Who Am I?

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.


The Jesus Prayer 17 – Fear

Posted: April 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 17 – Fear

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

In addition to awe, Khouria Frederica discusses an interesting question.

But haven’t we progressed beyond fear of God? It sounds so negative.

It’s an interesting question. Fear of God leads to  sense of penitence. That’s been true over the course of Christian history and it’s not clear that many of the disciplines and practices produce spiritual healing absent a penitent heart. She has a long quote from St. Theophan which I think speaks to the heart of this question. I wanted to share it.

The most important thing in prayer is to stand before God in reverence and fear, with the mind in the heart, for this sobers and disperses every folly and plants contrition before God in the heart. These feelings of fear and sorrow in the sight of God, the broken and contrite heart, are the principal features of true inner prayer, and the test of every prayer, by which we can tell whether or not our prayer is performed as it should be. If they are present, prayer is in order. When they are absent, prayer is not in its true course and must be brought back to its proper condition.

If we lack this sense of sorrow and contrition, then sweetness and warmth may breed self-conceit; and that is spiritual pride, and will lead to pernicious illusion. Then the sweetness and warmth will vanish, leaving only their memory, but the soul will imagine that it has them. Of this you should afraid, and so you must increasingly kindle in your heart the fear of God, lowliness, contrite prostration before him, walking always in his presence.

An absence of proper fear, then, will often lead to spiritual pride. I think that’s a true observation. For those who still find an emphasis on fear and penitence off-putting, Khouria Frederica has a thought which strikes me as wise.

You cannot choose the thing that will change you, The thing that will change you may well look strange from the outside. My advice is to accept the ancient spiritual disciplines as a complete, integrated healing program, rather than picking and choosing to fit.

Tell the truth. If you pick the disciplines and practices that suit you, will you pick ones that will actually change you? I’m not at all sure I would. I probably wouldn’t.

The Jesus Prayer 7 – Seriousness of Disciplines

Posted: March 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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 points out that Orthodox Christians, at least those who actively practice their faith, take a more serious attitude toward spiritual disciplines than a lot of what you find today in the other Christian traditions.

This rests on the assumption that life is serious, salvation is serious, and in every moment we must decide anew to follow Christ.

It’s not that there is any question about God’s love or his forgiveness, as we’ve said; our salvation was accomplished on the cross. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). But we retain this terrifying freedom: we are still free to reject him. Judas’ tragic story is a sobering example. The end of our own story is not yet written, and every day exposes us to new temptations. The devil knows our weaknesses, probably better than we do, and “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

That is why there is in Orthodox spirituality a quality of urgency. We don’t assume that we have already made it to the end of the race, put “press on,” as St. Paul said.

I think I’ve always intuitively understood that the things we do shape us — that they matter — and I’ve always had at least some awareness that we become like what we worship. In fact, I think I’ve sometimes confused my fellow Christians when I’ve told them I’m not interested in their arguments about the correctness of their particular vision of God. I’ve understood the image of the God they describe and it’s not a God I’m willing to worship, much less love. Once I’ve made that decision, I no longer care about their arguments or their logic behind their vision and understanding of God. I reject their version of God whether they are right or wrong, so I might as well assume they are wrong. It makes perfect sense to me, but it often seems to confound certain sorts of Christians. They are so used to living within their arguments and logic — within the cogitative intellect — that they don’t seem to know what to do when someone refuses to engage the entire framework itself. “I don’t care about your arguments” doesn’t seem to be a response for which they are prepared. When I wasn’t Christian, I used to have fun from time to time deconstructing some of the arguments and leading people in circles, but as I Christian I see that was mean-spirited and ultimately destructive, not least for what it did to me. So I try to catch myself now and simply disengage. Or describe the God I perceive, however dimly, to the  best of my limited ability, and just continually return to that rather than engaging in arguments. Or say nothing to start with if I don’t think it will be helpful. That’s probably the hardest thing of all for me to do.

With that said, I think it’s important that I pass along Khouria Frederica’s warning. The Jesus Prayer is a tradition embedded within the entire context of the life of Orthodoxy and it can be spiritually dangerous to try to lift it out of that context and practice it alone. Spiritual disciplines are accomplishing something real or there is no reason to practice them. If that is true, then without the proper context and guidance, they can be particularly risky. A spiritual practice will generally change you, for good or ill.

