May 9, 2009

The Great Secret of Christian Prayer? Make a Good Beginning!

When I was a teenager, I remember finding a book called Beginning to Pray by the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. There were two things about this book that helped me begin to pray. First, he used the Scriptures to explore our encounter with Christ.  Second, he did not present himself as a prayer “guru.” His approach was much more humble. He admitted that he could only write a book about beginning to pray because he himself was only a beginner. Indeed, he explained, he began to pray everyday.

The Word of God is so beautiful, the very food of prayer.  Sometime, I would like to post only on this.  But for now I will just mention in passing the great teaching of Athanasius and Antony of the Desert.  Namely, we find in the Sacred Scriptures not only what the Lord thinks but also what He feels.  The Holy Bible is a window, a threshold, a passage into the very heart of God and at the same time, a pathway into the deepest truth about what it means to be man.  Christ Jesus lived and breathed the Scriptures: He used them in his prayer to the Father and in all his discourses to those whom the Father sent to Him.  The Word of God makes conversation with the Lord possible.  This is why St. Patrick in his own prayer binds himself to "the Word of God who gives me speech."

I knew this before I ever read Bloom.  But the way he explained the Holy Gospels in relation to prayer helped me see this even more.  As I began to pray, I began to love God's word in a deeper way.  They fed my desire to know God and helped me to seek him.  But this desire could only grow if I stayed faithful to another important lesson I learned from the Metropolitan.  He also taught me the lesson of beginning.  And in this post, this is the point I would like to develop.

This lesson of making a good beginning is also part of the teaching of Athanasius and Antony of the Desert.  One of the earliest works on Christian prayer is written by St. Athanasius about his childhood hero, Antony of Egypt, a 3rd Century Egyptian hermit.  It is called The Life of Antony.  Using Antony's life and sayings, Athanasius explained how it is good for Christians to encourage one another not only with the Scriptures, but also with their own words.  Every Christian, no matter how advanced, must begin anew each day. This discipline of beginning, of making prayer a life priority, is what deeply impressed me.  In fact, encouraging one another to make this beginning is the purpose of this blog.  Among Antony's first encouagements recorded by Athasusius is, “Let us renew our devotion each day, as if beginning for just the first time.”

While this is true for everyone who wants to follow the Lord, not everyone relates to this 3rd Century Egyptian. In fact, very few of us are called to enter into the wilderness as a way of life.  But we are called to pray nonetheless.  We are made to pray and not to pray is inhuman.  That is, there is levels of human potential that are never realized when we fail to pursue the Lord in prayer.  St. Augustine's Confessions begin with this insight.  Though we are but the humblest part of God's great creation, God made us to know and love Him - not because He gets some advantage from this, but because He wanted us to share in his truth, goodness and beauty.  To praise someone or something is to participate in its goodness somehow.  The goodness of God is the unimpeded pouring forth of pure love.  The uncontainable joy of love is at the heart of all that is.  God made us to praise Him because He wanted us to share in his joyful happiness.  This divine desire is what drove Antony to seek the Lord in the Desert.  It is what moved Athanasius to spend his life teaching about Christ.  And God's yearning desire for friendship with us is what moves us to begin to pray.


Most of us must find a way to pray in the midst of what John Paul II liked to call, “the modern metropolis.” Praying in the midst of the modern metropolis means among other things we must make a new beginning, today and everyday within the real life situations we find ourselves. In the midst of commuting and traffic, work and family life, malls and computers, we need those few minutes thourghout the day where we turn to the Lord so that He can remind us of his great love and who we really are in his eyes.  We also need longer periods of prayer.  In this love we discover the great purpose and mission He has entrusted to our care. Without the discipline of prayer, we are lost in a sea of anxieties and distractions that rob us of the fullness of life God desires us to have.  In the wild tides of the modern metropolis, prayer is how we keep our eyes fixed on the One who teaches us how to walk on water.

Every Christian is a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Scriptures reveal as a man of prayer. To be a disciple means to follow the discipline of one’s teacher. Christ’s discipline begins and ends with prayer. His prayer revealed the deepest desires of his heart and only those who enter into his prayer really come to understand these desires. The most intimate of these was offered the night before he died, “Father, I will that where I am, those whom you have given me may be there with me so that they might contemplate the glory you have given me from before the creation of the world.”

This prayer of Jesus, uttered with full knowledge of his impending passion and death, assumes we understand what glory the Father gave and continues to give to Jesus. Glory is the radiance of personal greatness, and true glory is almost always hidden in this world. The one who sees someone in his glory really knows the truth about that person. To see the glory of the Lord is to know who he is. The glory of Christ is men and women living life to the full. It is for this very reason he came into the world.

Now this opens up one of the greatest truths about Christian prayer, and today I can only touch on it briefly as part of the conclusion of this rambling reflection.  Christian prayer is not primarily about techniques, even if techniques are used in it.  Even those who master a technique are not anymore holy because they have mastered it.  This is because Christian prayer is about a personal and ecclesial relationship with the Lord.  He alone reveals the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Holiness or friendship with God is primarily a gift that God gives when and how He wants.  A technique, at best, disposes our hearts for this gift.  But God may give the gift to a child just as much as to an old monk.  No great technique but the humble cry of a suffering heart moves God to grant the friendship He wants for us.

This is why there are no "gurus" in Christian spirituality but only childlike saints.   Other religions have their old men who live on mountains, carefully relating secret techniques to provide access to hidden powers which they have spent their whole lives trying to master.  The only Master of Christian prayer is a capenter's son from a poor village in Galilee who was rejected, mocked, scourged and crucified at the age of 33.  All of our saints are those who, even in old age, humbly accepted nothing more than being a child of God.  Their prayer was more about learning to trust God in their weakness than the mastery of a technique by which they might access hidden power or some special knowledge.  Their only secret: to begin anew everyday with the determination to listen to God's Word and obey it with all their heart.