The threefold Rule of “simply Christian” spirituality

St BenedictAs we saw in my previous post, Martin Thornton regards Benedictine spirituality as a key influence on “English spirituality”, and he devotes a chapter to St Benedict’s influence on spirituality, especially the English school.

Thornton starts by observing that many Benedictines question the whole concept of a “Benedictine spirituality”:

Like many another of his Order, Dom Cuthbert Butler denies any such thing as “Benedictine spirituality”; it is simply Catholicism, simply Christianity. (p.76)

The essence of this “simply Christian” spirituality is the “threefold Rule of prayer which is absolutely fundamental to all Catholic spirituality”, and which is consolidated in the Benedictine tradition:

the common Office (opus Dei) supporting private prayer (orationes peculiares) both of which are allied to, and consummated by, the Mass.

To this extent, Dom Cuthbert is “unquestionably right” in regarding the Benedictine way as “simply Christian”: this threefold Rule of Mass, Office and personal devotion is “the basic Rule of the Church”, “common to East and West, monastic and secular”. Thornton also observes that St Benedict recommends that the orationes peculiares be “short and frequent”: in other words, a matter of “habitual recollection” (as mentioned in my previous post) rather than complex devotional technique.

Thornton continues with a bold assertion of this Rule as a basic test for orthodox catholicity:

Amongst all the tests of Catholicity or orthodoxy, it is curious that this infallible and living test, is so seldom applied. We write and argue endlessly about the apostolic tradition, about episcopacy, sacramentalism, creeds, doctrine, the Bible—all very important things—yet we fail to see that no group of Christians is true to orthodoxy if it fails to live by this Rule of trinity-in-unity: Mass-Office-devotion. (p.76)

The importance of this threefold scheme is that “it effects everything that ascetical theology is supposed to effect”:

it provides a system of prayer which translates all the clauses of the Creed into practical terms and manifests a living faith in them. The Benedictine threefold Rule expresses faith in the Holy Trinity, in the Incarnation and Atonement, in the threefold Church and the Communion of Saints. Loyalty to this Rule also guards us from error and forms the basis of a continuous, and progressive, Christian life. (p.77)

It seems to me to be no exaggeration to say that many Christians would do better to spend less time trying to assemble a fully coherent systematic theology (whether “evangelical”, “catholic” or “liberal” in nature) in their own heads, and more time in living out this threefold Rule. As Thornton says:

It is the foundation of all Christian life, the essential work of the Church, the supreme intercession, the power of evangelism. It is of incalculably greater importance than all fasts, mortifications, and works whatsoever; the only function of which is to support it, without it all is a sham. As spiritual guides we must insist upon it; if we are true to the primitive Church, we must insist upon it; if we are true to our medieval heritage, we must insist upon it. (p.77)

In Thornton’s own, specifically Anglican, context, he reminds us that:

the seventeenth-century battles between Puritan and Caroline churchman were fought over the Prayer Book, especially over “set prayers”. They were battles for and against Benedictine principles. (p.77)

Thornton’s analysis also makes me wonder if the area where contemporary Lutheranism falls most short is the lack of emphasis on the Office as the daily prayer of the whole church. We have various forms of “habitual recollection” (such as Luther’s emphasis on the use of the sign of the cross), and the Mass has become more central in many congregations (including my own), but it seems to me that the Office is more marginal.

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5 thoughts on “The threefold Rule of “simply Christian” spirituality”

  1. the area where contemporary Lutheranism falls most short is the lack of emphasis on the Office as the daily prayer of the whole church.

    This is certainly true, but it is hardly a problem unique to Lutheranism. There are very few congregations of any Church body — Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox — where the Office is served daily. (Among Lutheran parishes, Zion Lutheran (LCMS) of Detroit is the only one I know of where Matins is served daily, and only Matins is served, not Vespers or any of the little hours.)

    Perhaps it is different in the UK. If I recall correctly, the 1662 BCP obliges parish priests to pray the office daily; is it too cynical to suspect that this requirement is a dead letter?

    1. Chris, that’s a fair point. But where I think the Lutheran church has fallen behind is in not even seeing it as that much of an issue. The Catholic Church and the Church of England (among others) have both made concerted efforts in the past half-century to reform the office and to make it more accessible and usable by the laity: to turn it back into the office of the church, rather than “the priest’s office” (as the 1662 rule has tended to cause it to be perceived).

      So the Catholic Church has the Liturgy of the Hours, and the Church of England has Common Worship: Daily Prayer. The LCMS (or rather, CPH) has… the Treasury of Daily Prayer. Which isn’t the same thing at all.

      As for the rule in the Church of England: I don’t know what proportion of ordained clergy pray the office daily, but I get the impression it’s far from dead, even if it’s equally far from standard. Partly depends on churchmanship (as so much else): I would expect a lot of evangelicals would see it as a “rule made by men”.

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