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?


Four Hundred Texts on Love 22

Posted: May 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

79.  Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings. For the Lord has given us commandments which correspond to the powers of the soul.

This text is interesting to me on several levels. For those who don’t often engage with any aspect of the Christian ascetic disciplines, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer lie at their foundation. These are the disciplines discussed (and assumed considering his Jewish audience) by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the disciplines encountered again and again in the rest of the New Testament and in the writings of the Church. The earliest document of Christian liturgical practice that we have, the Didache, discusses these three disciplines.

In this text, St. Maximos is linking the disciplines to the effect they have, if practiced properly, on our soul. Almsgiving soothes and heals our soul’s inflammatory nature. It is true that wealth and the accumulation of material goods tends to excite and provoke us. We then tend to defend what we have and the means we employ to acquire more. Jesus spoke a great deal about the chains with which material wealth can bind us. It does follow then, that almsgiving, the practice of giving our money away, would begin to heal us. I had never really considered it in that light.

The goal of fasting is to give us mastery over our stomachs, and through that mastery, free us from domination by all the desires of our senses. Fasting has always made more sense to me in its Christian form than many of the other practices and disciplines.

I’m not sure I understand his statement about prayer. I grasp that prayer is our mystical connection with God and thus is the only true route for studying anything about God. So it makes sense, I guess, that as we turn our minds toward communion with God in constant prayer, that our intellect would be purified. Prayer to God cannot inhabit a mind that is turned from God. As we turn toward sin in our minds, we stop praying. As we start praying, we turn from sin.

I’m not sure what he means about preparing us for contemplation of created beings. Perhaps he means that a mind of prayer is prepared to see the created order as it actually is. A very interesting text, indeed.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 6

Posted: April 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 6

23.  He who loves God will certainly love his neighbor as well. Such a person cannot hoard money, but distributes it in a way befitting God, being generous to everyone in need.

24.  He who gives alms in imitation of God does not discriminate between the wicked and the virtuous, the just and the unjust, when providing for men’s bodily needs. He gives equally to all according to their need, even though he prefers the virtuous man to the bad man because of the probity of his intention.

Our love and our lack of love is very often demonstrated by what we choose to do with our money. Did not Jesus strongly warn us of precisely that reality? And not only should we give, but when providing for the bodily needs of another human being, we ought not discriminate between those we believe deserve our help and those who do not. I’m reminded by these texts that God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike. He gives good gifts to us all. He is a good God who loves mankind.

Once again, I’m not particularly good at this. I don’t think it’s greed, since I’ve had both nothing and plenty over the years and I still have no particular desire for money. It’s more comfortable to have enough than not to have enough. That’s true. But I don’t care that much about money itself. I think it’s often fear that drives me away from love. I’m afraid I won’t have enough. I’m afraid the money will be “wasted”. I’m not sure; perhaps it’s fear of many things.

Once again, we Christians are not particularly known in this country for our outrageous generosity. Many people in our country know we are supposed to love and we are supposed to be generous. Too many of the charges against us are true.

Lord have mercy.


The Didache 33 – Reprove One Another In Peace

Posted: July 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel. But to anyone that acts amiss against another, let no one speak, nor let him hear anything from you until he repents. But your prayers and alms and all your deeds so do, as you have it in the Gospel of our Lord.

Like the NT, the Teaching is still close enough to the Jewish roots of our faith that when we read “peace” we should hear the full resonance of “shalom”. So we reprove one another from the desire not for control nor even to achieve a cessation of hostility, but to restore the one we reprove to wholeness, to completeness, to fullness of life. If you speak in anger, however righteous your anger might be (or at least that you believe it to be) you can never accomplish that goal.

I have nothing against tolerance. It is certainly immensely better than the intolerance that plagues mankind. It is better by far to politely tip your hat to the other from across the room than it is to treat the other as something less than human, which is where intolerance always ends. Yet, while infinitely better than intolerance and hatred, tolerance is not love. It will not bring shalom to the other. Tolerance is not evil, but it is weak. Love is both good and strong.

But love is also exceedingly hard. For to love, you must sacrifice yourself. You must make yourself lower than the beloved. You must pour yourself out into the vessel of the other. And that is risky for you can never know the results in advance. You might be hurt. You might be rejected. You might be used.

You might be crucified.

And yet the command Jesus gave us was to love others as he loves us. And whereever we turn in the Holy Scriptures or in Christian writing and teaching, we can never escape the admonition to obey his commands. We see it here again.

