Archive for the ‘Anchorites-Hermits’ Category

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 1

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 2

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 3

Part 4

HOLY DWELLING – Saturday and Sunday

As we continue to pray the psalms through the week, and through the architecture of the church, I am reminded of two stories from many years ago, one told me by a friend and another which I witnessed directly. In the first of these, some time in the early 1970’s, my friend’s son, perhaps only four or five years old, said to his mother one day after church, “Mama, what’s happening up there in front behind the fence (the altar rail) is what’s really REAL, isn’t it?” His child’s innocence enabled him to perceive the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine in a way that most of us struggle to ever know. In the second instance only a few years later, I was attending a meeting of Episcopal religious orders held at one of the more traditional convents. We gathered for Eucharist in a small chapel, and the celebrant wanted to remove the free-standing altar rail so that we could all gather around. An elderly nun was serving as thurifer, and she simply could not bring herself to step into the sanctuary proper across the line where the rail had stood. At the time, I was appalled that she was so locked into the ‘old’ way of doing things. Now I realize that her actions (perhaps unconscious, but nevertheless genuine) were rooted in an awareness that our souls must be sufficiently prepared to cross that sacred threshold into the Heart. Would that the rest of us (especially we clergy!) had the humility to recognize the sacred ground of the Altar.

For the Altar within the Sanctuary is the preeminent symbol of the Heart, where God dwells, the site within the human soul wherein the most profound and exalted contemplation of the Holy Trinity may occur, and it is the destination to which everyone is called.  St. John Chrysostom says, “Find the door of your heart, and you will find the door of the Kingdom of Heaven” and The Philokalia calls the Heart:

“the spiritual centre of man’s being, man as made in the image of God, his deepest and truest self, or the inner shrine, to be entered only through sacrifice and death, in which the mystery of the union between the divine and the human is consummated.”

And so, in this arrangement of praying the psalms week by week, over a four week cycle, we will find ourselves on Saturdays focused on the kind of Holy Dwelling best exemplified by the Theotokos, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the original sanctuary of our Lord, as well as on the fullness of virtue and purity to which the soul gradually ascends.

On Sunday, our prayer through the psalms brings us to the praise and worship of God for the ultimate expression of Holy Dwelling in the Resurrection of Christ, as well as giving us hints of theosis, in which as St. Maximus the Confessor says:

“When, urged by love, the mind soars to God, it has no sensation either of itself or of anything existing. Illumined by the limitless Divine light, it is insensible to all the created, just as is the physical eye to stars in the light of the sun.”

Yes, this is the “really, Real” that only an innocent child—or a holy saint—could recognize. Even so, the wonder is that every time we make our way up that long aisle, though the choir, to the altar, and receive in our own hands and mouths the Body and Blood of Christ, we, too, know the “really, Real”; we, too, enter in to Holy Dwelling.

HOLY DWELLING

CONTEMPLATION OF THE HOLY TRINITY

Holy Dwelling finds the Soul increasingly dwelling within her heart, and now, even the mind is quiet and ‘naked’.

Holy Dwelling brings the Soul ever nearer to the goal of her journey in God. Now, she experiences an ever deepening illumination and contemplation of all that is, seen and unseen.

Holy Dwelling brings the Soul to contemplation of the Holy Trinity, moving beyond mere words about God, to the wordless silence of the heart in pure adoration.

Holy Dwelling is found as the Soul enters the sacred altar of the heart, the Kingdom of Heaven, the place where God alone dwells.

 

HOLY DWELLING Incarnation / Virtue 
SATURDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Matins2452512
9168215
856510196
13311397
SATURDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Vespers37, Part I1112147
37, Part II1046441
67131128
145130

 

HOLY DWELLING Resurrection / Theosis
SUNDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Matins99196187
1182366116
1174686111
47146
150
SUNDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Vespers110107, Part I12111
30107, Part II12431
348493
1349198

 

 

Transfiguration

Part 3

CONTEMPLATIVE LIVING – Thursday and Friday

It is somehow fitting that today, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, this post brings us to CONTEMPLATIVE LIVING. Peter and James and John had walked the path of FAITHFUL LIVING during their years as disciples of Jesus. Now, as Jesus led them up a high mountain, they were—no doubt unknowingly!—ascending with their Lord into a new realm of being, a higher state of consciousness, if you will, and into a more spiritually sensitive aspect of the soul. Now, they were able to perceive the saints (Moses and Elijah), but even more critically, to see with the eyes of their souls the Light of the Transfigured Christ. (How frustrated poor Peter was to discover that he could not contain this vision, this Reality-with-a-capital R, in his booths!)

But back to Dwelling in the Psalms. If we return to the architectural model of the church, having spent our time in the Nave, we move past the Pulpit and Lectern, and (in most traditional buildings) ascend Three Steps, past the Rood Screen / Iconostasis into the Choir.

First, let us look at the Three Steps. In the ancient mystical tradition, these have been seen as signifying mystically our three stages of purification—from external passions of the body (gluttony, fornication, avarice), internal passions of the soul (wrath, despair, and acedia), and finally from passions of our mind (vainglory and pride).

