forward hopefully to the day when he or she will once again receive the pallium (displayed on the archiepiscopal coat of arms) from the Bishop of Rome.

This fundamental orientation is one shared by the ecumenical community at Taizé who look to the proper exercise of the universal ministry of Peter.

Our liturgy is a liturgy of the Latin rite. Even Cramer’s Communion service is clearly such. So let’s not be afraid of that rite. Like our forbears in the Catholic movement lets use as much of that rite in its current, ordinary form, as we can. The Divine Office is not only a much more convenient way of praying time it also unites us with the whole western catholic church and provides a lifetime of reflection on the catholic faith.

Lets acknowledge that our liturgy is deficient in some ways: all those collects for saints days that treat the saints as mere examples and not as friends in heaven interceding for us constantly. The lack of intercession in the Eucharistic Prayers; the weak sacrificial language.

Lets not be afraid of piety, sentiment and devotion.

Lets not give up our birthright: the daily Mass, sacramental confession, reservation, exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Lets fight for an increase in devotion to the Mother of God.

Lets be radical in our politics.

Lets explore what a healthy priestly spirituality would look like. A truly sacrificial life for ourselves and our families. Here, as in other areas we can learn much from our evangelical brothers and sisters who are not embarrassed to make their homes and families part of their Christian, public ministry.

Lets not be afraid to be teachers of the faith; again, this is another area where I think we can learn from Evangelicals. If we believe that the Catholic faith is the best possible manifestation of Christianity we need to teach people how to be Catholics. The technology of prayer and liturgy: genuflection, the sign of the cross, prayers to be learnt by heart. Catholic teaching on the sacraments and the moral life. We should not be content to leave people as they were but to change their lives and behaviour. I am a great believer in the Religious life and in the vocation to celibacy; but we need to teach that Marriage is the normative and best way to live a life. That marriage is sacrificial and hard, that love is about choices. We can’t be inclusive of every lifestyle. The mis-use of sex damages lives and with money, food and power are the areas where we are most flawed and subject to sin.

A recognition that we are called to leadership and must negotiate the difficult art of exercising power without being embarrassed or ashamed.

I suppose what I am saying is that we do the ‘liberal’ bit quite well. Although I would argue that I am not a liberal and that the ordination of women and equal marriage are highly traditional. I am by nature a conservative and it is that part of what we do as a society, our catholic life, that I am concerned about. All sorts of attempts at renewing the catholic movement have been attempted, Anglican Catholic Future being the latest but none of them have captured hearts and minds, none of them have gained traction because they are simply not devout enough. It is our life of piety that needs renewing so that our public life of radical politics can bear fruit.

In retrospect I suspect that the pontificates of Benedict and Francis will need to be seen together:

– From Benedict we need to take some elements of the reform of the reform. The Roman Canon was of utmost importance for many Anglicans in the Catholic movement, I have often celebrated Mass from Missals designed to interpolate the Prayer Book Mass and the Roman Canon. With its deep chiastic structure in which intercession, sacrifice and the communion of saints draw us into the Eucharistic mystery; we are impoverished if we forget it. The Roman Canon is the prayer of Augustine the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and – although the trendy faux liturgy books would hardly suggest it – the Prayer of the ‘Celtic’ christians.

– Eastward celebration another key aim of the Catholic movement dating back to the 17th century is also something we should not forget as it is re-discovered by many Roman Catholic Christians. A Vatican II Catholic, I didn’t discover it until I was a school chaplain in Portsmouth and had to use the parish church for Mass for a while, that Evangelical Parish only had one altar, pushed against a wall. What amazed me is that children preferred it, particularly the boys. All that eye contact and performance is not what they wanted. I now find it suits my introvert nature and is a calmer and more contemplative way of presiding at the liturgy.

– From Francis we need to be reminded of the political vision of the Catholic movement in the Church of England. We must seek an alternative to the un-restricted capitalism of our time if the planet, let alone the human race are to survive. Francis will soon make protection of the planet a key element of his papacy. We should do the same.

