Who Am I?

Praying with the Church 8 – How the Roman Catholics Pray with the Church

Posted: July 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 8 – How the Roman Catholics Pray with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

Before I start writing my thoughts on this chapter, I’ll note there is an online site with the English text of at least some of the Liturgy of the Hours, including readings. Since I’ve never seen the printed version, I have no idea how complete it is. But there’s certainly quite a bit here:  http://www.ebreviary.com/

The Roman Catholic tradition of praying with the church has been deeply shaped by the Rule of St. Benedict from the fifth and sixth century, shaping the monastic order of that tradition. At the heart of his rule lies the hours of prayer also called “offices”. The full rhythm of the hours of prayer stand in “protest against the busyness of a world enthralled by work and money and the relentless pursuit of the time clock. Here, in contrast, we find a day punctuated by prayer and worship.” That image reminds me of the C.S. Lewis observation that only lazy people are busy. We are naturally “lazy” and unwilling to order our lives by the rhythms of God. Set prayers and readings help us in this regard.

He then explores the details of Benedict’s rule. The Liturgy of the Hours has more explicit offices than any other. The day begins at midnight with Vigil or Matins, which is the Office of Readings. This office focuses on readings from the great writings of the church. Next is the morning prayer or Lauds, which can be done anytime between 6AM- 11AM. Next, though it’s generally not used anymore, was Prime somewhere between 6AM-7AM. Next comes Terce, the midmorning prayer, at 9AM. This is followed by Sext, the midday prayer, at noon. None (Italian — rhymes with tone), the midafternoon prayer, is at 3PM. Vespers, the evening prayer, can take place anytime between 3PM and 6PM. And finally there is Compline, the Night Prayer, before retiring for the evening.

Of course, the full set of offices are designed for monastics and it is generally not possible for a non-monastic to routinely follow all the hours, though certainly recommended at special times or during a retreat. As with all traditions, the base of the Liturgy are the morning and evening prayers (Lauds and Vespers). Sometimes lay persons can incorporate other of the hours into their daily rhythms, but those two lie at the heart.

The full liturgy of the hours is a four volume work. This is often called the Breviary. A shorter, one volume version is called Christian Prayer. The basis of the Roman Catholic prayer book, as with all prayer books, are the Psalms. And the other prayers are some of the best prayers penned by centuries of Christ followers. Mary figures prominently, of course. But we (as Protestants) need to deal with the scriptural fact that Mary herself prophesied that future generations would call her blessed. And we don’t do enough to give thanks to the most important woman in church history, the mother of Jesus.

The Liturgy of the Hours is the most complete prayer book in the history of the Church. However, that very fact also makes it the most complex. Scot relates his own personal story with the Breviary. He struggled with it for some time, but never could quite unravel how to use it. Then one day, on a flight, he sat next to a young woman who pulled out a “green book filled with ribbons and small bookmarks, stuff hanging out and other things falling out.” Scot recognized the book as a volume of the Liturgy of the Hours for Ordinary Time. Having struggled with its complexity, Scot asked her to explain it to him. She did the best she could in their short time together and at least got him oriented. And so he recommends, if you really want to learn how to use a prayer book of any tradition, find someone who already uses it and ask them to teach you.

Scot then provides an example of one session of morning prayer (lauds). The prayer begins with the Invitatory (“Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise”) and Psalm 95 (which is prayed every morning) and then moved to Week I, Monday morning prayer, and said (or sang) a hymn, most of Psalm 5, and a short prayer about that psalm. Then he was invited to pray 1 Chronicles 29:10-13, Psalm 29, and another short prayer. Next he was directed to recite 2 Thessalonians 3:10-13, say a short responsory prayer, then (as for each morning) the Canticle of Zechariah from Luke 1. The morning session ends, as it does each day, with some intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”), and then two concluding prayers. This takes about 15 minutes and everything is said or sung out loud. If you followed the full hours, the entire Psalter is recited every month.

Throughout the chapter, Scot has a lot of excerpts from the Liturgy of the Hours, discussion of some of the simpler prayer books drawn from it, and quotes and writings about famous Christians shaped by the Hours. It’s neat to read.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 20

Posted: July 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 20

52. The intellect joined to God for long periods through prayer and love becomes wise, good, powerful, compassionate, merciful and long-suffering; in short, it includes within itself almost all the divine qualities. But when the intellect withdraws from God and attaches itself to material things, either it becomes self-indulgent like some domestic animal, or like a wild beast it fights with men for the sake of these things.

