Monday, December 18, 2017

Embertide: No Coasting into Christ-likeness

“If you are coasting, you are going downhill.”

Whether it comes to our work, personal goals, relationships, intellectual life, or bicycling, the law of gravity seems to apply. Going downhill is easier than going up.

For reasons that remain a bit fuzzy, we often exempt the spiritual life from this rule. Somehow, there is a presumption that faith ought to be easy, “natural,” and struggle-free. Many guides to the Christian life today suggest that following “Ten Time-Tested Steps,” or “Five Biblical Principles,” or some other clear set of techniques will keep us on the straight-and-narrow as we practice a low-risk, easy-going Christianity.

Where anyone gets this idea, I cannot say.

The New Testament makes intensely clear that struggle—not ease—is the lot of the disciple. Jesus nowhere says: “Sit down on your comfortable chair and think about me,” but “Take up your cross and follow me.” Ours is an active faith with risk; it proposes a way of life steeped in labor, not blithe rest.

The Ember Days are short periods of prayerful consideration of ministry (lay and ordained) coming quarterly in the Liturgical Year. Originally, they were connected with the agricultural year, but eventually they moved their focus to the Church and its ministry. For many years (and in some places still), ordinations took place at the Ember Days.

Various forms of prayer and spiritual practices have evolved to observe the Ember Days, including the Great Litany, the Litany for Ordinations in the Book of Common Prayer, Ember Day Eucharists, making a sacramental confession, fasting, and praying the Southwell Litany in either its lay or ordained forms are all examples. Those preparing for ordination write to their bishop at the Embertides to share what has been happening to them through the often fraught period of preparation and formation for Holy Orders.

Much of what traditionally is done at Embertide has a penitential character (and this is appropriate, since it is God’s own gift of ministry we often pervert or damage), but truly positive guidance for how to mature in Christian life can sometimes be hard to find.

One resource, found in the new edition of the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book, caught my eye a while back, and I would like to commend it to you. It is entitled “A Prayer for Spiritual Growth and Development.”

This prayer is made up of a series of petitions covering many of the traditional elements found in the regular practice of faith as laid out in the Book of Common Prayer and in the catholic tradition as this part of the Church has known it. It is a kind of cross between an examination of conscience, an act of faith, and an intercession. I have found it, along with the Southwell Litany, to be a well-constructed and sound prayer for Embertide use. It could form the basis for making a sacramental confession, as well as making a well-prepared private confession in the Daily Office, say on a weekly or monthly basis. Here it is:

            O my God, I believe in you; strengthen my faith. All my hopes are in you; hold them secure in your strong hand. I love you with my whole heart; teach me every day to love you more and more. For all in which I have offended you or harmed another, I repent and ask forgiveness.
            I adore you as my first beginning; I aspire to your as my last end; I give you thanks, the source of all that is good, in me and in the world; I rest myself in your unchanging love. I pray, O my God, that you will guide me by your wisdom, restrain me by your justice, comfort me by your mercy, and defend me by you power.
            To you, I desire to consecrate all my thoughts, words, actions, and sufferings; that I may think of you constantly, seek to honor you in all my actions and conversations, and be ready to do and endure whatever accomplishes your will.
            Enlighten my understanding and conform my will to your purposes, to guide me in the right use of my body, and to sanctify my soul. Grant that I may not be lifted up with pride, weighed down with despair, moved by flattery, burdened with shame, or confounded by the devil, the deceiver of the whole world and accuser of your servants.
            Give me strength, O Lord, to know my faults and amend my life, to overcome temptations, to acquire the virtues of character and to seek the gifts of grace that will allow me to fulfill your purposes.
            Let me always remember to be obedient to rightful authority, faithful to my friends, just and fair to those who depend upon me, and charitable to my enemies.
            Grant, O Lord, that I may remember your rule and follow your example by loving my enemies and by speaking the truth in patience and love. Give me courage to work for what is right and just in all my dealings. Temper any righteous indignation with patience and humility and keep me from any collusion with injustice.
            Make me, O God, prudent in my actions, courageous in dangers of body or soul, patient in affliction, and humble in prosperity.
            Grant that I may be attentive in my prayers, temperate at my meals, diligent in my works, and constant in my good resolutions.
            Help me to obtain holiness of life by an honest confession and sincere repentance, by a devout and reverent participation in the Holy Eucharist, by a continual awareness of your presence, and with a singleness of heart that desires to know, to love, and to serve you.
            Grant that I may so live in this life, that in the hour of death, I will fear no evil and know that you are with me. By your mercy, may I be welcomed into the eternal dwelling of peace and rejoice to stand before you; through the grace that is in Christ Jesus and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I do not know the source of this prayer, though it sounds very much to me like an updated or modernized version of something older. If it is not, then the author certainly is well-imbued with the classic Christian spirit of prayer.*

I like very much how this prayer works us through the essentials of the Christian faith, and then to the ways we live that response out, in matters great and small—for, truly, all thoughts, words, and deeds are a response in love to Christ.

There is confession here, but so is there supplication and great hope. It is balanced in its regard for all the various ways we are being called and given grace to grow into life in Christ.

This is not a simple prescription, but a rich encounter with the varied aspects of what honest, working discipleship looks like. It is not perfectionistic but aspirational in the best sense: it shows us the way forward while making clear we don’t do this ourselves. God’s loving grace is the source of all our progress and growth; our work is to be mindful and respond, day-by-day.

Following Christ is often likened to a pilgrimage. Some parts are incredibly beautiful, others are nightmarishly hard, dangerous, or ugly. The sun can scorch, the shoes can pinch, the cold can chill, and we can be soaked to the bone by rain—each with its spiritual and emotional equivalent. On the Camino Santiago in Spain, the stops along the way are called refugios, or “refuges.” We all need those refuges where we can rest for a time, be nourished, heal up, check our map, converse with other pilgrims, and be renewed in hope as we start the next leg of the journey.

I think the Embertides serve essentially as refugios along the pilgrim way to heaven. Just now, not so many people are utilizing this gift of reflection, assessment, and insight provided quarterly by the Church to her pilgrim children…but this prayer provides yet one more refuge to stop along the way and be refreshed. I encourage you to take it.

*If any reader knows the prayer’s origin or author, I would be grateful to learn about it.

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