The Rood Screen / Iconostasis is seldom seen in western churches, even if built with a more traditional floor plan. Nonetheless, many medieval churches had some sort of screen or railing between the Nave and the Choir and Sanctuary.  (See for example photos by Allan Barton, (see here and here.) In St. Paul’s, Bellingham, WA, where I worship our rather elaborate wrought-iron rood screen has occasionally become a point of controversy, with some congregants loving it, and others feeling that it in some way “shuts them out” from the altar. I recall the first time twenty years ago when I preached at St. Paul’s, my initial reaction was one of being in a prison of sorts! However, I am now a fervent support of the Rood Screen, for I better understand its spiritual significance. Such an architectural feature whether subtle or bold serves to nudge our soul to the awareness that we are moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the visible created order we discern with our five senses to the invisible and intelligible we can only discern with our heart.

And so we come to the Choir. In the medieval churches, this was the territory of the monastics whose lives were dedicated to prayer and contemplation, but to this day the choir is the place where we “pray twice” through our singing. Now, whether singing in the choir or moving through it on the way to receive communion, we open our souls to Illumination and Wisdom, to moving more deeply into the sacred presence as well as to depths of Sacrifice and Redemption.

As a result, the psalms chosen for Thursday and Friday support our soul’s movement into ever deepening understanding (poor word, but it will have to do for the moment) and wonder at the works of God, whether through the awesome gift of creation itself, or through the ultimate gift in the Person of his Son

 THURSDAY

CONTEMPLATIVE LIVING

CONTEMPLATION OF THE CREATED ORDER

Contemplation of the Created Order was called by the ancient church “second natural contemplation,” or “contemplation of the book which is read.”

Contemplation of the Created Order initially utilizes our five senses to rejoice in the wonders of God’s works in all creation, from the earth, planets, and stars, to the smallest atom and particle of matter.

Contemplation of the Created Order strengthens as the Soul’s life in God matures and deepens, and we become more deeply aware of the transcendent presence of God in all of creation.

Contemplation of the Created Order continues the process of purification of the Passions of Desire (gluttony and fornication), and deepens the purification of the Passions of the Temper (avarice, sorrow, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride). This purification helps the Soul to develop a higher degree of Dispassion, and transformation of the vices into virtues.

Contemplation of the Created Order also brings us to a fuller experience of illumination in the eternal truth of God’s Word as we give praise for all His works of redemption.

CONTEMPLATIVE LIVING (Contemplation of the Created Order) Illumination / Wisdom
THURSDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Matins63297175
277214894
9248149
THURSDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Vespers18, Part I4973132
18, Part II6290115
126127

FRIDAY

CONTEMPLATIVE LIVING

Contemplation of the Heavenly Jerusalem

Contemplation of the Heavenly Jerusalem was known in the ancient tradition as “first natural contemplation,” or “contemplation of the intelligibles.” Here, the Soul moves from a contemplation of the visible creation, perceived by the senses, to the contemplation of the invisible, or unseen—those things which can only be perceived by the mind. (Or more specifically, the Nous—not just the rational, deductive mind.)

Contemplation of the Heavenly Jerusalem develops when the Soul comes to an even more mature level. Now we realize that ‘the Kingdom of God is within,’ and we enter more deeply into the silence of our Souls.

Contemplation of the Heavenly Jerusalem continues the (life-long) process of purification, but now there is likely more emphasis on the passions of pride and vainglory, as well as the Passions of the Mind, when we encounter the temptations of false visions, prophecy, and revelations.

Contemplation of the Heavenly Jerusalem brings forth a flowering of the ‘Fruits of the Spirit’, with ever-deepening love, joy, peace, and wisdom.

CONTEMPLATIVE LIVING (Contemplation of the Heavenly Jerusalem) Sacrifice / Redemption
FRIDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Matins795012277
22205551
138143
FRIDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Vespers89, Part I35140123
89, Part II12512988
28139103

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 1

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 2

Part 2

FAITHFUL LIVING – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday

Another way of thinking about Dwelling in the Psalms is to visualize our movement through the physical structure of the church. (And here I am utilizing the very traditional floor plan of a medieval, Western cathedral or monastery chapel, an architecture that is still to be found in many smaller churches built prior to say about the 1960’s.)

We enter the church from the out-of-doors, remembering our ancient movement from the Garden and the glories of creation. We climb the steps to enter the Narthex, responding to the call of God. We then come to the Baptistry, remembering our deliverance from captivity, and our initiation into the Body of Christ. Then we come to the Nave, where most of us spend most of our worshiping lives, hearing again and again the stories of salvation history, and learning what it means to come into covenant with God, and to follow His Law, and become His Holy People. From the Pulpit and Lectern, we learn the meaning of faithful discipleship, as we learn to follow the Commandments, and live the Beatitudes. In so doing, we encounter our passions, and through purification and repentance, transform them from vices into virtues, and grow in faith, patience and charity.

In summary, then:

Faithful Living comprises the foundational phase of the Soul’s life in God. It begins with creation itself, and with the call to God’s people to follow, love, and obey him.

Faithful Living concerns our deliverance out of captivity—the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea, and the Christians’ initiation into the Body of Christ through Baptism and Chrismation.

Faithful Living calls us into Covenant with God, into the relationship of obedience, and surrender to God, who in turn, protects and guides us to the fulfilling His Law, and to becoming His holy people.

Faithful Living above all teaches us to “Love one another.”—to live with compassion for all, even ourselves; to grow in faith, patience, and charity.

