Category Archives: Spirituality

Brief Thought on the Sanctoral Calendar

I just finished writing a brief history of the Episcopal sanctoral calendar for another blog (I’ll link when it goes up).

I’ll be the first to tell you that the evolution of our Calendar has been both crazy and problematic. However, I’ve been seeing recommendations on Facebook and in other places suggesting that we just get rid of our Calendar—cut it back to just the Holy Days and take time to think it out, or to not even bother thinking it out.

I have a negative reaction to this proposal. Let me play devil’s advocate and suggest that a flawed Calendar authorized by the church is better than no Calendar. The 1928 BCP, despite a late push at the 1928 General Convention to adopt a calendar, was published with just the vestigal kalendar of Holy Days in place since the 1789 BCP. To me, a New-Testament-figures-only calendar is a betrayal of our pneutmatology and therefore ecclesiology.

We believe in the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Holy Spirit has been at work since Pentecost guiding and directing the Church into all truth. (Obviously, the Spirit was around and active before Pentecost—my point is the Church, which wasn’t…) To skip over twenty centuries of human history is tantamount to a denial of the presence of the Spirit in the Church. Or, at the very least, a dangerous agnosticism about our ability to discern the movement of the Spirit in the past.

We need a Calendar to affirm fundamental Christological, pnematological, and ecclesiological truths: throughout the Church’s flawed and checkered history, the Spirit has been at work, saints have incarnated Christ in their times and places, and the Body of Christ has made Christ Really Present to the world through the members of the Church.

The question that we are faced with now is what exactly we want the Calendar to be. Is the Calendar a history of famous men who taught things we should know? Is the Calendar a representative picture of the kinds of people who make up the Church? or (spoiler alert) is the Calendar a depiction of the virtues of Christ and the gifts of the Spirit incarnated through the Body of Christ (in ways both representative and historical)?

First feasts of December

Kalendar Calculations

I’m thinking back to yesterday and the conjunction of two different feasts, Corpus Christi and the Feast of the Visitation. It’s worth commenting on why two different sites—like the St. Bede’s Breviary and Daily Prayer—would choose one over the other. How do we think through these decisions theologically and what are the practical logics involved in these kind of kalendar calculations?

Occurrence–It’s a Thing

First off, this kind of thing happens not infrequently. That is, two days of significance to the church will overlap with one another because we have two different ways of reckoning dates for liturgical occasions. One is a Temporal cycle that shifts with the seasons, goes by weeks, and is calculated by means of Sundays which do not maintain a consistent date on the calendar every year. (Hence the tables on pp. 880-885 of your ’79 BCP.) The other is the cycle of fixed Holy Days. These are a combination of days celebrating apostolic saints (like Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, etc.) and feasts of Our Lord either directly (like Feast of the Holy Name) or indirectly through events surrounding the Incarnation (like The Visitation, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, etc.). These are, clearly, fixed on certain calendar dates.

Thus, there always exists the possibility for Temporal occasions to land on the same day as fixed Holy Days. That’s what happened yesterday: Corpus Christi, a traditional feast of the Temporal cycle celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, fell on the same day as the Visitation, the feast fixed on May 31. The technical church geek name for this is “occurrence.” (The other related issue is “concurrence” which is what happens when Evening Prayer of two feasts tangle with one another—that’s a much longer and more technical discussion on why and how and what you do, so I’ll shelve that for now…)

There are a few different approaches to deal with occurrence. The first is to let one event supplant the other entirely. This is the simplest route. The second is transference. This is where one feast stays on its original day and the other gets bumped to the next open day. The third is commemoration. This is where both feasts stay on the day, one gets the spotlight and the other gets an honorable mention. The prayer book’s preferred option is the second, transference, and the mechanics of this process is discussed on pages 15-17 of your ’79 BCP.

