Deep from the Great Tradition: Litany in a time of Pandemic

When we wrote The Manual, the way of life of the Sodality, the community of priests I belong to, we included this important paragraph:

Sodalists will be at the forefront of those seeking to understand what it means to ordain men and women to all orders of ministry; we will particularly celebrate women saints and integrate the writings of women and men into our experience and understanding of priesthood.

Slightly tongue-in-cheek, in the early days of the Sodality I described us as ‘Extreme Anglo-Catholics in favour of the ordination of women.’ Tongue-in-cheek as it was ( and far too limiting of the breadth of the vision God was calling us to) there was some truth in it. I quite liked it when the bishop of Croydon described us as the Trappists of the catholic stream of Anglicanism “of the Strict Observance.”

Rigour and high demands are important, and were what led to the flourishing of Anglo-Catholicism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They enabled the ministry to the poor and the work for social justice that was the essential outworking of that spirituality. Without outward facing work for justice, spirituality simply strokes the ego and enhances rather than crucifies the ego. Rigour and high demands are not rules to be kept or hoops to be jumped through. Better to think of them as a balloon flying freely into the sky, or a kite carried by the wind.

The Great Tradition (see footnote below) is ‘ever ancient, ever new’ (St Augustine). Drawing deeply from the tradition is vital, and it must bear fruit in the new. My great mantra for the Christian life is : Jesus centred – Spirit filled – bible based.

There is great flowering of creativity in the Sodality: blogs, litanies, such as the one above written by Mother Ayla, Mother Berni, Father Angela, Mother Sally and Father Steven.

The Litany is a great example of ‘ever ancient, ever new’. It is deeply rooted in the tradition and also creative and responsive to the needs of our time. I am deeply grateful for this gift.

Another example of this is the book Prayers for An Inclusive Church. by Fr Steven Shakespeare an aspirant to our Sodality. The title doesn’t quite reflect the content. It is a deeply traditional collection of Collects for the three year cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. Traditional in that each Collect is constructed with the ‘noble simplicity’ of the western Collect form, at which Cranmer was so gifted. Creative and new in the images used, which are truly Jesus-centred and Spirit filled, drawing on the Scriptures in the lectionary it is bible-based.

There is much in the tradition to help us pray this current pandemic. Christians have lived with plague in many circumstances and many times. I often find myself at the moment re-reading Julian of Norwich who experienced plague more destructive than our current afflictions and who saw in the cross a life-giving tree. Ever ancient, ever new.

The Great Tradition

This description of the spiritual life of the church is one I first came across as a teenager at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Crawley Down in West Sussex, I would recommend Fr Steven Underdown’s book Living in the Eighth Day: The Christian Week and the Paschal Mystery as a further explanation of this. He writes in that book:

“Three men, whom CSWG now accounts its joint-founders, not only shared a common experience of ministry among the disadvantaged and marginalised, they also shared the conviction that is was the specifically spiritual dimension in Christian life that was most in need of renewal. A saying attributed to Fr [William] Sirr has been seen as encapsulating their common belief:

“The mission of the church is weak because its prayer is weak.” Only though the renewal of the Church’s mystical and ascetic traditions – that is its vision of God and its tradition of conversion of life – could the life and witness of the the Church be renewed.”

The Wisdom of Solomon: some thoughts on New Patterns for Worship … and living.

Sermon at St John’s, Fulham for the meeting of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests on 13 February 2020

My dearest friends, Mothers and Fathers. One of the the many things I love about our very own Church Of England is the variety of streams of tradition within it. While I think it best to drink deeply from a single stream. To be formed in one tradition. To know who we are so that we can be fully ourselves with others who are different to us is vitally important.

It is no less vitally important that we drink at other wells and learn from others. To realise that our differences never negate our common humanity, let alone our common baptism.

One of the elements of the evangelical tradition that I have come to love is the preaching of a series of sermons. If you look at well known evangelical parish websites you will find many sermons to listen to and even, sometimes watch.

