The Christian Framework

It’s time for another chapter from Christian Proficiency.

Chapter 3, “The Christian Framework,” essentially argues that the Daily Office, the Mass, and private prayer form a triad rooted in the Trinity.

First of all, it’s no good to only have private prayer. Corporate worship is not optional, because each Christian is a member of the Body, and needs the Body. Similarly, all private prayer is only private in the sense that the praying Christian is physically alone — their prayer is still part of the total prayer of the whole church.

Second, this triad reflects the Trinity because each part is focused on one of the persons of the Godhead — the Mass centered on Christ, the Daily Office on the Father, and private prayer directed by the Spirit. I see the point about the Mass — communion is the central focus of the Mass, and communion is all about Jesus’ body broken and blood poured out for us. And I can see how the Holy Spirit is involved in private prayer — “interceding for us in groans too deep for words,” for one thing, and guiding us in what and how we pray with our words. I’m not entirely sure I understand how the Daily Office — a structured set of Scripture readings, responses, and prayers — is especially connected with the Father.

There’s an especially puzzling paragraph in which Thornton talks about what being “in Christ” means for our private prayer. For one thing, we’re not praying to ourselves even though Christ is in us… and for another, our prayer must be Christ’s prayer as well as our own. I’m really not quite sure what he’s getting at. How is a prayer I say also a prayer Christ is saying? How would I know if it is or is not? Is it just the Lord’s Prayer? Or does anyone really ever think that prayer is merely talking to herself? And then he says, after the part about how in prayer we are talking TO Christ even though we are IN Christ, that “it follows that the sacraments of incorporation and life in Christ, and the regular offering of the total Body — Mass and Office — take precedence over personal private prayer, however exalted.” I’d really like to know how that follows!

The next section of the chapter is fairly helpful, as he encourages us that our attendance at Mass is worthwhile even when we are dull and distracted — better to be there in that state than to allow that state to keep us away. Our dullness and distraction do not harm the Mass — it is about what God does more than about what we do. Not that dullness and distraction are good things, but that “in bad and difficult times, we can throw everything upon the divine action of Christ, do our poor best, fail miserably, and stop worrying; ‘being there’ is a lowly but efficient act” (20).

In the same vein, we can acknowledge the truth and solidity of the faith and Mass, despite any lack of fervent emotional connection to it. When there is fervent devotion, illumination, responsiveness, even better for us and for the Body, without, of course, adding anything to what the Mass actually is.

These levels of participation apply to the Daily Office as well.

Now Thornton advocates for structure in private prayer — asserting that discipline and order and system in private prayer are necessary for increasing our proficiency. Again he tries to make the case that the necessity of system in private prayer follows from the trinitarian roots of the Mass-Office-Private prayer triad. I don’t see it.

He divides private prayer into three subcategories: mental prayer, by which he seems to mean anything we do that increases our knowledge of spiritual things and our love for God — Bible and theological and devotional reading, for example; Colloquy, which is the saying of particular kinds of prayers such as petition, confession, intercession, and so on; and Recollection, which consists of moments throughout the day in which we call our attention to God and offer brief and simple prayers.

In the second half of the chapter, Thornton analyzes the Lord’s Prayer in light of this systematic approach to private prayer. The “Our Father” bit reminds us that we are part of the Body, and that Christ prays this prayer with us. “Thy Kingdom come” reminds us again of the Body and our incorporation into it through baptism, reminds us of the incarnation in which the kingdom came down, and also reminds us of the Eucharist, in which the kingdom comes down every time. He continues in this way — and of course the Lord’s Prayer models the various kinds of prayer he listed under Colloquy and contains reminders helpful to our faith… but is that really the whole point of this section? Or am I missing something bigger?

Thornton concludes by mentioning two things that he will discuss in the next two chapters — spiritual direction, to help a Christian develop proficiency in prayer without too much theology (ha! he really said that), and rule, because orderly and systematic prayer is apparently better than otherwise — and because it’s not so important to pray a lot as it is to pray according to some design or pattern.

Well — this is hardly the model of prayer I have been immersed in during my years in other churches, whether non-denominational, somewhat fundamentalist (both mostly in high school), Pentecostal (three years in college), or Presbyterian (one kind (PCUSA) growing up, the other (PCA) mostly since senior year of college).

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One thought on “The Christian Framework

  1. Pingback: Blog year in review | Becoming Three

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