I’ve never been one to have the sort of attachment to material things that often comes first to mind in our modern consumer society. I don’t particularly care if I have the latest and greatest of something. It doesn’t much matter to me what others think of my car, my clothes, or my gadgets. Most of my life I’ve driven old, hand-me-down beaters with their own flaws like no working air conditioner, broken power windows, dents and scratches, and the like. Even when I did buy my first car from a dealer recently, I looked for the least expensive used car that met my needs at Carmax. I expect to drive it into the ground as well.

However, that’s simply who I am. It’s a quirk of my personality. I’m glad I’m not driven to acquire stuff, since I’ve seen what that can do to people. But it’s not something with which I’ve ever struggled, so there’s nothing praiseworthy in my lack of that sort of attachment.

That’s not the only way to be attached to material things, however. I do enjoy the more sensory and ephemeral aspects of our world — the pleasures of the senses and the mind. I love the taste of good food, a fine beverage, or the feel of silk or linen against my skin. I can gaze at works like Starry Night for extended periods of time and I can lose myself in a good book. I’ve practiced many forms of meditation over the course of my life, but few can compare for me to the experience of losing myself on a dance floor. The lyrics, the beat pulsing through my body, and the music used to create that perfect space where I could let everything go.

In my twenties, at times I called my sense a hedonist with a sense of pride in the particular way I used the word. Now? I perceive the difference, I think, between enjoyment of all the good things our God has given us and attachment to those things for their own sake. I’m not sure where on that spectrum I would say I am, but I would never say that I am free from the sort of attachment that promotes self-indulgence or poor behavior toward my fellow human beings. I would say I’m beginning to perceive the difference.

Praying with the Church 7 – How the Eastern Orthodox Pray with the Church

Posted: July 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 7 – How the Eastern Orthodox Pray with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

In this chapter, we move into specifics of some of the various prayer traditions. Scot McKnight begins with Eastern Orthodox because it is arguably the oldest tradition. Orthodox prayers are also online here:


Scot notes in the introduction to the chapter something that simply needs quoting rather than summarizing.

“Eastern Orthodoxy has a singular theme in all its teaching about prayer: Union with God is the final goal of human existence. All of the prayer traditions, not the least of which is the Jesus Prayer, focus on this goal. By turning our hearts to God, whether alone in our own Portiuncola or with others in the church, we are joining ourselves together to strive for union with God.

“The Orthodox remind us of a central truth about prayer: The purpose of prayer is not to get good at it, but for the Church to become good through it. And the Church becomes good by utilizing set prayers at set times. The Orthodox use both the Jesus Prayer and, as we will show later in this chapter, a special prayer book.”

The Jesus Prayer was one of my most exciting discoveries in this chapter this past summer. You see, in my own effort to incorporate breath prayers and to begin to work toward prayer that does not cease (something I’m still a long way from), I had found that the simple phrase “Lord Jesus have mercy” did something profound for me. Though I might have no other words, I would feel that the words I might have used were heard. I found my racing mind and body would grow quieter. And as I said it in the midst of a busy day, I found it would by itself alter my perception of what was around me. I would shift from working with no awareness of God to seeing that reality color everything.

And yet all through this long period of discovery, I was completely unaware that this simple prayer is one of the oldest continuing prayer traditions of the church. Very early in the history of the church, in an effort to make Paul’s exhortations about prayer a reality, many in the church had arrived at two ideas. One group learned they could say the name Jesus over and over again throughout the day, perhaps in rhythm with their heart and thus remain prayerfully focused on our Lord. Others took their cue from the story in Luke 18 and would repeat throughout the day, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or some variation. The Jesus Prayer took those two traditions and combined them. In one common modern form, it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

In essence, I had independently rediscovered one of the oldest prayers of the church. Truly the preacher was correct, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But it was also a validation for me that I wasn’t simply wandering somewhere off in left field discovering things that merely “worked for me.” I live aware of that strong tendency in everything I do. This discovery gave me greater confidence in the guidance of the Spirit and in the awareness that something can “work for me” and I can trust in that experience. It is not automatically syncretic or a perception-based distortion.