Faithful Living continually calls us to repentance and conversion, and to the grateful reception of God’s loving mercy to us, and to all who “fall short of the Glory of God”—which, of course, is all of us.

Faithful Living transforms our vices into virtues, and, through detachment and discrimination, we become more dispassionate—no longer at the mercy of our own passions.

MONDAY

FAITHFUL LIVING Creation / Salvation History 
MONDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Matins13568818
33244476
136
MONDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Vespers105, Part I106, Part I78, Part I78, Part II
105, Part II106, Part II100114

TUESDAY

FAITHFUL LIVING Discipleship / Passions  
TUESDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Matins119:1-16119:49-64119:97-112119:145-160
119:17-32119:65-80119:113-128119:161-176
52365821
70
TUESDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Vespers119:33-48119:81-96119:129-14417
14105340
7439144
1203

WEDNESDAY

FAITHFUL LIVING Purification and Repentance
WEDNESDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Matins802683108
6038102109
5613
142
WEDNESDAYWEEK 1WEEK 2WEEK 3WEEK 4
Vespers696425
547443137
3259141
57

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 1

 

 

 

Alder Bench

29 July 2013

Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany

Dwelling in the Psalms

Part 1

 

INTRODUCTION

The Book of Common Prayer introduces the Psalter by saying “it is a body of liturgical poetry, designed for vocal, congregational use, whether by singing or reading.” And in the Anglican tradition, there has long been an expectation that clergy would say the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, and that this discipline would also be followed by devout laity as much as possible. Yet I think if we are candid, it is a discipline that is likely practiced only by a minority, whether lay or clerical. I can only confess that, having once known the riches of the monastic community praying and chanting the prayers and psalms day after day, season after season, I frankly found it nigh on impossible to say the offices on my own. They were designed for corporate, congregational prayer, and that was no longer an option for me on a daily basis.

Yet always, my heart hungered for what I knew was truly food for the soul. And so after years—nay, decades!—of praying in an unstructured, irregular manner, I found myself returning once again to a more traditional practice. Perhaps my own interior silence had deepened sufficiently to sustain a richer feast of psalms, readings, and canticles.

As a result, this arrangement of the Psalms is the fruit of an effort to find a way of praying the Psalms that is in accordance with the practice of the ancient Church, and that is also coherent with the life-style of the solitary anchorite or hermit. (Perhaps it may also be useful for others who pray alone, or even in community.)

Praying the Psalms in solitude is very different than praying them in a congregation or a monastic community. In solitude, one does not have the support of other voices, other souls—except, of course, for the presence of the Communion of Saints, who are even now and unto the ages lifting their voices in praise to the Holy Trinity.

The life of a vowed anchorite or hermit is also a life dedicated to silence and simplicity. As such, the traditional breviaries and lectionaries may be found cumbersome, and unduly complicated, often impinging upon the deep silence of contemplative prayer.

This arrangement, then, is significantly simplified. The cycle of Psalms is spread over a four-week cycle. In addition, rather than the ancient tradition of seven daily offices, and the more contemporary tradition of four offices a day, this Psalter is divided between Matins and Vespers. Some may choose to add a period of intercession at noon day, and the traditional late-evening office of Compline may more easily be recited by memory while preparing for sleep.

A few comments about the distribution:

For generations, lectionaries have distributed the scripture readings to reflect to some extent the season of the liturgy (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter….and less so for “ordinary time”). Yet I have been unable to find any tradition (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican) that does the same to a significant degree with the Psalms. By and large, the Psalms most often seem to have been prayed in a roughly numerical order, whether on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly cycle, with occasional variations to be found. If anyone knows of other types of ‘thematic’ lectionaries for the psalms, I hope you will let me know!

The only thing I have found which is close to a thematic (non-seasonal) distribution was that developed by Bonnell Spencer, OHC, in A Monastic Breviary, used by the Order of the Holy Cross and the Order of St. Helena. Fr. Spencer introduced the Psalter by saying,

In determining the assignment of [the psalms], the effort was made, not only to fit them to the time of day, but also to give certain days of the week a special tone. Thus worship and thanksgiving characterize the psalms selected for Sunday, and also for Thursday because of its association with the Eucharist and the Ascension. Friday, and to a lesser extent Wednesday, have been treated as penitential. The Incarnation and the part taken in it by the Virgin Mother are associated with Saturday.  A Monastic Breviary (Holy Cross Publications, 1976)

However, the more I have immersed myself in the ancient patristic tradition of ascetical practice, and discovered therein a clear path for the journey of the soul, I found the traditional psalm distribution to be jarring and seemingly without any reflection of this spiritual path. So at last, building on these studies, I began to examine the traditional stages of the mystical path as a context for praying the Psalms.

In the Western Church, we have traditionally identified three stages: Purification (or Purgation); Illumination; and Union. These designations found their roots in the teaching of the early church (3rd-7th centuries), especially in such masters of the life of the soul as Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius of Ponticus, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Maximus the Confessor. They identified similar stages, but more often used terms such as the Practical Life, Contemplation, and Theosis (or Divinization). Further, contemplation was often seen as having two stages within it, the earliest being contemplation of the created order, and the more advanced being contemplation of the ‘intelligibles’ or the ‘Heavenly Jerusalem.’ Only after passing through these stages, would the soul come to the fullness of the ‘likeness’ of God, or theosis, or union.

