Dark Nights (1.0?)

This is, perhaps, the opening of a much longer discussion (thus, the numeral with question mark appended to the title).  The subject cannot be quickly covered, and shouldn’t be.  But what I post here will open it.

Desolation is a word that speaks volumes in itself.  I’ve been reading Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit, to my eldest son.  He loves it, and he particularly enjoys trying to trace the journey of Bilbo and the dwarves on the map that sits in our volume of the story.  So when I come across “desolation,” it’s a word that reminds me of the desolation of Smaug.  Dragon fire, death, destruction, decay.  Lots of “d”s.  I think in general, we look on desolation as a negative.  It speaks of negative things, and we want nothing to do with it.  But we would do well to remember that out of the desolation of a forest fire comes the new growth of the forest.  Gifts come in different packages, and it is no surprise if some come disguised in garb we aren’t familiar, or comfortable, with.

That’s right.  Desolation is a gift.

So, let’s start at the beginning.  The experience of many, in coming to faith in Jesus, is that they find an incredible consolation (as the ancients put it) – an experience of God’s tangible presence with them as they approach via whatever road they’re travelling at the time: hymnody (or praise music), liturgy, Bible study, prayer, mediation.  When faith in Jesus is enlivened in the human heart, people invariably seek to go deeper with Him.  When they engage this process of deepening relationship, by whatever means available to them, they receive consolation – a joy-filled and exciting experience of God’s pleasure and presence with them.  It is God’s affirmation to them that they are on the right track, that He is pleased with them.

But there tends to come a time in a believer’s journey with God when this consolatory experience is withdrawn.  God pulls it back.  This is desolation.  This is the desert, the dryness, the lack of invigoration or vitality that had become associated with pursuing God.  Praying the daily offices just doesn’t feel the same anymore.  Praying for others feels like more of a burden than it did.  Reading and studying the Bible loses its lustre, because it used to feel so clear but now it feels so empty.  Fellowship with other Christians feels like a charade.  Perhaps you’ve felt some of these – maybe less markedly than described here.  Maybe more pronounced than described here.  Perhaps you feel that way right now.

I think that our tendency is to try to avoid that as best we can.  We rotate through the Christian disciplines so that whatever it is we’re doing, it’s always something fresh.  “When liturgical worship started to feel dry to me, I switched to a more evangelical tradition that incorporated more praise music into communal worship.”  Or the other way around.  “When my prayers started to feel impotent, I gave up praying and started to read the Bible more, and to study it deeper.  When that started to feel dry and contrived, I gave myself over to meditation of the things of God – you know, eternal things.  When that started to lose its flavour, I started praying again.”  For some Christians, these cycles characterize their whole lives.  “Whatever works for me, for right now.”

The hard truth, which I’ll leave you to contemplate, is that for many of us we aren’t engaging spiritual disciplines because we love Jesus and want to go deeper with Him, but because we love the feeling of consolation that He gives.  The evidence: we chase that feeling, unsure that we’re “doing it right” unless it is present.

More on this another time.  First, we will look a little more closely at consolation itself.  But that will be next time.

Fr. Jonathan+


‘Give what you command, and command what you will’

This week, our collect reminded me of one of the more famous members of the Cloud of Witnesses, Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 431). Let us begin first with the Prayer Book Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter:

O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The collect originates in the early mediaeval sacramentary associated with Pope Gelasius I (492-96), although there and with Cranmer in the 1500s, its invocation was ‘Almighty God, which does make the minds of all faithful men to be of one will’ — it was changed in 1662 in response to the Commonwealth and its suppression of the Prayer Book. The phrase that caught me yesterday was not the invocation, as important as that is in both the 1549 and 1662 versions, but the supplication, that God’s people would love what He commands and desire what He promises.

St Augustine, 6th-c image from Lateran

The St Augustine quote is not precisely the same:

Da quod iubes, et iube quod vis. Imperas nobis … continentiam.

Give what you command, and command what you will. You impose continency on us. –Confessions X, 29

St Augustine is praying for the ability to live by God’s commands, and for God’s commands to be whatever they may — in his case, celibacy. The Prayer Book is praying for us to love His commands and desire His promises. Nevertheless, if anyone is to embrace the famous Augustine quotation, it is necessary to grasp hold of the Prayer Book supplication. For God to ‘give what [He] commands’ and for us to accept it freely, we need work on our hearts and affections; we need ‘to love the thing which’ He commands.

Of course, this is perfectly biblical. One Psalmic example of many, Psalm 119:35:

Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; * for therein is my desire.

Jeremiah 31:33 (repeated Heb. 10:16) says that God will inscribe the Law on His people’s hearts. We are to be saved from sin by loving virtue. God can command what He will, and we shall be able to do it because the law of the LORD will become our delight.