– But also we could learn from Francis a deep, traditional Catholicism full of Latin American piety and devotion. His devotion to Our Lady Untier of Knots is one that we Anglicans who tie ourselves in so many knots could well emulate. I have a prayer card and leaflet for each of you on this important devotion.

The founders of our Society were largely priests who had been formed in the Society of the Holy Cross. I have copied for you the Rule of that Society, many who have joined later may not be familiar with it. I wonder if we could learn a little from its emphasis on personal sanctification and the Mass? Perhaps we could even share with them further development of what it means to be a holy priest. How we seek to convert our own individual sinfulness. Perhaps we could invite one of the brethren of that Society to address us on just that subject; share in the things we can share: Rosary, Stations of the Cross, Office, perhaps even Benediction.

Looking at the Rule of SSC I am conscious of the heavenly patronage it claims for itself: St. Mary at the Cross; St. Vincent de Paul; St. John Mary Vianney, the Cure d’Ars; and Charles Lowder. Yet for us in the Society of Catholic Priests who are our heavenly patrons, who intercedes for us daily at the throne of grace?

One of the phrases I like most from Teaching As A Subversive Activity is that we should teach children to develop an inner ‘crap detector’. I have now spent most of my adult life working with teenagers. It is a total joy and delight. They have so much energy; they cut through so much crap; they have such an instinctive sense of justice and injustice. Before I began work here as Head Master I visited many Pentecostal churches, I saw at once that Anglo-Catholicism and Pentecostalism feed from the same spring. They really believe it. They really feel it. They are unapologetic. They are also intensely ordered and visual communities. I hadn’t seen a figure of 8 procession in church for years until I visited one of our local African churches.

Working with teenagers, vocation is a huge part of what we do. Abbot Christopher Jamison former Head Master and Abbot at Worth once said that enabling children to discern their vocation was the key task of schools.

I worry that the key public models for priesthood are so dire. Which aspirational teenager, let alone which black aspirational teenager, would want to be like the Vicar of Dibley or The Reverend Adam Smallbone?

I think these two dire characters are indicative of a deeper problem with our spirituality of priesthood, and perhaps of the Christian life. It is a spirituality of woundedness or brokeness. I’m afraid the writings of Henri Nouwen are saturated in this. It is ‘victim’ like obsession with the wound and very far from a fully adult acknowledgement of sin; our flaws and guilt; or an adult recognition that suffering, pain and unsatisfactoriness are part of every life, every day. Here we need to turn to Saint Paul, especially 2 Cor 12:9, he makes it clear that in our weakness God is strong, God actually says to him “My power is made perfect in weakness.” The point is not the weakness but the power, and that it is God’s, not ours. Again I think we could learn much about powerful leadership from evangelicals. At Trinity we attempt to teach our young people to be powerful men and women; but never to rely on themselves. I hope one day we will produce powerful catholic priests and Religious.

Many of these problems have their origins in person-centred, Rogerian counselling. One of the things that is at the heart of what we do here at Trinity is to reject ‘child centred’ education. We are a God centred community. This is a totally orthodox theology: human beings only make sense when we are oriented towards God and not to ourselves.

Having suggested some areas which I think we, as a Society, could reflect on, I would like to conclude with three of the things I think we do best:

the monthly prayer list of this Chapter is hugely significant; to pray for one another

concelebration: this really is one of the fruits of Vatican 2; it teaches us that our priesthood is never our own; always derived from our bishop and ultimately from Christ our High Priest

hospitality: our fellowship over lunch or supper is warm and genuine; our fellowship and friendship to one another in the Society is a strength to build on

I am in no way disheartened. In the ebb and flow of the various parts of the Anglican tradition our Catholic movement has been ebbing for some time, but God, as we know, is never unfaithful, in his good time, if we are faithful, there will be renewal.
May we as a Society be renewed in priestly holiness; may Our Lady Untier of Knots help us to deal with the complexities of life in our church and in our world with great humility, simplicity and love.

