Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Sage Parnassus.
I experienced my spiritual awakening when I was 16 years old. One fateful afternoon, Jesus came to me and said, “Follow me.” I knew that to follow Him I would need to read His word. Thus began a lifetime practice of private daily Bible reading. I began as a teenager with Matthew chapter 1, and I worked my way through to Revelation. I don’t remember how long it took or what came next. I do remember random aimless moments, however, where I opened my Bible and flipped through its pages till something caught my eye. I recall I first stumbled across Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard in this way.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that some people actually follow a program for Bible reading. One of the first such programs I encountered was the famous Bible Reading Calendar of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. It made so much sense to me: here was a way to read through the Old Testament in a year, and the New Testament twice! (Psalms and Proverbs are also covered twice in a year.) Not long after I first heard of it, I signed up to follow it. I still remember the one-page printout of it that I kept it in my bible. I would mark off each day as it was completed.
I followed M’Cheyne many years after college. I recall one tragic day when I was riding the train to work, and my printout flew out of my hand as I was exiting the train. The Windy City took my calendar away, and my dutiful check marks ended up who knows where in the streets of Chicago. I grieved the loss… and then I began again.
I really did like M’Cheyne’s. But I remember dreading the dilemma each year when the day would come for Jeremiah 51. Registering at a whopping 64 verses of dense prophetic material, I would always struggle with what to do. It seemed irreverent to just rush through it. But on the other hand, I couldn’t always carve out an hour in a day to do justice to all for the assigned readings. Well, at least I would get through the entire Bible.
Years later, in 2007, largely due to the influence of Charlotte Mason, I found myself returning to the church of my upbringing. I joined Light of Christ Anglican Church in Kenosha, and once again experienced the beautiful liturgical sights and sounds of my youth. Lent was draped in purple, and growing time was green. Pentecost was red, but Easter was celebrated in white. We shouted our Alleluia’s on that day, hardly remembering our solemn prayers of Ash Wednesday forty days before.
Father Eirik Olsen was (and is) the pastor of that church. He (like me) said he was an evangelical; and yet he embraced the charismatic and sacramental streams of the church with all of his might. For him, that included entering into the ancient cycle of the church calendar. It was more than colors. It was about prayers, reflections, thoughts, ideas that all revolved around the season of the year. He didn’t just give something up in Lent. Lent for him was a journey of contemplation which led to the wondrous glory of Easter bells.
Meeting Father Eirik was the end of M’Cheyne’s for me. If I ever talked to him about Bible reading schedules, I knew what his answer would be: “Is it sensitive to the church calendar?” If the reading plan dwelt on the resurrection during Advent, I knew it would be a nonstarter for him. At first, I thought this was just an idiosyncrasy of my zealous pastor. Eventually, however, I began to realize that this was a way of life for countless Christians around the world.
It turns out that one of those Christians was Charlotte Mason. One of the gifts given to each graduate of the House of Education was The Cloud of Witness, a book of daily poetry readings assigned to each day of the church calendar. Charlotte Mason gave every graduate an invitation: an invitation to join a worldwide experience that unites Christians across denominations and languages: the experience of the seasons of the Christian year.
Mason explains that such an experience is not merely for Anglicans:
Even those who do not belong to the Church of England would find her Sunday Collects, Epistles, and Gospels helpful, as giving the young people something definite to think about, week by week. We can hardly hope in this life to grow up to all there is in those weekly portions, but the youngest Christian finds enough to go on with, and has the reposing sense of being led, step by step, in his heavenward progress. (Mason, 1989e, p. 210)
This step-by-step heavenward progress is not to be confused with the “full, exhaustive, progressive” (Mason, 1989e, pp. 408-409) nature of Mason’s program for Bible lessons. This is heavenward progress of a different sort:
I am not suggesting this as a substitute for wider reading of the Bible, only as a definite thought, purpose, and prayer for every week as it comes, in addition to whatever other prayers general or special needs may call for. (Mason, 1989e, p. 210)
This “week by week” progression of “Sunday Collects, Epistles, and Gospels” is, in fact, the backbone upon which The Cloud of Witness is structured. Every Sunday in Edith Gell’s devotional, a short excerpt is given from the “Gospel for the day.” That is none other than the Sunday Gospel referenced by Miss Mason in Formation of Character.
