Why Do We Pray? 6 – Intercessory Prayer

Posted: March 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 6 – Intercessory Prayer

At this point in my series, the question that should arise in any reader’s mind is a straightforward one. How does intercessory prayer fit into everything I’ve attempted to describe? It’s a good question and I think it’s one every person who deeply thinks about Christian prayer must face at some point. And it’s a question which, if answered too facilely, ends up painting a pretty ugly picture of God. I think John, the commenter on the opening post of this series, expressed one such objection well.

“So somehow God is going to help me get through a situation or make an outcome better while people are dying and struggling with things that are way more important than my nerves when speaking in public.”

Indeed. A God like that is capricious, weak, or even evil. It’s certainly not a God I would care to worship.

But we also can’t escape the role intercessory prayer has always played in Christianity. It’s deeply embedded in our spiritual DNA. We pray individually for the needs of others. We offer intercessions corporately in liturgy. Christianity has a sacrament of holy unction or healing. We believe the saints, living and reposed, pray with us and for us, interceding on our behalf. We are instructed to pray for one another and we are told those prayers are effective.

And indeed, our tradition is rich with stories of such effective prayers, both the mundane and the wonderful. It’s hard to find a Christian who would say they have never experienced an answered prayer.

So how do we resolve that tension? Before I offer my thoughts, I feel it’s important to note that these are just my current ideas. I make no guarantee I’ll think the same way tomorrow, though these thoughts have developed over the years and seem relatively unlikely to change dramatically at this point. Others may find them helpful or they may not. I will say that I think it’s more important to actually pray than to necessarily understand why we pray. With that disclaimer, I’ll proceed.

In order to explore this question, I’ll have to start by reflecting back on past things I’ve written about the nature of human beings and what Christians label “sin.” It’s a tenet of Christian faith that God created man in his image. Creation was not shaped from some pre-existing eternal stuff. Only the uncreated God is eternal, that is has always existed and will always exist. Of course, sometimes when we say that God created ex nihilo, or out of nothing, we don’t pause to ask, “From where did that nothing come?” The perfect God of self-sufficient and overflowing love somehow made room for a creation that, while filled and sustained by God, nevertheless is not God. When you think about it deeply, it’s pretty mind-boggling.

And the human being, at the apex of that creation (or at least the piece that forms our planet), was created with a nature intended to image God into that creation. When we choose to image something else into creation, we call that sin. And while sometimes the effects of sin are obviously causal and related, I have suggested elsewhere that’s not always the case. We do not and perhaps cannot perceive the way our choice to image something else into the fabric of creation distorts and damages it. We do not perceive all the ripples and all the changes.

Moreover, we are not isolated beings. Christianity, in fact, teaches that we are more tightly interwoven through our shared nature than we usually comprehend. That’s why, when the Word assumed our nature and mortality, the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection had universal effect. Jesus defeated death and freed us from its bondage. He changed the nature of humanity, which changed all human beings. We see ourselves as separate and independent, but we are less so than we believe.

One of the deep dangers we face every day is the temptation to look at another human being and see ourselves as somehow separate and perhaps even better. We see that truth revealed in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. But it’s not only when we look on the other with pride that we are mistaken, but sometimes also when we look on the other with compassion. We look at another and say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and perhaps we even try to help. But the truth is we are all bound together in everything we suffer and we have all contributed in some way, even unaware, to that suffering. This is so deeply true and embedded in our faith that it is perhaps better to look at our brother or sister and simply acknowledge, “There go I.”

Prayer, then, especially intercessory prayer, is in some sense the opposite of sin. To the extent we are able to align our wills with God’s and begin to image God into creation as we were intended to do, we join God in the healing of creation rather than its destruction. I’m always reminded of the image from Revelation, “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Sometimes we may see what appears to be a causal relationship. (We pray for someone and they receive that for which we have prayed.) Other times we may not see any direct effect. In this sense, intercessory prayer subverts sin and heals the damage we have collectively caused to the fabric of creation.

