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"Lord, teach us to pray" | Gabriel Bunge, O.S.B. | Introduction to Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition

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In ecclesiastical circles today one often hears the lament, "The faith is evaporating." Despite an unprecedented "pastoral approach", the faith of many Christians in fact appears to be "growing cold" [1] or even, to put it colloquially, to be "evaporating". There is talk of a great crisis of faith, among the clergy no less than among the laity.

This loss of faith, which is so often lamented in the West, stands nevertheless in contrast to a seemingly paradoxical fact: This same Western world is simultaneously producing an immense stream of theological and, above all, spiritual literature, which swells year after year with thousands of new titles. To be sure, among them are many ephemeral fads created solely to be marketed. Yet numerous classical works of spirituality, too, are being critically edited and translated into all the European languages, so that the modern reader has available to him a wealth of spiritual writings that no one in antiquity would even have dreamed of.

This abundance would really have to be taken as the sign of an unprecedented flourishing of the spiritual life--were it not for the aforementioned loss of faith. This flood of books, therefore, is probably rather the sign of a restless search that still somehow does not seem to reach its goal. Many, of course, read these writings, and they may also marvel at the wisdom of the Fathers--yet in their personal lives nothing changes. Somehow the key to these treasures of tradition has been lost. Scholars speak in this regard of a break in tradition, which has opened up a chasm between the present and the past.

Many sense this, even if they are unable to formulate the problem as such. A feeling of discontent grips ever-larger circles. People look for a way out of the spiritual crisis, which many then think they have found (appealing to a very broad notion of ecumenism) in an openness to the non-Christian religions. The extremely wide assortment of "spiritual masters" of various schools makes easier that first step beyond the boundaries of one's own religion, in a way that the readers do not suspect. Then, too, those who are searching hungrily encounter a gigantic market of literature, ranging from the "spiritual" through the "esoteric". And many think that they have even found there what they had looked for in vain within Christianity, or else what was supposedly never there in the first place.

It is by no means our intention to do battle with this sort of "ecumenism". We will only formulate a few questions at the end and briefly sketch the answer that the Fathers might well have given. This book is concerned with giving a genuinely Christian answer to the spiritual search of many believers. And a "practical" one, at that: that is, it should point out a "way"--rooted in Scripture and the original tradition--that enables a Christian to "practice" his faith in a manner that is in keeping with the contents of the faith. For there is a very simple answer to the perplexing question, why the faith of an increasing number of Christians is "evaporating" despite all efforts to enliven it--an answer that perhaps does not contain the entire truth about the causes of the crisis, but which nonetheless indicates a way out. The faith "evaporates" when it is no longer practiced in a way that accords with its essence. "Praxis" here does not mean the various forms of "social action" that perennially have been the obvious expression of Christian agape. However indispensable this "outreach" is, it becomes merely external, or (as a flight into activism) even a subtle form of acedia, of boredom, [2] whenever there is no longer any corresponding "reach within".

Prayer is the "interior striving" par excellence--prayer in the fullest sense acquired by this term in Scripture and tradition. "Tell me how you pray, and I will tell you what you believe", one could say, as a variation on a familiar adage. In prayer, right down to the practical methods of prayer, it becomes evident what constitutes the essence of being a Christian: how the believer stands in relation to God and to his neighbor.

Hence one can say, with some exaggeration: Only in prayer is the Christian really himself.

Christ himself is the best proof of this. For does not his essence, his unique relationship to God, whom he calls "my Father", become evident precisely in his prayer, as it is portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels with restraint and then by John with complete clarity? The disciples, in any case, understood this, and when they asked him, "Lord, teach us to pray", Jesus taught them the Our Father. Even before there was a Creed to sum up the Christian faith, this simple text epitomized what it means to be a Christian, precisely in the form of a prayer--that is to say, that new relationship between God and man which the only begotten, incarnate Son of God established in his own Person. This is certainly no coincidence.

The Bible teaches that man was created "in the image of God", [3] that is, as the Fathers profoundly interpret it, "as the image of the Divine Image" (Origen), of the Son, therefore, who alone is the "Image of God" in the absolute sense. [4] Man is destined, however, to be the "image and likeness" of God. [5] He is therefore designed with a view to becoming: specifically, he is meant to pass from being "in the image of God" over to the (eschatological) state of being "made like unto" the Son. [6]

From this creation "in the image of God" it follows that the most essential thing about man is that he is intrinsically in relation to God (Augustine), after the analogy of the relation between an original image and its copy. Yet this relation is not static, like the one between a seal and its impression, for instance, but rather living, dynamic, and fully realized only through becoming.

For man, this means concretely that he, by analogy to his Creator, possesses a face. Just as God--who is Person in the absolute sense and who alone is capable of creating personal being--possesses a "face", namely, his only begotten Son (which is why the Fathers simply equate the biblical expressions "the image of God" and "the face of God"), so too man, as a created personal being, has a "face".

