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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
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"  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,  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
The Bible teaches that man was created "in the image of God",  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.  Man is destined,
however, to be the "image and likeness" of God.  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. 
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". 
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"  and asks that the Lord might "let his face
shine" upon him.  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. 
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
The Lord's breast: the knowledge of God.
Whoever rests on it will be a theologian
 Cf. Mt 24:12.
 Cf. Gabriel Bunge, Akedia: Die geistliche Lehre des Evagrios Pontikos
vom Überdruss, 4th ed. (Würzburg, 1995).
 Gen 1:27.
 2 Cor 4:4.
 Gen 1:26.
 1 Jn 3:2.
 1 Cor 13:12.
 Ps 26:8 (LXX) = Ps 27:8 (RSV).
 Ps 79:4 (LXX) = Ps 80:3 (RSV).
 Origen, De Oratione 31, I.
 Evagrius, Ad Monachos 120
[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."
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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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