But the Prayer Book takes us above and beyond Law to blessing. God’s Word is full not only of exhortation but also of promises. Look through the early chapters of Revelation, ‘To him who perseveres I shall…’ Look to Romans, ‘If you believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord and confess with your mouth that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ Look to the promises of Our Lord in Matthew, ‘Come to me all that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.’

If we endure faithful to the end, if we persevere in faith in a godless society, and accept God’s grace to live holy lives, if we pray this collect and that prayer of St Augustine, we shall inherit the universe (Ro 8:17).

Let’s pray with fervour, then.

~ Matthew ~

The Collect for Easter 2: Orthodox Tension

This week’s collect, which I hope all of us at the Witness Cloud have prayed many times already, is one written by Thomas Cranmer himself, and worth meditating on:

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The entire focus of the prayer is in the invocation: ‘a sacrifice for sin’ and ‘an example of godly life’ (or, in 1662, ‘ensample’!). The request itself then asks for grace to receive the benefits of that sacrifice, as well as to follow the ensample. In one fell swoop, Thomas Cranmer has written a beautiful prayer that holds up for us the tension, the balance, of orthodoxy.

The sacrifice of Jesus, the request for grace, and the benefit Christ gives us all target Pelagianism. Regardless of what the man Pelagius may have actually believed, Pelagianism, the teaching condemned by the ancient church, is a rejection of grace, a declaration that we do not need God’s help in saving ourselves, and our good works are good enough. (Again, in case a Pelagius fan drops in, I’m not saying this is what he or Caelestius or Julius of Aeclanum believed.)

Our salvation — indeed, our very ability to do good works and follow the ensample of godly life — depends upon God’s grace. Whether you are Augustinian, follow the more moderate path of John Cassian, embrace the approach of the Eastern Church, or are a dyed-in-the-wool Hyper-Calvinist, historic orthodoxy teaches the same: We need grace.

Some people, however, are inclined to grace abuse. The example that springs to mind is someone I once knew remarking to me, ‘That’s right, we’re all saved by grace, not by our works. What do you think goes on between me and my boyfriend every night?’ As though sin should abound all the more because of grace. This is the heresy of antinomianism.

But the tension of orthodoxy is that grace enables us to be holy. Jesus is our example of godly life, and we are to pray for grace to live by it. We are created to do good works.

Here we see the beautiful care put into the readings for Communion in the Prayer Book, for Cranmer chose 1 Peter 2:19-25, a passage that directly upholds the doctrine of this collect:

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (NIV)

Finally, I close this reflection with the words of St Mark the Ascetic, ‘No Righteousness by Works’, a text in The Philokalia:

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken. (No. 18)

~ Matthew ~

The One who opens my Lips

O Lord, open thou our lips.

And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.

I’m a talker.  I always have been.  My four-year-old son can’t seem to stop – he’s always humming something or making noises to go along with whatever he’s playing, and I know he comes by it honestly.  Extroverts are like that.  We think out loud.  We open our mouths.  Sometimes we put a foot in it.  Sometimes both.  I’ve always got something to say.  Slowing down, and holding it back, and really listening to those I converse with… is a learned skill, for me.  It doesn’t come naturally.  But it does come.  What helps with the learning is the conviction that I’m not the only one with something valuable to say (if what I have is even something valuable, and not just a two-footed mouthful waiting to happen!).  I’ve been able to learn it with people because I’ve learned it with Jesus.

He disarms me.

My wit and so-called wisdom are no match for the One who is truth.  My highest is nothing, by comparison.  When I encounter – or rather, “when I am encountered by,” for that is the true nature of things – the presence of the Almighty, I am silenced.  What is there to say?  Except, perhaps, “Woe is me!  I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and I have been ushered into the presence of the Almighty God!”  I like to think that Isaiah and I would have been good friends, but such a thought is born of vanity and I am disarmed of it in the Lord’s presence.  Like the old friend who you know so well but who one day suffers a terrible loss, and you go to him to console but no words come out and you just end up sitting together in silence.  Only, I’m the old friend who has nothing left; I’m the one drawing strength from His presence with me; I’m the one who’s faculties have failed; I’m the one who has been undone, because it’s not about me anymore – and if my mouth is going to open, He will have to open it.  If words are going to pass my lips, He will have to bring them forth.  If my voice is going to sound, it will only be as He gives it utterance.  O Lord, open thou our lips.

It is the prayer of a child lost in awe in being ushered into the throne room of the great and mighty One.  One day every knee will bow; one day every tongue will confess; until that day comes, until God’s Kingdom is known in fullness, I will set myself to practising this discipline.  Because when I open my lips there are all kinds of things that come out, and many of them are the wrong things.  And many of these cannot be taken back.  But when the Lord opens my lips, what can I utter but His most worthy praise – words that honour Him, being born of Him; words that echo His written word, being spoken by Him; words that speak of His glory.