I have adapted these stages under the headings of “Faithful Living”, “Contemplative Living”, and “Holy Dwelling.” While using this understanding of the mystical path, rather than simply reciting the psalms in numbered sequence, I have arranged them—to the degree possible—to reflect the journey of the soul through the stages according to various themes reflecting the experiences and emphases of each stage.

Psalm Stages & Themes

WEEKDAYSTAGESTHEMES
SUNDAYHoly DwellingResurrection / Theosis
MONDAYFaithful LivingCreation / Salvation History
TUESDAYFaithful LivingPassions / Discipleship
WEDNESDAYFaithful LivingPurification / Repentance
THURSDAYContemplative LivingIllumination / Wisdom
FRIDAYContemplative LivingSacrifice / Redemption
SATURDAYHoly DwellingIncarnation / Virtue

 Such a distribution of the Psalms supports the soul by each week emphasizing the different stages of the mystical journey. Of course, not every psalm fits neatly into these categories, and someone else might determine a very different distribution. I was also constrained by an effort to approximate the number of verses for each office, coming up with an overall average of 44 verses for each of the 56 offices in a four-week cycle.

Although traditional practice is to begin each week with Saturday Vespers, I have chosen to use our more modern calendar by beginning with Sunday. However, it would be simple to adjust this system to the more traditional, simply by moving Saturday Vespers to the beginning of each week.

What about the ‘imprecatory’ verses? Our modern sensibility finds them very objectionable, indeed. Some lectionaries omit them entirely. And yet, does that not simply impose our own sensibilities upon what has for millennia been part of the prayer of faithful people, Jew and Christian alike? As hard as some of these verses are to pray, it seems to me they must be retained. We may not wish to think of ‘dashing little ones’ heads against the rocks’ (Ps. 137), but there are people out there who do just that, and perhaps our prayer can bring them—and our own unruly passions—into the transforming presence of God. It is also worth noting that the ancient tradition was to see some of these verses as directed against the assault of demonic and evil forces, a reality which must be encountered by any soul who prays for very long.

One other note: Psalm 95 is not included here because it is used every day at the beginning of Matins. The translation used is that of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

In the coming days, I will continue these posts on the psalms, with a slightly fuller explanation of each stage, and with a chart of the psalms assigned to each office and day within each stage.

Susan Creighton+

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 2

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 3

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 4

 

 

(Thirty years ago–1981–The Feast of the Visitation fell on a Sunday. It was transferred to Monday, June 1st, and on that day I was ordained to the sacred priesthood. This meditation—in the form of a ‘letter’ from Elizabeth to Mary—was given a year later as a sermon in the Convent of St. Helena, Vails Gate, NY. I offer it once again, in thanksgiving to God for the many blessings of being called to stand at His altar and offer the Holy Mysteries.

Please pray for me that I may continue to bear this sacred office faithfully.)

A Meditation on the Feast of the Visitation

My Dear Cousin:

I dictate this letter with faltering voice and with a great sense of weariness, for the years have multiplied upon my head. I am so old now that I’ve forgotten just how many years there have been. But I’m not so old that I’ve forgotten everything. In fact, it seems the events of long ago happened only yesterday, and now as the dusk of my life draws to a close, and the soft darkness of death approaches, I feel moved to share some of these memories with you.

For you see, dear cousin, you were really the only one who fully understood; and of course you were the only one who could—for you, too, were a woman, and a mother—and you, too, have borne a son dear to your heart.

That day long ago when you visited me so unexpectedly is as clear in my memory as the summer sun. Then, as now, we lived high in the hills of Judea, and the air was clear and sharp, yet heavy with the expectation of the late rains and of the harvest soon to be gathered in. It had been a long, cold spring for me, and I had felt all the aches of the ancient in my heavy body; even then, my years were many. And then there was this added burden—so welcome but still so heavy.

My belly grew and my legs ached with the weight of it, and I wondered as my time grew near whether or not my strength would fail me.

My body had never learned in its youth how to be a mother, and these lessons come late were taxing to body and soul. I found a loneliness in it, for my beloved husband was enveloped in a great silence that even my love could not seem to penetrate. He had been like this ever since his last turn of service at the temple in Jerusalem: utterly unable to speak, and with the light in his eyes turned inward as if he gazed upon a sight beyond human vision. I know now that his silence came from God, but then it was a hard thing to know, and I longed so for just a word from him—just a word to tell me that he shared both my pain and my joy. But his silence became my silence, and together we waited.

In all those silent months, I had long hours to pray and think, for my old body refused to labor in other ways. It, too, had turned inward, and all my energies seemed to pour into this new life within me, and to leave little over for outward concerns. And as I waited and prayed, and grew heavier and heavier, I remembered: I remembered Sarah as she must have been: like me, both joyous and frightened with the advent of a pregnancy so ardently longed for. I remembered her faithfulness, her willingness to follow Abraham to new lands, to uncertain futures, to the eternal seeking of what must have seemed an illusory promise. Sarah knew; she knew what it was to wait, and pray, and remember. She knew what it was to be a mother, to bear a son, to let him go.

