The following was written by the Rev. Canon Dr. Susan Skillen, Canon for Spiritual Formation. To learn more about her Spiritual Formation course visit the Holy Conversations ministry page.
1500 years ago a Christian monk named Benedict wrote a “Rule” for the community of monks that had gathered around him. The Rule set the daily pattern for a communal life of work, study and prayer that would help the monks to grow in love and knowledge of the Lord, and in love for one another. St. Benedict and his Rule were pivotal in bringing structure and coherence to the Church as a whole during the chaotic time of the barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome. Since then the Rule of St. Benedict has been a foundational document for monastic communities throughout the centuries. In our own time, when many of the cultural structures that supported Christian life are disintegrating, there is a renewed interest within the Church in forming communities centered around common prayer and ministry. In many places across the country a phenomenon of “new monasticism” is springing up among Christians of varying denominations. These new communities can include lay and ordained, married couples and celibate singles, young and old, living in a single house, apartment building or neighborhood. “New monastic” communities are formed around keeping a number of the canonical hours together, developing a common Rule of Life, mutual submission to one another in love, hospitality and mission.
The habit or “rule” of the early church described in Acts 2:42 has been the model through the ages for not only the Benedictines but for all Christians: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church this is part of the Baptismal Covenant, where the person being baptized promises “to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”
In the earliest centuries of the Church there was a great emphasis on the education of the believer in the teaching of the apostles. Every catechumen (meaning “one under instruction”) preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil service went through a rigorous training program during the season of Lent which included a series of lectures explaining the Creed and the Sacraments. But at the same time Christian formation was understood to be much more than intellectual learning. It was about the “new birth” of the catechumen, the transformation of the whole person in which personal sin was addressed and Christian character was formed.
Our own Anglican tradition has a long history of drawing upon the lessons of the monastic Rule and the early church for the purpose of spiritually forming the whole person, helping members to “grow into the full stature of Christ.” The Anglican “Three-fold Rule” of praying the Daily Office, Personal Devotion, and receiving Holy Eucharist has been at the heart of Anglican spiritual life for five hundred years. *
The first part of the three-fold rule, the Daily Office, is based on the pattern of regular daily prayer found in monastic communities. For most of us, sitting down to pray can be a frustrating time of distractions and a wandering mind. The Daily Office helps to create a focus and atmosphere to bring the heart into prayer, as well as to develop a rhythm of prayerfulness and attentiveness to God throughout the day. The forms of prayer can be used by individuals, families or community gatherings. The Daily Office includes contemporary and traditional options for Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as Noonday Prayer and Compline (bedtime prayers). A person following the Daily Office readings is taken through the whole Bible in two years. By following the Daily Office and Sunday lectionary readings, the believer becomes familiar with the whole of the Bible as God’s Word. The Anglican tradition believes that it is not enough for us to simply focus on our “favorite passages,” or the ones that “speak to my heart” (which is perhaps because they say what we want to hear). The cycle of daily and weekly readings assure that we hear not only the Scriptures that comfort us but also the ones that confront us.
The second part of the three-fold rule, Personal Devotion, is focused around our private prayer life, which might include reading Scripture meditatively (what the monastics call lectio divina) or reading the gospels in a way that you imagine yourself in the scene and interact with Jesus (Ignatian Scripture meditation). There are many other forms of personal prayer including intercessory prayer, prayer of thanksgiving and worship, centering or contemplative prayer. These forms of personal prayer can be incorporated into the Daily Office. Personal Devotion also includes other “spiritual disciplines,” the things we do to help us be open to God and available to hearing his word for us. Some of these might include small group Bible studies or Christian fellowship groups, stewardship, helping and/or visiting the poor, the sick and those in prison, confession, fasting, going on a retreat, or having a spiritual director.
The third part of the three-fold rule is the Eucharist, the consummation of the Daily Office and Personal Devotion. Through the Sunday liturgy, the story of salvation history dramatically unfolds, consummating in the Eucharist which centers us around the cross and Christ’s sacrifice for the world. The Eucharist is a place and act of transformation. Not only do the elements of bread and wine become for us, by faith, the body and blood of Christ, but in the act of receiving the elements, the worshippers themselves become the body of Christ. Saint Augustine said, “If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying ‘Amen’ to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear ‘The Body of Christ,’ you reply, ‘Amen.’ Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your ‘Amen’ may ring true…. Be what you see, receive what you are” (Sermon 272). The Eucharist, when received in faith, transforms us into Christ.
The Eucharist is also a contemplative moment in which the worshipper is brought into the presence of the Trinity: God the Father, who has created all things, the Son through whom we receive salvation, and the Holy Spirit who descends upon the elements and upon the people to transform and renew. In the Eucharist we are confronted with mystery: the mystery of our salvation through the atonement of Christ, the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of our union with God, the mystery of our own transformation into the likeness of Christ. Through our participation in the liturgy we receive a foretaste of the marriage feast when Christ’s bride, the Church, will sit with him at the heavenly banquet table.
These three elements of the Three-fold Rule are a pattern for life with God that the Anglican tradition offers us. They provide a structure not only for our personal spiritual lives but also for us as a community of believers. In the same way that our bodies need a skeletal structure in order for us to develop muscular strength, our Christian lives need structure in order for us to develop spiritual strength to meet the challenges of our lives, so that we can truly “grow into the full stature of Christ.”
*Please see Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition