Archive for the ‘Holy Dwelling’ Category

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

 

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.”

 

Camano DeepLight

Camano DeepLight

 

 

How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
   My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
   my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
      Psalm 84:1

 

Welcome to my new blog, Holy Dwelling. My intent is to share some resources and reflections about the Soul’s quest to become one with God. In so doing, I will be examining three simple questions:

     Who am I?  (How does ancient Christian anthropology inform our understandings of the human person as body, mind, and soul?)

     Where am I going?  (What does the Orthodox tradition of theosis (or divinization) have to tell us about the ultimate destiny of the Christian?)

     How do I get there?  (How does the ancient tradition of the Prayer of the Heart or Jesus Prayer prepare our body, our mind, and our soul for union with God? And how does the liturgy of the Church, including the sacraments, and even the architecture of the building itself aid in our journey toward union with God?)

Now, because I long ago learned that the mystical journey is more of a spiral than a straight line, these entries will circle around in no particular designated order or structure…and may at times include the spiritual lessons I have learned from my cats and my cows!

I invite your responses as we share a few steps of the journey.

The Rev’d. Susan Creighton
Anchorite

A further word about myself….where I’ve been, how I got here, what feeds my soul:

My ecclesiastical ‘family of origin’ is that of the Episcopal Church (Anglican). She has baptized me, confirmed me, and ordained me a priest. I have served her in a variety of ministries, including within a religious order, as a parish priest, in campus ministry, and as a teacher, retreat leader, and spiritual director.

My liturgical life has been profoundly shaped by the Book of Common Prayer, the monastic tradition of psalms, canticles, prayers and, of course, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

My contemplative prayer life began by sitting in the dark with a candle, an icon, and the cross. Over the years, my soul was nourished by the mystical traditions represented by The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross, among others. In the last decade, I have returned to the depth of the mystical traditions, focusing particularly on the (Eastern) Orthodox tradition of the Prayer of the Heart, utilizing the Jesus Prayer, and the ascetical tradition of The Philokalia.

I attempt to keep my theology firmly rooted in the eternal truths as expressed in the creeds and liturgy of the ancient church, but most particularly in the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and in the writings of the Church Fathers, including Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius of Pontus, Hesychios, Maximus the Confessor, Dionysius the Areopagite, and others.

All these have prepared me for the fullest and truest expression of my vocation and life in God as I now live it as an Anchorite, under solemn vows of Silence, Solitude, and Simplicity.

~ ~ ~

A note about the present ‘Anglican chaos’: I am sorely grieved by our schisms, heresies, litigations, and plain bad manners. I am even more grieved by the schisms, heresies, litigations and plain bad manners exhibited in the Body of Christ down through the centuries. However, our Lord has placed me in this particular ‘family of origin’ at a particular time of history, and He has called me to the particular vocation of priest and anchorite. What He has given, He does not take back. Neither my vocation nor my ecclesiastical family are something which I can lay down, or turn my back on. . .they are not mine to reject.

Most probably all the above doesn’t matter a whole lot to the Living God, as made known to us in His Son, Jesus the Christ. Rather, I believe He says to us all: “Do you love me?” By his mercy, may we always answer, “Lord, you know I love you.” And through eternity, he says, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17)

I can only pray that some of you may find food for your souls within these pages, and that you will discover your own “HOLY DWELLING.”

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