When you pray the Jesus Prayer, you are invoking the name of Jesus of Nazareth. You are proclaiming him the Jewish Messiah. You are acknowledging him as Lord and God. And you are asking his mercy as both God and King. These are not light things. Moreover, it matters who you say Jesus is when you do this. The less your perception of Jesus aligns with his reality, the more distorted your practice becomes. If that were not true, then it would not have mattered that the Arians believed him to be a creature or that the Nestorians believed his divine nature had obliterated his human nature. A spiritual discipline undertaken wrongly can engender pride, among many potential pitfalls. I agree with her warning.

Obviously that’s an odd thing for me to say. I’m not Orthodox. I have no spiritual father or mother. Yet I practice the Jesus Prayer. That’s true, and I freely confess I may be foolish in my actions. I certainly don’t recommend that anyone use my practice as a guide.

The only thing I can say is that the Jesus Prayer came to me unbidden. It came when I knew practically nothing about Orthodoxy (even if I later discovered they believed and taught so many of the things I had come to understand and believe about God). The Jesus Prayer came to me when I hardly knew who Jesus was or which of these myriad Christian Gods described in modern Christianity was real. My rule of prayer remains a poor one, but I don’t think I could stop praying the Jesus Prayer now any more than I could stop breathing.

I accept it humbly as a gift of God.

I will note that I don’t “play” Orthodox as I’ve heard some do. My fast is the one required of me by celiac disease. I don’t try to follow Orthodox fasting rules. In some sense I’m just not very good at prayer. In another sense, I deliberately keep my prayer rule simple. I think I can be prone to pride and it’s better if I don’t foster it. I don’t have an icon corner. I take spiritual practices seriously and I recognize fully that I am not Orthodox. I try not to delude myself.

So yes, I practice the Jesus Prayer, at least to a limited extent. But absent spiritual guidance, you may not want to try this at home. I feel I would be remiss if I did not share this warning from the book.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

Posted: January 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

36. Sufferings freely embraced and those that come unsought drive out pleasure and allay its impetus. But they do not destroy the capacity for pleasure which resides in human nature like a natural law. For the cultivation of virtue produces dispassion in one’s will but not in one’s nature. But when dispassion has been attained in one’s will the grace of divine pleasure becomes active in the intellect.

St. Maximos sees sufferings as pain we are granted to counter the sort of pleasure that draws us away from God, which means its the sort of pleasure that draws us ultimately toward a non-existence we are powerless to achieve. The sufferings freely embraced I think describe ascetic practices. I do think this is one of the widespread problems in most of Protestantism. And to some extent it seems to have spread to the modern Catholic Church as well. The ascetic disciplines (fundamentally fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) have to a large degree been abandoned within much of Christianity. But the disciplines are part of our synergy with God. If we do not engage in them, we provide God less and less room to change and transform us. Moreover, if we do not fast, we forget how to feast properly in thanksgiving. When the Church abandons basic ascetic disciplines, it gives its members over to the passions. That’s not to say that every person should live like a monk. Most people are not called or equipped by God for such a life. However, it seems that many people today seem to think that if they are not a monastic, that means they don’t need to practice any ascetic disciplines at all. And that’s not only inconsistent with the history of the Church and the Holy Scriptures, it ignores the reality of what it means to be a human being.

Jesus Creed 18 – A Society with Perspective

Posted: September 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 18 – A Society with Perspective

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

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Mark 14:25; Matthew 25:31-46.

The bible gives us only an occasional glimpse of heaven.

That’s an important place to begin this chapter because it focuses on the perspective our eschatology gives us. However, Scot also connects the fact that our culture impacts our ‘idea’ of heaven at least as much as anything else. And that’s both accurate and a very important observation that is often missed.

I’m not going to delve into all the vagaries surrounding that point in this post. Scot touches on them, but does not dwell on them. His focus is on what Jesus teaches and what should be common to all of us.

Jesus teaches that heaven, or the eternal kingdom, begins with a judgement; that heaven is entered by the followers of Jesus; that heaven involves table fellowship between Abba and his people; and that heaven is magnificent in its glory, intensity, and splendor. In short, heaven begins with the judgement and then, once that is over, the whole place is decked out for eternal fellowship with God and others.

There really is a lot of exploration in this chapter, but I’ll skip to this.