There are a lot of ways to vary this simple prayer. The one I used is a common one and among the oldest forms of the prayer. And it can be said with your heartbeat to incorporate your body into the prayer. You can also say it in a pattern. Add a word each time until the entire prayer has been recited. And then start over. Moreover, it’s a prayer for which you can never claim you had no time. It can fill the interstices of your day as well as it can fill a time of silence and solitude in the wee hours of the morning. The Jesus Prayer is probably the single best introduction into the prayer tradition of the church.

The second best, which Scot also mentions in the opening of this chapter, is the variation of the Shema that Jesus taught. Although I can’t claim to have reached the point where I automatically think of it each time I lie down or rise, it does come to mind fairly often. And using it with my eighth grade class at least has them now at the point where they have it memorized, even if they claim they don’t. (I listen to them carefully.) And again, this is a part of the ancient prayer tradition of the church that is not at all a difficult discipline to acquire. It simply requires the desire.

As with all prayer traditions, the Orthodox prayer book is grounded in the Psalms. However, in addition to those and the Jesus Prayer, “the Orthodox have produced out of their nearly two millenia of thinking and practice some of the church’s best known prayers.” And flowing from the practice of the Shema, the Orthodox focus on set prayers at morning and evening. In addition to prayers, the Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers is designed to be used with a lectionary to guide in the reading of the Bible.

Scot McKnight finds their tradition somewhat difficult over the long- haul because it is repetitive and, like a good American, he desires more variation in his set prayers. Yet it strikes me that the Jewish tradition was pretty repetitive and it was initially established by God. Moreover Jesus doesn’t seem to have offered a huge array of novel prayers. He modified the Shema and provided only one new recorded set prayer that I can recall. And even that one prayer he only provided in response to a direct request by his followers. So I know it cuts against our grain. (I like variation myself.) Nevertheless, that may be something within us that should be reshaped. I’m at least willing to consider the possibility that the primary purpose of prayer is not to satisfy our craving for novelty.

Scot also notes that on days when he doesn’t feel like praying or his spontaneous prayers are shallow and empty, the prayer books and praying with the Church tends to bring life to his own private prayers and to fill his mind with prayers he should offer. The set prayers energize the private prayers. And I’ve experienced something similar, even though I don’t yet regularly use a prayer book. On days when I better remember to recite the few set prayers I use, I find I spend more time in prayer in general than on days when I don’t.

Eastern prayer is marked by three things: “an acute realization of man’s enslavement to sin, a deep sense of the Divine majesty and glory, and the frequent references to the Mother of God.” The contrast between our enslavement to sin and God’s great glory leads to an emphasis on God’s goodness and grace. References to the “theotokos” (Mother of God or literally God-Bearer) will probably make good Protestants uncomfortable. Scot also notes that Eastern prayers are deeply Trinitarian in nature. Lines are said three times. The Trinity is explicitly mentioned. The morning prayer tradition, for example, begins as follows:

“When you awake, before you begin the day, stand with reverence before the All-Seeing God. Make the Sign of the Cross and say: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Once again, it’s a prayer practice that can easily be incorporated into anyone’s daily life. Can there be a better way to start the day than standing in prayerful contemplation before our Lord?

Scot then provides a number of examples from the Eastern manual. And they are all well worth reading and considering. But in his closing, he has a statement I just have to quote. I love it.

“I sometimes jokingly tell my Protestant students that when we get to heaven the first thing we will have to do is learn the prayer books of the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. ‘Why?’ they often ask. ‘Because,’ I reply, ‘those are the prayers they know, and we’ll be asked to join in with them during prayer meetings.’ Such quips, of course, don’t tell the whole truth — but neither are they falsehoods.”

I want to add a present-day footnote to this post. Recently, Fr. Stephen published a post to the Memory Eternal of Donald Sheehan. In it, he included a link to this essay by him. The essay itself is interesting, but toward the bottom is an autobiographical section. There are many things that struck me in his life story, but the one most pertinent in this context and the one which brought tears to my eyes was his story of the way the Jesus Prayer came to him when he did not know what it was, did not about Orthodoxy, and was mystified. My own experience was not nearly as dramatic, but his story was the first time I had heard about someone else to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and previously unknown. I still pray it. I have used a variety of prayerbooks since I wrote the above and my prayer rule overall remains inconsistent. But the Jesus Prayer is never far from me. Since I read that chapter in Scot McKnight’s book I’ve learned a lot about Orthodoxy and much of the impetus behind learning about them has been the fact that “my” prayer is a deep tradition of their church. I don’t feel I’ve discovered much new in Orthodoxy. As with the Jesus Prayer, most of what they believe was already what I believed. I found better words, sometimes, in the ways that they say it. But nothing in Orthodoxy feels “new” to me. Beyond that, I’m largely at a loss about what I should do. For some reason, it was important to me to know that I’m hardly the only one to whom the Jesus Prayer comes without a context or traditional setting. If you pray at all, pray the Jesus Prayer in one form or another. Let it seep into your heart and shape who you are.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 19