When I enter into a time of prayer, when I pray one of the daily offices, I begin with these words because if I didn’t begin with these words, when once I have entered into God’s presence – the throne room of grace, then I would not begin.  I could not begin.  The true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth.  So let the Holy Spirit lead your prayer, guide your speech, direct your mouth.

Fr. Jonathan Hoskin+

“O Lord, open thou our lips” (some devotional history)

This versicle in a 15th-c French Book of Hours

This versicle in a 15th-c French Book of Hours

Whether you use a traditional BCP or the BAS or Common Worship or (at least at Morning Prayer) Celebrating Common Prayer the Opening Sentences for Morning and Evening Prayer are from Psalm 51:15:

O Lord, open thou our lips.

And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

In many versions of the Office, these versicles are the first thing you pray; in the BCP, they come after the Confession. A quick ecumenical glance Rome-ward sees these as the Opening Sentences for Vigils in Benedictine Daily Prayer as well as of Morning Prayer over at iBreviary.

That so many Anglican versions of the daily office open with these little verses could simply be attributed to our common relationship with the BCP. But to share them with the Roman Catholic Church points to something wider within the western tradition of the Liturgy of the Hours. Indeed, as Blunt says in The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, these — and the versicles that follow — have been in the daily office ‘time immemorial’.

In this case, ‘time immemorial’ seems to have been the fourth century, judging from the evidence discussed in R. Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West. First, let’s keep in mind the fact that the daily office did not originate with the monks and that there was the ‘cathedral office’ alongside and interacting with the monastic traditions. In the eastern church, since at least the time of St Basil the Great (330-379), Matins in the cathedral office began with the whole of this Psalm, the great penitential psalm of King David.

This was also the case in the monastery in Bethlehem where John Cassian (ca. 360 – ca. 435) lived. Cassian is an important figure in the history of monasticism, and we’ll see him more when we turn our minds to “O God, make speed to save us”, although we’ve already met him in one of my brother’s posts in this blog. After time in a monastery in Bethlehem, and then ten years amongst the ‘Desert Fathers‘ of Egypt, Cassian went to Constantinople, then Rome, and finally settled in Marseille where he founded a monastery. There he wrote about his experiences in Egypt and the lives and teachings of the Egyptian monks, adapting them for life in southern France. He is one of the influences upon St Benedict (480-543/7) who recommended Cassian’s Conferences for his monks to read.

In The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, Blunt, in fact, believes that this versicle made its way into Benedict’s Rule specifically because of its use at the start of Matins in the East. This is not impossible, given the influence of eastern asceticism upon the West in the early centuries of the monastic movement.

In Chapter 9, speaking of the ‘Night Office’ (nocturnis horis) St Benedict says:

In winter the office should begin with the verse, ‘Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will show forth your praise’ repeated three times. There should then follow Psalm 3 and the Gloria, then Psalm 95, which should be chanted, preferably with an antiphon. (Trans. Carolinne White, p. 32)

Benedict gives detailed instructions for the divine office in chapters 8-19, closing that section of the Rule with chapter 20:

If we wish to ask a favour of a powerful person, we would not dare to do so except with humility and respect. Is it not all the more important for us to pray to the Lord, the God of all, with the utmost humility and purity of devotion? We must be aware that he will only listen to us if we pray not so much at length but with purity of heart and tears of compunction. And so our prayer should be kept short and simple, unless divine grace inspires us to prolong our prayer. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short, and when a superior gives the signal everybody should stand at the same time. (Trans. Carolinne white, p. 45)

Now, the story of the next 900 years of liturgical history — that is, the Middle Ages — is not of ‘short and simple’ prayer, whether in the cathedral office or the monastic office. The two of them were not hermetically-sealed, of course. Just as the monastic and cathedral offices of matins in the East both began with Psalm 51, which may have influenced Benedict in the West, so in the West, the monks and the secular clergy with the laity were not separated. And, while we have a variety of other ancient monastic rules in the West (St Augustine’s, St Columbanus’, the Rule of the Master, etc.), the Rule of St Benedict became pre-eminent, due to its prominence amongst the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Francia, and thus its sponsorship by the great Carolingian monarchs from Charlemagne (r. 768-814) onwards.

Charlemagne was big fan of regularising things. In the version of his life by Notker the Stammerer, much attention is given to Charlemagne’s desire to have the liturgy sung and chanted properly. He promoted Roman canon law throughout his domains, along with corrected Latin Bibles and the Rule of St Benedict.

