Book Reviews
Anglican Spirituality
 

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Food in Due Season
by David Goode

Christian Proficiency
by Martin Thornton

Both Alike to Thee:  The Retrieval of the Mystical Way
by Melvyn Matthews

 

Food in Due Season
By David Goode. Canterbury Press.  Pp. 122. 
ISBN 1-85311-647-5

What could be more homely than a book of table graces?  The family dinner may be a thing of the past and fast food eaten in the car on the way to and from work may be an all-too-common experience, but eating still has domestic, social, and religious connotations and this little book seeks to provide a way to reintegrate religious meaning into our daily bread, whether eaten with family and friends or even alone.
 

In the Foreword to Food in Due Season, Eamon Duffy says:  "Food joyfully shared is the heart of human happiness and well-being, and food shared in the context of prayer and thanksgiving is definitive of both Jewish and Christian thought and practice.  For millennia Jewish identity and Jewish faith have been sustained by the gathering of the household for the Shabbat meal, and for Christians too the central prayer takes the form of a shared meal, the Eucharist."

It might be added that, in an observant Jewish household, it is not only at the Sabbath meal but every time bread is broken the Creator and Giver of all things is blessed with words that bind Jews not only to God, not only to the immediate household and community of faith, but to the whole Jewish people through the ages.  And, as Anglicanism's great liturgical authority, Dom Gregory Dix, has shown, those homely prayers of an ancient people formed the basis for the great prayer which is at the center of the Church's unifying sacred meal, the Eucharist.  Furthermore, completing the circle, the Eucharist does not stand alone as the only occasion on which a meal is an occasion of blessing.  The "daily bread" which nourishes mortal life in human community is always also a reminder of the sacramental bread which nourishes us to eternal life in the divine community.  Thus, all eating is a sacred act.

David Goode compiled this book as part of a larger project.  He is also the webmaster of a site called Common Worship: Daily Prayer ó the new Anglican Breviary (www.breviary.info).  It is his contention that Thomas Cranmer impoverished the Church when he scrapped the medieval breviaries and replaced them with "a set of two services of Morning and Evening Prayer, stripped to the bone and sadly bereft of most of the beauty of the old breviaries".  In his view, "the Book of Common Prayer, the only authorised service book for more than 400 years, increasingly failed to meet the needs of parishes of all persuasions."  But, happily, help is on the way:  "In 2005, the Church of England, a slow-moving beast at the best of times, finally produced an edition of Common Worship: Daily Prayer to the delight and joy of many who rued the rigours of Cranmer's beautiful but austere and, frankly deficient, Book of Common Prayer."

Goode believes that, in many respects, Common Worship: Daily Prayer is, in effect, a restoration of the breviary.  He is particularly concerned to recover the rich seasonal emphases of the old breviary, with its antiphons and office hymns and commemorations peculiar to particular seasons and days.  Goode is not terribly bothered by the complications of figuring out what to do next that Cranmer thought an impediment to prayer.  But for those who do recoil at those complexities, Goode solves the problem by providing the full offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline (complete with the appointed readings from Scripture) online.

This is not the place to review Goode's larger project, but this description provides the context for his book.  He notes that, inasmuch as a breviary was a compendium of prayer to cover the full daily round, it included not only the daily offices, but also prayers to be said at meals.  However, table prayers were among the things that were thrown out with the old breviaries and omitted from the Book of Common Prayer.  In the sixteenth century, other provisions were made for the blessing of meals, in books called primers, but these were later suppressed or fell into disuse, and Anglicans have lacked a formal tradition of table graces ever since.

This is not to say that Anglicans have neglected to give thanks for their daily bread, but the tradition became more personal and diffuse as a result of this omission from the Prayer Book.  Even Common Worship has failed to fill this gap, but David Goode has stepped in with Food in Due Season to do just that.

The book is divided into three parts, with the first part constituting three fourths of the total content.  Part One provides seasonal table graces in the liturgical format of the breviaries.  The introduction to this section is partly an explanation of the form of the graces, partly a sample meditation showing how they can form the basis for ongoing meditation on the material which makes up each grace.

Unlike the popular short set prayers that many people use before a meal, these table graces require a more substantial effort.  There are prayers both before and after the midday and evening meals, so that the whole meal becomes a kind of liturgical event.  Furthermore, there is seasonal material, not only for the principal liturgical seasons, but even more elaborate provisions for the great Fifty Days of Easter.  In fact, the amount of variable seasonal material in these graces would require that every person at the table have access to a book in order to participate fully. 