When I think of intercessory prayer (and sin for that matter), I often think of the butterfly effect. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it comes from chaos theory. In precise language it describes a sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Basically, it’s capturing the idea that a small change in one area of a non-linear system can create a large difference in a later state of the system. The classic example from which the name is derived is that the formation of a hurricane could be contingent on a butterfly fluttering its wings weeks earlier and a continent away.

I think the whole of creation, spiritual and material, can certainly be described as a non-linear system, so it seems like an apt metaphor. At least, it helps me place intercessory prayer in a context in which it makes some sense to me. It may be less helpful to others.


Why Do We Pray? 5 – Communion

Posted: March 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

What if we asked what prayer is rather than trying to focus on what prayer does?

That’s a different sort of question, isn’t it? And perhaps as we understand something more about the essence of Christian prayer, it’s activity will become a little clearer.

So what is prayer?

I would like to suggest that Christian prayer is a mystical connection with God. Now mystical is a word with all sorts of layered meanings in our culture. I use it in the sense of something that has a spiritual meaning that goes beyond our human understanding. In prayer, we step directly into the unmediated presence of God. We are communicating (a word with an intriguing etymology) with God and God with us.

Now, that’s not to imply any particular sort of feeling or experience — which is often what people think when they hear the word mystical. In truth, we may feel nothing. We may not recognize the connection. We may feel our prayers go no higher than the ceiling (which begs the question, of course, of why we feel our prayers need to go anywhere). But if God has an independent, transcendent reality and if prayer is in fact a direct means of interacting with God, then this happens in our prayer whether we feel anything or not.

And that, of course, makes sense of the often repeated instruction to Christians to pray without ceasing. If we were able to open our nous or receptive mind so it is always aware of God, then the mystical connection of prayer would never be broken. Of course, that is easier said than done and in order to move in that direction, we must practice a discipline of prayer — a rule of prayer.

We don’t primarily pray to change God (as if we could), to change ourselves, or to establish a religious community of faith marked by its common practice. No, we pray to grow in communion with God. Now, that process will undeniably change us. And as we grow in communion with God, we will grow in communion with other human beings — which is more than mere fellowship or community. But those are effects of growing in communion with God, of training our nous to be open and directed at God; they are not the purpose of prayer.

In some ways, it is like communication between spouses. Yes, there’s a level at which I talk to my wife and she talks to me just to share information and organize our lives. But on a deeper level, we speak and communicate with each other so that we might grow in communion with each other — so that we might become, in some sense, one. My wife sometimes complains in frustration that she hardly understands me at all, but in truth she knows me better than any other human being. Sometimes she knows me better than I know myself.

Though the metaphor may be strained, prayer is still something very much like that deeper communication between spouses. Of course, God already knows us through and through, but we often do not know God. We do not usually commune with God. Prayer gives us that direct connection to know God as much as we can bear. But to do that, we must pray, and we often do not want to pray at all.

Pray anyway.

As much as you can. As often as you can. To the extent that you can. An attempt to pray, to adhere to a rule of prayer, is better than not praying, even if it seems like God is a million miles away.

Somewhere along the journey, prayer must also involve learning to listen. For the connection of prayer is two-way. If you are connected to God, you have made yourself open to God. If our organ of prayer is our nous, or receptive mind, then we inevitably open our heart to that toward which we direct it.

How will God communicate with you? I can’t say, because I don’t believe there is any rule or constraint. Some hear an almost audible voice. I have at times heard a gentle, inner whisper. Often it may be an understanding.

How do you tell the difference between God’s communication and your own inner voice? That’s a good question and we see frequent examples of situations in which people have almost certainly confused the two. We lie to ourselves so facilely and thoroughly that it’s easy to believe we are communing and hearing from God, when in fact the “god” in question is ourselves.

I have no answer. The only thing I can say is pray and grow in communion with God. If you do, you will learn to know his voice.


Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

Posted: March 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

If we are not primarily seeking to change God or change ourselves when we engage in Christian prayer, perhaps we pray to establish common ground amongst ourselves and form a community? This facet is probably less visible or recognized in low church evangelical settings of individual “spontaneous” prayer, but traditionally Christians have recited prayers and creeds together in worship. Moreover, individual prayer has also revolved around set prayers at particular intervals during the day.

