Thoughts on Prayer V: Sober thinking about prayer.

I had mentioned earlier that I assent to Aristotle’s distinction between arrogance and pride, arrogance corresponding to what we generally think of as superfluous boasting and unwarranted bragging, whereas pride has to do with a correct assessment of our lives, looking honestly at what we have done well and taking satisfaction in such efforts. If I am to keep to this distinction, how then is prayer hindered by pride?

If for the sake of this post I substitute the word pride for sobriety we may better see this for what it is: I can easily see that my life of prayer falls feebly short of what it is to be, whether from lack of attention when I pray, neglect of the morning or evening office, or from misdirected prayers that are driven by my perceived needs. I don’t often make recourse to Tolstoy’s theological insights, but in his short story “Truths we live by,” also called “Michael the Visitor,” Tolstoy notes that it is not always given to us to know our own needs, and we can thus let what is reasonable and rational in regard to our supposed problems or insights govern us in prayer. Thus our prayers should be both simple in that we should step back from ourselves in formulating them, but also profound, in that we become dependent on the forms of prayers left to us by the Church.

The difficulty inherent in obtaining simplicity can be seen in two things, and the first is from the realization of our own inadequacy as prayers, and thus as theologians (“a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian”), for we are all put to silence in the presence of God, in the presence of Mystery. But this should not stop us from taking our feebleness to God, and realize that if it is our best, this is what God wants. Metropolitan Anthony relates a story from Hebrew folklore about Moses’ interaction with a desert shepherd who every night sets out a bowel of his best milk for God. “And does God drink it,” Moses asks? “Yes he does,” the shepherd replies. An argument ensues in which Moses defends the immateriality and aseity of God, and convinces the shepherd to stay up and see if God does indeed drink the milk. As the moon rises, late in the night, a small fox comes and drinks the milk, and then runs back into the desert. The next morning Moses finds the shepherd in a sad state: “God does not want my milk. You are right, he is pure spirit.” “You should be happy,” Moses says, “you know more about God than you did before?” “Yes, I do” says the shepherd, “but the only thing I could do to expresses my love for Him has been taken away from me.” Moses gets it. That night in his prayer God comes to him: “Moses, you were wrong. It is true that I am pure spirit. Nevertheless I always accepted with gratitude the milk which the shepherd offered me, as the expression of his love, but since, being pure spirit, I do not need the milk, I shared it with this little fox, who is very fond of milk.” (Adapted from Beginning to Pray, pp. 48-49.)

This may seem an invitation to stay childish in our understanding of prayer, but such a conclusion mistakes theological refinement for devotion. Certainly no Rabbi would have thought the shepherd impious for his mistake, but at the same time Moses’ argument was only to justify himself. St. Simeon the New Theologian noted that “Contentiousness is a trap, whose bait is self-justification.” And when we try to contend with God by showing him our theological acumen are we not really justifying ourselves? This is why we should bring what we can within ourselves to God, for this is where we must begin.

But it is not where we end. I have been slowly explaining the Our Father to my foster son (we are looking toward adoption). He is very simple so far in his faith, and most of the words he has no idea about: thy and thine, hollowed, daily bread, on earth/in heaven. But we begin with what is least difficult and learn from that to move on to the more complex. The prayers in our prayer books are not themselves the end of prayer. St. Benedict in writing his Rule noted at the beginning that the monastic life he envisioned was to be but a primary school on the road to Christ. And so set forms are also the primary school on the road to Christ. They are in some ways like practicing the scales for the piano: training of both hand and ear for the harmonies that cannot be obtained without these skills.

Prayer, like hymns, should move us away from the mundane of our lives and into the cosmic Liturgy sung by the angels and saints. Prayer and hymnody should redirect our passions, and reorder our soul, redirecting us from the untimely and wayward parts of our lives, away from what we think we need, and away from the visible affairs of this world. This is what we pray especially in the Divine Liturgy at the Cherubic Hymn. We are repeatedly admonished during the Liturgy to attend, to stand upright and heed, but at the Cherubic Hymn, at the Great Entrance, we come to the point where the High Priest is ready to enter the Sanctuary, and there we stop and again remember the needs of the parish and the world. This is not some other piece of puffery that we Orthodox thought nice, but the very point where we see that the King of All, upborne by the angelic host, has transformed our earthly cares, our banal acts, and our ordinary intentions into the praises of the Seraphim and the hymns of the Saints.

Thus, thinking soberly means that we need more than just some right thinking about our aptitude in theology, or some quick study about how we have mastered the Our Father in Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Slavonic; but instead we move beyond these trite assessments. Pride, to now return to the word, gets in the way when we start thinking that assessing ourselves according to our attainments will be sufficient to come to God. We may well have memorized the entire Liturgy, and can sing all the parts of the Kedrov Our Father, but we will miss the blessings of having God drink our feeble but real offerings.

About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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2 Responses to Thoughts on Prayer V: Sober thinking about prayer.

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Joel says:

    Thanks for this, Cyril.

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