After speaking so many fine words about spirituality and the BCP and how it ought to be taught rather than how it is normally taught, I’ve received hearty encouragement to put my money where my mouth is… A friend of mine—and the rector at one of the parishes where M served prior to his arrival—is going to be teaching the deacons in his area about the prayer book and asked my thoughts to supplement his own.
So—in a nutshell, here’s how I’d go about doing it. First a big-picture, then attention to some of the actual parts.
- Christianity has a variety of valid spiritualities—the BCP enshrines one of them: the liturgical system approach
- The key logic operative here is the disciplined recollection of God with the intention that following these disciplines will lead to the habitual recollection of God.
The fundamental mechanisms for achieving this goal are threefold:
- The kalendar which leads us to view time through a salvific lens
- The Daily Office which is fundamentally catechetical in nature
- The Eucharist which is fundamentally mystagogical in nature
I shall now proceed to shamelessly plagiarize from one of my own pieces…:
[T]he Book of Common Prayer offers a full integrated spiritual system that is intended as much for the laity as the clergy and which is founded in a lay spirituality that arose in the medieval period. If you look at the book as a whole, it offers a program for Christian growth built around liturgical spirituality. The best shorthand I have for this is the liturgical round. It’s made up of three components: the liturgical calendar where we reflect upon our central mysteries through the various lenses of the seasons of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and in his continuing witness in the lives of the saints, the Daily Office where we yearly immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and Psalms, and the Holy Eucharist where we gather on Holy Days to most perfectly embody the Body of Christ and receive the graces that the sacraments afford.
So—here’s why this is important and the meat of how it relates to the issue at hand. The purpose of any spiritual system is to bring the practitioner and their community into a deeper relationship with God—to create a family of mature Christians. Through their increasing awareness of who God is, how much God loves them and all of creation, they translate that love they have been shown into concrete acts of love and mercy in the world around them. There are several different strategies that different spiritual systems use to accomplish this. One of the classic ones—referred to in St Paul’s direction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)—is the recollection of God. The idea here is that if we can continually keep in mind the goodness of God, the constant presence of God, and an awareness of the mighty works of God on behalf of us and others, that we will more naturally and more completely act in accordance with God’s will and ways. Continual recollection is nearly impossible, but there are methods to help us in this habit.
A primary goal of liturgical spirituality is to create a disciplined recollection of God. Thus, if we specifically pause at central points of time—morning and evening; noon and night; Sundays and other Holy Days—to reorient ourselves towards God and the mighty acts of God, whether recalled to us through the Scriptures or experienced by us through direct encounters with the sacraments, then this discipline will lead us towards a habitual recollection of God.
In the liturgical round, the Book of Common Prayer gives us specific moments to stop and orient our time and ourselves around the recollection of God. As a result, one of the most important parts of the book is the Daily Office section that provides forms for prayer at morning, noon, evening and night. These prayer offices are our fundamental tool for disciplined recollection; they provide the foundation for our spiritual practice. This foundation, then, is punctuated by the Eucharist on Holy Days (at the least). And, conceptually, this is how we should view Sundays—not the day of the week on which we go to church—but as a Holy Day which recurs on a weekly basis.
Turning now to the kalendar, we must begin with the recognition that most human measures for marking time are social constructs. That is, nature gives us a few points upon which we hang our hats. The motion of the sun determines two main things: day and night and the year broken into four quarters based on our motion around the sun. The motion of the moon provides us with another measure but, as it does not cohere with the solar cycle, causes more complexity than it solves. As a result, the majority of the methods by which we keep time say more about “us” and what we think is important than they do about the nature of time itself.
Like the natural world, the Book of Common Prayer has seasons. However, rather than pointing to agricultural potential or lack thereof, the prayer book constructs time around the person of Jesus in the Temporal cycle. While the Sanctoral cycle logically follows subsequent to the Temporal cycle, it is super-imposed upon the year as a succession of static days (as we seem to have mislaid the octaves…). The way that the prayer book orders time, then, is supposed to tell us something about our priorities. Time itself is provided with a Jesus-colored lens.
The statement that I keep coming back to as the simultaneously most important and most overlooked rubric in the prayer book is the first one on the first real page of content:
The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in the Church. (p. 13)
Now we move to contemplate Mass and Office. The liturgy of the Western Church—especially liturgy that partakes of the monastic spirit—can be described as (among other things) a disciplined and bounded encounter with Scripture. That is, under the early medieval monastic ideal (which itself is described in the preface to the 1549 BCP) the Scriptures were read yearly in the Office; then the Mass could cherry-pick pericopes at its leisure, firm in the knowledge that—thanks to the constant repetition of Scripture—the congregation would immediately recognize the proper text and recall its literary context.
Thus, in the Office the Psalms, the garden from which the fruit of all the other Scriptures may be plucked (as Athanasius put it), would be repeated regularly (weekly for them, monthly or 8-weekly for us), and the bulk of Scripture read through every year or two depending on how many lessons you use at Evening Prayer. This is fundamentally catechectical: it grounds us in the stories, the laws, the histories, and the laments of the people of God that illuminate and inform our own experiences. Too, the canticles serve an important function. They aren’t just praise-bits stuck in with the “real” material, rather they are lenses and orienting devices to help us interpret the readings—especially the set traditional canticles.
The Mass, then, as it rolls through the seasons, offers us not only a weekly or more frequent experience of the grace of God but allows us to hear and experience the Good News in several major modes: expectation, joy, enlightenment, penitence, celebration—the principle Christian affections. If the Office is primarily catechetical, the Mass is primarily mystagogical. That is, it leads us by experiences of grace into the mystery of God and the relationship that God is calling us into with him and with the entire created order through him.
That’s as much as my brain can handle now. There’s lots more to be said, of course, and I’m sure y’all will add a bunch of it into the comments.