Anyway, the Benedictine Rule and the office it promotes interacted with the Cathedral worship. Thus, we get the Roman Breviary — that is, the short version of the office as practised in western Europe, in Latin Christianity — including this element in it for night prayers as in the Benedictine use. In Britain, the Roman Rite was celebrated according to the ‘Use’ of Salisbury — this is called the ‘Sarum Use’ or ‘Sarum Rite’, although the term ‘rite’ is dependent on how you define a rite. This evolved from the 12th to 15th century, and, like the Roman Rite on the Continent, it grew and became complicated because of the many saints days and the like. Even using one of today’s revised breviaries can be a difficult task! You can see this versicle’s appearance here in the modern edition of the 1505 Hereford Breviary (which takes 3 vols), ‘Ad Matutinas de Adventu’.

Although to many of us, it would make sense for Matutinae or Matins to refer to Morning Prayer, it was actually a night office in the Middle Ages. Hence this versicle’s inclusion in Vigils in Benedictine Daily Prayer above as well as at Matins in the Hereford Breviary, since that is how Benedict recommended starting night-time prayers.

It was clear from the 1400s that the Breviary needed to be revised because of how complicated it was. The first to put his hand to the task was Quiñones in the early 1500s, who reduced the Breviary from several volumes to one, available here. This presaged what would happen during the Reformation and ‘Counter-Reformation’ of the sixteenth century.

Alongside the monks and cathedrals were, of course, the ordinary people and the friars. The friars, that is, Franciscans and Dominicans, were already using the Roman office (thus, not that of the Benedictine monks) in simplified form. The laity were mostly illiterate, but wealthy, literate people could afford their own books of prayers for the office, called Books of Hours.

Books of Hours are among the most beautiful books from the Middle Ages. Two out of the 12 chapters of Christopher de Hamel’s excellent 2016 book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts are books of hours. Different sets for different days of the week were ordered around different events or had a different focus. Here we see this versicle in one such manuscript, the extraordinarily lavish and beautiful Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry:

Folio 75r from the Tres riches heures du Duc de Berry, 1485/6

Folio 75r from the Tres riches heures du Duc de Berry, 1485/6

Whenever I examine a Book of Hours, I enjoy seeing these words appearing on the page at the start of certain offices.

And so Cranmer comes in the 1540s and 50s. In 1549, he published the first edition of The Book of Common Prayer in English, although we do have some of his earlier liturgical experiments in Latin. This Prayer Book seeks to stand within the great tradition of the Church’s liturgies down to the 1500s, designed for parish, cathedral, and private use. Paring it down, cutting out aspects ill-suited to a Reformational church, and translating it into English, Cranmer reduced the traditional seven hours (inspired by ‘Seven hours in the day will I praise you’ [Ps. 119:164]) to two, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, to be said in each church and by every English clergyman every day.

And he starts both Morning and Evening Prayer with this versicle — but, in 1549, in the singular, as we see it in the Psalm and as it exists in all the Roman Rite’s liturgical books. In 1552, however, it is modified into the plural, recognising the communal nature of the Daily Office.

So, tonight or tomorrow morning, when you open up your book of prayers or tap the app on your phone and pray, ‘O Lord, open thou our lips / And our mouth shall show forth thy praise’, know that you do not pray it alone. Not only people across the world, but fellow believers stretching back through history, from ordinary folks to bishops to monks to wealthy noblemen, back to St Benedict 1450 years ago, have started their prayers this way.

It is a warm and comforting thought.

~ Matthew ~

Before you pray

This is the third part of my introduction to praying the daily offices.  I suppose there will be a fourth part eventually – such is our vocation that God always has more to reveal which can occasion further insight, which can occasion further blog posts.  Of the multiplication of words there will be no end.  Except maybe for the hesychast.  But I am not one of these.

The third part of preparing to pray a prayer office is itself tone-setting.  Not surprising, as both of the previous parts were, also.  But where the first that I wrote about was concerned with divorcing the pray-er’s heart and mind from the fleeting changes and chances and circumstances that hinder prayer (a divorcing which is only carried out by God’s grace to the sinner, not by our efforts – though perhaps He uses our efforts to effect the working of His grace in this way, if He bestows such mercy upon us); and where the second that I wrote about was concerned with context, and joining our voice to the voices of the great cloud of witnesses – made up of His saints from every age (that is, that our fresh engagement in a concerted and intentional time of worship is not, in itself, something fresh and new but rather is a participation in the offering to God of His most worthy praise which continues throughout all ages); now we come to this third part of being prepared for prayer.

If the image that I suggested previously (here) can still be employed (or, can be employed again), where the first post in this series was about the removal of the old self, the second about the renewal of the attitude of the disciple’s mind, then we have now arrived at the point of putting on the new self, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:24, ESV).  The opening sentence.  The BCP tradition gives many suggestions, according to season or occasion for worship.  Each option is a verse or two from Holy Scripture, and is about God’s Kingdom breaking out in our world; about God’s New Creation becoming; about the likeness (not just the image, which is an important distinction!) of God.