Personally, I much prefer the third, commemoration. The reason is theological. This whole clashing of days is messy. How are we supposed to deal with the mess? Do we sanitize it, simplify it, or embrace it? This mess happens because these cycles are fundamentally incarnational—embracing the mess is embracing the inherent messiness of embodied life where things don’t always go the way you plan. And, in fact, amazing things can proceed out of the mess that you never would have expected. If you remember, just a couple of years ago in 2016, Good Friday fell on March 25th. Following the prayer book rules, all of us good Episcopalians dutifully transferred the Feast of the Annunciation to the Monday after the Second Sunday of Easter as directed on page 17. But—how much more powerful was that Holy Week considering the juxtaposition of the events: the death of Christ on the cross with his mother at its foot and the announcement of Christ’s conception to his mother by the angel Gabriel? Luckily, we even got a poem out of John Donne on it when this conjunction occurred in 1608.  Commemoration enables messy conjunctions like this to occur, allows us to wonder and revel in them rather trying to tidily confine God’s action to discrete days. (Which is why the image for yesterday’s post was Mary holding the Host—the best intersection of the two feasts I could think of!)

But—choosing one of the three options only determines your course of action, it doesn’t solve the problem of precedence: which feast stays and which goes (or gets the spotlight).

Determining Dignity

Old rules about which feast to celebrate when will sometimes make appeals to the “nobler” or the feast “of greater dignity” and such. This implies the existence of a theologically determined set of criteria to be used to

figure these things out—and these exist in spades! Here’s the problem with the traditional systems. Most of them begin with facts on the medieval ground and proceed by attempting to figure out logical rules that can be universally applied. Thus you have something like a calendar from a Book of Hours written around 1485 in Bruges following the Roman Use (Walters W.. September has three days written in red: September 1st for the Abbot Egidius, the Nativity of the BVM on the 8th, and the Exaltation of the Cross on the 14th. (And note the feast of Philip and James in black on the 13th!) What happens if a Sunday falls on one of these days? There’s no clear sense in this manuscript of how one would work it out or exactly what “red” means.

Now—to be perfectly fair, that’s from a Book of Hours. The function of a kalendar in Books of Hours was more general familiarity with where we are in the year and which saints are being celebrated than anything else. While you might use a certain collect or set of devotions based on the saint of the day, the prayer offices did not change. As a result if we really want to know what an actual medieval system for reckoning the Office looked like in the flesh we need to look at something like this kalendar from a breviary written around 1420 according to the Use of Liege (Walters W.83). If you look carefully here there are directions in red regarding what to do and how these various feasts ought to impact the Offices. Hence, in this use, the feast of Abbot Egidius is a feast of nine lessons (.ix.l.) meaning longer than normal. The feast of the holy virgin Magdalbert on the 7th is a “double” of a certain sort (dux) and is the primary feast of the day—the feast of Bishop Evortius is only commemorated with a collect (co[ll]). On the next day, the Nativity of the BVM is a double with all of the antiphons doubled (tot) with a collect commemorating the martyr Adrian (coll). The point I’m making is that books like these recorded what communities did and largely they had their own ideas about how things ought to be done. Systems grew up that attempted to systematize and regularize around these practices and that can lead to a confusing welter of gradations formalized at the Council of Trent and beyond that divides feasts in Greater Doubles of the First or Second Class as opposed to “normal” Greater Doubles or Lesser Doubles (leaving aside semidoubles and such entirely…).

These were the kinds of complexities that the Reformers pushed back against. Classically, Cranmer complained about these in the preface to the first Book of Common Prayer: “Moreover, the number and hardness of the Rules called the Pie, and the manifold changings of the service, was the cause, that to turn the Book only, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out” (BCP, p. 866). Honestly, the Sarum Pie isn’t that hard to follow, but you get his general gist.