The place to stand, the perspective it gives us, is this: The end is the beginning. That is, one’s view of the eternal (the end) gives one perspective in this life (our beginning each day). The most potent incentive to spiritual formation is to see the end of history, to ponder God’s eternity, and to realize that this end shapes our beginning each day. So, in the words of Thomas a Kempis, ‘Practice now what you’ll have to put into practice then.’

Scot then builds a case against reading scripture purely for information. And his case is a powerful one. It merges, for me, with Willard’s words about bible study in Spirit of the Disciplines. We should read, meditate upon, study, and otherwise use scripture not for information but for formation. It helps us little to learn about love. We need to love. That is a distinction always worth keeping in mind.

This concludes the part on the society the Jesus Creed forms. Mcknight moves next to living the Jesus Creed.

The Jesus Creed 1

Posted: August 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 1

Since I just finished posting my reflections on one of Scot McKnight’s books, Praying with the Church, I decided to go ahead and post my series of reflections on the first of his books that I read, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. I’ve read the book a number of times over the years and the Jesus Creed itself remains a part of my personal prayer rule. If you haven’t read the book, I definitely recommend it. I hope you find my rambling thoughts and reactions to the book interesting.

I want to begin with the Creed itself.

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

Scot McKnight then opens with a central principle.

The first principle of spiritual formation is this: A spiritually formed person loves God and others.

The principle is simply stated, yet profound. One would think it is obvious, and perhaps it is … intellectually. But this central reality is often lost — or never discovered at all. Now consider again the particular spiritual disciplines Dallas Willard chose to explore (some of the most common through the ages). Recall that spiritual disciplines are intended as tools to aid in our spiritual formation. Do they not all help teach or train us either to break the grip of things that prevent us from loving God and loving others or actively help us build that love? Certainly food for thought.

I was struck by the fact that Scot McKnight immediately hits that very point. He discusses the aims and goals of those he describes as “spiritual masters” and uses those to define the following questions.

So, the big questions are these: What does Jesus know (and say) about spiritual formation? What, according to Jesus, does a spiritually formed person look like? These questions are different than to ask which spiritual disciplines Jesus practices and teaches. These questions stand quietly behind the disciplines and ask: What are they for?

Did Jesus ever express his view of spiritual formation? Yes. And he does so by transforming a creed. I call it the Jesus Creed and the Jesus Creed becomes clear (on nearly every page of the four Gospels) when we recall the Jewish context of Jesus. So we begin there.

In other posts, I have mentioned the Shema (literally “hear”) of Judaism. I pronounce it as well as I can, though the actual pronunciation is given as Sh’ma. I’ve never been able to produce a decent glottal stop (which is what I believe the ‘ represents in middle eastern languages). The Shema is constructed from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and two other texts, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41.

The observant Jew recites it daily at least twice, when awaking and when retiring. It’s the first ‘prayer’ that Jewish children are taught to say and is described by a specialist of modern Jewish devotion as ‘the quintessential expression of the most fundamental belief and commitment of Judaism.’ Anyone who wants to understand what Jesus means by spiritual formation needs to meditate on the Shema of Judaism. It is the Jewish creed of spiritual formation… The Shema outlines a Torah lifestyle for spiritual formation: memorize, recite, instruct, and write out the Torah, and wear tzitzit (fringes) to remind ourselves of Torah.” Live by the Shema and be blessed.

One can say, then, that the creed of Judaism is this: Love God by living the Torah.

In this light, look again at the man who asks Jesus about the most important commandment. “For a Jew this man’s question is the ultimate question about spiritual formation. He is asking for the spiritual center of Judaism.

Jesus responds, as any Jew would expect, with the Shema. But then he adds to it. Now that you grasp the importance of the Shema, the audacity of that action stands out. It would be like someone reciting the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed or John 3:16, but at the end, adding to it something new and different. This is not a commandment that is unknown to Judaism, nor is Jesus criticizing Judaism. But ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ from Leviticus is not a central creed of Judaism, though the idea is central to Judaism itself. Jesus takes the ‘Love God’ Shema and makes it a ‘Love God and others’ Shema. “Making the love of others part of his own version of the Shema shows that he sees love of others as central to spiritual formation.

This opening of the book altered in a fairly profound way the manner in which I have approached the gospel. Sure, we talk a lot about the two greatest commandments …. yada, yada, yada. But understanding the context adds such depth to it. Jesus transforms the central creed of Judaism itself. As Scot McKnight writes, “We cannot overemphasize the importance of the Shema for Jewish spiritual formation. So when Jesus amended the Shema, we need to take note.” And do we ever!