And so during Advent the tone of worship is set: Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matt. 3:2); during Christmastide: Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10,11); and so on.  We are now in Lent, and so consider the options offered by the BCP:

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.  Psalm 51:17

Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.  Joel 2:13

We’ve all felt the temptation to make Lent about what we’ve given up, or about what we’ve taken on.  Perhaps for Lent you’ve taken on the discipline of praying the daily offices.  Or a prayer office daily.  That’s awesome!  But Lent isn’t about what we’ve given up, in pious devotion; Lent isn’t about what we’ve taken on, in pious devotion.  Lent is about God’s re-creation of His creation: we set aside this time for further devotional observance because to do so puts us in a place where we are more likely to pick up what God is laying down, to feel the Holy Spirit blowing through the wilderness, to be receptive when God moves in us.  And the Opening Sentences won’t let us escape that.  I will be built up, a part of God’s new creation, because He is breaking the old me down (I must decrease, He must increase – John 3:30).

This isn’t about me, but about the Lord God.  The Opening Sentence reminds me of where I fit into God’s great story of salvation for a fallen and broken creation: my place is that of a fallen and broken creature.  And when His words are spoken over my life, they make me something new.  God cultivates growth in holiness in me, in you, when His word is spoken into us.  A new reality is becoming.  He is doing a new thing – can you see it?

There is, of course, a danger in an Opening Sentence.  It stands alone.  There is no room for the professional Christian to comment upon it – no opportunity for the theologian to interpret God’s word in the words of men.  These days, God’s mercy cuts deep – and the thought that people might hear and receive God’s word without their added commentary is terrifying to some preachers.  Because He isn’t a tame lion.  But we need the mercy of God’s word penetrating below the scales that we wear.  Because we need to put on something new – and the words of the learned, the wise, the sage of this age will not effect this transformation in us.  Only God will, by His Spirit; by His word.

May you know His blessing as you seek Him, who has already found you.

Fr. Jonathan Hoskin+

The Psalms at the heart of prayer and worship

Praying the offices daily, whether it’s BCP or BAS or Common Worship or Celebrating Daily Prayer or the Roman Breviary or the Benedictine office or the offices of the eastern churches, you will find yourself praying through the book of Psalms in a regular cycle, whether that cycle is weekly, fortnightly, monthly, or maybe bi-monthly. Or, if not the entire book, you will still pray one or two Psalms at each office every day.

The Psalms have been called God’s Prayer Book and God’s Hymn Book. They are the source of much rich depth and beauty in the entire history of prayer and worship, and the office is one means of making them our own. They express the full range of human emotion in interactions with God, and they help us find an approach to God we might otherwise avoid if left to our own devices.

The Psalms are an integral part of most Christian traditions of worship. For example, historically, the singing of a capella Psalms has been the heart of Presbyterian worship. In the Greek East, St John Climacus (literally ‘of the Ladder’, late 6th/early 7th century) says:

The Fathers have declared the singing of psalms to be a weapon, prayer to be a wall, and honest tears to be a bath. -John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent Step 4

Similar thoughts abound in the Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic traditions of ancient and mediaeval Christianity. In the tradition of western Christianity, St Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) and Cassiodorus (d. 585) wrote what would be the classic commentaries on the Psalms. More recently, C.S. Lewis wrote Reflections on the Psalms. Evelyn Underhill recommends them as integral to Christian mysticism.

If we pray the Psalms in the office or at other times of devotion, and pray them truly, we are ushered into the presence of the Almighty in a special way, and we learn further and further how to pray. My interests tend towards the ancient Church Fathers,  especially St Athanasius’ excellence treatise on the Psalms, but today I’ll share with you about someone who’s still alive.

Although I’ve been criticising him lately on my other blog, I actually do appreciate much of Timothy Keller’s book Prayer, and have been challenged in my own ways prayer. When Keller sought to reorient and deepen his prayer life, he turned to the book of Psalms and prayed through them all. Now he prays through them several times a year. If we wish a prayer life deeply rooted in the person of God our Father and in His Scriptures, this is the way to go!

Keller writes:

The Psalms reveal a great range in the modes of prayer. They include exclamations of wonder, virulent complaints, reasoned arguments, pronouncements and verdicts, appeals and requests, summonses and calls, and verdicts of self-condemnation. They represent not only radically different types of discourse but of attitudes and emotions as well. Left to ourselves, to our cultures and natural temperaments there are many kinds of language that we would never use. …

We would never produce the full range of biblical prayer if we were initiating prayer according to our own inner needs and psychology. (pp. 59-60)

The Psalms teach us how to pray, and by making their words our own, we find a newer, richer prayer life. The aforementioned treatise by St Athanasius, in fact, recommends different Psalms for different situations. All of human experience face-to-face with God is found in the Psalms; we are authorised, therefore, to be real in our prayers, not false or falsely sanctimonious or pretend pious, but angry, sad, dejected, happy, amused, calm, serene, annoyed, doubting. Hopefully not distracted.