My Ranking System

In the run up to Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church simplified their kalendar systems quite a bit. When we decided to adopt an expanded kalendar in the ’79 BCP we more or less modeled ours based on the Roman Catholic concepts produced in 1963 and 1964 that yielded a papal motu proprio on the kalendar in 1969. And, as I’ve said before, when trying to understand many aspects of the ’79 BCP we should look first to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II first (Point 4 at this link).  What the Calendar section of the BCP tries to do is to express something very much like the list from section 59 of Paul VI’s motu proprio Mysterii paschalis. What I don’t get is why they didn’t just put in the list (or a list)!

Because the St. Bede’s Breviary is based on a computer algorithm, I did compile a list. This list is rank by order of precedent so that you can see which feasts land where in relation to other feasts. I started with something like the Mysterii paschalis list and then re-ordered it as necessary to make sense of the directives in the Calendar section of the BCP:

I.

1. Easter Triduum [Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday]
2. Christmas, Ascension, Holy Trinity, All Saints’ Day, Epiphany and Pentecost
3. Sundays of Advent, Lent, and Easter
4. Ash Wednesday
5. Weekdays of Holy Week from Monday from Thursday inclusive
6. Days within the Octave of Easter
7. Local Feast of Dedication of a church, Local Feast of Title, Local Feast of Patron
8. Special Feasts, locally having a first class rank*
9. Proper Feasts, locally having a first class rank*

II.

10. Holy Days: Feasts of Our Lord
11. Sundays of the Christmas Season and Ordinary Time
12. Holy Days: Major Feasts
13. Special Feasts, locally having a second class rank*
14. Days of Optional Observance, locally having a second class rank*

III.

15. Special Feasts, locally having a third class rank*
16. Days of Optional Observance, locally having a third class rank*
17. Weekdays of Lent
18. Weekdays of Advent from December 16th through December 24th inclusive
19. Days of Optional Observance
20. Weekdays of Advent up to December 15th inclusive
21. Weekdays of the Easter season
22. [Saturday Office of the BVM]†
23. Weekdays of the Christmas season
24. Weekdays of Ordinary Time

* The starred categories reflect the freedoms given in the Days of Optional Observance section. Practically speaking, the Prayer Book allows the appointment of propers to any day that does not contravene the pre-existing rules. This allows feasts already in the Calendar to receive additional celebration or the addition of other feasts so long as the other rules are obeyed.

The Pay-Off

So—now we get down to brass tacks… The Visitation is listed on page 16 of the BCP as a Holy Day and a Feast of Our Lord. That gives it a pretty high ranking, a 10 on my scale. Corpus Christi doesn’t actually appear in the BCP. For some folks, that’s the end of the discussion right there. The Visitation is in the book, Corpus Christi isn’t, Visitation wins. But, Corpus Christi is of long-standing importance in certain communities in the church. For those communities, this remains a live issue. Looking back at older rules (that many of these communities base their reckonings on), Corpus Christi was considered a Primary Double of the First Class; the Visitation was a Primary Double of the Second Class. Under those rules, Corpus Christi wins.

But what about our current rules? The way I reckoned it for the St. Bede’s Breviary was to view Corpus Christi as a Feast of Our Lord (10). The Visitation is also a 10—so which 10 is more 10 than the other? This is where we apply the rule of dignity of persons. Which more directly displays to us who Jesus is and is for us in our experience? Based on my answer to this question, I argue that Corpus is more directly a Feast of Our Lord than the Visitation. That’s not to say the Visitation isn’t important at all. It’s just to say that in this particular match-up, the revelation of Christ in the Eucharist ranks ahead of the Visitation.

It’s a judgement call. And, again, I don’t disagree with those who point out that Corpus Christi isn’t in our BCP. But, if nothing else, this gives us an opportunity to think about the directives and principles by which we give spiritual expression to the incarnate collisions of our faith.

Brief Daily Office Programming Note

The St. Bede’s Breviary is celebrating today as Corpus Christi as a local Feast of Our Lord with a commemoration of the Visitation.

Forward Movement’s Daily Prayer is celebrating today as the Visitation.

