An Ancient Present Again

By The Venerable Max Woolaver

“Old men ought to be explorers…” wrote T.S. Eliot in the East Coker section of the Four Quartets. I have been feeling very much like that of late. I have been feeling both “old” and “exploring.” Let’s call it a state of mind.

As it often happens, it is a book that has drawn me into this state of mind.

The title page of the book reads like the Angel of Judgement’s trumpet-blast: ‘THE ANGLICAN BREVIARY Containing THE DIVINE OFFICE According to the General Usages of THE WESTERN CHURCH. There is definitely a “Raiders of the Lost Arc” feel about all this.

As I read the title of the Breviary I was reminded of the solemn warning which opens The Cloud of Unknowing, the indispensable medieval classic on contemplative prayer: (I paraphrase) “if you are not serious about reading this book, please close it immediately and never come back.” I also thought of two remarkable works of ancient architecture.

The first is the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The enormous blue glazed Gate and Wall from c. 500BC, decorated with bulls and winged deities towers above the visitor. The Gate, dedicated to Ishtar, the Goddess of Sexual Attraction and War, is overpowering in its effect. The Gate is from the uncharted depths of human time, a culture which couldn’t possibly feel more “alien”. The Ishtar Gate even in its current setting achieves its original purpose — to make you cower before the power of Babylon.

The second, and infinitely more tender in its impact — is the architecture of the Edicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Edicule covers a traditional burial and hence the place of Resurrection of Jesus. Ellen, Hannah and I stood together in the candled darkness of its close interior. If the Ishtar Gate is overpowering, the Edicule is Silence made real in ancient grey wood. The pilgrim’s heart is drawn across the night ocean of prayer to the further shore of unknowing before the mystery of this place.

What then is a breviary? The Oxford Dictionary: “… a book containing the service for each day …”

However! The Anglican Breviary is 1981 pages of finely printed liturgies and directions. The Roman Breviary, which was the womb of our Prayer Book, was 1,000 years in the making before our Book of Common Prayer was born in 1549. The Book of Common Prayer itself is a breviary. As Anglicans we are familiar with the concept. However! THE ANGLICAN BREVIARY is another matter altogether. It is, in short, a work of incomparable genius applied to liturgical architecture. This book has the capacity to guide and transform the solitary human life and the life of communities. It has been doing so for 1,000 years of gestation from 500AD to 1549 to the moment you read these words. It is doing so today with great social and political effect in the New Monastic communities inspired by the Benedictine Rule.

We could say our Prayer Book was born in the cave of St. Benedict, his hermitage in Nursia, Italy. We can also say that the true birth of our Prayer Book had its more private birth in the soul of St. Benedict. From there, the Benedictine Rule came to profoundly influence all of European civilization. 

To open our Breviary is to be transported back to the root of liturgies “indigenous to Western Christianity.” The Breviary can also likewise stir a contemporary “new birth” of soul in new cultures geographical and ethnically far from its point of origin in time and space.

As T.S. Eliot went on to write: “…we must be still and still moving into another intensity for a further union.” This is the strange and alluring call of the Breviary.