The Ascetical Theology of Augustine and the Book of Common Prayer

Martin Thornton (1915-1986) was an Anglican priest, spiritual director, and lecturer on ascetical theology. In his book English Spirituality, written in 1963, Thornton recalls one of his tutors, Dean Abbott telling him and his fellow divinity students that “if they took moral and ascetical theology seriously, and continued their own spiritual struggle, then he could promise that their ministry would be sought and used.”[1] Thornton defines Ascetic theology as follows,

Ordinarily, the soul rises to perfection by passing through three stages: First of all, it gets free from sin by penance and mortification; then it forms inner virtues by prayer and the imitation of Christ; and lastly, it advances in the love of God till it reaches habitual union with Him. It is for us to enter the path of perfection and to traverse its stages more or less quickly. God calls us to do this and gives us the graces needed for corresponding with His call.

Ascetic theology must not be confused with Mystical theology. The “soul of the ascetic with the help of grace makes an effort to rise toward God; but the soul of the mystic is suddenly and impetuously visited by God without exerting any activity beyond that of receiving and enjoying the Divine gift.”[2] For Thornton, “[t]here is no true mysticism without asceticism; and there is no true asceticism, taken in the Christian sense, without at least some deep insight into the vision of God.’”

At the time Thornton wrote his book, Anglican laity regularly complained that the clergy of the day were not properly equipped to give their flocks “serious personal guidance” in matters of the faith. Lay people believed their parish priests were “excellent and dedicated men, but they were uninterested, or frankly incompetent,” in this kind of work. If you are a layperson reading this essay, would you say the same thing about Anglican clergy today? I suggest indictments of modern pastoral practice are often warranted. Dean Abbott’s counsel still matters for the Anglican Church and its clergy.

Where can the clergy turn to reinvigorate our work with an ascetical theology? Fortunately, we have many rich sources to explore. Thornton outlines them in his book,[3] and there are also many from the Orthodox tradition.[4] But if we had to pick the theologian who has most influenced Anglican spirituality ascetically, it is Augustine. Augustine’s ascetics are grounded in the soul’s longing for God, a longing that experiences restlessness in this world until it rests in God and these ascetics can be found alive and well in the Book of Common Prayer.

Augustine’s Ascetical Theology

Augustine’s Confessions is about the soul’s longing to return to the Triune God in whose image it was made. Until it does so, the soul remains restless. This sense of “not being at home” is fundamental to Augustine’s mystical thought, and he engages in an introspective probing of the self to affect a return to God.[5] He is greatly indebted to Plotinus’ doctrine of the soul for this move. But, unlike Plotinus who believed the real world can be apprehended by the mind, Augustine believes our inner light does not suffice without the incarnate Word of God spoken outwardly and temporally in the words of Scripture. For only “[i]n him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2.3). For those treasures I search in your books” (Confessions XI.ii.4).[6]

Augustine’s inward search for God, as aided by Scripture, was not straightforward. Augustine found himself in a “state of uncertainty and [his] heart needed to be purified from old leaven (1Cor. 5.7). [He] was attracted to the way, the Saviour himself, but was still reluctant to go along its narrow paths” (VIII.i.1). For Augustine, “the self [that] was willing to serve [God] was identical with the self which was unwilling…So, I,” says Augustine, “was conflicted with myself and was dissociated with myself” (VII.xvii.23). Even when he did experience a mystical vision of God at Ostia with his mother, Monica, it was sudden and fleeting: “[i]n a flash of trembling glance it attained to that which is …. But I did not possess the strength to keep my vision fixed” (VII.xvii.23).

Augustine is conflicted because the self is not able to be in full possession and knowledge of itself. Created ex nihilo by God, the self depends upon God for revelation not only of God himself, but of one’s true self as one made in the image of God. That image is tainted by sin because of the Fall that causes us to misread the world which, in turn, skews our desire of what is truly good. And yet, the self is culpable for misreading the world and God. For Augustine, although evil is the privation of the good and has no substance, “the unwilling mind is dragged down and held, as it deserves, since by its own choice it slipped into habit” (VIII.v.12).

Therefore, the doctrine of conversion is the very heart and substance of the whole argument of Augustine’s Confessions.[7] What needs to be particularly converted in the self is the memory, the place in which the self searches for God. Andrew Louth reminds us that what memory means for Augustine is more than just a “faculty of recollection: it really means the whole mind, both conscious and unconscious, in contrast to mind–mens–which refers only to the conscious mind.”[8] Furthermore, it is not God, nor does it contain God. And “yet, in a way it touches God, it strains beyond itself to God.” Augustine’s memory strains after God, not as one who can be found, but as one who discloses himself to his memory.

Consequently, the human soul cannot ascend and be united with God unless it is called by the Word made flesh which illuminates the soul within.[9] It is the triune activity of God that enables the self, lifting memory beyond its creaturely preoccupations to contemplate the same God. It is not by analogy a movement from the soul to God; rather, it is the other way around: the Triune God illuminates the understanding of the memory in the soul which is his image. It is by grace–God’s self-emptying and his coming down to us–that we are able to “climb the ascents of our heart…to the peace of Jerusalem” (XIII.ix.10).

The love of God in the incarnation awakens the soul to humility, leading us to the necessary purity of heart for union with God to happen: “The true Mediator you [God] showed to humanity in your secret mercy. You sent him so that from his example they should learn humility. He is the mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” (X.xliii.68). By God’s self-emptying and coming down to us in humble form, the Son awakens our response of humility and development of the virtues.