This is one of the possible conjunctions that had never occurred to me but which the liturgical cycles throw together on occasion. The beauty of having two similar resources like this is that they split the difference and offer both options!

New Liturgical Look Forward

This is the “Look, ma, no head!” version…

The technical tweak to this video is that I have not included any talking head shots. It occurred to me that it didn’t make sense to do a lot of editing work to overlay pictures of a presentation over top of talking head pictures—why not just record the presentation itself? So, that’s what I tried this week. Too, my digital strategist said that the video was “less cringey” this way.

Thus, without further ado, The Liturgical Look Forward for Proper 2:

New Experiment

After a bit of thought and a couple of false starts, I’m trying out a new experiment: YouTube videos.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that, even though I’m a biblical scholar, I sometimes lose the thread of exactly what we’re doing and where we are in the various Scripture lessons of the Daily Office. I figure that if I have this problem and I’ve got a Ph.D. in the field, it may well be happening to other people too…

So, to address this gap, I’ve started a series of videos entitled a Liturgical Look Forward. The goal is to look at the three Office readings for the upcoming week and locate them within the books that we’re reading through.  In the event of a Holy Day (like the Feast of St. Mark that falls on Wednesday), I mention what we’re missing—but also what we’re getting in the feast itself.

It is, of course, An Experiment. It may not last. Also, as it’s experimental, I have no real idea what I’m doing… The video below is the first video I’ve ever shot and edited for public consumption. The intriguing aspect of this whole realm is that I’m constantly calling in my teen-aged daughter to help me navigate the YouTubes; I’ve never had to rely on younger help to navigate anything digital and it’s quite the humbling experience!

In any case, here it is—let me know what you think.

(And click “subscribe”!)

PC: Thinking about Prayer

After the Introductory Chapter on Benedictine Spirituality and how Cassiodorus fits into it, I need to talk more specifically about prayer and about the psalms. Here’s the section on prayer. I’m building off something I originally posted over at Grow Christians so parts of this may look familiar if you read that piece.


The goal of this book is not to teach you everything you always wanted to know about the psalms—that’s a different book or different class of books. Rather than being a commentary, this is a book about a particular kind of prayer and to do that well, we need to spend some time thinking and talking about prayer.

If you are in and around religious circles for very long, you’ll inevitably hear the question: “Does prayer work?”

I have a hard time with this question. That’s not because of the answer but because the question itself is too broad. This is exactly the same as asking: “Can fish be eaten?” While the question can be answered with a straightforward yes or no answer, that answer is not likely to be helpful to the person asking! Can fish be eaten? Well, yes, generally—if it’s the right kind of fish, and has been taken from a relatively clean environment, and stored and prepared the right way. However, not all fish should be eaten. Not all preparation methods are of equal value in providing a healthy, nutritious meal. Some fish—like the little brightly colored tropical ones—spoil so quickly that they’re not worth trying to prepare. Some possess toxins of their own and others can collect toxins from the environments around them. What starts out as a very basic question cannot be safely answered with a very basic answer.

The same is true of the prayer question.

The best place to start in answering the question and thinking about prayer is to recognize that this question begins with several—usually fairly specific—assumptions. Furthermore, by starting with those assumptions, the question bypasses the central point of the activity.

Let’s unpack the assumptions in the question first, and then take a step back and figure out the right question…

When most modern people hear the word “prayer” or are asked a question like, “does prayer work,” they are considering one aspect of one kind of prayer. But there are lots of different kinds of prayer out there. One way of breaking down the principal kinds of prayer is with this list:

  • Adoration: the lifting up of the soul to God’s presence, resting in the experience of being present with God (this is usually non-verbal)
  • Praise: rejoicing in God because of the nature of God’s being; praise evoked by who God is, not because of any benefits that we might receive from God
  • Thanksgiving: rejoicing in God because of the things that God has done for us and for all creation; rejoicing in the relationship that God has chosen to initiate with creation and for the specific benefits known to us
  • Penitence: confession where we acknowledge our sin and admit specific ways in which our lives, actions, and intentions are at odds with God’s own hopes, dreams, and plans for the redemption of all creation
  • Oblation: an offering and dedication of the whole self to God
  • Intercession: offering before God the needs of others
  • Petition: offering before God our own needs

As you look down this list, you may realize that what a lot of people mean when they use the word “prayer” is a subsection of the last two kinds, intercession or petition. After considering the various kinds of prayer, we start to realize that when people ask, “does prayer work?” what they’re really asking is, “If I ask God for something—either on my behalf or on behalf of someone else—will I get it?”