Praying the Resurrection: Resurrection Vigil throughout the year

Source

We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song. The Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith. Baptism is our entrance into Resurrection living. Eucharist is our renewal of Resurrection in our daily lives, our food for the Resurrection journey. Yet for many Christians the Cross has become a fixation, not a tree of life but a permanently occupied place for the victim. One of my issues with the popular phrase ‘wounded healer’ is that it emphasises the wound, which is not a scab to be picked over, but like the scars of the crucifixion on the Risen Christ a sign of victory.

Livestreaming on Facebook during the first lockdown from my little lean-to chapel I was fascinated by the numbers of people watching or at least popping in. One of the most popular liturgies was a Resurrection Vigil which I celebrate each Saturday evening in Ordinary Time and Easter in place of the Night Prayer of Compline. I had been doing this for some years. Livestreaming gave the opportunity to think about this liturgy and I write briefly about it here and here. This post is a reworking of that material with the current update of the Resurrection Vigil booklet,

My first experience of a Resurrection Vigil was on a Saturday night at a camp site in the Brecon Beacons. I was on a week’s walking holiday along with other young people from parishes belonging to Douai Abbey, I must have been fifteen or sixteen. We had prayed Compline together (and Mass each morning) all week and on Saturday evening sat around the camp fire and sang songs from the Charismatic song book ‘Songs of the Spirit’, read a resurrection narrative, chanted a psalm or two and were sprinkled with water which one of the priests present had blessed. I was entranced. Not least by the marshmallows and hot chocolate that we enjoyed afterwards.

I have never been able to pray Compline on a Saturday night in the same way since. It seems totally inadequate as a way of preparing for Sunday.

A year or so later I was at Taizé in France for the first time and was equally entranced by the Saturday evening prayer there, repeating alleluias, the lighting of candles by everyone present. Having stayed up much of the previous night in prayer ‘around the cross’ I was transfixed by this celebration of the Risen Jesus and felt his presence very strongly.

Since those years I have experienced Resurrection vigils with numerous communities, tried various forms of it at home – sometimes in the garden around a fire, or at the dining table – and shared simple liturgies of Resurrection in many parishes and with groups of pilgrims and young people in a variety of contexts.

I have added below a form of Resurrection Vigil that I am currently using in my little Oratory in the basement, the sacro speco at home in the Sub Deanery. It works for me, you might want to do something else. As usual I stopped doing this during the Advent and Christmas season but for various reasons really missed it this year. In fact I have decided to continue celebrating it during Lent this year. Perhaps all the gloom of lockdown is just too much. We certainly need Resurrection. So the new booklet includes chants for use in Lent without the Alleluia.

One of the problems with the liturgical year can be an over literalism around a sort of ‘play acting’ of the mysteries which the liturgy celebrates. As if Jesus is not born until 25th December, as if he is not Risen until the final night of Holy Week. Fr Aelred Arnesen formerly of the now closed Anglican Cistercian Ewell Monastery in West Malling writes very strongly of this. He wouldn’t even approve of my removing the Alleluia in Lent:

“The recent trend in liturgical reform is backwards. The Christian life is to be seen as a journey towards God in the course of which we devote a portion of each year to what has been called ‘liturgical realism’, emptying out the sense of the real presence of Christ with us until we reach Easter. According to the tradition one must not sing alleluia during Lent! This has stood gospel on its head.”

Source

The Resurrection is the central fact of the Christian faith, celebrating it, being familiar with the gospel accounts, reflecting on the Patristic commentaries on the Resurrection is a wonderful way to keep this central fact central to our lives. Celebrating a Resurrection Vigil also gives shape to the week, along with memorialising the Crucifixion each Friday and observing fasting and abstinence on Fridays. Doing this has been a blessing to me, I hope this will bless you.

