Arthur Middleton on ‘Personal Devotion’
The Flame of Prayerful Living
This is the famous stone
That tumeth all to gold,
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told .
Blind people who will not look upon the real world of God, but persist in following their own corruptible sin, fall into the ditch. But there is a remedy, and this poem, which you will know as Teach me my God and King, is called the Elixir, a word that means, a remedy – a word used in the ancient science of alchemy (that preceded chemistry). It is a kind of chemical mixture that can change metals into gold. Or it is a preparation that is able to prolong life indefinitely, a supposed remedy for all ills. This is the cure all, wonder drug. The philosopher’s stone had the same power and here George Herbert is alluding to this imaginary philosopher’s stone. But Herbert’s stone is not something imaginary; it is the touch of God’s love that turns all into gold. Everything he touches must be given a value that is equivalent to turning everything to gold.
Julian of Norwich2 claims that when the Holy Spirit touches the soul it longs for God rather like this, ‘God of your goodness give me yourself, for you are sufficient for me … If I were to ask less I should always be in want.’2 This is what it means to have a deep desire for God and this is the reason why using the word devotion and deliberately and avoiding using the modern word ‘spirituality’, a word that Lancelot Andrewes himself did not use. Today, this word has come to be associated with ‘feelings’, ‘feel good feelings’, a self-regarding fulfilment or self-realization and not sufficiently with the desire for God. It has become a word that is used and understood in a vague, fuzzy and self-regarding way about uplifting feelings, a sentimentalism that pervades much of religion today. The dictionary is more precise in defining ‘spirituality’ as ‘a distinctive approach to religion or prayer’. To deliberately use the word ‘devotion’ is to focus on this distinctiveness in the classical Anglican approach to religion and prayer, where the focus is not on experiencing a ‘feel good factor’, but on living the dogma of the revealed Christian mystery in such a way that, instead of the mystery being assimilated to our mode of human understanding, it is allowed to effect an interior transformation of spirit that enables it to be experienced mystically. It changes the heart and mind, renewing one’s whole mental and emotional attitude, which begins in self-renunciation and is accomplished and sealed by the Spirit, so that one’s life becomes conformed to the doctrine. In the Scriptural sense it purifies the character like gold in an ‘assayer’s fire’. That is repentance. Here lie the seeds of Anglican mystical theology that is consonant with the Christian Mystical Tradition.
What is distinctive about Anglican devotion, what qualities are native and integral to the Anglican understanding of devotion and religious practice? It is never an isolated individualistic pietism; always, it is concerned with dogma, doctrine, life, worship, and Christian discipline, which must colour and inspire the whole of life, where personal devotion and personal life are inseparable from liturgy and theology. In the people who produced this literature, prayer was their primary concern, their abiding preoccupation, and so it was the driving force of their lives because ‘they were all soaked in the primitive and medieval tradition of contemplation as the normal outcome of a life of serious prayer’. Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Richard Baxter (1615-1691), Thomas Ken (1637-1711), William Laud (1573-1645), George Herbert (1593-1633), John Donne (1571-1631) and Thomas Traherne (1636-74) et al, John Byrom tells us ‘all of them spoke the same language, at least where prayer is concerned; the language of loving desire for God.
Anglican devotion is life as a way of practical divinity. Seventeenth-century Anglicans called moral theology ‘practical divinity’ to which ascetical theology was completely united. In other words the moral life and the life of prayer were inseparable. The life of prayer was to affect how the Christian behaved. Today, the life of prayer has been separated from the way we behave as the devotional life is reduced to ‘spirituality’, where the emphasis rests on feelings as the measure of spiritual health rather than behaviour. Ascetical theology has been separated from moral theology. Anglican devotion is about the Christian-in-the-Church, the full co-operation with grace in a total Christian life.
In our devotional heritage belief, devotion, duty, and discipline, are inseparable. How we live and how we pray cannot be separated in Christian living. Each affects the other, becoming a practical matter for the devotional life of all who live through a Life not their own, transmitted to them by the Spirit through the means of grace, the Book and the Bread, within the Eucharistic fellowship of the baptized who share in the apostolic faith. The purpose of positive and practical divinity is to bring us to Heaven. So it affects our judgments, settles our consciences, directs our lives, mortifies our corruptions, increases our graces, strengthens our comforts, and saves our souls. The meaning of responsible discipleship, of growth in grace, of incorporation in Christ, is that ‘if any man be in Christ he is a new creature.’
The aim of such practical devotion is to make a person ‘a new creature’ ‘sincere in his obedience’ a favourite phrase that illuminates what is meant by ‘the perfection of wayfaring men’.