A while ago, I wrote a post about culture making (Andy Crouch’s term) — tapping the well of Rod Dreher and James K.A. Smith and adducing the case of a “Christian” coffee shop in my city. A little while after this, I wrote a post about prayer and the false God to whom (I argued) many wrongly pray. I want to bring these two posts together by, of all things, critiquing two books that I recently encountered by a popular Roman Catholic layman, Bert Ghezzi, and then offer a particularly Anglican alternative that may speak to the needs of the wider Church.
Ghezzi’s The Heart of Catholicism and The Power of Daily Mass are highly accessible primers designed to invigorate Catholics to take their faith seriously. It is straightforward EWTN stuff. Both books are gentle and self-effacing reminders of Catholic responsibility aimed at “identity-shaping practices or habits of the Catholic spiritual life” (Heart, p. xii): Catholics go to Mass, Catholics go to confession, etc. … Ghezzi’s charm is in shifting our thoughts away from burden and towards reward. “You will receive immeasurable benefits from receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus every day” (Daily Mass, p. 63). Perhaps unconsciously, both books read like Catholic self-help. Ghezzi’s take on prayer, service, and most of all participation in the Eucharist all seem a bit like something I once heard Covenant contributor Nathan Jennings refer to as “grace packets.” The Church has your medicine. Come take it. You might like it!
I can eventually make my way back around to finding Ghezzi’s perspective helpful. I’m all for daily Mass! But many outsiders will balk at this popular, accessible presentation of the efficacy of prayer and the sacraments. To Evangelicals, it may sound like cheap grace. To liberals, it may sound disconnected from social action. To the Orthodox, it may be grossly oversimplified. Ghezzi’s books are not bad; but, as with the many equally therapeutic offerings from the Protestant world, they do not quite situate the whole human person within the grand narrative of God’s redeeming work. God wants to transform me and use the transformed me to transform his world. But how?
First, back to culture making. A couple weeks ago, I attended part of a fantastic seminar put on by one of the great culture-making institutions in one of the great university towns: the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, Florida, home of the famous Pascal’s Coffeehouse. James K.A. Smith lectured and led seminar discussions. His talks, like his books (particularly Desiring the Kingdom) have challenged and captivated the Evangelical world and me. Smith champions a piety rooted in formation over information, becoming fully human by allowing the re-ordering of our wills for God. It’s classic Augustinianism for an age that needs it (see also Rowan Williams, Pope Benedict, et al.). Smith reminds us what we were made for, and our need to be remade for a holy end. His thesis goes further, putting an evangelical spin on Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. Life is liturgy — the mall, the football stadium, social media — and it all shapes us, for better or for worse.
Most of what Smith argues for is compelling. It has fueled my preaching and teaching. Where Smith just misses the mark, however, is in his understanding of sacraments; and it makes sense why. Smith is guarding a proud two-sacrament tradition of his own Dutch Reformed faith, and implicitly fears the alternative, which is a lot like what Bert Ghezzi advocates. The Protestant reformers fought for nothing if the answer to the needs of the individual Christian and the community redeemed by the blood of Jesus is simply “go to Mass.” Smith champions habitus, but it isn’t clear that the regula he has is fully capable of supporting the weight of the formation required for the kingdom he envisions. If formation isn’t just “go to Mass,” then what is it? What kind of liturgy has the power to compete with the worldly alternatives?
And so to Bert Ghezzi and James K.A. Smith I offer an Anglican solution from the former Episcopalian and current Roman Catholic culture warrior R.R. Reno. His basic premise: if you want to be transformed for the life of the world, open the Book of Common Prayer. A lot. Pray Morning and Evening Prayer every day. Pray the whole Psalter once a month. Read lots of Bible. Leave lots of space for your own petitions. Do it privately and publicly. Oh, and go to Mass! Reno writes in “The Daily Office,” an essay included in 2002’s In the Ruins of the Church:
Morning and Evening Prayer should be our source for reflection on the concrete and doxological pnematology that is, I think, the greatest strength of Anglicanism (pp. 150-151).
“Concrete and doxological pneumatology?!” Yes indeed. God will transform you day by day when you pray day by day the words he has given to his Church. He will transform the world by the natural outpouring of our thanksgiving. This is prayer, and this is culture making. This is the personal piety of Evangelicalism and the univocal expression of Catholicism. It draws the world into the Church and sends the Church into the world. It is therapeutic, not as a grace packet, but as a holistic treatment. It is healthy, daily bread that renders spiritual antibiotics largely unnecessary. Then when we go to Mass, we recognize it as the starting point and end point of a cycle of Eucharistic living. When we share our faith in the public square or engage in acts of social justice, it is with souls that have an “apostolic form,” gained from the “relentless force” of praying Scripture day after day (Reno, 154). Our piety and activity scream to God, “thy will be done.”
But would this work? In short, it could work (if tried) because this is what Anglicanism is designed to do. Our regula (the Book of Common Prayer) can support the weight of right praying in the service of divine culture making in ways that other expressions of the faith may not. As Leonel Mitchell says in his classic study, Praying Shapes Believing:
The Prayer Book gives no particular rationale either for the provision of Daily Offices or for the particular services it sets forth. They are simply assumed to be a part of the fabric of daily Christian living (p. 35).
When archeologists find the 1979 Prayer Book 1,000 years from now, they will have no choice but to assume that all Episcopalians (and their Anglican forebears before them) prayed in highly structured ways twice a day, participated in the Holy Eucharist at least once a week, and made certain promises about living in the world. It is not too late to prove these future archeologists right, and find ourselves made into strong disciples equipped with God’s solution for a world in need. Let us pray.
The images in this post were supplied by the author.