In his enthusiasm for his project the author seems to get carried away with the inclusion of verses from Scripture, canticles, and the psalms.  He does indicate that use of these table graces should be flexible, depending on circumstances, and that would seem to be a good thing.  Unfortunately, much of the material that it would make the most sense to omit is the variable material that provides the seasonal emphases, defeating one of his primary purposes.  In the end, the generally very fine material in Part One of the book would seem likely to be of use primarily to residential religious communities, retreat groups, and individuals such as the author who are committed to a more rigorous ascetical life. 

On the other hand, the second and third sections of the book offer resources that might be more easily applied to the situation of the average Christian individual or family.  The seasonal emphases are missing.  Nevertheless, here may be found forms that are more substantial than the typical quick grace used by many, yet more manageable than the breviary services provided in Part One. 

Part Two is a collection of table graces from various ecclesial traditions which the author collected in the course of his research.  Like the largely unchanging core of the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer or, for that matter, the ages-old blessings of Jewish custom, these graces provide a habitual form for recollection of the Giver of our daily bread and the sacred nature of a meal shared with believers.  Here again, prayers are provided to be said both before and after the meal.  If seasonal variation is desired, any of these forms could easily be enriched with a simple verse appropriate to the season.  The prayers here come from Egyptian, Armenian, Orthodox, and 16th century English sources.

Part Three is a selection of prayers which the author offers for use "before and after any quick meal."  They are excerpted from the previous two sections of the book.

A review of this book should note that it suffers from some poor editing.  Two examples will suffice.  It is difficult to imagine why there are no periods at the end of prayers in Parts One and Two.  Perhaps there is a reason, but it is not given and this reader finds the lack of concluding punctuation strange and distracting.  The arrangement of material in the collection of graces for the Easter season is similarly mystifying.  The first graces given are for the days of Easter Week.  Then follows the grace for the Paschal meal which, presumably, is the first meal of the season.  Why, then, is it not the first grace given?  The next graces are for the days beginning with the day after the Second Sunday of Easter, but there are no graces at all for the Second Sunday of Easter.  In spite of the substantial effort which went into researching and compiling this book, the final product gives the impression that it was hastily assembled, an unfortunate result that makes it less "user friendly" than it might otherwise have been.
                                                                                                                             --GK

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Christian Proficiency
By Martin Thornton. Cowley Publications.  Pp. 201.  ISBN 093638462X

First published in 1959, Martin Thornton's Christian Proficiency must be regarded as a classic of Anglican spirituality.  Unlike many earlier manuals on the spiritual life which were written for "professional" theologians and spiritual directors, this book was written for the ordinary Christian.   Thornton, who died in 1986, did not believe that the pursuit of proficiency in the spiritual life is a matter of self-improvement or self-realization.  Nevertheless, the preface asserts that in this book he was writing for the "faithful laity".  He wrote other books (Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation, Spiritual Direction) for clergy, but this book is an attempt to provide the laity with a theological and practical introduction to essential principles of the spiritual life.

As the author himself readily acknowledges, "proficiency" is not a term that readily comes to mind when one thinks of the spiritual life.  Nevertheless, it is the term used by medieval writers on spirituality to distinguish those who are no longer beginners but who have not yet attained to perfection.  The "Proficient" is best described as one who has an adult relationship with God.  The book sets out to describe what this level of spirituality looks like and how one might achieve it--with the help of a capable spiritual director.  Although many of his illustrations are drawn from English sports, like cricket, which are a bit of a mystery to most American readers, Thornton's comparison of the spiritual life to athletic training puts the subject into both biblical and practical modern context.  St. Paul is the first to use this analogy and the Greek word for athletic practice or discipline is askesis, the root of our word "ascetic", meaning one who practices serious spiritual discipline.

From this it will quickly be inferred that Thornton has little interest in spiritualities which are based on emotion, enthusiasm, or other rarified states of mind or spirit.  There is a legitimate place for what might be described as mystical experience.  The emotions of ordinary Christians are a significant part of their spiritual lives.  But neither is at the heart of Christian proficiency, which is characterized by order and balance grounded in what Thornton unapologetically describes as a "system".  Heightened emotion and enthusiasm cannot be sustained indefinitely.  For some people, interest in the spiritual life may begin in an experience which is emotionally charged and, for many, the ongoing practice of the spiritual life may have moments of a deeply felt assurance, or of a sense of inner peace, or possibly even more profoundly mystical moments.  However, Thornton is concerned with what happens in the large gaps between such experiences, and with the spiritual lives of those who may never experience such heights of spiritual exaltation.  His approach is objective--not cold or indifferent, but practical.  He is, above all else, a pastor, and he is concerned, once again, with ordinary Christians and how they may become efficient in their essential work as members of the Body of Christ.