Then there was Rachel: won by Jacob after long years of labor; sharing him with her sister Leah. Rachel, too, must have known long years of silence and grief and prayer. And then at last God “hearkened to her and opened her womb” and she bore her son Joseph. Rachel knew: she knew what it was to wait, and pray, and remember; she knew what it was to journey ever forward and follow a God who demanded all; Rachel knew what it was to give that all as she labored over the birth of her son Benjamin, the son who claimed her life as the price of his own.

And so the long months went on, there on the hills of Judea. The days passed, and I waited, and my belly grew. I found it hard to sleep, and often rose long before the dawn to sit in the soft darkness and watch the light slowly creep over the eastern mountains. Those were the moments when I felt utterly at peace; I knew that my beloved had been faithful to God; I knew that the life within me would not die; I knew that the silence and waiting would come to an end.

Those quiet mornings were precious to me, and I felt my own heart sing as the first sleepy birds began the morning chorus. And singing brought to mind that other old friend from the past: Hannah. Like me, Hannah had been long barren, and sorely tormented by her affliction. She, too, had known the scorn of others as the years rolled past. She, too, waited and prayed most fervently, and the Lord heard her prayer and had pity upon her. In due time Hannah conceived, and bore a son, and called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.” Hannah knew what it was to bear a son, and to let him go—to lend him to the Lord’s service; and she knew how to rejoice in her blessing: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. There is none holy like the Lord, there is none besides thee; there is no rock like our God … He raised up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.”

Hannah knew how to wait, and pray. Hannah knew how to sing.

And so, dear cousin, the months passed. And that clear spring day dawned, and the birds sang, and I went about the chores of my silent house, waiting, ever waiting.

Then you came. You entered my house and greeted my beloved and me, and with the sound of your young, hopeful voice, the child in my own womb leapt for joy. 

From the deep pit of silence within me came the cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! … And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

And your voice broke into song: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” You sang, O Mary, my cousin, and you brought joy and peace to our silent house. And then you departed upon your own way, already swelling with the child within your own womb, and I waited, larger and heavier, and so near to my own time of delivery.

Yes Mary, we both know what it is to wait, to bear a son, to let him go, to sing.

And in these many years since, we have not ceased learning to wait, to pray, and to sing. Even in those moments of the greatest grief, we have known joy. My own John left us so early; his father’s blessing was upon him, and he went forth to prepare the way of the Lord; he went forth to be the prophet of the Most High … It was hard to let him go, and yet we knew we must, for he was ours no longer; the Spirit had claimed him from time before time, from that moment in the temple when my beloved Zechariah was struck dumb.

But it was hard to let him go: Sarah’s son was spared the knife; my son was not.

Yet still we sang: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.” And you, my dear: you were so very young, yet you bore so very much more. You bore the Son who redeems us all; you bore the pain of scorn and rejection even as he lay in your womb; you bore the abandonment of Golgotha; you bore the incredible news of his resurrection; you bore the sight of his risen body and sore wounds. 

You bore all this, my dear Mary, because you are the most favored one: You are she, chosen above all women to be the Mother of God.

You are she, my dear, who has become the mother of us all. Yes, even of me, your old, old cousin. For you are she who has taught us all to wait, to pray, to remember, to sing.

You are she who has taught us to bear forth within our barren bodies the Word of the Lord.

You are she who has taught us to seek the fruit of Christ within the hearts and minds and souls and bodies of all whom we meet.

You are our Mother, calling us forth to give birth to Love.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

With weary joy, my dear, I remain your affectionate cousin,

+Elizabeth+

NOTE: I wrote this meditation over thirty years ago…only now am I beginning to understand it.

The Rev’d. Susan Creighton, Anchorite

Winter is an odd time to begin anything: we think of it as the last of the Four Seasons; as a metaphor for the closing years of a long life; as a time of hibernation, stillness, and death. And as we ourselves approach this time of year, or time of life, we may find we would rather hearken back to the newness and hopefulness of Spring, to the exuberance of Summer, to the glorious abundance of Autumn. Ah, those gaudy, golden months of Autumn, when the trees fling themselves into an oblation of color, shouting with all the energy from the summer of their youth: “Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills, and all that grows upon the earth, praise him and highly exalt him for ever.”

But the day comes when that shout is muted by the gray shawl of low hanging clouds, slipping round the hills, and bringing soft, tentative rain. Slowly, bolstered by a rush of wind, the rain gathers courage, daring to challenge the riot of color. Where once an occasional leaf floated casually to earth, slow and relaxed as a Sunday driver, now a blizzard of gold and red strips the trees of the last vestiges of life. A vast silence permeates the waiting forest, as final preparations are made for the pall of snow that soon will cloak the ugliness of naked death.

Then one morning we wake to an icy moonlight and know that Winter is upon us. The earth lies still and silent, all sounds muted by the cloak of snow, all life seemingly brought to a standstill: the birds do not sing; the woodchucks lie snug in their burrows; the woodland streams are frozen in their beds. And we find that this awesome stillness penetrates into our own hearts: Winter has entered into us, and into our prayer.

For our life of prayer also has seasons: the tentative Spring of newborn faith, just beginning to hope; the full-blown Summer of certainty and conviction, when we dwell in the full radiance of the Light of God. And of course there is the glorious Autumn of prayer, when we reap the harvest of long seasons of spiritual planting and cultivating; when we move beyond petition to praise; beyond penance to the mature knowledge of the love of God.