But The Cloud of Witness is not merely week-by-week. It is day-by-day, as tendons extend off the Sunday backbone into every single day of the church year. The House of Education graduate (and the contemporary Charlotte Mason educator) who follows Edith Gell’s marvelous devotional finds a daily quiet time of solitary reading and reflection to ponder eternal truths. Is this habit of private daily devotion only for graduates and adults? Miss Mason says, “No”:
In the first place, “every word of God” is the food of the spiritual life; and these words come to us most freely in the moments we set apart in which to recollect ourselves, read, say our prayers. Such moments in the lives of young people are apt to be furtive and hurried; it is well to secure for them the necessary leisure—a quiet twenty minutes, say—and that, early in the evening; for the fag end of the day is not the best time for its most serious affairs. I have known happy results where it is the habit of the young people to retire for a little while, when their wits are fresh, and before the work or play of the evening has begun. (Mason, 1989e, p. 209)
In these wise words of advice, Charlotte Mason urges parents to help their children develop the habit of private daily devotions: a time each day when the child enters the “closet” (Matthew 6:6, KJV, 2009) to be alone with his Lord. This is not the time for Bible lessons; this is not the time set aside in the morning for school. This is in the early evening, when the “wits are fresh,” but other evening activity has not yet begun.
So imagine the parent who follows this advice and helps his or her child retire to his private place of prayer just before or after dinner. What does the child do, once he is alone with his Bible? Does he open to a random page as I did, when I was a teenager? Or does he just go from Matthew to Revelation, as I did before I met M’Cheyne?
Actually, no, not according to the historical programmes. In all but 3 of the 38 programmes for Forms II-IV from 1921 to 1933, the same guidance is given for “private daily Bible reading”: use the Lectiones by Spottiswoode. What on earth is this? Although the evidence is sketchy, we can piece together an answer from the clues.
A museum in Lincolnshire has one of these Lectiones. It was found tucked away in a New Testament (National Trust Collections, n.d.). From the description, we learn that it was a tiny leaflet, containing 8 pages and measuring only 5.5” across. We also learn that it was serialized, so each leaflet was for a specific date range—there was not one book that was used year after year. The one in the Lincolnshire museum is number 52 and runs from September, 1918 to January, 1919.
What does the title Lectiones mean? Merriam-Webster (2003) gives us a start:
lec•tion\ˈlek-shən\ noun… : a liturgical reading for a particular day
But what about that “e” after lection? We know that lēctiōne is the ablative singular of the Latin lēctiō, which may be meant to evoke the traditional practice of Lectio Divina (hinted at but not directly mentioned by Charlotte Mason). More likely it is simply meant to indicate a lectionary – a list of Bible passages to read for each day.
What makes a lectionary “liturgical”? (Why would it be odd to call M’Cheyne’s Bible Reading Calendar a “lectionary”?) Just this: that it follows the Christian year. Or as my former pastor would say, it is “sensitive” to the church calendar. When we review the very small number of references to the Lectiones in The Parents’ Review, this interpretation is borne out:
Therefore short passages called Lectiones have been selected by a committee composed mostly of schoolmasters; just ten or twelve verses are grouped round the festivals of the church; and are so selected that a boy does not say simply, “that’s over,” and get into bed, but he really thinks, “now that has meant something, there is a definite thought running through that, something that applies to my life and can be used in my life.” …
[The Lectiones… can be purchased from Messrs. Spottiswoode, Eton College.] (Bowlby, 1907, pp. 456-457)
When I think of the boy who says with relief, “that’s over,” I think of my own experience with M’Cheyne and Jeremiah 51 – “Oh my, how am I going to fit all this in today?”
Note that these Lectiones by Spottiswoode “are grouped round the festivals of the church” – in other words, they are liturgical, as one would expect a lectionary to be. Here we have Bible readings organized around that week-by-week “heavenward progress” marked out by the Sunday Gospels of the Christian year.
