The flame of prayerful living

Arthur Middleton on the practical divinity that is at the heart of Anglican devotion, and the inseparability of moral life and the life of prayer

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold,

For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.

George Herbert

 

Blind people who will not look upon the real world of God, but persist in following their own corruptible sin, fall into the ditch. But there is a remedy, and this poem, which you will know as Teach me my God and King, is called the Elixir, a word that means a remedy – a word used in the ancient science of alchemy (that preceded chemistry).

It is a kind of chemical mixture that can change metals into gold. Or it is a preparation that is able to prolong life indefinitely, a supposed remedy for all ills. This is the cure-all, wonder drug. The philosopher’s stone had the same power and here George Herbert is alluding to this imaginary philosopher’s stone. But Herbert’s stone is not something imaginary; it is the touch of God’s love that turns all into gold. Everything he touches must be given a value that is equivalent to turning everything to gold.

Desire for God

Julian of Norwich claims that when the Holy Spirit touches the soul it longs for God rather like this: ‘God of your goodness give me yourself, for you are sufficient for me... If I were to ask less I should always be in want’ [Revelations of Divine Love, 1980]. This is what it means to have a deep desire for God and this is the reason why I deliberately avoid using the modern word ‘spirituality’, a word that Lancelot Andrewes himself did not use. Today, this word has come to be associated with ‘feelings’, ‘feel good feelings’, a self-regarding fulfilment or self-realization and not sufficiently with the desire for God. It has become a word that is used and understood in a vague, fuzzy and self-regarding way about uplifting feelings.

The dictionary is more precise in defining ‘spirituality’ as ‘a distinctive approach to religion or prayer’. To deliberately use the word ‘devotion’ is to focus on this distinctiveness in the classical Anglican approach to religion and prayer, where the focus is not on experiencing a ‘feel good factor’, but on living the dogma of the revealed Christian mystery in such a way that, instead of the mystery being assimilated to our mode of human understanding, it is allowed to effect an interior transformation of spirit that enables it to be experienced mystically.

It changes the heart and mind, renewing one’s whole mental and emotional attitude, which begins in self-renunciation and is accomplished and sealed by the Spirit, so that one’s life becomes conformed to the doctrine.

In the Scriptural sense it purifies the character like gold in an ‘assayer’s fire’. That is repentance. Here lie the seeds of Anglican mystical theology that is consonant with the Christian mystical tradition.

Completely united

Anglican devotion is life as a way of practical divinity. Seventeenth-century Anglicans called moral theology ‘practical divinity’ to which ascetical theology was completely united. In other words the moral life and the life of prayer were inseparable. The life of prayer was to affect how the Christian behaved. Today, the life of prayer has been separated from the way we behave as the devotional life is reduced to ‘spirituality’, where the emphasis rests on feelings as the measure of spiritual health rather than behaviour. Ascetical theology has been separated from moral theology. Anglican devotion is about the Christian-in-the-Church, the full cooperation with grace in a total Christian life.

In our devotional heritage, belief, devotion, duty and discipline are inseparable. How we live and how we pray cannot be separated in Christian living. Each affects the other, becoming a practical matter for the devotional life of all who live through a Life not their own, transmitted to them by the Spirit through the means of grace, the Book and the Bread, within the Eucharistic fellowship of the baptized who share in the apostolic faith.

The purpose of positive and practical divinity is to bring us to Heaven. So it affects our judgments, settles our consciences, directs our lives, mortifies our corruptions, increases our graces, strengthens our comforts, and saves our souls. The meaning of responsible discipleship, of growth in grace, of incorporation in Christ, is that ‘if any man be in Christ he is a new creature.’

Practical divinity requires fostering in each individual what has been called ‘a conscience made of obedience’. This is at the heart of Anglican devotion. The personal responsibility of the individual in Christian living must be guided by his own reason.