On many occasions these will be based on individuals in the Old Testament. Nehemiah often comes up – and indeed I have led a number of study sessions on Nehemiah myself, including last October, for the Conference of Leaders of Anglican Religious Communities, our traditional, vowed monastic communities. Nehemiah is a great role model for Christian leadership, especially in a time when institutions seem to be in decline and some rebuilding of the walls is needed.

I imagine, perhaps I am guilty of stereotyping us! But I imagine that we are perhaps not as familiar with the liturgical book New Patterns for Worship, as we might be of certain other official liturgical publications.

Perhaps I am wrong, I hope so, because NPW includes some really excellent material. Not least among these are a series of modules of readings that can be used outside the seasons of the church’s year in place of the official lectionary. I recommend you get to know them and make use of them. Many feature significant individuals from the Old Testament such as Noah.

If you read my blog you will know that for pedagogical, educational reasons, I have become something of a fan of the traditional one year lectionary. I can imagine Sunday worship in which the ante-communion, the liturgy of the Word makes use of one of these series of readings for a first reading, followed by a sermon and then continues with the two short readings of the historic lectionary and on into the Eucharistic rite. In one church where I served we even broke for coffee after the liturgy of the Word so that some people could leave at that point and those who wanted to remained for the rest. It was very effective and worked well.

That is a somewhat long, and homiletically poor, introduction to looking at today’s first reading.

There is no series of readings in NPW on Solomon, which is a shame.

Solomon is best known, of course for being wise. But if that is all we know about him we have a rather weak and uninteresting character. Today’s reading fills that out a bit. We have to be a little careful that there is not some gender bias going on, the wise man led astray by his wives. But the important thing is not who leads who astray, but that Solomon exhibits some considerable foolishness.

Personally I find that quite helpful. We all, yes we do, all of us, do foolish things. We are all, yes all of us, unwise at times, perhaps very often. Tragedy appeals to us because deep down we know that at any point our foolishness might undo our lives.

I am glad to say that I do not have a number of pagan wives leading me astray. But I do know that I do not love the Lord wholeheartedly. I love God very much. Jesus is the centre of my life. But I know that I also am very attached to my nice middle class lifestyle. When I pray “do with me what you will”, when I say multiple times a day in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” I really don’t mean it wholeheartedly …

We Anglo Catholics like to remind ourselves of our glorious past. The slum priests who gave up everything to serve the poor. But when I was a priest in Grangetown in Middlesbrough or Portsea where Fr Dolling had been a priest, or Lewisham. All areas of considerable deprivation (and how proud we can all be of our very own deprivation index!) I lived the same middle class life I could have lived anywhere. Yet in my work as Spiritual Director/Adviser to emerging new communities I meet young evangelicals, Anglicans and others, who give up everything to take their families and children into places of dire poverty, who open up their homes to live with recovering alcoholics, gang members and the generally socially inept. For whom dinner is a simple shared meal with strangers not a dinner party with too much gin and four crystal glasses.

Changing the way we live. The choices we have made and make is tough. But what is conversion if it is not that? In the story we have just heard in the gospel I imagine Jesus smiling when the Syro-Phoenician woman tells him that even the dogs deserve crumbs. He knows she is right. He changes his mind. And that is wisdom indeed.

Solomon, like the rest of us was both wise and foolish.

I am not especially keen n formal dinner parties so it’s easy for me to critique them. I know what my idols are. Thy will be done? I suspect in a month’s time there will be just as many Amazon parcels arriving as there have ever been …

Serious Christianity: a review of the St Stephen’s House Office Book

It is impossible for me to hear or sing the stunningly simple Peregrine Tone of Gregorian chant without thinking of Holy Trinity church in Winchester. There, as an undergraduate in the mid 1980’s, Julian Chilcott-Monk taught me to sing plainsong from Procter and Frere’s A Manual of Plainsong. The Peregrine, the ‘wandering’ tone is the simplest of all the tones and hauntingly beautiful.