Christian Proficiency is a singularly Anglican approach to the spiritual life.  The essentials of the system, as Thornton describes it, are found in the Book of Common Prayer, in the threefold practice of Eucharist, Daily Office, and private prayer.  He provides a theological rationale and traces his understanding of this system back to its theological roots and the experience and teaching of the great spiritual writers of the Church, particularly those who figure in the development of English spirituality.  From the beginning, he makes it clear that the spiritual life is the life not of individual Christians but of the Body of Christ, of which each of us is a member, dependent upon and responsible to the whole.  The purpose of this work is not merely the salvation of the individual, but the incorporation of the whole world into Christ.  The accomplishment of so great a task is not dependent upon us alone, but it does require us to be efficient.

The Cowley Publications [American] edition of Christian Proficiency is currently out of print.  However, a new edition, which is a digital copy of the original book, has recently been published. Copies are available on Amazon.com. Used copies of earlier editions are generally available from the same source.
                                                                                                                             --GK

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Both Alike to Thee:  The Retrieval of the Mystical Way
By Melvyn Matthews.  SPCK. Pp. 140. ISBN 0-281-05030-9

"In order to recover something of the necessity of the contemplative way believers have to come to a spiritual realization of the impermanence of modernity and of its innate capacity to fragment into unreality at the critical point." Read in the context of the events of September 11, 2001, these words from the opening chapter of what Melvyn Matthews describes as an "essay" on the mystical way, ring with a resounding immediacy. The disintegration of the twin towers of the World Trade Center will live in the

consciousness of this generation as a deeply disturbing metaphor for the fragility of life in this world. The fragmentation of the WTC and the ensuing darkness can also be a powerful metaphor of the spiritual life in the postmodern era.

Matthews is a canon of Wells cathedral, idyllically situated in the lush countryside of southwest England. However, his understanding of the mystical life is not in any sense romanticized, nor does he think that mysticism is an esoteric activity, reserved to the peculiarly gifted or the solitary. It is his conviction that the mystical way is the proper expression of the spiritual life for everyone. For him, the appropriate contrast is not between ordinary spirituality and some rarefied practice called mysticism. Rather, he distinguishes between questionable spiritualities which claim to offer illumination, and the mystical way which recognizes that the infinite God is most truly experienced in darkness.

Appealing to the great medieval mystics, as well as to their modern interpreters, Matthews identifies their perception of the essential hiddenness of God as the hallmark of the mystical way. He points out that people who have been held in high regard by the Church for their spiritual insight spent a great deal of their ascetical lives wrestling with the fact that God was obscured in darkness, a cloud of unknowing, rather than made plain by the bright light of noonday.

The dazzling brightness of noon can blind as well as illuminate, and thus obscure as much as it reveals. At noon one is unable to see the stars and constellations though they are just as present in the firmament at noon as in the dazzling darkness of midnight. Just so, to speak of God as light is not necessarily to describe One in whom everything is open and apparent. For the great mystics, it was precisely the realization of Godís hiddenness which was the foundation of their communion with him.

In accepting the reality that God is hidden we understand something about ourselves as human beings, namely that who we truly are is also hidden. Fulfillment as human beings is not to be found in our attachments to the world and self-generated images of ourselves. The self-realization of modern spiritualities ultimately obscures our true self. It is in self-emptying, not self-realization, that we are able to know ourselves and to be what God creates us to be, what Simon Tugwell calls "a space within which God can act," a place where God can speak to us and make us whole. The self-emptying of Jesus Christ is the primary sign of Godís presence in a perilously fragmented world. It is also a sign of our call to be people who know more than a superficially comforting salvation and are dazzled by the deep darkness into which God invites us.

Matthews contends that the renewal of the Church depends on the recovery of the mystical way in the lives of mainstream Christians. It is not our task to find God. Commitment-based theologies depend on our choices, on human reason, will, and action, and ultimately are unable to save. But the mystical way grounds our being in the Word of God. We are called to be open to the divine attraction, to listen for the Word that speaks us and all creation into being. And our response is not action but praise. We only exist because God has spoken. What is more, God is present and continues to speak in all of creation. The mission of the Church is to be that place which enables people to realize this truth. The Church is the place where we are enabled to step into the hiddenness of God which, paradoxically, is the place where God is known.

Canon Matthews has written a book which asks us to take seriously the mystical life as he describes it as our own calling. This runs counter not only to the wave of popular self-realization spiritualities in the culture at large, but also to the dominant pastoral practice of the mainstream Church which, he says, emphasizes mission, management, and marketing. While the authorís goal is to bring the discussion of the mystical way out of the academy into the mainstream of the Church, he is only partially successful. Regrettably, the book remains somewhat academic in tone and may prove frustrating to those who do not ordinarily read academic theology. But the book is not intended to be an academic tome.  Those who take it up may find it challenging, nevertheless, it is well worth the effort.
                                                                                                                             --GK

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