In the traditional western liturgical calendar, there are four sets of three days of prayer, fasting, and abstinence known as “Ember Days”. These were observed by the church at Rome from at least the third century. The sacrament of Reconciliation was especially recommended at these times. Ordinations have traditionally been conferred on Ember Saturdays – the Mass for Ember Saturday in the traditional Western rite contains four extra lessons (five in December), with ordinations for the different orders happening after each reading. Yesterday was Ember Wednesday and tomorrow and the day after are Ember Friday and Ember Saturday.
At some point, in the Episcopal Church (I am not sure if this practice originated in the Church of England or not – if any readers know and would enlighten me, I’d appreciate it), the canons began to require postulants and candidates for ordination to write a letter each Embertide to their bishop, telling them of their progress in their formation. I just discovered a rather funny form on the website of Virginia Theological Seminary to automatically generate fake Embertide letters: http://old.vts.edu/2000/ember.htm.
In our jurisdiction, we have adopted the practice and extended it to all of the clergy (including the bishop). Rather than sending it only to the bishop, each seminarian and clergymember sends it to our jurisdictional yahoogroup. There are four parts to the Embertide reflection – reading that the person has done, a reflection on one’s ministry, a reflection on one’s prayer and spiritual life, and a reflection on one’s personal human condition and how it has affected one’s ministry. The last two, while required topics for reflection, do not have to be shared with the yahoogroup as do the first two, since they deal with the “internal forum” – however, it is strongly recommended that people share these with a spiritual director or friend if not sharing with the group. Although only clergy and seminarians are required to do these reflections, laity are invited and encouraged to do so if they find it helpful, and several do regularly share their reflections (sometimes more enthusiastically than the clergy!). The 1979 Book of Common Prayer has as one of the sets of propers recommended for Ember days a set “for all Christians in their vocation”, and it is most appropriate that laity as well as clergy reflect on their ministry and spiritual lives.
There are three aspects of this practice that I find especially helpful. First, it is good to have a regular (roughly quarterly) time set aside to reflect on my ministry and my spiritual life. It is so important to step back and evaluate how one is doing in these areas, and this practice builds the opportunity and obligation to do so into my schedule. Second, tying it to a liturgical observance places the process in a context of prayer and meditation. This is not a status report – “I said 87 masses, heard 13 confessions, missed Morning Prayer 3 times, etc.” – it is meant to be a spiritual practice – actually prayerfully considering one’s ministry and spiritual life while consciously in the presence of God. Finally, the practice of sharing it with others in one’s jurisdiction or with a spiritual director builds in accountability and the opportunity for mutual support.
I invite others to consider this spiritual practice of Embertide reflections as a way of deepening their spiritual lives.