In fact, if we want to be honest about it, more often than not this tendency to equate prayer with petition, moves discussions about prayer towards how to make it more effective. That is, is there something I can do to make it more likely that I’ll get the response I want? Inevitably, going down this road devolves into an attempt to bargain with God: “O God, if you’ll just do X thing for me, I promise that I’ll do Y…” This Y may involve promises to go to church more frequently or to be a better person or something of that sort; the logic here is that if we sweeten the pot with a promise, perhaps God will be more willing to give in. Here’s the problem: this becomes less an act of prayer as it becomes more an act of negotiation. The root problem is that negotiation involves leverage—where one party has something that the other wants and uses that to get what they need. Negotiating implies that we have some kind of leverage over God—but we don’t! In the grand scheme of things, whether we’re in church more makes no difference to the greatness of God. Any attempt at leverage lacks a certain honesty because it misrepresents the true nature of our relationship with God: there is nothing that God needs from us. There is no leverage that we have over God.

If our conception of prayer is focused around whether or not we receive divine benefits, then we have greatly restricted our understanding of what prayer is for and about. Let’s back up and see if we can ask the right question.

Let’s start with this: “What is prayer?” The best answer is that prayer is the communication that builds and nourishes our relationship with God. Just as there are different ways that we interact with our friends and family, there are a variety of ways of both talking and listening and experiencing the divine in prayer as well.

A few clarifying points here: first, prayer doesn’t begin a relationship with God. Christians believe that there is no need for us to start a relationship: we already have one. God is our creator, our great first-framer, who knows us intimately from before we were even born. God has already initiated the relationship with us and has even gone several steps further. In the incarnation of Christ, in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, God has already acted in our world on our behalf. In the twin interconnected movements of creation and redemption God has already established a connection with us—and even given us something to talk about!

Second, relationships grow though familiarity. You have to get to know the other person. Sometimes we get to know someone simply by recognizing that we are in their presence. An awareness of presence and a comfort in that presence is an important part of a good relationship, especially a loving relationship. However, as any shy middle-schooler can tell you, simply being in the presence of your beloved doesn’t make a relationship happen! And certainly not one with any sort of mutuality. Just because you sit behind your beloved in English class won’t make her fall in love with you… I believe that simply sitting in the presence of God as the beloved is a key part of prayer. However, just because silent presence is part of it it doesn’t mean that words aren’t important.

Third, words are important, but the volume and direction matter. Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where you can’t get a word in edge-wise? If the other person carries on a stream of words with nary a break, you may start to suspect that you’re less in a conversation and more in a monologue with an audience. What’s the problem with that? Well—a conversation is a relationship. And if the communication is only coming from one side, than the the relationship is not going to be well-developed and well-balanced. It’s got to be a two-way street. We have to listen as much as we talk. People who study prayer sometimes note that the forms and habits of prayer that developed in Latin-speaking Europe are very much focused on words and images. Speaking as an inheritor of that tradition, we like to do a lot of talking to God. Our challenge is to correct the balance with a bit more listening. The relationship has to be well-formed and well-rounded, and that can’t occur without just as much listening as talking. If the flow of the conversation is largely one-way—with us doing all the talking—then we’re going to have some real issues in building the relationship whether we recognize it or not.