The recovery of Plainsong in Anglican liturgy in the nineteenth century was an essential part of the the Catholic-Revival. Wherever I have introduced some sort of chant liturgy it has brought young adults to church. A ‘Compline Choir’ I ran once sang only the music of Compline week after week ending with drinks in a local pub. Everyone that came was between 20 and 30 years old.

There is a profoundly contemplative quality to chant. It demands our attention to text and music and draws us away from our own mental roundabouts.

Many, like me have spent years collecting books of chant from second-hand bookshops and clergy clearing their libraries at retirement. This is interesting. Often there are so many variations in editions that it is impossible to use multiple copies with a group.

I am, therefore, deeply grateful to St Stephen’s House, the Anglo-Catholic theological college in Oxford for publishing their Office book. It is a great contribution to the much needed new revival of catholic Anglicanism and I hope that it will be well used and much bought. There are still, I am told, plenty of copies left but it was a limited print and there will be no re-print. Please email officebook@ssho.ox.ac.uk to order.

The Office book was compiled by Fr Kyle McNeil and is a superb piece of work. He deserves much congratulation and thanks. There is a fine foreword by the Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, who draws attention to the obligation on the clergy to pray the Office, the value of a physical book which “locates us in the material world of specific things, such as time and place, that are themselves part of the scandalous immediacy of encounter with God.” Bishop Martin continues:

“The book’s location in a stall or similar place of prayer in church calls us daily onto the threshold of sacred space, not only does the journey there witness to a habit of prayer, it also opens up the possibility that we might invite and inspire others to join us in the routine of prayer.”

There is also a fine introduction which places the praying of the Office in the context of the priestly life and gives practical information for the praying of this book. This is fundamentally a ‘Prayer Book Office’ but makes use of the 1963 Revised Psalter which lightly adapts the Prayer Book psalms to accord with better scholarship on the Hebrew text, and intelligibility to the modern reader. It loses none of the beauty. It is assumed that the contemporary liturgical year and calendar of Common Worship is being followed but enriched with some additional material for saints and a few other celebrations.

All psalms and canticles are pointed to be sung to the traditional plainsong/Gregorian tones. A complete collection of Office hymns for Morning and Evening Prayer is also provided each with the traditional Sarum (rather than Roman) form of the plainsong music. For many of us some of these hymn melodies will be too complex to sing either alone or with a small group but it is good to see these ‘authentic’ melodies present and other, simpler melodies in the book could generally, be used in their place.

The texts of antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat for the entire liturgical year are also provided and these are pointed for simple tones. The canticles are given in Solemn and Simple tones and the Venite and Gospel Canticles are given in four sets of tones to be used a week at a time over a four-week cycle.

No other reference is made to lectionary provision other than to state:

“The Church of England’s lectionary is highly complex … It should be consulted separately, or an alternative lectionary employed.”

A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. As I have written on this blog recently.

For those wanting to pray a ‘traditional language’ office the provision of Collects in one place is extremely helpful and very usefully enriched by some collects not provided for in any form in Common Worship. Today’s Memoria of Saint John Bosco being a very good example. These are translated into traditional language liturgical English. These are generally well done although a smile of amusement might be needed on occasion. For St John Bosco “young men and maidens” certainly caused me to smile.

Innovations in the book are the provision of a set of Old Testament Canticles for use at Matins in place of the Benedicte which is reserved for Feasts and Solemnities. I am a great fan of the Benedicite with its creation emphasis and the repetition of it and the Te Deum don’t worry me, but I know that this is an issue for many people. However, it does mean that only one setting of Benedicite is given which seems very light. For Evensong a set of New Testament Canticles (as used in the Roman Office) is given in traditional language so that those who pray Compline every day can reserve the Nunc Dimittis for that. Both of these provisions are very helpful.

The Te Deum is reserved for its traditional Roman / western place, at the end of the Morning Office on Feasts and Solemnities, rather than the Anglican practice between the readings. It is provided in just one setting.

