Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 41

Posted: May 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 41

87.  Humility consists in constant prayer combined with tears and suffering. For this ceaseless calling upon God for help prevents us from foolishly growing confident in our own strength and wisdom, and from putting ourselves above others. These are dangerous diseases of the passion of pride.

We constantly “put ourselves above others.” It hardly even matters what group we are or are not in. In every human social context, we define those who are in our group over and usually against those who are not. And if we are capable within that context, we more easily fall victim to pride. But we also don’t perceive ourselves accurately and can be prideful when an outside observer might believe that pride unwarranted. Humility is a hard thing. We have difficulty humbling ourselves, but it is painful when we are humiliated by external forces. It strikes me as a dangerous thing to pray for humility. God, after all, might answer that prayer and grant our request.


How to Speak of God

Posted: March 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on How to Speak of God

In this post, I plan to continue the train of thought I began in Speaking Carefully About God and explore how we then should speak of God. I’m not an expert in any way, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. These are just some of the thoughts and ideas I have developed over the years — many of them the result of things I have heard and read from multiple sources.

I want to begin with perhaps the central Christian truth when it comes to describing God in human language. Nothing we say or think can ever truly describe God. Our God, the only uncreated and the one in whom and through whom all creation subsists, so far transcends us we cannot truly know him. We lack the capacity. That’s the central reason the Word, the only begotten Son, became human — to join God’s nature to our human nature so we would have a means through him to know and commune with God.

And that’s fine with me. A God my mind could compass would be too small a God for me to ever worship. But the fact that God so utterly transcends us means we must be exceedingly cautious in the way we describe him.

And thus Christians have developed a way of speaking apophatically about God. It’s really not that difficult. Every time we find ourselves saying or reading a description of God, we must always keep in mind that as much as that description may help us say something about God, at the same time the description so utterly fails to capture the fullness of our God, that we could also say that God is not like that at all.

For instance, we say that God is love. In fact, it’s a positive statement about God taken straight from the Holy Scriptures. This is not some attribute of God; it’s a statement about his very essence. And it’s important that we understand this truth for when we say that God is love we exclude many false descriptions of God — some of which, unfortunately, seem to be popular today.

Nevertheless, we also must then say that God’s love is not like any love we’ve ever known. It’s utterly pure and unending. God’s love knows no conditions and no bounds. God is love and that transcendent love binds creation together and at the same time is so intimately personal that God is with me, around me, and within me filling every breath I take and every beat of my heart. It’s love without condemnation, but a love so fierce it can also be described as a consuming fire. If the image I have in mind of love is any that I’ve known, then I’m forced to say God is not that sort of love at all. So in that sense, God is not love.

And the same is true of anything else we might say. Jesus gave us a prayer in which we call God Father, but if, when we do that, we have in mind our father or any other father we’ve known, that image will lead us astray. Whatever sort of father we had, good or bad, our fathers are all still human. They still have failings and limitations. God is not like that at all. So we must also say that he is not Father in the way we have known fathers.

If we lose that tension and the caution it brings to the images and words we use to speak and consider God, we will inevitably distort our understanding of God in some way. When I find myself saying something about God, I try to remind myself that my description inevitably falls so short of the reality of God that it’s almost as false as it is true.

In and through Christ, we can however mystically know God. We can receive him. We can commune with God. We have access to the sort of knowledge that transcends language. In that sense, it’s not so very different from knowing another human being. We don’t get to know someone by learning a bunch of facts about them — even if those facts are true and accurate. We get to know others by spending time with them, by talking with them, and through shared experience. And so it is with God. Even though he utterly transcends our knowledge, yet we can still know him.

In my final post on this topic, I’ll discuss the Trinity. For whenever we speak of the Christian God, we must always speak in a triune manner.


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.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 21

Posted: March 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 21

50.  Through genuine love for God we can drive out the passions. Love for God is this: to choose Him rather than the world, and the soul rather than the flesh, by despising the things of this world and by devoting ourselves constantly to Him through self-control, love, prayer, psalmody and so on.

Love heals and true love for the God who is love can heal any passion which holds us in bondage. Do I devote myself constantly to God? Hardly. I tend to be lousy at the practice of loving others (which is inseparable from loving God). I don’t feel any closer to unceasing prayer or “prayer of the heart” and struggle even to maintain my small prayer rule. I’m not even sure how I would recognize progress. Nevertheless, I keep choosing God each day. Love draws me like a moth to flame. Love may be a consuming fire, but it’s also irresistible.


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 (Third Century) 20

Posted: March 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

48.  As has been said many times, in everything we do God examines our motive, to see whether we are doing it for His sake or for some other purpose. Thus when we desire to do something good, we should not do it for the sake of popularity; we should have God as our goal, so that, with our gaze always fixed on Him, we may do everything for His sake. Otherwise we shall undergo all the trouble of performing the act and yet lose the reward.

This text rephrases as a more general statement what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. If you do anything for the sake of public recognition, the recognition we receive is the only reward we’ll receive from the act. It won’t fundamentally change us. It won’t make us more like Christ. It won’t heal us. God allows us to choose the paltry reward of fleeting acclaim from others if that’s what we desire.


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.