The Anglican Ascetic


Donald W. Fagerberg’s recent book On Liturgical Asceticism[1] sets out to demonstrate that the adjective “liturgical” and the noun “asceticism” fundamentally belong side-by-side.  If the goal of the Christian life, Fagerberg argues, is theologia, (borrowing the term from Evagrius) or theosis–that is, deified union with God–then the means to achieve such a state necessarily requires this collision of concepts.  

If the goal of the Christian life…is theosis–that is, deified union with God–then the means to achieve such a state necessarily requires this collision of [liturgy and asceticism].

By drawing on the Eastern Orthodox tradition of asceticism, Fagerberg argues convincingly that asceticism alone gives deeper insights into the experience of liturgy and therefore paves the way to this deepest union with God in Christ.  Fagerberg’s program is therefore a timely and welcomed contribution in ecumenical studies in the fields of spirituality, asceticism, liturgy and theology and can undoubtedly be applied in any tradition where these disciplines are essential.  What makes Fagerberg’s thesis extremely interesting, however, is the presupposition that askesis, living the ascetic life, is not limited to the monk, but is, at some level, demanded of all Christians, especially those participating in more liturgical traditions.

If there is one thing that is certain about Anglicanism in general and the Episcopal Church in particular is the overt liturgical nature of its tradition.  Moreover, in a tradition that takes to heart the age-old maxim lex orandi lex credendi — “the law of prayer [is] the law of belief,” or in Leonel L. Mitchell’s words, “praying shapes believing”–we are shaped and formed by what we pray.  One only has to flip through any number of historic Prayer Books to recognize these things.  These various historic Books of Common Prayer, however, represent a wide range of theological and liturgical diversity, wavering between a more Protestant affected tradition and one more catholic in nature.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer,[2] however, incorporated a beautiful mosaic of historic Christian thought.   Unlike previous editions, and by tethering itself to the liturgical movement of the twentieth century and the efforts of the Second Vatican Council, the current American Prayer Book weaved together a tapestry of theological and liturgical beauty in one volume.  In doing so, it sought to adopt a wider catholicity that some found to be lacking in previous editions.  One facet of this broader catholicity was the inclusion of a more ascetical spirituality.  Given this inclusion, the current BCP may be one of the best examples illustrating Fagerberg’s thesis.

This paper will attempt to demonstrate where the 1979 BCP has developed in an ascetical direction over against previous Prayer Books, especially the 1928 edition.  To do so, however, it will focus mainly on the Daily Office.[3]  Since its inclusion in the first Prayer Book of 1549, the Daily Office has obviously been influenced by monasticism, as has the entire Prayer Book.[4]  As the title of this paper makes clear, however, listening for the ascetical tradition in the Prayer Book requires tuning our ears a bit, since the data will be more obvious at some points and less obvious at others.  That is to say, there may be moments when the ascetic tradition screams out at us, while at other times there may simply be faint echoes in the background.  Needless to say, this paper is an attempt to highlight where the ascetical tradition has crept into the current received text of The Episcopal Church.

Terce, Sext, None and Compline

Some topics in the discussion of spirituality have more to do with when rather than how.  While both the Eastern and Western monastic traditions have had different ways of interpreting and applying St. Paul’s words in 1 Thess 5:17, “pray without ceasing,” it is undeniable that frequent prayer undergirded both monastic movements.[5]

One of the major and overt revisions to the 1979 Prayer Book was the inclusion of two new “minor offices.”  It was the first Anglican Prayer Book of its kind to include these additional offices.  The previous Prayer Books were constructed around the twofold format of Morning and Evening Prayer.  While this still remains true for the current Prayer Book,[6] the addition of An Order of Service for Noonday Prayer[7] and An Order for Compline[8] has the effect of deepening its connection with the wider monastic traditions associated with asceticism.

Historically, these “minor offices” were intended for individuals and families since they fit neatly into the Roman work schedule.[9]  Praying the liturgy of the hours was soon, thereafter, adopted by the growing number of monastic communities that were springing up all throughout Europe, the Christian East and North Africa.[10]  Historically, these monastic communities gathered for seven or eight communal prayers daily, usually on every third hour.  Marion Hatchett, however, observes that there was a deeper theological reality behind the growing number of prayer intervals throughout the day.

The third, sixth, and ninth hours (9 A.M., 12 Noon, and 3P.M.) had been associated with the private prayer in Judaism and also marked the division of the Roman day…
  The  third, sixth, and ninth hours (9 A.M., 12 Noon, and 3P.M.) had been associated with the private prayer in Judaism and also marked the division of the Roman day; these times were linked to the events of the Passion.  The third hour was also associated with the descent of the Spirit.  Two other times were added to these, midnight and cockcrow.  Midnight celebrated the praise of God by all creation and the expectation of Christ’s return.  Cockcrow was associated with the denial of Christ and the hope of the resurrection.[11]

Yet, as C.W. McPherson reminds us about the 1979 Prayer Book’s design, “Our Order of Service for Noonday is in fact an amalgam of the monastic Offices of Terce, Sext and None, prayed in many monasteries at the third, sixth and ninth hours.”[12]  While the current Prayer Book did not go as far as to add three unique midday services, by collapsing the three into one, it took one step closer to the ascetic practices of the ancient world.

