The Anglican Ascetic (Part 2)

Follow the Leader

At least when it comes to prayer and praying, especially in a liturgical tradition, nothing other than our baptismal reality defines our participation.

A central feature of monastic life was the simple fact that it was lay movement.  Moreover, the practices associated with asceticism were not limited to the clergy and in many cases were developed and encouraged by monks.   That is to say, ordained clergy were not central to the role of prayer in the earliest phases of the Church.  But as the Church began to “clericalize” throughout time, the prayer routines throughout the day followed close behind.  This “clericalization” can be clearly seen in the rubrics of Morning and Evening Prayer, historically.  One place where this is the case is when we consider who, in fact, can lead the Daily Office.  Reflecting back on previous prayer books will provide us with the main clue.

The first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 makes it clear that the minister, or ordained clergy, is to facilitate the morning and evening offices when it says,  “The Priest beeyng in the quier, shall begynne with a loude voyce the Lordes prayer, called the Pater noster.”[1]  Commenting on the 1549 Prayer Book, Hatchett says, “The intention of the 1549 Prayer Book is clearly that Morning and Evening Prayer be corporate services: the preface binds only those clergy serving congregations to read the daily office.”[2]  This practice continued on for centuries, however.  The American Prayer Book as late as 1928 echoes that sentiment with this rubric: “The Minister shall begin the Morning Prayer by reading one or more of the following Sentences of Scripture.[3]

One major modification that can be easily overlooked in the 1979 Prayer Book is the shift from the sole clergy facilitated Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, to the optional, and even, compulsory inclusion of the laity to lead the service.  This change couldn’t be clearer on the Concerning the Service page: “In the Daily Office, the term ‘Officiant’ is used to denote the person, clerical or lay, who leads the Office.”[4]  The allowance given to the laity to facilitate Morning and Evening Prayer in a public setting is not merely giving in to the laity’s demands to be included.  It is, however, the rightful return to a baptismal ecclesiology that recognizes the laity as a full members of the Body of Christ, and therefore, full participants in prayer.

“All the bap­tized are ini­ti­ated into the sacred order as litur­gists….”

All throughout Fagerberg’s book is the reminder that the monastic movements of both the Eastern and Western traditions were (and are!) merely collections of specialized and intensified lay people gathering to pray for the life of the world.  In his chapter entitled, “Monk and Laic”[5] Fagerberg drives this point home: “All Christians are called to be ascetics, though all are not called to be monks.  But that a secular Christian is not called to be a monk does not mean that secular Christian lacks a call to holiness through asceticism.”[6]  Fagerberg continues, “All the baptized are initiated into the sacred order as liturgists….”[7]

At least when it comes to prayer and praying, especially in a liturgical tradition, nothing other than our baptismal reality defines our participation.

The “Tape Measure” or Flexible Rule

Monastic communities in both the Eastern and Western traditions developed “rules” for practicing prayer and other aspects of daily living.  One of the best-known “rules” was written by St. Benedict of Nursia.  The Rule of St. Benedict is comprised of seventy-three short chapters divided between ways to live a christocentric life, how to run a monastery, as well as, a couple of chapters on the pastoral duties of the abbot.  Similar to Benedict’s Rule, however, other monastic or intentional Christian communities devised “rules” even if they were less formally contrived.

Keeping in mind that a “rule” is a measuring stick, a way to check whether or not something is plumb or straight, a monastic rule of prayer and life is a guideline by which the spiritual life is measured.  It is important to note, however, that not every monk¾or for that matter, every Christian¾has an identical rule of prayer.  A rule is something personal and unique; it is something developed between a monk and an abbot, a Christian and a spiritual father, a nun and her abbess.  In other words, it is personally fitted to the contours of a particular Christian life.  As McPherson makes clear, “The Offices prayed by [the] earliest of monastics¾who preceded Benedict by several centuries¾were characterized by flexibility and diversity…”[8]

When we turn to the 1979 Prayer Book, we see that it makes allowances for an individual’s particular “rule” of prayer.  Moreover, it might not be too far fetched to say that the Prayer Book advocates constructing one’s own “rule.”

Fagerberg, again, reminds us that

Human beings possess a common nature, but as a person (hypostasis) each human being is individual.  Therefore, asceticism treats each person in a radically individual way.  Each monastic followed a rule that was his or her own politeia (“a rule of life” or “a special resolution”), and not everyone followed the same politeia because there was an idiosyncratic quality to each person’s askesis.  That is why the Christian witness to asceticism could do no better than to offer the “Lives of the Desert Fathers,” because the book presents ruled lives, not general rules.  One asceticism does not fit all…. [9]

One asceticism does not fit all…

In other words, asceticism is not a “one size fits all” spirituality.  McPherson also finds this to be true about the ascetical trends that have been incorporated into the 1979 Prayer Book when he says, “The Daily Office, in its current prayer-book incarnation, is in harmony with the desert spirituality as well.  It is by far the most flexible version of the Daily Office ever offered, and is adaptable to the needs of the individual.”[10]  In order to understand McPherson’s words, here is where we need to be attuned to the rubrics. 

Peppered throughout the rubrics there are a handful of signals that make the current Daily Office extremely flexible.  One example is the word “may,’ a word that seems to soften the directives.  For instance, the rubric for the Confession of Sin reads: “The following Confession of Sin may be said…[11]  Another example is located on the same page right below the introduction to the Confession: “Silence may be kept.[12]  Another way the Office is flexible is the way in which it provides clear options.  One case in point is where the Morning Office actually begins.  According to the rubrics at the beginning of the Office, “The Officiant begins the service with one or more of these sentences of Scripture, or with the versicle “Lord, open our lips” on page 80.[13]  While the 1928 edition made allowances for the ways in which the Office could be adjusted, the current edition of the Prayer Book not only provides more allowances, but also provides many more options within the Office itself.

Join Matthew Paul Buccheri again next Monday for Part III of The Anglican Ascetic.

  [2] Hatchett, Commentary, 97.

[4] 1979 Book of Common Prayer, (New York: Oxford University Press), 74.

[5] Fagerberg employs the word “laic” following Nicholas Asnasiev as a better substitute for lay, lay-person and/or laity.

[6] Fagerberg, 133.

[7] Ibid., 134.

[8] McPherson, 81.

[9] Fagerberg, 86–87.

[10] McPherson, 81.

[11] BCP, 79.

[12] Ibid., 79.

[13] Ibid., 75.