But Jesus’ addition does more than tack something else onto the Shema. His amendment makes it personal. First, he redefines loving God from a Torah lifestyle to a life spent following Jesus. We see that in Luke in the man who desired to follow Jesus and love God with all his heart, but first he needs to bury his father. Scot McKnight points out that the man was probably in the interval between placing the body in the tomb and going back to move the bones to an ossuary, but the request was God-honoring, nonetheless, by the Torah. There is even an exception in Judaism: “One whose dead is lying before him [awaiting burial] is exempt from the recitation of the Shema.” The proper burial was “how good Jews showed respect for a father, how they applied the commandment to honor one’s parents, how they loved God by following the Torah.

Jesus abruptly answers the man, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” The man, with as much as a year to wait before completing the burial is sitting on the horns of a dilemma. Should he follow Jesus or should he follow (how he understands) the Torah?

Jesus calls the man to follow him and, in so doing, equates loving God to having a personal relationship with Jesus. To use other terms, the Shema of Judaism becomes the Jesus Creed: One loves God by following Jesus.

That was something of a profound thought for me. For as I have reflected on the manner in which Jesus changed the fundamental understanding of what it meant to love God and how you went about it, I have begun to see it again and again. Over and over, loving God is associated with following Jesus. Tangibly. In real ways. At whatever cost. This is a “personal relationship” that actually feels like a real relationship unlike the more ethereal or “spiritual” way it is often presented.

Let’s put this all together now: As a normal Jew, spiritual formation for Jesus begins with the Shema of Judaism. But Jesus revises the Shema in two ways: loving others is added to loving God, and loving God is understood as following Jesus. This is the Jesus Creed, and it is the foundation of everything Jesus teaches about spiritual formation.

A creed, of course, is designed to be recited. As we recite it, we internalize its message. It sets a rhythm to our days and our lives. There is no reason to believe the followers of Jesus stopped their twice daily recitations of the Shema, but there is every reason to believe they altered their Shema to the one Jesus gave them.

A scribe asks Jesus about the essence of spiritual formation, and Jesus gives him an old answer with a revolutionary twist: Love God and love others, and love God by following me. The scribe realizes that he will need to recenter everything.

Does it not still have that impact today?

Praying with the Church 11 – Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today

Posted: August 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 11 – Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today

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 concluding chapter of the book and in it Scot ties the threads of the book together. He begins by reminding us of the two kinds of prayer: “personal, privation devotion — praying in the church; and public, communal worship — praying with the church.” The focus of this book has been the latter. So how do we, as individuals in our own contexts, adopt this practice? Scot offers some suggestions.

First, we need to have realistic expectations. It’s unlikely that any of us can thoroughly revamp the order of our lives instantly and dive into an observance of all the offices of the Liturgy of the Hours on day one. If you have a personality at all like mine, it can certainly be a temptation to try. I took his warning here to heart. It spoke right to me. That’s why I’ve moved slowly and thoroughly examined each practice I have adopted or modified. And I’m in no rush to add more. First I feel a need to allow the ones I have so far attempted to speak into and reshape my life to the extent they will. And then move to the next. The goal, after all, is not to achieve some herculean pinnacle of effort, but rather to change ourselves into people of prayer, which I take to mean people shaped and ordered by the rhythms of the sacred.

However, this is balanced by its counterpoint. We have to try. If we attempt nothing, we will not progress at all. Whatever approach we choose, we must try something or we will stay where we are today. I suppose if you’re completely satisfied with your present prayer life, that would be OK. I guess. I do wonder, though, if Jesus would expect us to follow him in some sort of sacred rhythm of prayer as well as our own private prayers of intercession, devotion, and simple relationship. This is, after all, the way he lived and the way he taught. Who understands us better? It’s the same sort of reaction I have to those who speak dismissively or negatively about liturgy. The only example we have in scripture of an order of worship given directly by God is deeply liturgical and symbolic. Might that be because God knows us better than we know ourselves? And in truth, every worship I’ve seen falls into liturgical patterns even if the word is avoided. How much uproar was there in our church when we moved the offering to the end of the service? That was a change in our liturgy. I think we are too dismissive of these sort of things. And we are dismissive because our view of the nature of people is not correct. But that could be just me.