Posted: July 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 19

49.  If a man is not envious or angry, and does not bear a grudge against someone who has offended him, that does not necessarily mean that he loves him. For, while still lacking love, he may be capable of not repaying evil with evil, in accordance with the commandment (cf. Rom. 12:17), and yet by no means be capable of rendering good for evil without forcing himself. To be spontaneously disposed to ‘do good to those who you hate you’ (Matt. 5:44) belongs to perfect spiritual love alone.

This particular text strikes a deep chord in me. I’ve explored and practiced many spiritual paths and love is the one thing that truly distinguishes Christianity from the rest. We worship a God who is love, and whose love is so extravagant that he became one of us and experienced all that we experience. We proclaim that our way is the way of life, but the way of life is the way of love. It’s this love that drew me into Christianity. It’s this love that keeps me, like a moth circling a flame, in this faith.

And love of this magnitude terrifies me.

I was never the sort of angry person who lashed out at anyone and everyone, assuming the worst of all. As a rule, I was willing to live and let live. If a person demonstrated they were my enemy in a social context, I was typically willing to simply disassociate from them. But if a person acted like an enemy in a context, such as work, that required our interaction, I was pretty ruthless. I would turn my mind and talents toward ensuring that person could do nothing to harm me.

There are many and varied reasons that I was the sort of person that I was in my twenties. All things considered, I think it was better than some of the alternatives. I have empathy, not the scorn you usually hear today, for those who essentially give up, wrap their true selves deeply within, and become victims. I understand the desire to hide and ways we can lose our will. I understand how people can become ruled instead by anger. I’ve come closer than I care to be to the latter at times. But mostly I was a loyal friend to the few I considered friends and tried to treat most others with a sort of distant respect. But if you identified yourself as my enemy, my goal was to prevent you from harming me and those I loved and to make you regret that choice.

It was the love of some Christians that drew me back toward a faith I had long since dismissed. And that time, I saw the God of love visible in the Incarnation and have been circling that flame ever since. And the light of that flame has done much to reveal the person I was and drive out shadows. The more you live in the light, the more you see — the more you can’t avoid seeing.

I’m no longer the person who preemptively acts, where possible, to destroy his enemies. I’m no longer the person who automatically returns evil for evil.

But I’m also not a person who instinctively returns good for evil, or who even returns good for evil much at all.

Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

Posted: July 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

I don’t know how or why our tradition moved away from the practice of, as Scot McKnight puts is, ‘praying with the church in the basilica’, whether physically with other believers or not. I’ll be generous and assume they had what seemed to them to be good reasons at the time. However, whatever the forces that were once in play, we are in the midst of a massive cultural shift. And as someone who was shaped by forces somewhere further along the shift than, it seems, many in our church, I can only say that this strikes me as a more important discipline and practice today than perhaps any time since the days of the early church.

In this chapter, Scot shifts from looking into the scriptural underpinnings of the practice of set prayers at set times and moves into just a few of the specific examples of those practices and prayers. However, he opens with an overview of the idea of prayer books. I like the way he assumes his reader will have absolutely no significant background in the practice. That describes me!

The foundation of every prayer tradition, apparently, are the prayers in Scripture. We call the book of prayers Psalms. And from that all traditions draw a Psalter. Typically Psalters divide the Psalms into cycles of readings that allow you to read them all each month. Naturally, Psalms should be read aloud. Allow the rhythm to permeate your being. With the Psalms as a foundation, the different prayer books are designed to draw on scripture and the lengthy history of the church to pray in the manner Jesus modeled for us and instructed us to pray.