I hope that when you pray the Divine Office today, you will find a way to make the Psalms truly your own.

~ Matthew ~

‘…worthily lamenting our sins…’ – The Collect for Ash Wednesday

If you worship  within the traditions of Prayer-Book Anglicanism, you will now have prayed the Collect for Ash Wednesday at least twice (Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday in Lent), or, if you have joined us here at the Witness Cloud praying the Daily Office, one to four times per day since Ash Wednesday. And you will pray it again for the rest of Lent until Easter arrives:

Not everyone prays this Collect anymore. The church at which I worshipped on Ash Wednesday did not; we prayed as God’s ‘faithful people’ for Him to give us the spirit of penitence. I am too tired by now to be annoyed by such developments, although this was preferable to Ash Wednesday at a different local church at which we prayed no prayers of confession one year. Although I am not annoyed, per se, I am dismayed.

My dismay arises not from being a ‘traditionalist’ but because I see the rich value of this beautiful prayer, crafted by Thomas Cranmer in 1549 and perceived as pastorally and prayerfully useful for over 400 years until newer prayers started to supplant it. Thankfully, versions of this prayer do exist in Common Worship and Canada’s Book of Alternative Services (BAS), although the BAS replaces ‘wretchedness’ with ‘brokenness’.

So here is where I actually begin —


The Collect for Ash Wednesday is one of the collects that, properly speaking, was composed by Cranmer. Many of the BCP collects are translations from mediaeval collects, many of them are adaptations from mediaeval collects more suited to Reformational worship. A few of them are originals. The first lines of this collect are a translation from the mediaeval Sarum collect for the Benediction of the Ashes, up to ‘… all them that are penitent.’ The rest is Cranmer’s; the Latin collect was about fasting, Cranmer’s, on the other hand, continues the theme of penitence.

One could do a line-by-line commentary on this collect, fleshing out what it says with biblical and theological references, drawing in the richness of Patristic, mediaeval, and early modern Christian teaching on repentance, on metanoia, on that changing of course to that journey that will land us safely in the harbour of God’s city.

I shall not. After realising that we need God’s help (that is, grace) even to repent, and stating that we lament our sins, we also say

acknowledging our wretchedness

Now, you may feel that wretchedness and the BAS brokenness hit the same note. And you may be right. They do not hit the same note for me, though. It seems we are losing a sense of our wretchedness in current Christian discourse, as highlighted in this post ‘Where Have All the Wretches Gone?‘ that laments the removal of the word from hymns both old and new.

Yet imagine ‘Amazing Grace’ without ‘that saved a wretch like me.’ It is our wretchedness that makes God’s grace so ‘sweet’. Here are some options for wretch from the Oxford English Dictionary:

One who is sunk in deep distress, sorrow, misfortune, or poverty; a miserable, unhappy, or unfortunate person; a poor or hapless being. (definition 2a)
A vile, sorry, or despicable person; one of opprobrious or reprehensible character; a mean or contemptible creature. Also without article. (definition 3a)

As an adjective, it can mean:

Of persons: Poor; miserable; deeply afflicted (Definition 1 as adj)

This makes it an equivalent of wretched:

Of persons, etc.: Living in a state of misery, poverty, or degradation; sunk in distress or dejection; very miserable or unhappy (Definition 1a)

Cranmer likely did not have Definition 1a of wretch in mind, but I like it nonetheless:

One driven out of or away from his native country; a banished person; an exile.

Human beings, because of our sinful ways, because of death, because of our shared nature that extends to Adam, are wretched. We are certainly broken as well. But brokenness does not plumb the depths of English vocabulary as we consider the human condition in light of the ruin caused, to cite the 1662 BCP’s Baptism Service, by the devil, the world, the flesh.

Brokenness might mean psychological wounds. It might mean disease. It might mean mental illness. It might mean strained relationships. It might mean things over which we have no control.

Wretchedness goes deeper and speaks of the state of the human person without God’s grace.

This probably all sounds grim and like the sort of reason people don’t go to church or use the Prayer Book anymore. Nonetheless, what’s so amazing about grace if I don’t really need it?

We are creatures that God loves, made in His image. The Trinitarian supercelestial love decided, for no reason other than to have somebody to love, to make us. And to make us in His own image. God, superabundant, overflowing love, hates nothing that He has made.

We, as St Athanasius reminds us in On the Incarnation, have gone away from our loving God and are heading towards destruction. God is all being, all truth, all light. If we move towards Him, we are moving towards being, truth, light. If we move away, we are moving towards non-existence, falsehood, darkness. That is to say, death. A spiritual and physical death.

So Christ came into the world, becoming incarnate as a real man, living, dying, rising, ascending. ‘Trampling down death by death’ as an Orthodox Apolytikion of the Resurrection puts it, he has restored us to life, enabling us to live as part of the divine life.

