The prerequisit to Learning Prayer (Thoughts on II)

I had written last time some thoughts as an introduction on the cosmic nature of prayer, and now I wish to turn to those items that hinder us in our life of prayer. It should be quite evident that since prayer is our voice in the cosmic liturgy, these hindrances are ways in which our harmony with God, the angels and the saints is either muted, made dissonant, or actually so off key that we, in a way, throw the whole choir off. With respect to the items I listed in the last post – – ignorance, irresolution, arrogance, pride, waywardness, flabbiness, and sloth – – I had thought first to look at them in order, for we first must learn how to pray, that is, we are ignorant of how to do it, and so we must be taught. In this regard, we are no different than those unskilled in music and have to learn not only music, but how to hear their parts and to stay on key. This is also in keeping with the disciples who asked our Lord that they be taught how to pray. But for them to ask to learn how to pray required that first they must admit that they didn’t know how, and this, humility, is what I will address here.

I must first note that I accept Aristotle’s distinction between pride and arrogance. The Philosopher considered pride a sort of greatness of soul, the ability to see the value of one’s accomplishments in their proper light, and take satisfaction in doing our best. In this regard, I think of pride as nothing other than thinking soberly about one’s life, and rightly evaluating our efforts. Arrogance, however, is hubris manifested toward others, a belittling of them in order to magnify the self. This can be contrasted with courtesy, what Sir Kenneth Clark called “the ritual by which we avoid hurting other peoples’ feelings by satisfying our own egos.” More on arrogance later, for I wish to take up more fully pride.

Pride, as Aristotle has defined it, is a necessary thing, and I think it is not at all what is meant by Solomon in Proverbs when he said pride goes before a fall. What I think Solomon meant was what Aristotle would have called an abuse or vice with respect to how he thought of pride, i.e., when we think of ourselves wrongly, and then let the shame of our new-found deficiencies keep us from properly addressing them. This we can call vanity, and is how I think Solomon is using pride. This became all the more clear to me when reading Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s Meditations on a Theme the other night. In it he spoke about convicts who now could at least repent because their vices have been exposed, and they can now freely address them. I must admit, I had never thought of it in that light. Met. Anthony of course turned the whole matter on the lives not of convicts, but of Christians. We fear change, for this is an admission that something was wrong before. In this pride, proper self regard, has turned to vanity. Met. Anthony illustrates this with Zacchaeus, a tax collector forced to climb a tree, forced to do something children do, in order to effect his conversion. Had he been vain, his conversion would not have happened.

This is what I have in mind by pride, and its affect on our prayers is monumental, for not thinking of myself as I ought, for not seeing myself as I truly am, I do not pray as I should. If I cannot hear that I am off key, this takes refinement; if I refuse to admit I am off key, I am a detriment to the choir and to myself. How many little, petty sins we have that we do not seek to straighten out, that we do not go to someone and say to them “I need help.” This is why a father confessor is so imperative, for not only does he have the eyes of another to see me in a light that I cannot, but he is often willing to tell me things I must hear, things I don’t want to hear, to guide me to the good. He also holds me accountable.

Another example I can give with respect to how pride affects prayer, let us think again of the disciples. They had been praying since their youth. No doubt they had memorized the Psalter, along with long passages of Scripture. We can see in their questions a good bit of knowledge, but having all this knowledge, and knowing all the Psalms, they realized that in the presence of Christ, they were completely innocent about how to pray. They had to come as children and ask to be instructed in prayer, what for most of us we think is an elementary thing. In truth, it is elementary, fundamental, and foundational, but also, it takes more than a lifetime to master. So, the first thing we need in prayer is the admission that we can always learn better how to do it. In the front of one of my prayer books is the statement that just some of the prayers of the Orthodox Church are included, since this was at best but a primer, a guide in how to structure our prayers.

Thus vanity keeps us from paying attention to the words of the saints in their prayers, for so often we think, “Oh, I know how to pray, why should I look at these forms.” Vanity keeps us from the prerequisite humility that will have us approach prayer as a child, seeking to be guided as we should in our prayers. Just like a member of the choir who refuses to listen to the shabby voice next to him that nonetheless hits all the notes, so we when we refuse to admit that we don’t know how to pray as we should will be out of harmony not only with the Saints, but with all creation and of course, with the Creator.

About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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One Response to The prerequisit to Learning Prayer (Thoughts on II)

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