Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Eastern Rite Anglicanism": Reflection One

I want to say a few things about a notion for an “Eastern Rite Anglicanism.”  I will offer a reflection day by day as time allows. 

When I was 19, icons are what attracted me to liturgies and to liturgical traditions. In a paper I wrote at 22 after a visit to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy:

Incense swirls upward, rises loftily toward the roof and abruptly pours out through the room, descending upon the crowd.  Gold-dusted icons of angels and saints on the iconostasis surround the central doorway, enthroning the icon of Christ, the Lord of the Universe who overlooks the assembly of worshippers.  All sense are enraptured in the sheer majesty of the experience as the Divine Liturgy prepares to unfold….The Divine Liturgy, therefore, is an icon of heavenly realities in which the people of God participate as if angels in the rituals of the Heavenly Court.

At 19, the qualities of color and light of the icons of Christ Pantokrator and of Mary Theotokos stole my heart.  Icons remain a central place in my devotional life and they are a part of the ritual life of my parish where our Mary Chapel features a lovely icon of the Theotokos of Tender Mercy as the central devotional aid.

Icons are not foreign to the sensibilities of the sacramentalitous traditions, traditions that hold that creatures can show forth something of God precisely because of our profession of the Incarnation, that blend in complex ways to make up Anglican common prayer.  And fragments of these pictorial proclamations of the gospel can be found scattered throughout the Western Churches, often as mosaics.  Most notably, we Anglicans know a parallel tradition, that of our poets who brush words to paper, writing these same surprising windows onto Heaven by ink, windows that become a way for us as a way to see all of creation anew and aright.  And those poems are deeply steeped in common praying.  You cannot fully appreciate Donne or Auden or Eliot or Countryman without opening and praying the BCP. 

Also at 19, reading Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton and the Desert Elders, I adopted the Jesus Prayer in simple form.  Combined with the Offices, this form of meditation or contemplative prayer has been my prayer practice ever since.

Some practices we label “Eastern” are in fact deeply rooted in a catholicity that stretches East, West, North, and South.  The Jesus Prayer tradition stems from a way of praying the Psalms, a way of doing so consecutively that is found among the wilderness saints from forests and oceans of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to the forests and steppes of Russia to the deserts and caves of Syria and Egypt. 

This way of doing the Psalms, one of several ways of doing the Psalms, was taken up into the Office in many places, sometimes in monasteries, sometimes by cathedral chapels.  It has traditionally been the heart of our Anglican Offices. 

Within this way of doing the Psalms, St John Cassian and others recommend choosing a word or verse to return to again and again.  Some, like St. Isaac of Ninevah recommend simply “Jesus” the Name above all names.  His has been my way of doing the Jesus Prayer to this day.  

I first realized the relationship between praying the Psalms consecutively and praying the Jesus Prayer in my formational visits to a Benedictine monastery at 22.  Sitting close to the monastic choir day in and day out for a week here and a week there as I hoped for and prepared for acceptance into the monastery I later turned down, I had an “ah-ha” moment.  One day, as I was chanting with the monks, that feeling stole upon me so familiar to my practice of the Jesus Prayer.  I was “caught up,” to use St Paul’s phrase, in the loving darkness and blinding fire of contemplation even as I chanted on.  Only many years later did I do the research that led me to St Cassian's and others' relating of these two ways. 

The Psalms become like one great rosary or mantra or word.  Cranmer’s own stretching out of St Benedict’s Psalm schedule is continuation of this tradition.  Especially when slowly said or chanted. 

If you want, our Anglican way of doing the Psalms at the heart of the Office, deeply rooted in St Benedict’s reforms and within wider catholicity of the West in their choices of and structuring of content, are readily related to bedrock practices that shape the theology of our Orthodox kin: Psalms and Jesus Prayer.  They remain a central lens by which to see all of creation and greet every creature as Christ.  

There is no need to hanker after others' forms, we need only pray our own.