The traditional anthems to the Blessed Virgin Mary are provided in Latin with their Versicles and Responses and collects.

For those using the book outside of Oxford notes are given to adapt the rank of various Oxford specific celebrations.

I have very few criticisms of this book, it is an outstanding piece of work, handsomely produced. I would have liked to see provision for the Circumcision of Christ on January 1st in accord with Anglican and long-standing western custom, rather than an additional feast of Our Lady. It would have been useful to have the Prayer Book Collects in their traditional order and form as an appendix. But these are minor quibbles.

I am especially happy to see provision made for the Interior Life of Our Lord (on January 19th) and The Interior Life of Our Lady (on October 22nd). These are often seen as precursor devotions to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts but in fact they reflect something rather more about the imitation of Christ and his mother.

These commemorations of the interior lives are important because they emphasise the inner conversion that is at the heart of the Christian life. They also relate to the Sulpician tradition of training priests that has its origins in the French school of spirituality of Bérulle and Fr Olier. His beautiful prayer is an important part of the Manual of the Sodality and is worth praying by any ordained person. I know that it is a prayer much loved by Fr Robin, Principal at St Stephen’s House and many of the fine priests trained there in his time as Principal.

I hope that the SSH Office Book will be much prayed and form a significant part of the seriousness needed for a revival of the catholic stream in the Church of England:

O Jesus, living in Mary,

come and live in thy servants,

in the spirit of thy holiness,

in the fullness of thy might,

in the truth of thy virtues,

in the perfection of thy ways,

in the communion of thy mysteries.

Subdue every hostile power in thy Spirit,

for the glory of the Father.

Amen.

Jean Jacques Olier

Beginning Contemplation: Review of ‘How to Sit With God’

How to Sit With God – A Practical Guide to Silent Prayer Jean-Marie Gueullette Tr Kieran J. O’ Mahony Veritas, 2018

Jack is twenty-nine, he has been married for seven years and has two children under five. He and his wife both graduated with very good degrees from one of the UK’s best universities. They married that same year and moved to the northern town where they now live and work in full-time ministry for a ‘non-denominational church’.

Jack and his wife are fictionalised versions of many individuals and couples I have come to know in recent years. Their friends have high powered jobs in the City, Civil service or industry. But they became involved in large evangelical churches while at university, took part in summer activities and placements in various parts of the country. They have heard and responded to God calling them to ministry in places they would never have been to otherwise.

I am almost overwhelmed with awe when I see the sacrifice that couples and individuals like this have made. This is taking the option for the poor seriously.

It is not easy in so many ways. The energy and enthusiasm of a large church full of committed young people makes it easy to sustain faith, to feel confident and buoyed up. But the realities of life in places where there are no or few young people at church; where the levels of neediness, mental health issues and all the associated factors of poverty are the dominant reality can eat away at that.

Conferences, visits to and from friends, inspiring podcasts can all help. However, moments of spiritual renewal and refreshment can sometimes make the thirst seem greater at other times.

That’s the question Jack came to me with having followed me on Twitter. How can I sustain my prayer, my relationship with Jesus in the daily grind, the relentless cycle of family, children, pastoral work, ministry?

Like many others, Jack’s family are experimenting with forms of daily prayer. They bought Northumbria Community Office books, and tried other online materials – but found them unsatisfying.

Jack feels a need for silence – not just as an escape from family life! – but in his prayer.

I made two suggestions. For daily prayer just reading Scripture as it is. Beginning with psalmody, as much or as little as wanted at each sitting, and then readings from a ‘bible in a year’ plan.

My other suggestion was around finding some time every day for contemplative practice. Sitting still with God.

I wish I had found Jean-Marie Gueullette’s book How To Sit With God, when I first met Jack. Gueullette is a French Dominican priest teaching at the University of Lyon. I know nothing more about him. His book is an excellent introduction to Christian contemplative prayer. It is wise, unpretentious and practical. I have already bought multiple copies to share.