Let me end with more strong words from Fr Aelred in another of his essays (do take time to visit the Ewell website where you can read a number of Allred’s papers and also see and download the beautifully simple liturgy used by the community there:

“First of all, taking our cue from the early beginnings of the calendar when the annual Easter celebration and every Sunday were the only commemorations, it is essential to return to Easter as the single focus of our worship in the year. While the pre-reformation understanding that the ritual of the various seasons had to be performed correctly so that we may arrive eventually at the celebration of the resurrection at Easter and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, in our alternative understanding, every season and every commemoration is irradiated and is given meaning through the glory of Easter. Christmas and Epiphany and the commemorations dependent on those days; the later feasts of the Transfiguration and the apostles and martyrs – all have meaning only in relation to the living Lord who is always dynamically present to the whole church. With Easter as the single focus of the Calendar, Christmas finds its proper level as just one of the events of Jesus’ life, even if one of the most important.”

Source 

Not just ‘fitting it in’: Prayer and the Art of Time Management

There is a really excellent essay on time and our relationship to it from Father Hildebrand Garceau, O.Praem here.

 “Christ told us ‘about the need to pray continually and never lose heart’ (Luke 18:1).The Church has faithfully heeded this exhortation by never ceasing in her prayer and by urging us to pray:‘Through him (Jesus), let us offer God an unending sacrifice of praise’ (Hebrews 13:15).The Church not only satisfies this precept by celebrating the Eucharist, but also in other different ways, especially by the Liturgy of the Hours. Compared with other liturgi- cal actions, the particular characteristic which ancient tradition has attached to the Liturgy of the Hours is that it should consecrate the course of day and night.

General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours 10

It always saddens me when I hear clergy criticise ‘management culture’. There is a tone to that criticism, and often it is explicitly stated, that ‘we need more theology and less management’. I beg to disagree. I was appointed to my first deputy headship 23 years ago and have worked as a senior leader in schools ever since. My life has straddled the worlds of the church and education ever since. My current post as Sub Dean at Christ Church, Oxford, where we have a school and are, of course, a college of the university, is a wonderful and exciting natural development. However, while I believe that education, and church schools in particular, would benefit from a good deal more theology; the church would benefit from a good deal more good management. I welcome the efforts made to move in that direction.

Essential to all good management is management of time, After my post recently about my pattern of prayer quite a few people asked “how do you fit it in?”, so I thought a little post about time management might be helpful. The first thing to say is that I do not attempt to fit prayer into the day. Instead for me prayer is part of the essential scaffolding of my well-being as important as sleeping, eating, washing, exercise, social time, study and work. I have a particular devotion to St Joseph the Worker, the image of ‘crafting a life’ is important to me; fitting the elements of my life together in a wise, skilful and craftsmanlike way is part of my self-reflection and work with my spiritual director.

Maintaining an accurate and effective diary is the only way I am able to manage my time and maintain any control over it. Looking ahead a couple of years I put holidays, retreats, reading days / weeks and Quiet Days in first. I prefer one long holiday to frequent short ones. It takes me time to wind down. When I was a Head and also when I was Director of Education in Liverpool and given the importance of prayer to well-being, the next thing that went in my diary were prayer times, Vigils, Lauds, Mass, Sext, and Vespers. This was a really good discipline to stop other events taking over. It was particularly important for Sext and Vespers in ensuring that there were gaps between meetings.

I also pray Terce and None each working day. I’ve written before about the significance of the Little Hours (here and here). However, praying these is not in my Rule of Life as ‘of obligation’ so if I have to miss them I don’t beat myself up about that. This is an important point and one I often make in line management of colleagues. We can all do only what we can do in the time available. Committing time to prayer means that time is not available for other things. That is is the opportunity cost and it is a choice I have made. I think I work more effectively and to a better quality because of my prayer.