This awakening and conversion of Augustine’s soul by the incarnate Word does not happen in isolation. By contemplating Scripture, the incarnate Word awakens his soul to humbly allow Christ to purify it, so that it may seek God: “Lord, bring me to perfection and reveal to me the meaning of these pages” (XI.ii.3) Yet the formation of the soul by the divine Word in Christ is made “specific and tangible in the community of believers, in the common language and practice of the Church.”[10] For Augustine, the soul only ascends to God when it separates itself “from the sea of society…[where God can] water you with your hidden and sweet spring, so the earth can produce her fruit” (XIII.xvii.21). Only in the Body of Christ can Augustine’s soul “conquer my older will, which had the strength of an old habit” (VIII.v.10).

The Ascetical System of the Book of Common Prayer

Although first penned during the English Reformation, more than a millennium after Augustine’s career, the ‘Book of Common Prayer,’ argues Thornton, ‘retains a strong Augustinian stamp [and] is one of the most brilliant pieces of ascetical construction there has ever been’.[11] Like Augustine, the BCP addresses the worshiper’s unsatisfied desire for a happy life that can only be found in God. It begins by assuming the self is tainted by sin that needs conversion. The Priest begins the daily office of Morning Prayer with the following exhortation,

Dear beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy (4).

The Exhortation does not refer specifically to our soul’s desire for God, but it is implied. The soul’s pilgrimage back to God begins by letting Scripture move us in ‘sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins’, that our desires have wrongly attached themselves to false gods. Thus, we confess in the general Confession, ‘[w]e have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, …’. Likewise, the Priest and congregation begin the service of Holy Communion with the Collect for Purity,

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our heart by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify they holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen (67).

The journey back to God begins with confession, and by God’s grace, the purification of our wrongly directed desires, so ‘we may perfectly love [God]’.

The Prayer Book couples recollection of the saving acts of God’s Word in Scripture with repentance and progress towards perfection in its three-fold Rule: Office-Eucharist-personal devotion. The offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and its lectionary, when combined with the weekly celebration of the Eucharist (and Feast and Saints Days), point to the ideal life of contemplative recollection with private prayer to support this. ‘Recollection,’ says Thornton, ‘is not just a religious exercise but what controls and colors practical daily life’. The Prayer Book’s ‘system’ of corporate and private worship and Scripture reading guides the soul into ongoing conversion and deepening life of holiness.

For instance, let’s consider Robert Crouse’s reflections on the Prayer Book lectionary for Holy Communion.[12] For the first half of the year, the cycle of lessons sets before us God’s great works of redemption and reconciliation as manifested in Jesus Christ and that we are called to new life in the Spirit. As children of God, we are to be partakers of the divine nature. For that to happen we must be changed into God’s image. For Crouse, ‘therein lies the meaning, the logic, of our lectionary for this long season of Sundays after Trinity.’

Thus, beginning on the first few Sundays after Trinity the theme of the self-giving charity of God; and the necessity of emulating that self-giving charity as the ground for our own spiritual life is illustrated in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus, His interaction with publicans, sinners, and Scribes, and Christ’s parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. ‘The intent of these lessons, and the lessons for the following Sundays,’ argues Crouse, ‘show how the virtues and graces of Christian life are based upon and derived from the manifest charity of God, God’s free grace, the mystery of love.’ Thus, the lectionary for Trinity seasons offers us a systematic, logically ordered, biblically moral and ascetic theology.

Finally, the three-fold rule of prayer ‘Office-Eucharist-personal’ reminds us that the Book of Common Prayer’s “habitual recollection” of our heart’s ultimate desire, the Incarnate Word of God, is a communal exercise. There is room for personal prayer that ‘concerns the sanctification of the individual soul by the indwelling spirit, to the glory of God.’[13] But it ‘must be placed within the framework of the Church’s Rule; it must be specifically correlated with the Office and the Mass’.[14] By maintaining an individual-corporate balance in its three-fold rule of prayer, the Prayer Book directs both the congregation and individual away from the idiom, cadence, and worldview of this present age to adore, desire, and worship the triune God. In this way the Book of Common Prayer’s Augustinian stamped ascetical system transcends and corrects the subjective inclinations of the worshiper to desire, serve, and be with the God of the Gospel. 

Revd. Dr. Mike Michelin is an Anglican parish priest at St. John’s, Portsmouth Anglican Church in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

  1. Martin Thornton, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1986), 4.

  2. Thornton, English Spirituality 17.

  3. Thornton draws mostly from patristic and medieval sources and much less so from Anglican ones.

  4. See Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An essay on the nature of theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983); The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: University Press, 2007). Interestingly, Louth was once an Anglican Priest until, I assume, he became dissatisfied with the Anglican Church when it turned away from its ascetical roots.

  5. These theme of restlessness until one return home is not unique to Augustine. We find it in Plato and to an even greater degree in Plotinus to whom Augustine is greatly indebted. It’s also a common theme in the mystical theology of the Eastern Fathers. See Louth, Christian Mystical Tradition, 129.

  6. Augustine, Confessions, trans. By Henry Chadwick (Oxford: University Press, 2008). All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition.

  7. R.D. Crouse, “In Aenigmate Trinitas’, (Confessions, XIII, 5, 6): The Conversion of Philosophy in St. Augustine’s Confessions”, Dionysius, 6 (1987), 58. See Confessions, Book XIII.

  8. Louth, Christian Mystical Tradition, 138.

  9. Crouse, “‘In Aenigmate Trinitas’”, 59.

  10. Rowan Williams, “A Question to Myself: Time and Self-Awareness in the Confessions” in On Augustine (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 12.
  11. Thornton, English Spirituality 46.

  12. Robert Crouse, “The Lectionary: The Heart of the Prayer Book System” in

  13. Martin Thornton, Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1958) 206.

  14. Thornton, Pastoral Theology 227.


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