Recollecting Christ: the spiritual value of the church calendar

Lutheran Church YearIn my previous post, I mentioned in passing that Martin Thornton refers to “recollection” as one branch of “private prayer” (itself part of the threefold Rule of Christian devotion, along with the daily Office and the Mass).

Recollection can take many forms: brief “arrow prayers” during the day, saying grace before and after meals, saying the Angelus, and so on. Thornton particularly commends the practice of spontaneously making petition or thanksgiving at every “failure” or “success” of the day. He also suggests that fasting should be seen as falling under the heading of recollection.

As to the content of recollection, Thornton describes three overall categories: recollection of the Holy Trinity (especially the transcendence of the Father and the immanence of the Spirit, according to need), recollection of Christ (such as through mental prayer), and recollection in the Church – that is, the conscious recollection that, through our baptism we are members of Christ’s body, united with all believers on earth and in heaven.

Thornton then suggests one concrete way in which we can exercise that third form of recollection: by making use of the church’s calendar. The feasts of the church’s year are not merely arbitrary dates for remembrance, but a meeting point between time and eternity, as Sergius Bulgakov (quoted by Thornton) explains:

During the service of Christmas there is not merely the memory of the birth of Christ, but truly Christ is born in a mysterious manner, just as at Easter he is resurrected. … The life of the Church, in these services, makes actual for us the mystery of the Incarnation. … [I]t is given to the Church to make living these sacred memories so that we should be their new witnesses and participate in them. (p.69)

So, Thornton continues, “every feria has its eternal counterpart”. Thus it is healthy to recollect what each day is according to the church’s calendar, as well as according to the civil calendar:

It may seem a bit strange to decide to spend the Friday after the fifth Sunday after Trinity on the beach with the children, but it is a most real aid in the colouring of our whole life with the tints of the eternal presence of Christ.

Similarly, where our spiritual routine – our Rule – breaks down, as is inevitable at times, we should not think of having missed Mass on “Sunday”, but instead “be conscious that we are missing, not Sunday, but Trinity X, or Lent II, or Epiphany IV or whatever it is.”

Another example given by Thornton: while many people choose some form of abstinence during Lent, how many of us make a similar resolution to engage in additional thanksgiving during the fifty days of Easter? Or to mark Ascension Day (as we mark Christmas Day) by having a special meal, perhaps inviting friends to celebrate with us?

As Thornton observes, all this can greatly enrich our devotional lives:

[N]othing is quite so deadening to creative progress as a monotonous sequence of “Sundays” and “weekdays”. (p.124)

Here is the key practical lesson which I draw from all this. If one happened to belong (hypothetically speaking…) to a church tradition that had mislaid the daily Office, or the weekly (or “red-letter” weekday) Mass, or other such elements of church’s Rule, and were looking at how to rebuild it; if you wanted to rediscover how your church could, as a church, worship God “seven whole days, not one in seven”; then it seems to me that the first (and in some respects easiest) task is to renew and re-establish the church calendar.

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