McKnight will take us through four prayer books in the ensuing chapters. He has ordered his presentation in chronological order, which is basically an arbitrary order. That means he will start with Eastern Orthodox, move to the Roman Catholic prayer book, then to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and finally to the modern Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. There are, of course, many others. But from those, we can learn some of the flavors of this rich tradition and practice of the Abrahamic faiths in general and Christianity specifically. He does note that for those without experience in Christian prayer tradition, the ecumenical ‘Divine Hours’ is probably the most readily accessible.

To open, Scot attempts to distill a definition of ‘prayer books’. No single definition fits all, but this is the essence he comes up with. “Prayer books are an ordering of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and various passages of the Bible into worship.”

Scot also notes that prayer books are shaped by the Christian calendar. Do any of you know why we essentially ignore the ordering of time itself as part of our faith in our denomination? As I’ve learned more about the  Christian calendar, that choice has increasingly puzzled me. If there’s a reason, I would like to be able to consider it. But most of what I’ve found seems like essentially mindless reaction against anything that could be considered even vaguely “Roman Catholic.” And frankly, that strikes me as utterly insufficient reason to abandon such formative and central ideas and practices.

Scot then notes that the Psalms (and perhaps many prayers) should be sung or chanted rather than spoken. Paul assumes people will sing Psalms. Jesus and the disciples sang what were very likely Psalms after the Last Supper. Augustine said, “Whoever sings the psalms, prays twice.”  And most prayer books can be spoken, read responsorially, read antiphonally, or read responsively. Prayer books also indicate when the sign of the cross is appropriate, typically with the symbol (+). Christians have crossed themselves from the earliest days. Most Protestant resistance to it seems again to fall into the category of protest against anything the Roman Catholic church ever did. And that’s just nuts.

Scot ends this chapter with a reminder that set prayers do not in any way replace or detract from spontaneous prayers. Both are called for and reinforce each other.

Praying with the Church 5 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Tradition

Posted: July 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 5 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Tradition

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This is the last chapter in the book on the general topic of set prayers before Scot McKnight begins exploring the different specific prayer traditions and some of the prayer book options.

As a pious Jew, it should be clear by this point in the book that Jesus prayed both spontaneously (and sometimes at great private length) and at the set times with others. Such prayers would have included the Shema, possibly the Amidah, and maybe the Ten Commandments. In this chapter, Scot explores Jesus’ contribution to the rhythm of the prayer tradition of Israel and his foundation for a new tradition of sacred rhythmical prayer. Scot sees three elements, one conservative and two progressive. In other words, Jesus “both adopted and adapted the sacred prayer rhythms of his people.”

First Element: Pray the Psalms

As soon as I saw the heading above, before I had even first read the section, my response was “Duh!” As soon as someone says it, it’s obvious. These are the great prayers of the Israelites gathered together. They cover all ‘moods’ and general sorts of prayers. And they remain amazingly appropriate to this day. We seem to do everything with the Psalms in our own tradition *except* pray them. Why is that?

Nevertheless, you see the Psalms constantly flowing from Jesus’ lips. His life was bathed with the Psalms. Jesus heard (and said with others) the Psalms in the ‘basilica’ (if you remember the analogy), i.e. the synagogue and temple, and took them from there into his ‘portiuncola’ (same analogy). The church has always followed him in doing so. The Psalms form the core of all prayer traditions. In order to be faithful to Jesus, it seems reasonable that we should develop similar habits. Scot notes that Billy Graham reads 5 Psalms and a chapter of Proverbs a day. Every day. (Actually, it’s less now for obvious reasons, but that was his habit for years.)

The Psalms help us come to God without pretense, which is actually what God wants. There is something primal and raw in the Psalms. No rules. No limits.

Second Element: Recite the Jesus Creed

I hope y’all remember that the “Jesus Creed” is Scot’s shorthand for the Shema as Jesus revised and extended it. Faithful Jews recited the Shema at least twice a day and you can be certain Jesus did the same, even if it was with his addition. It’s important to say the words out loud. To have them in a place you can see them, possibly. Anything you can do to keep them in your mind so your life and identity can begin to be shaped by them.

I’ve been developing the discipline of praying the Shema of Jesus twice a day myself. And I’ve begun reciting it together with my Sunday School class and encouraging them to make it a part of their daily routine and to consider it throughout each day as the early Christians did. Paul, James, and John draw their basic Christian behavioral principles from this revised Shema. John’s first letter is almost entirely shaped by it. The earliest text outside the NT on Christian education, the Didache, opens with it as “the way of life.”