Then, as inevitably as the seasons of the earth, comes a time of Winter to our life of prayer, our life in God. Sometimes this spiritual Winter slips upon us almost unnoticed, like the slow shortening of the hours of daylight. Or, it may come to our prayer like the furious gust of a late hurricane, tearing from us all certainty, all fruitfulness, and battering us into a depression and bleakness than can be likened only to death. But whether our Winter comes slowly and unnoticed, or furiously and devastatingly, we at last find ourselves in a place of immense stillness.

The Winter of prayer is a place of grayness, yet with the stark contrasts of icy blackness and brilliant whiteness. Just as the bare skeletons of the trees stand silhouetted against dull gray sky, we find our prayer has become naked and stripped and skeletal. We find no green hope of life in our prayer, let alone any evidence of fruit or mature foliage. We cannot pray, and so we simply say prayers, depending upon the bare bones of the faith of the Church, and the promise of the sacraments to carry us through the death of our own prayer.

Then, slowly, as the Winter wears on, we begin to find comfort in its very stillness, and shelter in the blanket of snow which has brought rest and silence to our prayer. We find that in the silence of this spiritual Winter, we are listening more acutely to the voice of God. And while we feel ourselves frozen into the stillness of Winter, we yet find the Water of Life flowing deep within us, and deep within the bosom of the earth.

As we move more deeply into this Winter, we find that the place of stillness and death has been transformed into one of waiting and rest. As the trees must shed their leaves and draw back their sap to prepare for another season of life and growth, so, too, we must allow our prayer such a Winter. For Winter does not mean that life has departed from the earth, nor has faith departed from our prayer. Rather, it is a time of waiting, and rest, and even of death, in which we pause and prepare for the rebirth of Spring, the renewal and greater growth of the next season of prayer. Winter, as the culmination of the year, and the completion of a life span, is also the beginning of a new cycle of seasons, the beginning of New Life in Christ. Winter brings a time of deep silence to our souls, a silence out of which we can proclaim, “Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, drops of dew and flakes of snow. Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever.”

In medieval times, an anchorite made his or her vows, and was often sealed up inside a small room attached to the side of a church. I have joked that I could not find a church willing to have me! Truth be told, I didn’t look for one. Rather, both my bishop and I knew that my vocation was truly as an anchorite of the whole diocese, and the cloister walls of my anchorhold consisted of the tall firs and cedars surrounding my small house situated in a quiet neighborhood a few miles out of town.

As a priest, my community of peers was that of the clergy, and my bishop asked that I make my vows during the Holy Week liturgy for the reaffirmation of ordination vows, and  the consecration of the Chrism, the oil used in baptism. Drawing on the ancient tradition of monastic vows and the enclosing of anchorites and the blessing of hermits, (see especially The Hermits and Anchorites of England), I wrote my portion of the liturgy, which was then integrated into the larger form. The final combined liturgy may be seen here: Vows of an Anchorite.

Monastic rules are generally written for purposes of inspiring and governing a community–when and where and how  to pray, describing the nature of the ministry of the community, who makes the decisions, who does the dishes, who takes out the garbage, who cares for the sick and the guests, who settles the quarrels….you get the idea.

Historically, many hermits and anchorites have lived under the Rules of the monasteries to which they were attached, with exceptions to the rules for their particular circumstances; others have been directly under the authority of their local bishop.  And there have been yet others who were, well, simply solitary. Such persons may or may not have had a formal rule.

In my own situation, while not being attached to any monastery or religious community, but rather making my vows directly to my bishop, I chose to draft my own rule as a contemporary expression of the eremetic tradition. It may be viewed here: Anchorite Rule

 

 

St. Thomas', Dallas, OR
St. Thomas’, Dallas, OR

Lex orandi, lex credendi

“As we pray, so we believe”

I was born into a peculiar family. I don’t think I had a lot of choice in the matter, or at least I don’t remember God consulting the soul that became Susan whether or not she wanted to be born, and grow up, and work, and cry, and laugh, and fight, and pray, and love, and finally die in this family. But here I am—our name was Episcopal, and to this day I still bear that name.

The first party my family gave after I was born was small and quiet—it was wartime, and not everyone could be there. But it was a good party, and I even got to wear a special white dress for the party. Everybody smiled and laughed a lot—especially when I cried a bit after getting so wet on my head. They didn’t seem to know that I was just surprised, and had really thought the water felt cool and fresh and clean and life-giving.

The next big party I remember my family giving was quite a long time later. Again I got to wear a new dress, but this time before the party I had to go to classes several weeks, and study a small book, and learn to recite some things by heart. Now, I said for my own self, that I would—

“…renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh; believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith; and keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.”

At thirteen, I wasn’t all that sure what the “devil, pomps, and vanity” were, nor was I very clear at all what keeping God’s will would entail for a lifetime, but it all somehow felt right, and the believing part seemed not to be so hard (I was good at memorizing) and before too long I could say, “I believe…”, and “Our Father…”, and “Thou shalt not…” quite easily. I really wasn’t too sure what they all meant, but that didn’t seem to matter a lot at the time. I did have to ask my Grandma what “One, Holy, Catholic” meant (she said “universal”) as I had friends who were Catholic, and I was pretty sure that wasn’t us! But I knew I wanted to take this next step; I knew I wanted to belong to this family, and the family all said this was what I did to belong. So I came to the party, and recited “Thou shalt not…” and “I believe…” and “Our Father…”. And this time, instead of getting wet, my forehead was anointed with oil, and the bishop laid hands on my head. I was old enough to know not to cry out, but my tummy was turning over, and my head was spinning, and I knew something big had happened.