Scot’s third point is that we must have space for silence. While the prayers can be said anywhere, we should establish a place that can become our sacred space of solitude and silence and prayer. I’m reminded here of the Celtic Christian tradition of “thin places” where the veil between heaven and earth is worn thin. By returning to a single place, it becomes a place where the presence of the invisible and spiritual can be sensed. As in Psalm 131, it becomes a place where we can truly quiet our soul. And we must become quiet. For prayer is not just about speaking. It is about being open and sensitive to God as well.

For his fourth point, Scot recommends variety and flexibility. I tend to think is a concession to the sort of people we have been shaped to be by our present American culture. However, it’s a concession that in no way bothers me. Sometimes we just have to recognize who we are, and most of us are people who will turn from a discipline of prayer and damage our prayer lives if we find it dull and inflexible. I strove to follow the “Baptist” ideal of quiet time and prayer for several years. (I tend not to expect instant results, so give such things time.) And it started fine, but fairly quickly became oppressive in its strictures and stayed that way however I tried to vary it. Such has not happened at all with those disciplines I have so far adopted in this tradition, even though on the surface they might appear dull and repetitious. Instead they are shaping my life in ways that was not true of the more intellectual and less ordered Baptist discipline. Perhaps this is a distinction between those still shaped by the Enlightenment forces of the last couple of hundred of years and those of us less shaped by them? I don’t know, but I do think it’s possible.

I like Scot’s rule: “Avoid making rules about prayer.”

His fifth observation is that we need depth and breadth. Take a deep bath in a prayer book or a specific tradition. Give it three months to a year. This one is second nature to me. I forgot it was even in here. Further, I thirst for breadth of understanding. Scot points out what I have found to be true. No practice or discipline yields instant results. But over the course of months or years an effective discipline will anchor itself in the very fabric of our being.

The sixth observation is that we need to know what to say first, words of adoration and dedication. And that is how all the prayer books open each time of prayer.

Seventh, we need to use the Psalter. Of course, all prayer books use it, so if we use a prayer book, we will use the Psalter. Even without a specific prayer book, we must bathe ourselves in the Psalms. Billy Graham did, reading all the Psalms every month. And if we don’t read all the offices of the prayer book, we may want to add to what we do incorporate the rest of the Psalms.

Eighth, we need to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Creed every day. This is also a great place to begin. Other than the Jesus Prayer, this is the part I have already begun. It’s not enough to have their words stored in our memory. We need to say them out loud to make them a part of our being, part of who we are.

Ninth, we need hymns and readings. The Church has loved to sing and the Church has produced great writings through the ages, wisdom from which we can benefit. Both practices are important to maintain.

And so Scot closes with an invitation for us all to join with the Church in the basilica in prayer, adoration, and reverence of our Lord.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 14

Posted: July 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 14

39.  The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a man, having achieved some things and eager to achieve others through this divine power, never belittles anyone. For he knows that just as God has helped him and freed him from many passions and difficulties, so, when God wishes, He is able to help all men, especially those pursuing the spiritual way for His sake. And if in His providence He does not deliver all men together from their passions, yet like a good and loving physician He heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress.

God’s ongoing purpose is not forgiveness. He has never had a problem forgiving anyone and in Jesus there is the fullness of “the forgiveness of sins.” No, God’s purpose has always been to heal us so we are able to live in communion with him and with each other. And that is a much greater and much richer purpose. We are all damaged creatures. We all need to be healed. But as with the doctors with whom we have forgiveness, if we do not take the medicine or if we do not do the exercises, we will not experience healing. The eucharist has been called the medicine of immortality. I believe there is much truth in that imagery. Similarly, the ascetic disciplines are exercises prescribed to strengthen us. It’s not enough to be forgiven. We need to become truly human.

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.

Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

Posted: February 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

The fourth chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Prayer: Random or Discipline?, is devoted to his encounter with the Christian discipline of corporate set prayers that began when he returned to the University of Illinois for graduate studies. He began attending the daily Office of Evening Prayer at a small chapel across the street. He describes the building and makes the insightful comment that all buildings are icons. Indeed they are. In fact, I would say that everything we make, to one degree or another, is an icon of something. It seems wired into our being. That, of course, is the doom of every effort we might make at iconoclasm, even if iconoclasm were not itself a denial of the Incarnation. Howard points out again the essentially Buddhist or Manichaean nature of iconoclasm in general and its Christian manifestations in particular. There is also a false dichotomy and an improper perspective of creation that is manifested when beauty is pitted against faith or against “works” or against humility and simplicity.