I’m lousy at speaking the words to people that I think they might need to hear and acting to help them live them out. Part of my problem is that I have a hard time taming anger in tense or difficult situations. Another part is that I don’t like tense situations at all. Both of those flow from very early formation and though I have made considerable progress on the former — “I’m better than I used to be!” — the latter is unlikely to change.

I understand the concept of gentle reproof flowing from a desire to bring shalom back into the life of another. It took a long time for me to reach that point, but I believe I do finally understand the picture. I don’t see any way I could actually do it. At least not as I am today. Perhaps through the grace and healing of our Lord Jesus Christ, I might someday be the sort of person who could. But I’m gradually learning to lie less to myself about who and what I am. And I am not yet that person.


The Didache 9 – Sweaty Alms

Posted: June 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 9 – Sweaty Alms

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And also concerning this, it has been said, Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give.

Do you have the money for your alms identified? Does it “sweat” while you wait for the Spirit to show you to whom to give the money?

Or are you more like me, thinking about giving less that I should? I’m a long way from the point where I could say that my alms sweat in my hands. And I’m certainly no expert on listening to God. But I think this statement in the teaching really drives home the earthiness and immediacy of what it means to give. It is not some abstract transaction.

I pray for sweaty alms. And I fear that my prayer might be answered.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 5

Posted: May 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 5

As my efforts to understand this Christian faith within which I found myself continued, I kept reading both the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings from the first millenium. Nowhere could I find a change from the core communal practices of fasting, set prayer, and care for the sick and poor (at the very least through almsgiving). Other spiritual disciplines and practices were refined over the centuries, certainly.  But those, which seemed to flow directly from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (which is recorded historically from the late first century and early second century as being the first gospel written), always seemed to form part of the core of the life of the Church. (We won’t discuss Eucharist and Liturgy right now.) There continued to be a monumental disconnect between the church of Scripture and the entire first millenium and what I personally saw and experienced around me.

In an entirely separate journey from my own, my mother converted to Roman Catholicism. She was and is heavily involved with the Carmelites. Somewhere along the way, she shared Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God with me. If you’ve never read or listened to that book (audio is online from several sources), I highly recommend it. Brother Lawrence greatly influenced me and continues to influence my practice of the faith today. Moreover, he is an early modern practical mystic who has much the flavor of the ancient writers I was struggling to connect to the present day church. In order to connect the dots in the middle, I began to explore ecclesial medieval history in the West. I already knew a lot of the non-ecclesial history of Western Europe from the fall of the city of Rome through the medieval period. I didn’t even realize there was this huge gap in my knowledge until I began to explore it. What happened to the Western or Latin Church after the fall of the city of Rome and the rise of Islam drove a wedge between the eastern and western church?

As Rome declined and fell, the order it had imposed in the West gradually vanished. (The Roman Empire, shifted to the capital of Constantinople, continued in the East until the 13th century, of course.) No surprise there. And no real surprise in the work done in the monastic communities preserving the ancient works and serving as centers of light and order. What I saw by looking directly at the church, though, was that during this period more and more of the activities, such as fasting, that had been the work and practice of the whole church, came to be seen as largely more centered in the monastic calling. Rather than being an expression of the fullness of the Christian life to which all believers are called (well, except for celibacy), the monastic calling came to be seen as a higher calling, a different calling, following a different rule of life. And as this happened over time, the practice of the “laity” doing things like consistently and broadly observing the rule of prayer and fasting began to decline. One rule of faith developed for the laity while a different rule of faith developed for monastics.

Then, of course, at the Reformation, many such practices that were deemed too “Roman” by the reformers were simply discarded and a rule of individual choice of discipline and spiritual practice — which quickly devolved into very little actual practice at all — began to replace them all. That which the Reformation began, the Radical Reformation with its deep iconoclasm (an ancient first millenium heresy) soon completed. The Christian church in the West, by and large, became focused purely on the “spiritual” and began to treat the body and the “natural” mind as though they were divorced in some odd way from a person’s body.

I did eventually run into Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines which seeks to correct some of that decline. And his work helped me at least understand the disciplines in a modern context better than I ever had before. And though he writes at length about fasting (which I may explore on the blog at some point), I never actually adopted the practice for myself even though I agreed in theory with everything he wrote.

That’s the first sign of the truth behind my confession at the start of this series. By this point, I knew that fasting and prayer were deeply embedded and intertwined in the practice of Christianity from its very beginning. I knew it was likely an essential spiritual discipline. Yet I did not even try to fast, even in the clumsiest of fashions.

In the next in this series, I’ll close the loop of this journey with the last bit of knowledge about current Christian practice that I was still missing.