Then a long time passed, and I went out into the world to begin my own life’s journey. But this family of mine seemed to be in lots of places, so I joined a branch of the family wherever I was and went to their parties. They prayed the same prayers, and sang the same music, and had the same rituals, and wore similar clothes, so I knew I must belong. Here, I really began to listen to what we were singing, and saying, and doing. And I found more things to memorize by heart, but these seemed to be easier, almost as if I already knew them—

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

And—

O Come, let us sing unto the Lord; * let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation. / Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; * and show ourselves glad in him with psalms….

And of course—

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we, thine unworthy servants, do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us, and to all men; We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world with end. Amen.

Years passed, and no matter where I went I found some of my family. At one time, I visited some far distant cousins calling themselves Methodists—they taught me about Jesus’ humanity, but I was glad to return to the grandeur and mystery of my Episcopal family, where I knew I found Christ’s divinity.

The 1960’s and 70’s came along, and our family was stretched thin by war and justice issues. But we kept praying—

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid:  Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

And—

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Above all, we prayed—

All glory be unto thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute and in his holy Gospel command us to continue a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again: For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took Bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you; Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise, after supper, he took the Cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this; for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins. Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me…

And quietly, before coming to the sacred meal—

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so as much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

With the 1970’s, I met some new parts of the family, those who felt, at best, like shirttail relatives. Many of them didn’t even know the same songs I knew, and their parties were very, very, very different. But they claimed to be part of the same family, so I hung around for a while, as they sang their lively songs and gave fervent prayers with hands raised high. They said they “knew Jesus,” were “born again,” and “spoke in tongues”, and had been “baptized by the Holy Spirit.” Often in close alliance with them was the healing ministry, which appeared to be grounded in a deeper intellectual integrity than the charismatics often were, and offered physical and spiritual healing with the laying-on-of-hands, and sometimes even the “exorcism of demons” and “gifts of prophecy.” Encounters with many of these distant cousins deepened my faith, and gave it new expressions and I began to discover a deeper longing to find a way to serve the Lord.

At about the same time, Vatican II was opening wide the windows of the Roman Catholic Church in unexpected ways, and our Episcopal family began to look at our own family traditions—and began work toward a revision of the Book of Common Prayer. For we always say—

“As we pray, so we believe”

So from mimeographed handouts through the Green Book, the Zebra Book, and the Blue Book versions we somehow managed to pray our way to the 1979 revision, changing “thee” and “thou” to “you”, and “men” to “all people”, as we tried to retain the elegance of Cranmer’s 16th Century English while lurching into “contemporary idiom.” “Communion” became “Eucharist,” Morning Prayer was relegated to early services or 5th Sundays, the exchange of the “Peace”—profound and beautiful as is its intent—all too often became a noisy and chaotic interruption between Word and Sacrament. And of course we pulled the altar out from the wall, with the priest now facing the people—that gave us a deeper sense of the incarnate Jesus, but that awe-full mystery of the transcendent and resurrected Christ seemed to become less visible, less powerful, less present.

“As we pray, so we believe”

About the same time of all the liturgical changes, a retired elder of the family gave me a little book about some of the family ancestors. So I began to read the Desert Fathers, and about Gregory of Nyssa, and Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony. A Russian Orthodox woman I met in England taught me the Jesus Prayer, told me of the mystical life, and introduced me to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. My soul recognized my spiritual home immediately. Now, I heard God calling even more clearly: “I have other need of you.” But there were no job descriptions for mystics in the classifieds.

So I talked to the bishop, and he sent me to seminary. There, in an all-too-brief three years, we skated through three thousand years of biblical and ecclesiastical history, theology, ethics, pastoral ministry and contemporary issues, all the while learning to flip pages of the Prayer Book and Hymnal, construct liturgy according to the rubrics, and preside at the Offices and Sacraments. My bishop told me to deal with periods of spiritual aridity by simply saying prayers when I could not pray, but neither he nor seminary nor spiritual directors gave me any tools for deepening prayer within my own soul—or for helping others do the same.

“As we pray, so we believe”

Yet the heart would not be denied, and so as a newly ordained deacon I entered monastic life which seemed to be the part of the family most like me. Now, plainchant was balm to my soul, even in contemporary English forms.

Phos Hilaron

O gracious Light,
   pure brightness of the everliving Father in Heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
   Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
   we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
   O Son of God, O Giver of life,
   and to be glorified through all the worlds.
                                                                (Vespers Canticle)

And the ancient canticles and antiphons, sung by the ancestors down through the ages—

Arise, shine, for your light has come, *
   And the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.
For behold, darkness covers the land; *
   Deep gloom enshrouds the peoples….
                                                                (Tuesday Vespers)

And—

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
   For neither before you was there any seen like you,
   Nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you marvel at me?
   The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.
              (Antiphon on the Magnificat, December 23)

It was glorious. The chant fed my soul, bringing me to the silence of the heart in a way nothing else ever had.