Before I continue with my thoughts on Howard’s writing, if anyone is looking for something to read on prayer written by an evangelical, there are two books I would recommend (and they are the only two evangelical books on prayer I’ve read that I would recommend). The first is Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight. The second is The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. (Obviously, the latter is on the spiritual disciplines in general and not focused solely on prayer, but it does cover the discipline of prayer well.)

Howard, flowing straight from the criticism of set prayer normally found in evangelicalism, immediately addresses the accusation that such repetition must become routine, bleak, and dead. I found myself nodded at the parallel he chose.

Yes, indeed it does dry up and die, if there is no taproot of life irrigating it. Just as the utter sameness of marriage dries up and dies if love departs, so will any routine. To the libertine accustomed to woman after woman, the man who returns day after day, year after year, to the same spouse, with no variety, appears unfortunate in the extreme. We must ask the man himself how things are. He will tell us that routine is the very diagram of peace and freedom …

Indeed. Interesting is a good term for describing far too much of my life. So much so that even when I was young I understood intuitively and immediately that the wish, May you live in interesting times!, first was a curse and then why it was a curse. This year my wife and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. I’ve found tremendous “shelter from the storm” in the peace and freedom and safety of our marriage.

Howard then notes a fact that has long confused me. In their rejection of set prayers, evangelicals are rejecting the very practice of Jesus, the disciples, and the church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As I delved into Christian belief and practice, I never was able to understand how they did so.

Evangelicalism, encouraging a spirit of individual responsibility before the Bible, had made it possible for me to discount centuries of Christian practice.

Basically, if an interpretation of the Scripture of the New Testament that shows the practice of set prayers is not obvious to an individual’s own interpretation (or that of their interpreter of choice), set prayer can be disregarded, even if that particular interpretation is at odds with the overwhelming majority of historical Christian teaching and practice. (Apparently, the practice in the Old Testament or even what Jesus himself practiced makes no difference since that’s “judaism” and as such has been abolished.) I have to confess that I still don’t really grasp the nature of the mental gymnastics required for that particular chain of reasoning. I do grasp that an overriding focus on individualism seems to be the culprit.

As Howard practiced a daily office, he came to a realization that is perfectly consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian practice.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that once a day, far from being too often for devotion, was not enough.

Indeed. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Lawrence myself.

Howard next reflects on the way the discipline of prayer (a rule of prayer as it is often called) actually enables a person to pray consistently. The structure and order of the rule frees us to pray. Inevitably, if we approach it as an individual practice, it becomes subject to our moods and whims. Almost all of us will not always feel like praying. And even if we try to make ourselves pray, we’ll find we have nothing to say. Making prayer a rule using set prayers does not ensure that we will pray. But it does not place the burden entirely on our own mood and ability. It helps us make prayer a habit rather than something we struggle to do.

Howard notes that some people can pray freely every day of their life. Some people truly can be consistent with a daily free form quiet time. He even says that as far as he knows, his own father was such a man. But, Howard says, “He was an extraordinary man.” Most of us are not so extraordinary. It’s not just Howard and me. I’ve listened to youth and adults both describe their difficulties praying regularly and consistently over the long haul. This is a problem that permeates evangelicalism and other “enthusiastic” movements. And we do people no favors when we keep prescribing the same solution — an approach that has already failed them multiple times. Instead, we place a crushing load on them.

Howard describes in some detail a particular order of prayer. It’s worth reading, but there are many prayer books available. The first thing is to begin to pray using some sort of prayer book. You’ll still slip in and out of the habit of prayer. The merciful Lord knows I constantly fall away from my own rule of prayer. It’s not some sort of magical panacea. Consistent prayer is hard. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s called a discipline. It requires much effort to pray when you’re tired, when you’re irritated, when you feel distant from God, when you’re angry at God, when life grows hectic, or in a host of other life situations. Set prayer does not make prayer easy. Rather, it makes prayer possible.

I am thankful to the ancient Church for its wise and earthy awareness that we Christians need all the help we can get and for supplying us with so much in its Office and in its other forms of set prayer.