Third Element: Pray the Lord’s Prayer

This was a new contribution of Jesus which he clearly instructed his followers to repeat as part of their sacred prayer rhythms in response to their question. Scot translates the opening in Luke as: “Whenever you pray, you should recite this prayer.” He explains why, but since I know little Greek myself I can’t judge his explanation. However, it seems completely reasonable, especially given all we know of first century Judaism. He also notes again the use of plural, not singular, pronouns. The prayer is intended to be prayed when the believers pray together.

The chapters up to here, especially these three points, convinced Scot McKnight of the central and almost essential nature of the Christian prayer tradition rooted in Jesus’ practice and the NT teachings. The rest of the book will explore traditions that grew from that beginning.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 18

Posted: July 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 18

48. When a man’s intellect is constantly with God, his desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God and his incensiveness is completely transformed into divine love. For by continual participation in the divine radiance his intellect becomes totally filled with light; and when it has reintegrated its passible aspect, it redirects this aspect towards God, as we have said, filling it with an incomprehensible and intense longing for Him and with unceasing love, thus drawing it entirely away from worldly things to the divine.

There’s  a little story from the sayings of the desert fathers that has found a home in my heart for several years now. I’m not sure I can explain, even to myself, what about the story captivates me, but it was the first thing that sprang to my mind as I reflected on this particular text. Here’s the story.

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Our God is called light in the text of our Scriptures. Of course, that’s not to say that he is made up of photons, but rather to say there is no darkness, no lies, no evil found within him. It’s easy for us in our modern world to forget that for most of human history, we could not create light apart from fire. One of the images of our God is a consuming fire. There are no shadows, nothing hidden, in the heart of the fire. When we think of divine love, we must not forget that aspect.

Perhaps the image of becoming all flame speaks to that part of me which has lived in darkness. We speak as human beings of being drawn to light and trapped in darkness. There is something within us all that perceives reality in terms of light and darkness. Do I want my shadows illumined?

We are all drawn to the fire, but do we want to assume the nature of the fire?

Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

Posted: July 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This chapter opens with the questions Scot assumes most will ask (and that he also asked) about stepping out of our own Portiuncola two or three times a day to pray with the Church in the basilica. “What will we be saying? Did Jesus teach anything about that? Won’t it get repetitive to say things over and over?” His answers are the ones found throughout the history of the Church. “We’ll be using the prayers of the Bible, of Jesus, and the Church. Yes, it will be repetitive but in a good way. Praying with the Church might lead to vain repetitions, but it is meant to lead us away from them.”

In order to understand the guidance Scripture offers, Scot guides us first through the Jewish form of prayer in use at the time of Jesus. We’ve already seen that Jews prayed at fixed hours — “morning, afternoon, and evening. This was the sacred rhythm of the temple and of Israel at prayer together. But what did they say?”

The Jews prayed (usually by singing) the Psalms. They are a collection of 150 (or 151) prayers. These were at the root of their prayers. “Everything Israel and Jesus learned about prayer can be found in the Psalms.” They also recited other set prayers and creeds. The Shema, of course, was recited by any observant Jew at a minimum on rising and on retiring. However, they also did everything Moses wrote for them to do (Deuteronomy 6). Memorize them – ‘Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.’ Teach them — ‘Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.’ Make it physical — ‘Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.’ Publish them — ‘Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’ The Shema was so interwoven into the “ancient faith of Israel that it would have been impossible for followers of Jesus not to adopt (and adapt) the custom of turning to God at sundown and sunup.”

In addition, the Jews of that time probably recited the Ten Commandments along with the Shema. We have a document from about a century before Jesus that appears to link the recitation of the two and it also makes sense in the context of the Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler.

And finally, we also know of a prayer that was called by three names, “the Amidah (standing prayer), the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions), or the Ha-Tefillah (The Prayer). They had other prayers and certainly also prayed spontaneously, but their sacred rhythms of prayer were formed and shaped by the Shema, the Amidah, and perhaps the Ten Commandments. These “expressed the central dimensions of Israel’s faith and concerns with clarity and aesthetic simplicity.”

Scot has an amusing way to think about it for someone concerned about ‘vain repititions.’ (That’s never been any particular issue for me, so maybe it’s not as funny to someone with whom that is a significant worry.) Repitition can be a mindless routine, but it can also be a rhythm for daily renewal. If you don’t think that’s the case, consider explaining to your spouse that you’ve been saying “I love you” far too often and you’ll have to stop or it might become a vain repitition. I’m sure that will go over well.