Think on that.

Then consider your own sins, the misbehaviours, false attitudes, ungracious deeds, judgementalism, grumblings, lies, lusts, twisted desires that lurk in your own heart. Lamentable, yes. Wretched, indeed.

By acknowledging our wretchedness, we are able to pinpoint the disease.

Then we turn to Christ in repentance. He, ‘the God of all mercy’ will give us the cure, ‘perfect remission and forgiveness.’

This is Gospel. This is Good News.

A Reason to Take Pause

St. Paul writes (Ephesians 4:22-24) that:

“You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (NRSV)

Having just come through Ash Wednesday, I am particularly mindful of these verses.  In some very practical ways, God speaks to me through them of His way of transforming me.  The old identity is done away with (imagine Israel delivered from slavery), and yet before the new identity can be put on in fullness the spirit (or attitude) of the mind must be renewed.  A very practical image where I am (the prairies of central Canada) is of a farmer coming in after a long work day in mud, with animals.  This farmer will not simply take off the soiled clothing and put on clean clothes.  This farmer will take off the soiled clothing, and then wash.  Once clean, then it will be appropriate to dress in clean clothes.  Think of Israel in the wilderness, who spent so much time still thinking like slaves.  It took the passing of a whole generation of them for their minds to be brought out of those thought-patterns, for them to be able to embrace the possibilities of the new identity that was being given to them, for them to be made ready to come into the kingdom prepared for them and promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In a way, this is what the dedicated time of Lent is for.  Having our minds changed from the old way of thinking to the new way of thinking.

But that’s a lesson for yesterday, and it only touches on the reason for this site and blog in that engagement with daily prayer is one of the chief means whereby God has chosen to work this transformation in His people.  That’s not what I’m writing about right now.  Instead, consider that cycle: put away the former self, be renewed in mind, clothe with the new self.  This is the cycle that I see repeated all throughout the liturgy of the daily office, and that’s what I’m writing about today.  When I last wrote about pausing before entering into the prayers of the office, I was particularly concerned that a part of preparing oneself to spend a dedicated time in prayer is disengaging from the concerns and anxieties that regularly distract us from being a people of prayer.  The prayers I suggested for the beginning of this “pause” are designed to beg God, in His mercy, to free us from these concerns for this time: “…to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts…”

Having put the old away, how might we be moved toward renewal of mind – even in this pause before the prayer office?  Remember what is involved in the kind of renewal that Paul wrote of.  This is the realignment of one’s way of being to conformity with the reality that is now present.  The farmer isn’t out in the mud anymore – he’s in a clean house – so he will wash himself; the Israelites aren’t slaves in Egypt anymore – they’re free people being cared for by the god who leads them and provides for all their needs – so they will spend a generation in the wilderness becoming a people who trust Him; you aren’t lost in the corruption of sin, which leads to death, any longer – you are, instead, a regenerate citizen of the Kingdom of God – and so you will be changed (from glory to glory); and here, you are no longer concerning yourself with the tyranny of worldly matters – you are entering a time for this one thing: joining your voice with the angels and archangels, with the saints who have gone before and will come after, offering to God His worthy praise – so you must mind yourself to this task.

As a devotional aide in having our minds turned in this way, I recommend praying a prayer acknowledging the state of things.  Keep in mind that no other saint is an example for you – only Jesus; while stories of the saints may stir up your weak hearts for a time, it is only Jesus who grants true, lasting, inspiration, by His Holy Spirit.  Remember that you are not the keeper of your own soul, but by these efforts God may deem to grant you grace that the One who sows the Kingdom will pull the weeds and clear the stones and loosen the earth of the beaten path and fertilize His crop that He has sown in you.  This is not about you, and it is not about them (whomever your “them” might be), but about Him alone.  I commend these context-framing selections to your use, which are included in the elusive Daily Prayers book of The Witness Cloud ( borrowed from the BCP tradition):

O Heavenly Father, who in thy Son Jesus Christ hast given us a true faith and a sure hope: Help us, we pray thee, to live as those who believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting; and strengthen this faith and hope in us all the days of our life; through the love of thy Son Jesus Christ our Saviour.  Amen.

O Eternal Lord God, who holdest all souls in life: We beseech thee to shed forth upon thy whole Church in Paradise and on earth the bright beams of thy light and heavenly comfort; and grant that we, following the good example of those who have loved thee and served thee here and are now at rest, may at the last enter with them into the fullness of thine unending joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

May God, who has opened to us the way of salvation and revealed Himself so mightily to us, grant that in your seeking after Him, He would be found by you – and you would find yourself in Him.

