By John Orens
The liturgical debt Episcopalians owe the Tractarian pioneers of the Anglo-Catholic revival is incalculable. Although they themselves were not much interested in ceremony, almost everything that we take for granted in our public worship — our processions, our weekly Eucharists, even our vestments — would be unthinkable without their recovered sacramental theology.
So it is natural that we should look to them for guidance in the life of prayer. But reading their spiritual counsel for the first time can be disconcerting. When they wrote about prayer their language was reticent and their tone severe. The promise of Tractarian spirituality is wrapped in a cloud of holiness so austere that it can seem unapproachable. But if we let the warmth of their faith penetrate the cloud — if we pray with the Tractarians rather than turn aside — we shall find in them light and hope and the promise of joy at the end.
To do this, we must first understand the spiritual crisis that provoked their severity. Tractarianism developed in the early- to mid-19th century – an age, like our own, plagued by idolatrous self-assurance. Some evangelicals, untrue to the principles of their own faith, were offering the assurance of cheap grace. Have a heartwarming convulsion, they cried, proclaim your conversion, and you will be safe forever with God. Crass apostles of secular progress were trumpeting the assurance that grace is unnecessary. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, they bellowed, amass treasure on earth, and enjoy what is rightly yours. Most alarming to the Tractarians was the assurance that well-to-do Anglicans found in their social graces; the confidence that a reasonable man or woman who led a reasonable life would, at its end, be welcomed into heaven by a reasonable God. These idolatries the Tractarians were determined to overthrow. They insisted in the most vehement terms that neither warm feelings, nor worldly success, nor social airs can satisfy a holy and righteous God. Nothing less than sanctification — a life of total obedience, total submission, and total conformity to the will of God — will suffice. And an undertaking this solemn, John Keble warned, requires “a trembling, aweful [sic] sense of the power and presence of God.”
But the Tractarians did not teach that fear and trembling are the beginning and the end of the Christian life. That life, they emphasized, begins and ends with the God who shares our human nature. Ever since our baptism we have been joined to God so intimately that Edward Bouverie Pusey, the most scholarly of the Tractarians, had to coin a new word; we have, he said, been “in-Godded.” And so, to be totally conformed to God is to be totally conformed to our true selves. To empty ourselves is to be filled with the overflowing life of God that is the source and fruit of prayer. It is in the depths of the font, not in some fiery furnace, that we begin to discern the heart of Tractarian spirituality.
But how do we appropriate this spirituality and where will it lead? Seven is the number of completion in Scripture and in sacramental theology, so let us look at seven stations of Tractarian prayer, seven graces for our earthly pilgrimage. The first is the grace of tangibility or what we might call the grace of ordinariness. Consider baptism. It is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. For all their otherworldliness, the Tractarians never tired of noting that grace is often communicated through the humblest realities of our worldly lives. It is the unspiritual, Keble remarked acidly, who refuse to believe that something as tangible, as ordinary, as water can administer new birth. And so, he argued, that when we pray, whether at church our in our homes, we should pay heed to the spiritual influence our bodies wield, whether bowing our heads, bending our knees, or making the sign of the cross. Tangible acts like these do more than acknowledge God’s grace. In their very outwardness they are vehicles of that grace, penetrating the inward domain of our souls. Indeed, there is a kind of grace-filled tangibility to prayer itself. Christian prayer, the Tractarians argued, is a daily discipline that should be habitual, not something done because we are in the mood or because we are stirred by religious feeling. Rather, it is the sheer act, sometimes the sheer drudgery, of doing prayer that gives us the faith to pray. As Keble put it, if we want Christ to draw us to himself, we must be willing to run after him.
Bowing, bending, signing, running, being splashed with water: these tangible human gestures help bind us to Christ. And this conjunction of the natural and the supernatural, of the seen and the unseen, points to our second grace: the deep grace of our ordinary humanity. The Tractarians complained that most of us do not know who we are. We skim over the surface of life as if we were no more than passing shadows. But, they remind us, we are made in the image of God and, if baptized, plunged anew into the divine life and perfect humanity of Jesus Christ. Each human being, said John Henry Newman, “has a depth within him unfathomable, an infinite abyss of existence. … We may recollect when children … once seeing a certain person,” Newman observed; “and it is almost like a dream to us that we did. It seems like an accident which goes and is all over. … The rain falls, and the wind blows; and showers and storms have no existence beyond the time when we felt them. … But if we have but once seen any child of Adam, we have seen an immortal soul.” To pray, then, to plumb the depths of Christ, is to discover the depths of our own souls, and this is a considerable grace on our pilgrim’s way.
But, as the Tractarians point out, it is not a solitary grace. And to this, the second part of this essay will turn.
John Orens is professor of history at George Mason University, a parishioner of Sr. Paul’s, K Street in Washington, DC, and the author of Stewart Headlam’s Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses, and the Music Hall.
It is a good thing to be reminded that prayer is a spiritual *discipline*. Some times we must pray without any “feedback” – no sense of God’s presence, no answer, not even a “no.” It is also very important to remember that we are embodied creatures, and that embodiedness matters when we pray. Just try praising God lying flat on the ground, or notice how much better is our confession when on our knees. However, this all leaves the question of what prayer is as something vague. No doubt we must have Isaiah 6 moments. Forgetting God is holy is… Read more »