As I read How To Sit With God, I marked with a pencil important passages and quotations. My copy is very heavily underlined throughout. This is a rich source of teaching. Gueullette begins by showing how the prayer he is suggesting is the simplest possible form of prayer. This simplicity will have a strong appeal to those who are looking for an un-churchy, un-adorned gospel. Jesus in the raw.

Perhaps even more attractive to those formed by conservative evangelicalism will be Gueullette’s emphasis on faith as the fundamental requirement for contemplative prayer. In this short (176 page) book he goes on to describe how to do this prayer and places it within the context of struggle and discipline There is no pretence that this will be easy. He shows how it is one way of praying among others and finally gives an overview of the place of this prayer in Christian history.

It is this final section of the book that is weakest for the purposes for which I want to use it. here, Gueullette is writing very much from his tradition and nation. After the early centuries of Christian history is exclusively Roman Catholic and heavily weighted to France, with sections on Francis de Sales and the seventeenth century French spiritual tradition. That said the English mystics get surprisingly strong treatment in the main text of the book. In particular the Cloud of Unknowing; the source of English Benedictine spirituality (in the English Benedictine Congregation), Augustine Baker, and in its twentieth century flowering in the spiritual letters of Dom John Chapman of Downside. Although as Gueullette points out Baker lived in northern France for significant parts of his adult life and so might well be said to represent, partially at least, French spirituality.

My only other criticism of this book is Gueullette’s reference point in those Christians who have sought, and discovered, a practice of silence and stillness in the traditions of the Far East. I agree with everything he says about the need to be aware of the religious beliefs that underpin some of the practices, making them unsuitable for Christians. However, he never refers to the secular practices of mindfulness that are not rooted in an alien metaphysic. It may be simply a refection of his context in French Catholicism. Again, for my purposes this material is not useful. Most of the people I work with have not investigated Far Eastern traditions but come from evangelical Protestant traditions.

Method

Gueullette presents the method of prayer he is describing simply and beautifully. Quite simply:

It consists of saying a word inwardly while sitting calmly.

(page 17)

Gueullette suggests words such as: Father, Abba, Jesus, Lord, God, Kyrie Eleison, Adonai. Fundamental to his teaching is that the word

… must be a name for God, not an idea about God or a description of God such as ‘love’ or ‘goodness’.

(page 17)

Throughout the book Gueullette stresses that this is a practice for a lifetime, and will bear fruit over many years. He distinguishes the practice from that of repeating a phrase or verse of the psalms or other parts of Scripture through the course of the day (as suggested by John Cassian).

Twenty five minutes a day is the time suggested for silence. Interestingly Gueullette suggests staying faithful to that amount of prayer even when the desire to sit for longer comes. For him it is important to be free of ‘feelings’ as the driver of prayer.

To those who think rules like this rob us of spontaneity he is clear that this practice is principally about faithfulness and discipline:

Faithfulness calls for a certain discipline, which today can appear contrary to authenticity or spontaneity. yet we are ready to accept it when it comes to dieting or keeping fit! In the case of physical exercise, as in the spiritual life, one can only progress at the cost of daily effort. It is not the extraordinary experience that make the life of prayer, but the humble fidelity to it every day, lived over many years.

(page 108)

Posture

Very few books on prayer are helpful on posture. This is extremely unfortunate because it is so important. When I began my first degree, in World Religions, I remember arriving at Buddhist monasteries, Mosques, Hindu Mandirs, Sikh temples and almost the first thing were told was how to sit, what posture to adopt. More than that, detailed instruction would be given on prayer and meditation at the very outset.

Gueullette knows what he is talking about when it comes to posture. He is clear on the role of the spine and pelvis and in using the abdomen (the diaphragm) for breathing.

It is mainly the spine that helps us stay awake: without being tense or stiff it stands, resting on the pelvis, supported by our breathing.