Fr. Jonathan Hoskin+

Beginning to Pray

 I remember the first time someone really took the time to teach me prayer.  I  can’t tell you how old I was, or what room I was in; I can’t remember the names of those who were with me, or even who it was that was giving us this instruction; I do remember the acronym we were taught: ACTS.  When you pray, Adore God, Confess to God, Thank God, and then make Supplication to God.  That’s how I remember it being taught, anyway.  I’ve come across the same acronym on multiple occasions since, but I’m pretty sure that this was the gist of that first encounter with it.  It’s not a bad model for prayer, and certainly reminds us of elements of prayer that we might otherwise forget – for that alone it is worth committing to memory, even when not being followed (in a strict sense) it can remind us of different facets of prayer.  Otherwise it can be all-too-easy to fall into our “pet” prayer-style.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t prayed before.  I had!  I knew the every-week prayers of the liturgy (the ordinary) down pat, and I wasn’t afraid to pray out loud in groups, or even to pray for people when the opportunity arose.  I was no stranger to extemporaneous or liturgical prayer.  But there was something in this that was so simple and yet so illuminating.  As I considered the form prayers that I knew by rote, I was able to see the different elements of ACTS at work in the prayers of the Church.  One need only consider the Pater Noster (Our Father, or The Lord’s Prayer) to see how this little acronym can work out practically.  But then, there is one little element that it leaves out and which I have come to consider invaluable when it comes to prayer – and I cannot remember anymore if it was taught to me at some later date, or if I just started teaching it because I had found it so worthwhile.

PACTS.  Before you begin your prayer of Adoration, Pause.  Focus yourself on what it is you are going to do.  Eliminate the distractions that are vying for your attention.  If you were about to address the Queen, you would take a moment to compose yourself and to divorce your mind from those various things that run around in it.  You would want to be fully present to that moment of addressing the Queen.  How much more, then, when you are going to address the King of the universe!  It seems like such a simple thing – pausing – and for that very reason it is often overlooked.  There are times when the need and inspiration to pray strike us so suddenly that there is no time to pause, we must pray as the Holy Spirit gives utterance.  But there are times when we’ve set aside time for prayer, and we should enter these times intentionally – we should pause, and dissociate ourselves from the many things that would otherwise distract and mislead us during prayer; pause, and call to mind the privilege extended to us by our heavenly Father that we may undertake what we are about to, our own unworthiness to that task (except as He has made us worthy), and invite God’s Holy Spirit to embody and empower our prayers in that time and place – to guide and to govern us.

If you have managed to get your hands on a copy of The Witness Cloud Daily Prayers, you’ll find a selection of eight prayers that may be used before beginning the prayer office itself.  These are prayers that have to do with pausing.  The pause is not wasted time, and it is not a time of void.  Instead, it is a time of activity – of receiving God’s grace, transformation, and the determination that only He can give to seek Him with all of one’s heart.  These prayers are about cutting ties with the mundane and reconnecting with the Holy:

1 Bless, O Lord, us Thy servants who minister in Thy temple.  Grant, O Lord, that what we say and sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and practise in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

2 Open, Lord, my mouth to bless Thy holy Name, cleanse my heart from all vain, foolish, wandering thoughts, enlighten my understanding, enkindle my affections, that I may say this Office with attention and devotion, and may so be meet to be heard before the Presence of Thy Divine Majesty; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

3 Grant, I beseech Thee, Lord God, that by the melody of this holy Office my soul may be refreshed; cause me always to apply myself to Thy praises, and joyfully to come to Thy unveiled Presence; Who livest and reignest God, world without end.  Amen.

4 O Lord, open Thou our lips and purify our hearts; that we may worthily magnify Thy Holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

5 O Lord, our God and Father, dispose our hearts and guide us by Thy Holy Spirit; that our prayers and praises may be acceptable in Thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

6 O Lord our God, Who knowest all hearts, be merciful to us sinners and graciously assist us in our ministry before Thee; that so we may offer a Service and Sacrifice well-pleasing in Thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

7 Cleanse our hearts, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord, from all vain and wandering thoughts; that we may joyfully praise Thee in Thy Holy House; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

8 Grant, I entreat Thee, Almighty God, that speaking with understanding and good will, and in plainness, I may deserve to be heard by Thee: for I need Thy help in all things; so that by the gift of Thy grace, I may be enabled not unworthily to sing the words of Thy Majesty; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sometimes we call it centring prayer.  Its purpose, in this situation, is to be used of God to make transition in the believer’s heart: transition from darkness to light; from the cares and concerns of the world to the things of God; from brokenness to wholeness; from a life disposed to sin and corruption, to a life of holiness before God.  When we pause we do not collect ourselves for prayer, but we are collected by God for prayer.  When we pause we do not reorient our hearts to God’s, but we are reoriented by God.  I invite you, then, to take an intentional pause before you engage with any of the daily Offices, and to make a centring prayer, such as one of these, a part of your pause.

May God bless you abundantly as you seek Him according to His grace to you.

Fr. Jonathan Hoskin+