Ancient – Present Prayer

17 07 2011

“Remember God more often than you breathe”, says St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389). Prayer is more essential to us, more an integral part of ourselves, than the rhythm of our breathing or the beating of our heart. Without prayer there is no life. Prayer is our nature. As human persons we are created for prayer just as we are created to speak and to think. The human animal is best defined, not as a logical or tool-making animal or an animal that laughs, but rather as an animal that prays, a eucharistic animal, capable of offering the world back to God in thanksgiving and intercession.

I hope the preceding and subsequent quotes from Kallistos Ware on prayer stir your heart and soul as much as they have stirred mine. These comments come from his introduction to a little prayer book that is a translation of Greek liturgical manuscripts from the late 700’s (which means the prayers are much older than that, as they would have been in use several centuries before being written down).

Ware is speaking as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but I find his comments “spot on” and applicable to believers across most denominations. Also, he reminds us why the prayers of the early church ought to be a regular part of our praying.

This next comment describes how the Incarnation should guide and shape our prayer life:

Orthodoxy recognises no sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, every aspect of our daily life and work is blessed by the Church and so brought within the realm of divine grace. As Christians we are necessarily materialists; ours is an incarnate faith, earthy, rooted in this world. Thus our Orthodox service books contain prayers for sowing, threshing, and wine-making, for diseased sheep or cattle, for blessing cars, tractors, and fishing nets, for insomnia, for children starting to learn the alphabet or students taking their examinations. In the older editions there are even rites for cursing caterpillars and removing dead rats from the bottom of a well. Jesus Christ at his human birth took upon himself our whole nature — body, soul and spirit — and so he is rightly involved in everything we do. We meet him everywhere.

Ware points out four themes that forcefully emerge from praying with the ancient prayers of the church: Mystery, the Trinity, Community, and Mission.

  1. The [ancient] prayers are marked by a strong sense of God’s holiness and mystery, by a spirit of reverence and wonder. We approach the living God “in fear and trembling”, “in love and awe”. . . . [The one who prays] feels the nearness as well as the otherness of God. Transcendent, ineffable, he is also at the core of everything, closer to us than our own heart, “everywhere present and filling all things”, as we say to the Holy Spirit in an invocation at the start of each service.
  2. [The ancient prayers are] deeply Trinitarian. “Between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice”, says the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky. The threefold invocation, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, with which each prayer concludes, is not an optional extra but sums up the very essence of our prayer. We do not simply address God, but explicitly or implicitly we always pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. To pray is to be taken up into a network of relationships, an interpersonal dialogue, that exists within God himself. As we pray we hear the Father say not to Christ only but also to ourselves, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11); and by the power of the Spirit we respond in union with Christ, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6), becoming sons in the Son. So through prayer we are assumed into the perichoresis, the mutual love or “round dance” of the Trinity. God as Trinity is the source and end-point of all our prayer.
  3. All prayer is communal – prayer of the total family, of the entire Church invisible as well as visible. Prayer is our entry to the communion of saints. [The Lord’s prayer and all the ancient prayers use “our” and “we”, never “mine” and “me”.] … The Christian is the one who says not “I” but “we”. Prayer is “heaven on earth”. . . . This does not diminish the love that we feel for Christ our Saviour, “the one mediator between God and humans” (1 Timothy 2:5), but renders him all the closer to us.
  4. In prayer we do not think only in vertical terms about the Church in glory and the communion of saints, but we also think horizontally about our involvement with the rest of humankind. . . . [Portions of these ancient prayers] form an all-important reminder that the Church is by its very nature missionary, outward-looking, existing not for itself but for the sake of the world.

    This last comment speaks to the purpose and goal of prayer. Read the last sentence at least 3 times—and let it really sink in.

    “Pray without ceasing”, says St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:17); and the Russian Orthodox Fr. Georges Florovsky writes: “A Christian has to feel himself personally in the presence of God. The goal of prayer is precisely to be with God always.” I hope that the prayers in this book, designed for the different hours of the day, will help us in small but significant ways to do exactly that: to be with God always, to make our prayer, not just an intermittent activity, but a dimension present continually in all that we undertake– not simply something that we do from time to time, but something that we are the whole time. For this is what the world around us needs: not that we should say prayers occasionally, but that we should be at each moment a living flame of payer.

      (From Kallistos Ware’s forward in Praying with the Orthodox Tradition)

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23 11 2013
SATURDAY EDITION | Byz Pulpit

[…] Ancient – Present Prayer – Rich Wollan […]

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