So the parent who helps his or her child spend the early evening in prayer gives him specific verses to read: “ten or twelve verses,” which give not too much to fit in, but enough to give him “something that applies to my life and can be used in my life.” The one other reference to the Lectiones in The Parents’ Review suggests a smaller number of verses:
Spottiswoode (Eton)… print Lectiones for Juniors, a course of Bible-reading arranged for every day of the year, each passage consisting of three or four verses with a heading which brings out its spiritual teaching. (Wolseley-Lewis, 1906, p. 694)
Is it 3-4 verses or 10-12 verses? The resolution to this apparent discrepancy may be that Forms II were assigned Lectiones for Younger Children whereas Forms III and IV were assigned Lectiones for Older Children, both by Spottiswoode. Perhaps the Form II readers (age 11-12) read only 3-4 verses, while the longer lections were for the older scholars.
These two descriptions from The Parents’ Review are corroborated by another source:
… there is such an excellent scheme… brought out under the auspices of the Central Society for Higher Religious Education, that it would seem economy of force rather to use this than to think out another. They are called Lectiones, and there are two series, for seniors and juniors respectively, arranged in accordance with the Church’s seasons; each series can be had at 6d. for a dozen copies, from Spottiswoode & Co., Eton College, Windsor, and all information will be given by the Rev. J. A. Cruikshank, Herga, Woking. (James, M. & Ottley, A., 1914, p. 276)
I find it interesting to note the corporate nature of Bible lessons in the PNEU programmes. Every PUS student in Britain in Forms I and II was reading the same Gospel at any given time of year. Similar, every single PUS student in the country from ages 13-18 was reading the same volume of The Saviour of the World. Schoolrooms in the home or otherwise could combine each form with its sister so that children could enjoy the corporate study of Scripture with their classmates.
But not so with “private daily Bible reading.” It is done in the “closet.” It is perhaps the most individual, private, and isolated activity in all of the programmes. There is no teacher, no narration, no examination, no work product, no witness, except the unseen King who seeks His own. There in the closet, the student leaves the corporate nature of the programmes and the lessons behind.
Or does he? Paradoxically, it is in this very act of private daily Bible reading with the Lectiones that the young scholar finds himself connected with the widest range of Christians, connected across denomination, language, and continent by a common observance of the ancient Christian calendar. There in the closet the young person reads about the temptations of Christ, and if he listens intently, can perhaps hear the whispering voices of millions of Christians around the world entering into the solemn reflection of Lent.
I have never seen Spottiswoode’s Lectiones. Perhaps I never will. But would I want to resurrect it for today? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Few churches today follow the precise arrangement of Sunday Gospels and Epistles that Mason references in Formation of Character. But the church calendar is alive and well. In fact, in 1994 a lectionary produced by an ecumenical committee of Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist scholars was released to the public. Called the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), it is the backbone of Sunday readings for many churches around the world.
Every Sunday I know what text will be read in my church; I know because it is there in the RCL. But the RCL is more than just a schedule of Sunday readings. It also has daily readings of some 20-30 verses per day. The first part of the week has readings that extend upon themes from the prior Sunday’s readings. The second part of the week anticipates the themes of the following Sunday. All the readings together draw the reader through the Christian year of the seasons of the church, in a “heavenward progress.”
My daughter is in Form V and I am helping her to develop her habit of private daily Bible reading. In just a few months she will be 16, the same age that I was when Christ called me by name. When I was that age, I went to my room and I was alone. I found my way through the Scriptures without calendar or guide. I was alone in both time and space.
I hope for something different from my daughter. My hope is that when she closes the door and has her private time with the Word, she will actually discover an unseen cloud of witnesses. In this most private time of all, she will join the church in its celebration of the great seasons of the liturgical year. I gave her a nice printed version of the Revised Common Lectionary daily readings. My hope is that for her, these might become lections for life.
Bowlby, H. (1907). Continuity of religious education between home and school. In The Parents’ Review, volume 18 (pp. 446-459). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
James, M. & Ottley, A. (1914). Alice Ottley: First head-mistress of the Worcester High School for Girls. London: Logmans, Green and Co.
KJV (2009). The Holy Bible: King James Version. Bellingham: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
Mason, C. (1989e). Formation of character. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Merriam-Webster. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
National Trust Collections. (n.d.). Lectiones. (For juniors.). (No. 52.) September 1918-January, 1919. Retrieved from http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/3159831.2
Wolseley-Lewis, M. (1906). Religious training in the home. In The Parents’ Review, volume 18 (pp. 690-698). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.