Matters of conscience

Matters of conscience require a person to be a judge for himself, ready to account for himself, which does not prevent a person from seeking spiritual counsel and absolution in particular cases, as the Book of Common Prayer advises. Faith and repentance are inseparably linked in the Prayer Book (as in the Holy Communion invitation, the catechism and the homilies), and this is essential to a devotion held up as the achievable ideal to the members of Christ’s family.

Anglican devotion strives to inculcate a life of discipleship rather than one of spiritual accountancy. It is a matter of standards and serious commitment for those who are alive to their imperfections as they try through grace to follow Christ and seek a devotion, which as John Hales taught, claims every part of our life.

Lex orandi, lex credendi

There is within Anglican devotional writings a general agreement with the Latin maxim, Lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of praying is the law of believing. The fuller version is Lex orandi legem statuat credendi: let the law of prayer establish the law of belief. This expresses a characteristic of the Anglican mode of paradosis, the handing on of the Tradition, and is present throughout our Anglican heritage. It is the close connection between theology, doctrine and Christian worship.

We find Hooker describing what we believe very much in terms of how we worship, particularly in Book V of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, where after expounding the Chalcedonian Christology he discusses the sacraments as the logical outcome and the extension of the Incarnation, the ‘medicine that cures the soul’. Michael Ramsey [The Anglican Spirit, 1991, p. 19] describes it as Anglican theologians doing theology to the sound of church bells and encourages us to ‘continue to do our theology’ in this way ‘for that is what theology is all about – worshipping God the Saviour through Jesus Christ in the theology of the apostolic age’.

Rich ecclesiology

So there is a strong sense of tradition, continuity and order, alongside a rich ecclesiology because it is the Church, which holds in trust the liturgy upon which order is centred. So the Book of Common Prayer established the fundamental outline and spirit of Anglican theology and practice with a perceptive understanding of human nature being disordered by sin, but not lost, because of the centrality of the Incarnation, the natural outcome of which is sacramental grace that reorders a new creature in the way of salvation and sees the Logos at work in science, culture and the arts. Despite the disordered condition of the created order, for these divines, it is a universe drenched with divinity, as C.S. Lewis described Hooker’s universe in the Ecclesiastical Polity.

There is richness in Anglican devotional literature, and especially in the seventeenth century, that flows from something deeper than torrential intellect, or even high poetic gifts. Austin Farrer’s slim Lent Book, Lord I Believe, points out that ‘no dogma deserves its place unless it is prayable, and no Christian deserves his dogmas who does not pray them’. No article of the Creed is unprayable or remained unprayed among these seventeenth-century devotional writers.

Martin Routh, President of Magadalen College Oxford in the nineteenth century, and the last man to wear a wig in Oxford, always had William Laud’s Private Devotions on his desk and used the devotions for each hour.

Bishop Westcott’s son described his father as reading and working in the very mind with which he prayed; and his prayer was of singular intensity. In Westcott’s episcopate it bore fruit in his continuous labour for social justice that flowed immediately and naturally from his study of the Incarnation, by way of his prayer.

Asceticism

There is an austerity of study about this commitment to prayer that affects study with the austerity of prayer, affecting a grace-informed reason that makes prayer the connecting link between belief and action. Study as well as prayer requires a disciplined way of living, asceticism, because learning is a spiritual discipline and the communication of it is a pastoral task, and more especially when teaching divines were concerned for the ‘care of souls’. What we see in such people is that learning has become a spiritual discipline, a spiritual way, and their communication of such learning in a teaching ministry is in essence a priestly and pastoral task. Central to it is not ‘vanity’, not ‘self-glory’, but ‘disinterestedness’, seeing things as God sees them.

The cause and root ofthis connection is the Book of Common Prayer, which Jeremy Taylor called ‘a storehouse of rare divinity’ and whose living heart is the liturgy, that in the nineteenth century F.D. Maurice described as his theological teacher as well as the generator of his prayer. John Henry Newman said that the people learn their theology on their knees. So if the law of prayer establishes the law of faith then new forms of prayer can lead us into a deeper understanding of the faith we profess. ND

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