(page 28)

There are good descriptions of using prayer stools and meditation cushions with the lotus, half-lotus or sitting positions. Whatever posture is adopted the author is clear that it is sitting that is essential, and he quotes another English mystic, Richard Rolle:

It is the quiet sitting that makes the soul wise.

(page 27)

Breathing

At the heart of sitting still is an activity we are engaged in as long as we are alive. Breathing. In this fascinating lecture at St Vladimir’s Seminary Bishop Alexander of the Orthodox Church in America shows how the roots of using the breath in prayer have textual evidence as early as the 5th to the 6th centuries. Again How To Sit With God gets this exactly right. Breath is not something for the author, that requires too much attention, but is significant. The ‘letting go’ that is the end of the out breath is particularly significant. If we think at all about breathing we tend to think of it as something that requires equal effort on the out and in breath but in fact once the contraction of the ribs that is the out-breath has reached its limit the air naturally fills the lungs again:

We do not need to look for air, we just have to empty the air inside us. … You just have to let go, to stop exhaling so that breathing in takes place spontaneously.

(page 36)

Theology of Sitting Still

Gueullette carefully addresses the apparent contradiction between faith and works in his explanation of this method of prayer. For him God’s action is paramount. His key conversation partner is, not surprisingly Augustine. Fundamental to his view is that:

The methods under discussion here act upon us and not upon God.

(page 45)

and

The one who prays does not seek to feel the presence of God, but rather is called upon to believe it.

(page 59)

Distractions

One of the key issues facing anybody who tries to sit still and be with God, or even follow the breath in Mindfulness practice is thoughts. What are often called ‘distractions’. Gueullette helpfully quotes Abbot Chapman at length:

We want to use our will to ‘want God’, and not to keep our thoughts in order. We want to be ‘wanting God’, and detached from everything else. hence we want to let our thoughts run about by themselves … and not to control them; in order that our will may turn wholly to God. the result is naturally that, while our will is making its intense (but also imperceptible) act of love, our imagination is running about by itself, just a sir does in a dream; so that we seem to be full of distractions, and not praying at all. But this is contrary of the fact. The distractions, which are so vivid to us, are not voluntary actions, and have no importance; whereas the voluntary action we are performing is the wanting God …

(quoted on page 60)

For busy people

If you lead a very active lifestyle and feel there are never enough hours in the day, you are the ideal candidate for silent prayer.

(page 62)

Gueullette is clear that like breathing, thinking is what we do when we are alive, it is:

the signs of cerebral activity and it is not really helpful to dream of a time when the brain would no longer function.

(page 75)

Lifestyle

Gueullette suggests ways in which this form of prayer will change our lives. Getting up earlier. Watching less television. Creating a place for prayer at home. Silent prayer will have ethical consequences in our lives.

Seriousness

Silent prayer is then a fight at every moment, where, each time the name is repeated, it is necessary to take oneself again in hand and to bring oneself back in the presence of God.

(page 124)

I understand the author’s (or translator’s) use of ‘struggle’ to describe this prayer, however, I am not entirely sure it is the most helpful image. “while the struggle is real, it is at the same time delightful” he says. Which seems to capture the balance better. I prefer to think of this as a serious business, a work. And like all hard work it is deeply satisfying; often most when most difficult.

It is always different after silence

Some time in 2013 a large group of headteachers came to visit Trinity, the school where I was Head in Lewisham. We had been practising Mindfulness as a school for three years. One of the places we used silence most effectively was in the Restorative Meetings that replaced sanctions on poor behaviour. One Year 11 (15-16 year old) pupils was describing this to the group and how when things became stuck in those meetings often someone suggests a time of Mindfulness using a five minute sand timer: “It is always,” she said, “different after the silence.”

Silence changes things. More importantly silence changes us. It make us more loving, more able to be attentive to others, to children, partners, those we minister to and with. As Gueullette so clearly shows silence isn’t the only way of prayer. It need not replace other forms of prayer and worship but take place alongside them in our lives.

Jack has been practising silent prayer in this way for almost 18 months now, “It has changed my life,” he says. It is always different after silence.