Another significant point is to remember that we are all sinners. In other words we will all fail. When we establish a Rule of Life for ourselves it is important not to set impossible targets but it is equally important to set aspirational goals. To aim for just a bit more than is easy to achieve. This is a sign of our seriousness.

Seeing our diary as a friend, as a way to plan our time can be helped by using it in our prayer. At my morning intercessions I open my diary and pray through the events of the day. This also helps me reflect on when I will pray the Little Hours and where the gaps are likely to be, just as I will plan when to eat.

The final point I want to make is about the balance of the day. This seems to be the most controversial of my views on time! In modern societies many people get up and start the day relatively late and stay up into the night. However, there is something about the late night / early morning hours that makes them especially privileged as a time of prayer. It may be that it is just to do with not being interrupted by other people, it may even be that we just pray better when we are rested. However, it seems to me that there is also something about those last hours of darkness as they move into the light – a fundamental journey for Christians. In popular speech people often claim to be either a night-owl or a morning-lark. I am not at all convinced that human beings are divided in such ways. It takes some 90 days or so to create a new habit. My own suspicion is that anyone can change their pattern of sleeping and rising. This is important because I don’t know anybody that has a substantial daily habit of prayer late in the evening. So establishing a pattern of early rising is a way of guaranteeing time for prayer. I am not suggesting sleep deprivation but that it would be good to consider shifting the day to get up early and go to bed early.

Clearly, the pattern of our days depends on negotiation with anyone we live with. I don’t have children. One of the things I am often trying to do is get clergy with young children to write about how to weave early parenthood with prayer. There is remarkably little literature on this. I am very aware that for some couples with or without children, finding time for prayer can be a significant cause of unhappiness and resentment. The negotiation around this will need to be approached in the same spirit as any other area of life. Prayer is important but it can’t be privileged against all the other demands of life but needs to be balanced with them. My own partner has seen the importance of prayer not just for me and my work but for us as a couple. He will often remind me to pray and comment on my looking better afterwards! I think unselfconsciousness about prayer helps. Jim is used to me praying aloud, in the car as he drives, in the house and on holiday. It is woven into the fabric of our lives.

I have a regular pattern to my working days and days off that it might be helpful to describe in some detail for anyone interested:

4am My alarm goes off Monday to Friday. I shower, make two cups of black tea and empty the dishwasher before heading into the cellar (the sacro speco). I will briefly check emails and Twitter and as I prepare the books for Vigils may Tweet some of the texts.

4:30am Vigils: 45 – 60 minutes

c 5:15 two more cups of black tea made to be drunk after Mass

c 5:40 Mass

c 6:00 lectio on the day’s gospel

6:30 to the Cathedral for intercession and Silence at the shrine

7:15 Morning Prayer

7:30 Mass in the Cathedral

8:00 Prime

The desk day starts with emails, reading for the day etc, I will normally have looked ahead in the day to when I will pray Terce, Sext and None, aiming for 9:45, 12 and 13:45 for these but fitting them around the meetings of the day, allowing 10 minutes for each of these.

18:00 Evensong in the Cathedral

Compline: sometimes I will pray this straight after dinner, or even, if we are going out and likely to be late back before dinner. I normally end Compline by reading the Gospel of the following day and doing the first two stages of the traditional four of lectio divina. In particular I may look up commentaries etc. I find this helps distract me and to relax from the stresses of the day! I aim to be asleep before ten and achieve that on most days.

Rest Days and Holidays: No alarm and usually sleep for 8-9 hours (rather than the 6-7 on other nights). Morning Prayer prayed whenever the morning reaches that point. Mid-Day Prayer and Mass normally celebrated before lunch and Office of Readings after lunch, Vespers and Compline when they fit with other activities.

Sundays: alarm at 6am and the remainder of the day pretty much as on other working days.