Fourth, how does two-way communication happen? We certainly know how to talk, but what do we expect to hear back? How do we listen to and for God? Should I expect to hear the divine voice in my head? Does it mean that prayer is not working if I don’t? You may hear a voice in your head that you recognize as not your own—that has happened to me before—but it is not the usual way that I listen to God. When Christians say that the Bible is the Word of God, one of the things we mean is that the Bible is a center of God’s self-revelation. The stories of Scripture, the description of how God has acted in history the word of God proclaimed by the prophets, the observation of God’s ways and habits by the wise, all of these are means by which God communicates the divine self to us limited humans. We listen to God in the Scriptures and learn how God has acted and interacted with others in the past through their stories and writings. Certainly as Christians we believe that God’s greatest act of self-revelation is in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and that in learning how he lived and loved, we come to the clearest understanding of who God was, is, and will continue to be. Sacramental Christians also believe that another center of God’s revelation is in the sacraments; God gave Baptism and Eucharist and other practices to the church to be means of grace by which we encounter and experience the loving, transforming power and presence of God. Listening happens through the sacraments as well.

So—prayer is about a communication and about building a relationship. A relationship is about two parties interacting with one another. A deep relationship is founded on principles of trust and honesty—and this is what’s hard about prayer. We have to come to know and trust God. However, the really hard part is trusting and being honest with ourselves about ourselves. Praise and thanksgiving can be a lot of fun! We like being joyful and thanking God for the wonders around us and the gifts we have received. Penitence and oblation—not so much. Recognizing our own faults and poor choices and where we have acted contrary to God’s hopes and dreams doesn’t feel good. But we cannot hope to have an honest relationship with our Creator—the One who knit us together in the secret places of the womb—if we cannot be honest with ourselves, if we try to present a false image of ourselves to God in the midst of prayer. We can’t fake our side of the conversation with the One who knows us completely. We may try to fake our way through other relationships, presenting only the best version of ourselves to the public eye, but this can’t work in our most intimate relationships. We may even succeed in fooling ourselves, but those closest to us—spouses or partners or children—will see the truth. And God knows us even more thoroughly than that.

If prayer is about building a true and truthful relationship with our Creator and Redeemer, our central practice must be the pursuit of honesty, honesty about who we see ourselves to be, but also honesty about who God is and is not. If we insist on only seeing God as the great vending machine in the sky where we put in prayers and receive our gifts, we will be disappointed—not by God as God is but by the idols that we have made in place of God, the lies that we have told ourselves about who God is without nurturing a full and truthful relationship with the One who loves us and who, in the person of Jesus, gave himself for us.

Indeed, looking at prayer from our side as a habit or a practice, it is best understood as a process of increasing honesty. We come to better understand the relationship that we have with God in large measure by becoming aware of and stripping away falsehoods, misjudgments, and lies about who we are—but also about who God is. That may sound a little harsh, but it’s not intended to be so: some of these falsehoods are ones that we have inherited from our religious traditions or our spiritual teachers—clergy, parents, or elders—others are ones that we ourselves have created in the process of trying to make sense of our place in the world. We are ignorant of some of these falsehoods; others we are subtly aware of; still others we are so aware of that we create strategies to actively ignore them or to distract ourselves from the truths they contradict. In prayer we gain a far better sense of who we are, who God is, and the true character of the relationship between us: the loving, constructive, redemptive relationship that God yearns to have with every part of creation.

What, then, does this have to do with the psalms? Just this—while the whole Scriptures can be a center of God’s self-revelation to us, Jewish and Christian teachers and saints have recognized for centuries that the psalms are especially fruitful tools for nurturing the relationship. They are models of prayer and examples for us of our words to God. They tell us of God and of the experiences of God that people have had in the past. They also function as mirrors; we can learn truthfulness in prayer by interacting with them, by noticing what things make us uncomfortable, and pondering why. And that is where we will turn next: to consider the psalms—how we see them through the piety of the ages but also through the lens of modern biblical scholarship—all with an eye to how they can improve and purify our practices of prayer.