The "face" is that "side" of the person that he turns toward another person when he enters into a personal relationship with the other. "Face" really means: being turned toward. Only a person can have, strictly speaking, a real "counterpart" to which he turns or from which he turns away. Being a person--and for man this always means becoming more and more a person--always comes about "face to face" with a counterpart. Therefore Paul contrasts our present, indirect knowledge of God, "in a mirror dimly [Greek: en ainígmati = enigmatically]", with the perfect eschatological beatitude in knowing God "face to face", whereby man "shall know as he is known". [7]

What is said here about the spiritual essence of man finds expression also in his corporeal nature. It is the bodily countenance in which this spiritual essence is reflected. To turn one's face toward another or deliberately to turn it away from him is not something indifferent, as everyone knows from daily experience, but rather a gesture of profound, symbolic meaning. Indeed, it indicates whether we want to enter into a personal relationship with another or want to deny him this.

The purest expression of this "being turned toward God" to be found here on earth is prayer, in which the creature does in fact "turn" toward his Creator, in those moments when the person at prayer "seeks the face of God" [8] and asks that the Lord might "let his face shine" upon him. [9] In these and similar phrases from the Book of Psalms, which are by no means merely poetic metaphors, the fundamental experience of biblical man is expressed, for whom God is not an abstract, impersonal principle, after all, but rather is Person in the absolute sense. God turns toward man, calls him to himself, and wants man to turn to him also. And man does this quintessentially in prayer, in which he, with both soul and body, "places himself in God's presence".

With that we have returned to the actual theme of this book: the practice or "praxis" of prayer. For "to learn to pray from the Lord", to pray as the men of the Bible and our Fathers in faith did, means not only making certain texts one's own, but also to assimilate all of those methods, forms, gestures, and so on, in which this praying finds its most suitable expression. This was, in any case, the opinion of the Fathers themselves, for whom this was by no means a matter of historically conditioned externals. On the contrary, they gave their full attention to these things, which Origen summarizes as follows at the end of his treatise On Prayer:

It seems to me [in light of the preceding] to be not inappropriate, in order to present exhaustively the subject of prayer, by way of an introduction, to examine [also] the [interior] disposition and the [exterior] posture that the person praying must have, as well as the place where one should pray, and the direction in which one must face in all circumstances, and the favorable time that is to be reserved for prayer, and whatever other similar things there may be. [10]
Then Origen immediately cites the Bible to demonstrate that these questions are in fact not at all inappropriate, but are posed for us by Scripture itself. We, too, want to be guided by these signposts. In this regard we deliberately limit our subject to personal prayer, since that is the sure foundation not only of the spiritual life but also of liturgical prayer in common.

As the Fathers themselves knew better than anyone else, one must never take Scripture out of context if one wants to understand it correctly. For the Christian this context is the Church, and the apostolic and patristic tradition gives testimony to her life and her faith. As a consequence of those breaks in tradition which have accompanied the history of the Western Church in particular, this treasure has become practically inaccessible to many today. And this is so even though we have available today an unprecedented abundance of valuable editions and translations of patristic texts. The purpose of this book is, therefore, to put into the hands of the Christian of our time the key to these treasures.

The same key, this "praxis", by the way, opens the doors to other treasures as well, for instance of the liturgy, of art, and finally of theology also, in the original sense of this word as "speaking about God"--not on the basis of scientific study, but as the fruit of the most intimate familiarity.
The Lord's breast: the knowledge of God.
Whoever rests on it will be a theologian


[1] Cf. Mt 24:12.
[2] Cf. Gabriel Bunge, Akedia: Die geistliche Lehre des Evagrios Pontikos vom Überdruss, 4th ed. (Würzburg, 1995).
[3] Gen 1:27.
[4] 2 Cor 4:4.
[5] Gen 1:26.
[6] 1 Jn 3:2.
[7] 1 Cor 13:12.
[8] Ps 26:8 (LXX) = Ps 27:8 (RSV).
[9] Ps 79:4 (LXX) = Ps 80:3 (RSV).
[10] Origen, De Oratione 31, I.
[11] Evagrius, Ad Monachos 120 (Gressmann).

[This excerpt is from Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, described by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn as "a masterpiece of tradition-rooted guidance to the practice of prayer."

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Seeking Deep Conversion | From Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Near Death, Nearer to Jesus | An Interview with Fr. Benedict Groeschel
The Religion of Jesus | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest | Blessed Columba Marmion

Fr. Gabriel Bunge, O.S.B. is a Benedictine monk in Switzerland who has been living the eremitical life since 1980. He has contributed many articles to numerous spiritual and monastic journals.

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