However, Scot sees this concern as actually possibly masking a deeper one, a hesitation to use prayers written by others. His section exploring that is a good one, so I’ll just quote from it in closing.

Our tendency is to go to the Bible for something new, to read it in the expectation of a fresh discovery of something we did not know or had not heard or had completely forgotten. As a professor who teaches the Bible, I know the experience.

But the discovery of something new is not the sole, or even the main, purpose for reading the Bible. The longer you look at the idea that we read the Bible to find new meanings, the sillier it becomes. We read and return to the Bible not (just) to find something new but to hear something old, not to discover something fresh but to be reminded of something ancient.

What we find in the sacred rhythm and sacred prayer tradition of Israel is the wise recitation of those passages in the Bible most central to spirituality, passages we need to be reminded of daily because of their importance for how we are to conduct ourselves before God and with others. The reason psalms are repeated in the sacred rhythm of prayer is that they continue to teach us how to pray; the reason the Shema is repeated so often is that it summons us to the central orientation of our heart: to love God with every molecule we can muster.

Jesus was spiritually nurtured by pious parents in a world where the sacred rhythm of prayer shaped spiritual formation. Jesus didn’t adopt that rhythm without reflection or alteration. One might say that Jesus actually re-shaped the sacred rhythmical prayer practices of his world so that they would reflect his own kingdom mission.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 17

Posted: July 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 17

47. Certain things stop the movement of the passions and do not allow them to grow; others subdue them and make them diminish. For instance, where desire is concerned, fasting, labor and vigils do not allow it to grow, while withdrawal, contemplation, prayer and intense longing for God subdue it and make it disappear. The same is true with regard to anger. Forbearance, freedom from rancor, gentleness, for example, all arrest it and prevent it from growing, while love, acts of charity, kindness and compassion make it diminish.

This text exposes an important truth about gaining freedom from a passion that rules us. It’s a process and it takes effort. We may need to stop the movement and growth of a passion first before we can begin to subdue it. Other times, we may be able to begin immediately subduing a passion. In either case we need to turn our will as best we can toward the acts that will free us, practice them, and pray for mercy. Our Lord loves us and where we are weak, he is strong.

Praying with the Church 3 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Rhythms

Posted: July 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 3 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Rhythms

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

In this chapter, Scot begins by outlining how it slowly dawned on him, breaking through preconceptions and prejudices, that Jesus actually participated in the prayer life of his people. Coming to Scripture without those preconceptions, I never doubted it myself, even if I had a hard time connecting it to the things the church does today. It’s a good (some might say ‘postmodern’) illustration of how our lenses distort and shape what we see that a biblical scholar specializing in Jesus studies should have such a hard time breaking free of his particular lens and seeing what was right in front of his face. As soon as he understood that, though, he immediately began learning how to pray not just in the church, but with the church as well.

The rhythm of Jewish set prayers were three times a day, morning, noon, and night. Scot shows some of the biblical instruction for and description of that rhythm. Daniel even refused to abandon the set times of prayer when he knew that failing to do so could cost him his life. Scot then points to Jesus’ reference to fixed hour prayer and the early church’s practice of it in scripture. The Didache (a first century manual on the Christian life) tells us Christians prayed the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.

We need to advance one step now: What is important for us today for spiritual formation is that time for Jesus was shaped by a three-times-a- day sacred rhythm. time was measured by the hours of prayer.

Similarly, we must learn to allow prayer and thus God to shape and form our lives by shaping and forming our days and our time. “Jesus came of age in a Judaism shaped by a three-times-a-day-we-all-stop-and-pray- together sacred rhythm.” But it’s not about “establishing exact rules and times.” Rather, it is about learning to consecrate our whole day to God.

Rhythmical prayer sounds simple: Just stop what you are doing a few times in the day to pray with others, whether we see these others or not. But there are few things in life as hard as establishing good habits.

We need to find a rhythm and stick to it until it becomes a habit. For me, I’ve found the Shema as Jesus revised it a starting point and something I can pray each morning and evening and spend a moment reflecting on as I pray.

“Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

As I say that, knowing it is also the thought and mind of Christians around the world, it becomes increasingly difficult to forget it during the course of the day.