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5)

Yes, I was still “saying prayers”, but I knew there was something deeper. So I prayed in my solitary cell, all the while knowing Jesus most likely did not mean a literal shutting the door on a literal room. But no one could tell me how to find that inner room, or how to go into it, or how to shut the door.

“As we pray, so we believe”

In later years while I went out into the family doing parish and other ministry, I continued to “say prayers” and teach others how to do the same. At last count, (forgive me—I used to be a statistician!) over the course of more than 30 years, I have said prayers (both Offices and Sacraments) in 15 dioceses and 171 congregations, monasteries, retreat houses, homes, hospitals, mortuaries, and hermitages—even once in a hotel room in Kiev, Ukraine. Nor does that include my explorations of very far-flung family branches in the Celtic and shamanic traditions, which at least seemed to take more seriously the reality of Spirit than we often do in our set liturgical forms. Nor does it include the prayer groups and bible study groups I’ve led and attended, nor most of the classes, seminars, and retreats I’ve led, attended, enjoyed, hated, sat through, or fled from. Yes, I have “said prayers.”

“As we pray, so we believe”

All the while, I have watched—and often participated in—as this beloved Episcopal family struggled year after year, decade after decade with one plan, program, endeavor, or emphasis after another. We have fought, and continue to fight, our way through resolutions and financial crises, through sexual conduct and misconduct, through wartime and peace, through civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental causes, and gun control. We have set up listening commissions, task forces, committees, and study groups. We have reorganized ourselves at parish, convocation, area, diocesan, provincial, and national and international levels. We have redefined ministry to include women, and now gays and lesbians; we have told the laity they were the true ministers, and to find their own ministry, which all too often had the covert (or sometimes explicit) intention as ministry which brought more people in the door on Sunday. We have mounted massive capital expenditure campaigns to build new churches, or renovate old ones, and we have cut funding for campus ministry and education. We have named and renamed our newspapers, cutting their budgets and then hiring more staff.

The Evangelicals have fought the Liberals and the Broad Church; the Charismatics have joined the Evangelicals or the Baptists. The Anglo Catholics seem to have scattered into all three parties, or sometimes joined the Roman Catholics, or the Orthodox, or even the Assembly of God. The Liberals have held their ground, or joined the Unitarians or the New Age. We’ve worn ourselves out on ecumenical dialogues with the Romans and the confessing churches, and we’ve linked up with the Lutherans in a (sometimes uneasy) alliance.

“As we pray, so we believe”

We have “said prayers” through it all. And I have no doubt that many, many of us have prayed in a multitude of deeper ways as well. We have believed in the way we prayed, and we have acted in the way we believed.

Some years back, I could no longer pretend—I did not truly fit in this family; and “saying prayers” was no longer sufficient. It really never had been for me. My first bishop had also told me to let the faith of the church carry me when I had no faith. I had done just that for a very, very long time. But no longer. Even my own prayers, study, and rituals no longer sustained me. I could only do what countless Christians have down over the ages before me—go into the desert.

“As we pray, so we believe”

Loving the Church no less than did the earliest monastics of the third and fourth centuries, I, too, heard God’s call. It was a call to seek the Kingdom of God within—to seek it not in accommodation to the values, mores, and traditions of the wider culture, but to return to the most primitive teachings. I needed to learn to pray, not simply “say prayers.” I needed to learn the deeper meaning of the Gospels, not simply the latest theological theories. Above all, I wanted to find my way to God, not simply continue to find ways to fit into, and serve this family of ours, this family called the Episcopal Church.

So that’s what I’m doing. Hiding away in a hermitage that looks like a very ordinary house, in a very ordinary neighborhood. And learning that all those years of saying prayers and serving the Church wherever she called me was an integral part of God’s call—yet less than God. And I’m at last learning to pray, learning to find my way to God, now with solitary chant and silence, and meditation, learning to not only find the Kingdom of God within my own soul, but to know that as I find my own soul, I find God. And they are one.

“As we pray, so we believe”

If the church splits over the present controversy, I do not know what part might still claim me as a member of the family. I am neither Evangelical nor Liberal, Charismatic nor Broad Church. I am neither a fundamentalist nor a humanist. I still believe I hold the faith of the One, Holy, Catholic Church—Catholic in the sense my Grandmother taught me—universal; Holy in the most sacred sense that is beyond our understanding or defining; and One in the sense that God is One.

I am simply someone who was born into this Ecclesiastical Peculiar called Anglicanism, someone who has served its declared needs faithfully for many years, someone who loves it…and someone who must stay apart nearly all the time in order to find God. I am still a member of this family. I will remain a member of this family. I love it deeply and I pray for it always. I am sad to witness its present agony, and to see that the present events may well mean a fracturing of the family. I hurt for it. But I do not stop loving it. Or being a part of it in my own unique way. And I know that if there is a fracture, that, too, is ultimately in accord with the will of God.

For after all, what truly matters? Keeping the so-called family tree intact, or remembering what our most distant ancestors knew—

…in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.                  Romans 8:37-39

“As we pray, so we believe”

 NOTE: This was written in 2003, shortly before making my solemn vows as an anchorite in the Diocese of Olympia.

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