By Andrea Perkins
During Lent 2019 I had a conversation with our rector about the arduous journey of what we all know as our “personal prayer life.” He recommended I read Rev. C. Patrick Hankey’s essay “Liturgy and Personal Devotion” (published in the larger volume of essays titled The Parish Communion). The piece is short, accessible, and of great value in articulating the relationship between the Liturgy and personal faith. It has come to mind several times over the past week, and I wanted to share a few thoughts, along with the essay itself (linked above).
When we are inhibited from physically participating in the Liturgy (and even when we aren’t, as was the case with me last year), we grapple with the question of how our personal faith and prayers “fit in” to the larger, corporate mission of the Church. How do we understand “common prayer” when we are in social isolation? What does it mean to be a member of the corporate Body of Christ when church meetings are not permitted? These are only a few of the questions you might be asking.
One of Fr. Hankey’s main points (and something Anglicanism taught me years ago) is that “common prayer and personal devotion are not rivals” (150). In fact, they are integrally linked. In the non-denominational evangelical world I grew up in, there was great emphasis placed on the importance, value, and completeness of a personal faith life. This isn’t wrong, per se. But such an approach tends to disproportionately emphasize the individual. I am grateful for what my upbringing taught me, as I was vested with a deep desire to be close to the Lord through prayer and personal devotion. What I didn't learn until years later is that, as Fr. Hankey puts it, the truth is more exciting than that!
The task of the Church — the purpose of her worship — is to be the worshipping Body of Christ and not just a body of worshippers. We don’t cease to be the worshipping Body of Christ if we are inhibited from gathering together as a collection of worshippers because we are so much more than *simply* that. Fr. Hankey explains that, as individuals, we “belong to a body which is a praying body, in the sense that it is itself, so to speak, a prayer…what we have to learn to do—or to remember to do—is to join in it, to put our prayer, such as it is, into that living stream…” (150-51). We aren’t first praying, believing individuals; we are first the praying, believing Body of Christ, and this participation in the community of believers is what informs our private devotion: “Common prayer provides the visible setting of the earthly Church and its earthliness, which we have to make ourselves remember when we are praying by ourselves” (153).
Corporate prayer — or mutual prayer — is the blood of the Church, and “we do not describe the circulation of the blood as a duty of man, but as part of his physical existence. So prayer is not a duty of the Church, which is the Lord’s Body but a part of her being. The Church has no life of her own; she has only the Lord’s life—His livingness: the Church’s aliveness is the Lord’s aliveness; and the Lord Himself is the Christian prayer” (151). This is what it means to say that “…in him we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). By being united with Christ in baptism, and through participation in the sacraments, we share in his aliveness. And, because “we are very members incorporate” in the mystical Body of Christ, our purpose and duties are not destroyed when we can no longer meet together. Certainly, we feel a void. Fr. Glenn recently pointed out that many of our brothers and sisters around the world are used to prohibitions that make it impossible — even life-threatening — for them to meet together for prayer and worship. But it is important to remember that while the devil determines to destroy and dishearten, God has promised to give life: “...The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
As Scripture attests, our destiny — the final vision of God — is not “a private view of an exhibition of pictures” (153) but rather a corporate gathering of eternal prayer and worship. The Revelation of St. John paints a glorious picture of the saints gathered before the throne of God, worshiping together with angels, seraphim and cherubim, and all the host of heaven (Revelation 7:9-12, 8:3-4, 19:6). This is why, even here on earth, it is right and necessary (indeed, fulfilling) to worship God in the way we are meant, which will be our eternal glory: together with the Body of Christ. And what a comfort to know that, even in our private prayers and devotion, when we are physically separated from the Liturgy, we still share in the lifeblood of the Church: Christ himself. Fr. Hankey identifies several ways we participate in the life of the Church (the latter two are easily practiced individually or as a family during isolation):
Attend the Liturgy of the Mass (Holy Communion). See our post on Spiritual Communion for times when receiving the Eucharist is inhibited.
Perform the daily offices of morning and evening prayer (noting the significance of the “Our Father” instead of “My Father”).
I’d like to pull one final point from the essay to help us in this present moment. In Fr. Hankey’s words, “the Church’s observance of the liturgical year is a practice which has immense value and a deep effect on the personal devotion of her members. Especially is it valuable as a means of preserving and increasing the sense of fellowship in prayer” (156). Other posts on this blog have recently pointed out how important it is — perhaps especially amidst confusion and physical isolation — to pursue silence; and to remain faithful to the season, devoted to our Lenten practices and disciplines. In uncertain times we cling to what is certain and the liturgical year helps us do this. The fact that we live the liturgical year together preserves the sense of fellowship in prayer that is so important.
Fr. Hankey explores other important points that I won’t discuss at length here. He identifies three means of grace for ordinary church-people (prayer, retreats, confession) and concludes the essay by addressing the prayer life of the priest. I hope you take time in these quieter, homebound days to read this encouraging piece!
It is my prayer that this time of social isolation would not deter us from participating in the unceasing and oft-unseen work of the Church but that it would deepen our love for Christ and his Bride, strengthening our devotion to prayer. In the end, may we recognize with greater clarity and resolve what a privilege it is to meet together before the altar, receiving physically the Body and Blood of our Lord and sharing in His aliveness.
O most loving Father, who willest us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of thee, and to cast all our care on thee, who carest for us; Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which thou hast manifested unto us in thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Andrea Perkins attends All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.