“By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God. Therefore, when this wonderful song of praise is rightly performed by priests and others who are deputed for this purpose by the Church’s ordinance, or by the faithful praying together with the priest in the approved form, then it is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom; It is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.”

Vatican 2, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 84

Praying at a Cathedral

Wednesday was Cathedral Evensong when I was at Theological College. The day there was no Office in the college chapel in the evening and we all attended Evensong at Chichester Cathedral. With the arrogance of youth I often didn’t take the opportunity to learn about the Anglican choral tradition and bunked off Evensong to pray Evening Prayer in my room with friends. Being an audience to the choir was not worship in my naïve view.

There’s an irony, therefore, in finding myself Sub Dean at Christ Church in Oxford. Although I should point out in fairness that I was substantially converted to the joys of the Cathedral tradition by a couple of years as Chaplain at Portsmouth Cathedral and St Luke’s School. The Precentor at Portsmouth provided me with the music for all the anthems sung and gently introduced me to the repertoire.

Adjusting to praying as a member of a Cathedral Chapter has been less difficult than I expected. Far from it, it is one of the greatest joys of being here. I love being part of this praying community. We pray Morning Prayer using Common Worship Daily Prayer and the usual lectionary. Evensong is prayed with BCP texts, the ‘pillar’ lectionary, and a single psalm or part of a psalm. It is a rich experience and the music is simply stunning. However, the jumping around Scripture of the Additional Lectionary (designed to suit those for whom any Office might be completely stand alone) and the relatively small amount of psalmody is frustrating. I knew that I would need to supplement this and create a more constant track to accompany it.

I pray the Little Hours each day, using Psalm 119, Compline and a Vigil Office. Vigils is an opportunity to build a little more consistency and quantity into my praying of the psalms and reading of Scripture. I began by trying to use Common Worship Daily Prayer for Vigils so that I would at least be using only two translations of the psalms but as I have written elsewhere on this site the CW psalms are a very wordy translation. I experimented with the 1997 ICEL version (see here), but, as always, I came back to the original Grail version as found in The Divine Office. And quite quickly a form of Vigils has emerged that works for me in covering the whole psalter in no more than four weeks, providing all the richness of the Office found in the Breviary and sufficient flexibility for days off, while also giving consistency.

The booklet I’ve created (see above) indicates what I use for each of the Hours of the day and has the music of the Ordinary. The fundamental arrangement is to pray all the psalms of the day (but not the Canticles) from The Divine Office as three nocturns of a Vigil (Office of Readings, Mid-day without Ps119, and Vespers psalms together then Lauds psalms) with the Lauds psalms coming last and heralding the Gospel of the Day. A Gospel Canticle (John 1, Beatitudes or I Am sayings) with the Benedictus antiphon in seasons and on feasts precedes intercession. This means that on rest days or holidays praying The Divine Office with the Office of Readings after lunch, works really well and doesn’t disturb the completeness of the psalter. I am using the one year cycle of Scripture at Vigils as printed in the three volumes of the Breviary but with a somewhat wider range of Patristic readings (from the various collections available for the two-year cycle and matched to the same Scripture reading). There’s a certain lack of consistency in Cathedral worship and this praying of The Divine Office makes up for that, I base my bible study and lectio, as well as study of the psalms on these texts and on the Mass readings (Daily Eucharistic Lectionary) each day. It is very satisfying.

Having a place to pray has always been important to me. It is a great blessing that there are cellars under the house here, the remains of the foundations to what was going to be Cardinal Wolsey’s great chapel which was never built. In one of these rooms I have been able to make a little ‘sacro speco’ for my prayer. The other place I love to pray is the shrine of St Frideswide and I try to get 30 minutes of silent prayer and intercession there each morning. It is not for me as the popular phrase has it a ‘thin place’, quite the opposite, it is thick with the prayers of the centuries, and for me, an almost tangible sense of her presence, this woman whose name means ‘strong peace’ is very strong indeed, and very present.