Praying as the church does, in fact, serve to bind us together. Set prayers help create and maintain a common ground of practice and expressed belief. That’s pretty evident and is hardly unique to Christianity. It flowed into Christian practice directly from Judaism. In Daniel and elsewhere in the OT, we see the practice of a set rhythm of prayer. We know that first century Jews prayed the Psalms together at set intervals and had other prayers they prayed. When Jesus’ followers asked him for a prayer, he gave them one to recite together. We see the Church and apostles in Acts continuing the rhythm of set prayers.

And we see the same practice in other religions. Muslims engage in communal prayer five times daily. Buddhist and Hindu worshipers will gather and chant together in prayer. The act helps shape your identity as a member of particular community of worship. And it can identify you to others. We share these prayers and practices. That recognition creates an almost instant connection or bond.

I don’t deny that the practice of communal prayer, corporately and individually, can help create community. It’s an effect of our Christian practice of prayer, but I hesitate to call this effect the purpose. Again, if that were true, there would be little to distinguish Christian prayer from that of some of the other religions. Moreover, there are many ways to mark a group as a community of shared belief and practice. If this were the purpose of prayer, then it’s just one such practice among many, and of no lesser or greater importance.

But that’s not the sense I get from the New Testament or the writings of the Church. Prayer is seen as vital and of the utmost importance. Why? That’s the question I think we must answer.


Why Do We Pray? 3 – To Change Ourselves?

Posted: March 7th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I want to make a distinction on this point. It’s true that devoting ourselves to a rule of prayer will almost certainly change us. Even the act of making space in our lives for such a rule of necessity alters the rhythm of our days. On the other hand, I’m not willing to say that’s the purpose of Christian prayer rather than simply one of its effects.

Why am I making that distinction? I think, at least in part, it’s because I’ve followed many sorts of spiritual practices over the years, from Hindu meditation to tarot to transcendental meditation to various forms of power visualization. When you adopt any sort of spiritual practice, it of necessity shapes and changes you.

In some ways, it’s like adopting a physical regimen of exercise or practice. If you swim every day, you will generally become a better swimmer. If you lift weights, you will tend to become stronger. If you run, you will eventually become a runner. If you practice the regimen of P90X (first or second version) as my younger son has done for years, that regimen will shape your body.

There are Christian disciplines specifically designed to change us. Fasting, for instance, helps break the grip of the physical passions while almsgiving helps break the grip of the more pervasive and destructive passions like greed and envy.

But I don’t think that’s the central purpose of prayer, otherwise some form of Christian meditation would suffice. No, I believe prayer has a deeper purpose, one I’ll pursue in subsequent posts.

Thoughts?


Why Do We Pray? 2 – To Change God?

Posted: March 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 2 – To Change God?

It’s an interesting question when you think about it. As Christians, do we pray in order to change God’s mind or actions about something? Sometimes, I think it can seem that way. We may not want to express it that bluntly, but in practice is that not often the case?

However, I perceive several issues with that train of thought. First, that was the purpose of prayer to many ancient gods. A prayer would often begin with many flowery titles for the god — trying to gain the god’s attention in a positive way. The request would be repeated over and over in an attempt to make sure the god heard it. We’re actually explicitly told by Jesus in the Gospels that we are not to pray in that manner. We are told God knows what we all need and that he hears all our prayers. We don’t need to appease him or gain his attention.

Moreover, if I can change the attitude of God toward something or someone, then that necessarily implies that someone else might be able to change God’s attitude toward me. Think about that one for a minute. I don’t think we really want a changeable god.

God is faithful and consistent. He treats us all with love. Period. God doesn’t change, though we do.

Finally, it seems to me that a God who can be changed by our prayers is too small a God to be worth worshiping.  In the prayer Jesus gave us, we ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is heaven. Certainly we are to participate in bringing that prayer to fruition, but we are not trying to change God in that prayer. We are asking to change creation.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed by the they name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
Amen.

