On Reading a Passage from Martin Thornton

Fr. Matthew Cuthbert Dallman, Obl.S.B.’s excellent presentation to the oblates yesterday, based on chapter six of Martin Thornton’s _English Spirituality_, stirred up a few thoughts, which I share here.  Please feel free to add your thoughts and comments as well.

It’s a problem “when the Office is either turned into a subjective devotion, or omitted in favour of intricate methods of private meditation, for which Saint Benedict, the Prayer Book, and the English tradition have never had much use.”  (Martin Thornton, _English Spirituality_, ch. 6)

The monastic apostolate is prayer.  Nothing else.  And everything in the Rule indicates that this is supposed to be prayer without ceasing; it’s to be recollected prayer; and it’s supposed to be both in common (the Office) and in private (doing lectio divina and working at tasks that permit the mind to return constantly to prayer).  While monasticism regards prayer as its sole apostolate, other religious institutes focus on other apostolates and regard prayer as the necessary support for those apostolates (Franciscans ministering to the poor, Dominicans preaching, Christian Brothers teaching, etc.)

It helps to keep the development of these charisms in their historical perspective too.  Aside from what has been called urban monasticism—which eventually developed into the canons regular—rural monasticism, i.e., withdrawing from “the world” for the sake of praying without ceasing, was the only form of religious life in the west for over a thousand years.  And in the patristic era, monastics saw themselves as doing what all Christians do but simply with what they hoped was a greater intensity and focus.

The canons regular didn’t become organized into any cohesive sense until around the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  (Norbertines, etc.)  The mendicants (e.g., Dominicans and Franciscans) came into being in the thirteenth century.  The clerks regular (e.g., Jesuits) were a still later development.

Though these developments have immensely enriched Christianity, the rise of religious institutes that do not regard prayer as their sole apostolate has perhaps been a contributing factor to the weakening of the role of the Office in the west.  (There were other factors as well, such as lower literacy rates.)  This is one of the reasons I’m of the view that the Prayer Book effectively reclaims a way of being Christian that had been prevalent in the patristic Church and in the early middle ages and had become attenuated, in the west, by the sixteenth century.

(I leave it to scholars to inform us of how consciously the authors of the Prayer Book identified themselves as patristic and/or monastic in their liturgico-spiritual perspective.  It’s worth nothing, however, that the 1549 Prayer Book refers explicitly to the “auncient fathers,” which indicates the Prayer Book authors had the patristic ideal in mind, regardless of how well-versed the English reformers really were in patristic writings.  That medieval monasticism was a continuation of the patristic perspective and that it helped shape Christianity in England for a millennium to a degree not encountered elsewhere in the west is also part of the history of English spirituality.  This heritage or tradition or ethos was deeply rooted in English Christianity—so much so that the importation of continental Protestantism wasn’t able to fully uproot it.  Again, scholars of religious history can enlighten us as to whether Cranmer and company were fully aware of all of these factors.  But I think it’s safe to conclude that the English reformers had to deny—whether consciously or subconsciously—monasticism’s influence since the crown had just dissolved the monasteries.  So the Prayer Book could refer to the “auncient fathers” but not to monks and nuns.)

From what I’ve noted about the gradual attenuation of the role of the Office in western Christianity, it doesn’t surprise me that Martin Thornton wanted to regard himself as Catholic rather than as Anglo-Catholic.  Pinning down the characteristics of any of the expressions of churchmanship in Anglicanism is notoriously difficult, if not impossible.  But nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholicism had a tendency, in some of its expressions, towards the more-Catholic-than-the-Catholics perspective, which, at that time in history, meant identifying with a spirituality of many laudable qualities but also included the very attenuation of the role of the Office referred to above.

To elaborate on this point, especially as it applies to the Ordinariates, this is surely one of the challenges of identifying the “Anglican patrimony” as a defining characteristic of Ordinariate groups and parishes.  On some levels, it’s correct to say that Anglicanorum coetibus logically follows from the Oxford Movement and thus from Anglo-Catholicism of the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century.  (I take it for granted that Catholicism’s insistence on the Eucharistic liturgy as source and summit of the Christian life makes it difficult for Anglicanism’s Low Church/Evangelical expressions to make a natural translation into the Ordinariates.)  But even though some Tractarians and Anglo-Catholics of the late nineteenth century came to Catholicism via the “auncient fathers”—Newman himself being one of the most important of these—“Anglo-Catholicism” of that period tended to look to contemporary expressions of Catholicism on the continent as the model.  Perhaps this reflected humility, but it also “introduced a whole new series of popular devotions, and new methods and techniques of mental prayer,” as Martin Thornton observes in his _The Purple Headed Mountain_ (Akenside Press, 38).  This resulted in a crowding out of the Office, even belittling it.  (Thornton, _The Purple Headed Mountain_, 32).

Ordinariate groups and parishes, when, that aren’t at least interested in making a place in their corporate worship for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (or Mattins and Evensong) are not really supporting the Anglican patrimony.  Some or many of these small groups and parishes might not have the resources and/or circumstances to pray the Office in common, which would be a different matter.  But if an Ordinariate parish sets its sights on emulating the typical Catholic parish that has a string of Masses on weekends, groups that pray the rosary before Mass, communal Stations of the Cross every first Friday, 40-Hours Devotions, etc., and has no place for regular celebrations of the Office, the Anglican patrimony is already tenuous at best.

The quote above from Thornton’s _English Spirituality_ also implies that the prayer methods of the great Carmelite doctors of the Church (St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa d’Avila) and of the great St. Ignatius aren’t really at home in the Benedictine context.  This is related to the point above, which is that the Office is essential to Benedictine spirituality.  (For oblates, the Office obviously has to be prayer in a shortened form, unless an oblate’s state in life permits something fuller.)  Teresa’s magisterial works on prayer are not focused on liturgy.  The Jesuits pray the Office in private, not in common, which is far from both the Rule and the Prayer Book.  And Ignatian retreats are about spending time in private prayer with a heavy emphasis on the imagination, imagining oneself involved in Gospel passages, especially, in what I think of as an almost-cinematic way.  Monastic lectio divina, on the other hand, is not about sparking a cinematic imagination but about being still and allowing a single phrase or word to resonate deeply within, all the while regarding recollected prayer in private and recollected prayer in common as parts of the same integrated entirety.

Thornton’s Mass-Office-devotion trinity is a profoundly Catholic way of ordering one’s spiritual life, but a way of doing so that has had too little currency in the lives of Catholics in general for a long, long time.  And most of this can be recovered simply by re-discovering the value of the Office.  The establishment of the Divine Worship form of the Latin Rite will no doubt contribute to mutual enrichment among the various forms in celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy.  But the Ordinariates can also help enrich Catholicism of the twenty-first century by giving the Prayer Book’s emphasis on Mattins and Evensong its due.

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