Beyond the noonday service, however, Compline was added to the Prayer Book to complete the prayer schedule of any given day.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition has long held Compline in their prayer book.  John Cassian, who is known for bringing Egyptian spirituality to the Latin west, has this to say about some of the late-hour “minor offices” he observed.  His thoughts are worth quoting in full:

            Therefore, as we have said, throughout the whole of Egypt…the number of psalms is fixed at twelve in both the evening and the nocturnal celebrations, and two readings follow, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. . . .These aforesaid prayers, therefore, they begin and end in such a way that, when the psalm is over, they do not immediately hasten to kneel down, as some of us do in this country. . . . Among them, then, it is not so, but before they bend their knees, they pray for a while, and spend the greater part of the time standing for prayer….But when he who is to “collect” the prayer rises from the ground, they all get up at the same time, so that no one may presume to bend the knee before he bows down, nor to delay when he has risen from the ground, lest it should be imagined that he has not followed the conclusion of the one who “collected” the prayer but offered his own. . . .Therefore, they do not try to complete the psalms which they sing in the assembly with continuous recitation, but they divide them into two or three sections, according to the number of verses/with prayers in between, and work through them bit by bit. For they do not care about the quantity of verses, but about the intelligence of the mind, adhering strongly to this: “I will sing with the spirit; I will sing also with the mind.”[13]

We can take away a number of things from Cassian’s observations: (1) late night prayer was part of the earliest traditions of the Christian East; (2) the Psalms were a central component to these nocturnal prayer gatherings; and, (3) prayer and supplication (“collects”) were interspersed throughout the readings.  While it should be obvious that the services he witnessed were longer in duration and more complex, Compline in its current form broadly resembles Cassian’s notes.

The inclusion of the two “minor offices” in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is one of the more macro and obvious revisions that edged the Prayer Book in a more monastic/ascetic direction.  As Fagerberg sums up well, 

“A lifetime of liturgy in all its dimensions…is required to give a person this calm, steady, ascetical regard of the Godhead.”
 “A lifetime of liturgy in all its dimensions–the liturgical year, the liturgy of the hours, the Divine Liturgy, the fasts and feasts, the sacraments and sacrament–is required to give a person this calm, steady, ascetical regard of the Godhead.”[14]  Therefore, as contemporary Episcopalians pray the Daily Office throughout the day, we take a step closer to God and a step closer to the ascetic tradition.


Join Matthew Paul Buccheri next Monday as he continues to unpack the ascetic tradition embedded in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

[1] Donald W. Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013).

[2] Hereafter BCP.

[3] While a more extensive and expansive study of the Book of Common Prayer is favorable, and can turn up more data, the scope of this paper limits our inquires to the Daily Office.

[4] The simple fact that there is a need to flip between a host of texts–Psalms and Canticles, The Daily Office Lectionary and the Bible–demonstrates this.  For more on what makes up monastic liturgical practices, see Paul F. Bradshaw, ‘‘Cathedral vs. Monastery: The Only Alternatives for the Liturgy of the Hours?,’’ in Time and Community. In Honor of Thomas Julian Talley, ed. J. Neil Alexander (Washington, DC: NPM Studies in Church Music and Liturgy, 1990) 123-36.

[5] Simply put, the Eastern tradition has taken St. Paul’s words quite literally, extending prayer through every moment of the day with mantras such as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The western tradition, however, took Paul’s words less literal and applied the verse differently: that the church should be praying at different intervals throughout the day.  Interestingly, both monastic traditions pray the liturgy of the hours, despite the Eastern tradition’s desire to fill the gaps with mantras.

[6] The scheme of Morning and Evening Prayer still comprises the skeletal structure of the Daily Office in the current Prayer Book.  The readings associated with the lectionary, the main Collects, and the days related to feasts and fasts are associated with the “major offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer and not with the “minor offices” of Noonday and Compline.

[7] Hereafter, simply Noonday Prayer.

[8] Hereafter, simply Compline.

[9] Leonel L. Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, (Minneapolis: Seabury, 1985), 59.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 89–90.

[12] C.W. McPherson, Grace at this Time: Praying the Daily Office, (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1999), 61.

[13] John Cassian quoted in Paul F. Bradshaw, Two Ways of Praying, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 16–17.

[14] Fagerberg, 113.  Italics mine.