 


Why Do We Pray? 1 – Series Intro

Posted: February 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

Sometime last fall, a blog I follow published a poll asking respondents why we pray. (I think it was Tony Jones, but it’s been long enough that I’m not certain.) If I recall correctly, the poll provided two answers: we pray to change God or we pray to change ourselves. Ever since then the question, “Why do we pray?” has been bouncing around my head. My thoughts aren’t really about the poll in question. I don’t even remember the results or any discussion about it. That was just the trigger for my own musings.

In this series, I hope to approach the question from several different angles. If you’re reading this and had a question about Christian prayer, please share it in the comments. I’m interested in the questions and thoughts others may have.


The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

Posted: June 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

I’ll conclude my series of reflections on Khouria Frederica’s book with this reflection on the path thoughts take to pull us away from prayer. The fathers identify stages such thoughts take.

1. Provocation. Provoking thoughts can arise from our subconscious or whispered by other powers. They can appear blasphemous, evil, or even noble and good. If blasphemous, we might wonder how we could think such a thing, which is always a good indication that it may not be your own thought. The fathers consistently advise us to ignore provoking thoughts. Don’t try to argue with them or agree with them. Keep praying.

2. Interaction. Of course, we don’t usually do that. Instead, we engage the thought. Our nous turns from God and begins to consider the thought instead. The thought has a foot in the door. The fathers advise crying out to God for help. Wrap your nous in the Jesus Prayer.

3. Consent. “At this point, the nous has become intoxicated with the thought and embraces it. A sign of this stage is that the nous becomes absorbed in gazing at an image or playing out a fantasy.” It’s at this point, when we have consented to an image or fantasy, that we become responsible for sin as Jesus warns, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

4. Captivity. With consent, the ability to resist the thought begins to crumble. At some point, it will be put into action.

5. Passion. After repeatedly consenting, we no longer have the ability to use our will to resist. The thought appears and we act without resistance. It has become something we suffer, similar to a compulsion or addiction. We are ruled by it. Jesus came to heal us and set us free. Without spiritual healing, we are helpless.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.


The Jesus Prayer 25 – Forgiveness

Posted: June 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 25 – Forgiveness

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Last week I briefly posted on love of enemies, one of the most difficult aspects of Christianity. Today, Khouria Frederica answers a question on the topic. How can I forgive someone if I’m afraid they’ll do it again? She notes that people often confuse forgiveness with vulnerability, but they are very different things. When we forgive, we let go of our desire for vengeance, which we often call justice. We may have been genuinely wronged and the one who wronged us owes us a debt. We release them from that debt. That frees us more than it frees them. We are the ones keeping track of the wrongs. Often the one who wronged us is not. We are expending energy, not them.

But that does not necessarily mean that we continue to make ourselves vulnerable to that person in the future. If they have acted in a dehumanizing way toward us in the past and we reasonably believe they will continue to do so in the future, it is not loving to allow someone to dehumanize themselves and us.

You are never required to allow someone to hurt or abuse you, physically or emotionally, and in a case like that, permitting abuse could make you an enabler and partner in that sin.

Someone also asked Frederica how we can love an enemy who wishes to kill us and destroy our country. She responds much as Fr. Stephen did in the podcast I linked in my post last week. She also includes a long quote from St. Nikolai Velimirovic (AD 1881-1956). I’m going to include the entire quote. I found it helpful. Given recent events, it could easily be applied to someone like bin Laden.

He is a man; do not rejoice in his fall. He is your brother; let not your heart leap for joy when he stumbles. God created him for life, and God does not rejoice in his fall. And you also, do not rejoice at that which grieves God. When a man falls, God loses; do you rejoice in the loss of your Creator, of your Parent? When the angels weep, do you rejoice?

When your enemy falls, pray to God for him, that God will save him; and give thanks to God that you did not fall in the same manner. You are of the same material, both you and he, like two vessels from the hand of the potter. If one vessel breaks, should the other smile and rejoice? Behold, the small stone that broke that vessel only waits for someone’s hand to raise it to destroy this vessel also. Both vessels are of the same material, and a small stone can destroy a hundred vessels.

