Monday, July 29, 2013

The Church Fathers on prayer

What reason is there to go to prayer with hands indeed washed, but the spirit foul?

A while back I wrote about Worshiping with the Church Fathers by Christopher Hall (InterVarsity, 2009). Reading this book opened a window on ideas about worship, and practices of worship, that I wasn't all that familiar with. Some of these ideas and practices might seem alien to a contemporary Christian's experience, but that just might be a clue that our experience would be enriched by tapping into this formative period of church history.

My previous post dealt with the fathers' approach to the sacraments (as sketched out by Hall), now I share some thoughts on their approach to prayer. The fathers took with literal seriousness the biblical command to pray without ceasing. They saw constant communion with God, and experience of his presence, to be something within reach. Granted, they didn't have the same obstacles that we modern always-plugged-into-the-grid people have, but the problem remained -- how does one overcome the distractions that keep one from praying?

Hall draws heavily in this chapter from a Syrian desert father called Abba Isaac. He recommended picking a verse of scripture to use as a "tether" to keep a wandering mind tied to the "perpetual awareness of God." The verse Isaac selected was Psalm 70:1 -- "Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!" The urgency of the Psalmist is a reminder of the constant peril we face and the moment-by-moment salvation we need. There's also a confidence that God will hear and is close at hand to offer the deliverance we need. I have this verse taped to my computer at work.

The church fathers recognized that a primary obstacle to prayer was the problem of self-deception. Hall writes:

We are deeply, horribly, infinitely self-deceived. And our fundamental self-deception manifests itself in a deep-seated tendency to lie about the true state of affairs in our lives. We imagine ourselves generous yet rarely give anything away. Pure in our thinking yet addicted to a weekly jaunt through the Web's darkest corridors. We can blithely assassinate someone's character and five minutes later be sitting in a worship service or retreat center, praying for the very same person whose character we murdered earlier. Our habituated thoughts and behaviors are who we are—they are us, our character. And it is our character that we bring into prayer with us.

Tertullian (as evidenced by the quote above) and others of his contemporaries didn't think it was possible to separate one's "spiritual life" from his or her "everyday life." We can't leave our dirty laundry outside when we come in to pray. "What's going on outside of prayer invariably leaks into prayer itself." However, "This doesn't mean that we should stop praying, for prayer is a principal means of healing and reshaping our character into the image of Christ." The fathers viewed prayer as a movement from self-deception to self-awareness. They remind us that in the practice of constant prayer we are transformed.

All quotes from p. 87 & 135 of Worshiping with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity, 2009)

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