When one sheep is lost, should the rest of the flock rejoice? No, they should not. For behold, the shepherd leaves his flock and, being concerned, goes to seek the lost sheep. The shepherd’s loss is the flock’s loss too. Therefore, do not rejoice when your enemy falls, for your Shepherd and his Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, does not rejoice in his fall.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Thou Good Shepherd, remove malicious joy from our hearts, and in its place plant compassion and brotherly love. To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.

I do not pretend there is anything easy about forgiveness and love of enemies. People hurt us. They often hurt us deeply. I have been hurt and I’m sure I’ve hurt others. I do not pretend that I’m any good at forgiveness and love. But I can perceive their beauty, even if dimly. Ultimately, if anything draws me to Christ, it’s this. On my better days, I want to love. But even on my worst days, I want to want to love. And I think that’s at least a start.


The Jesus Prayer 24 – Spiritual Pride

Posted: April 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica answers a number of questions in her book that explore the differences between the practice of the Jesus Prayer and some of the practices and goals of Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. I think many people might find those sections helpful. They are, in my estimation, as well done as everything else in the book. I’m skipping past them in my own personal reflections, though, because I’m reasonably familiar with those religions and that perspective, and don’t really suffer any confusion. The differences between those religions and, once I began to understand it, Christianity, have always been apparent to me.

Can someone fall into delusion, even though trying sincerely to practice the Jesus Prayer?

That’s a serious question and the short answer is telling.

Only if spiritual pride seeps in, so be on guard against it.

Pride is subtle, though, and we easily deceive ourselves. Are we seeking Jesus or are we seeking spiritual power? I never assume the former is true. After all these years, I know myself better than that. Khouria Frederica shares an excellent quote from St. Macarius of Egypt.

This is the mark of Christianity: however much a man toils, and however many acts of righteousness he performs, to feel that he has done nothing; in fasting to say, “This is not fasting,” and in praying, “This is not prayer,” and in perseverance at prayer, “I have shown no perseverance; I am only just beginning to practice and to take pains”; and even if he is righteous before God, he should say, “I am not righteous, not I; I do not take pains, but only make a beginning every day.”

Humility, though, doesn’t really fit in our culture. We carry within us the image of the self-sufficient and self-made American. We are bombarded with images and messages that promote pride. Even when we’re embarrassed, it’s often pride that shows up as anger or hurt feelings.

The kind of person Christ will make of you is the kind of person our culture does not even notice, much less admire.

Love for enemies is one of the main tests for true humility. Quoting St. Silouan:

The Lord is meek and humble, and loves his creatures. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is humble love for enemies and prayer for the whole world.

If a spiritual manifestation or encounter produces anything else, I would question whether or not it is the Holy Spirit.


The Jesus Prayer 23 – The Third Stage of the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 23 – The Third Stage of the Jesus Prayer

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

For this section, Khouria Frederica continues to draw from a treatise, About the Jesus Prayer and the Lord’s Grace,  by Archbishop Anthony Golynsky-Mihailovsky (AD 1889-1976). The third stage is described as follows.

The third level, according to Abp. Anthony, is Mental-Heart Active Prayer, and in it the mind prays within the heart; “the entire inner man prays.” The site where attention rests “appears naturally in the depth of the breast, in the region of the heart.” It is still “active” because the person still follows her own will sometimes, God’s will other times; her whole being has not yet been united in the service of God.

It’s at this stage, when the active mind engages with the perceiving nous, that the extent of the threads of evil and sin within ourselves begins to become apparent. Our minds begin to find and expose the deep roots of the compulsions which drive us. When we work through those battles and corresponding confrontations with the evil one, the mind becomes free to descend into the heart. Abp. Anthony writes:

The Lord Himself, residing in the heart secretly up to this point, starts dwelling openly and with the full authority in this shelter that was destined for Him from the very beginning, and rests there on his throne.

Khouria Frederica writes that the next three levels or stages that Abp. Anthony describes are beyond her comprehension. That means they are certainly beyond mine as well. These three beginning stages may well take years or decades, though, and are more than enough to keep us occupied.