Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 1: Language and God

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum
St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am reading Prayer by Timothy Keller for a study group at church. Overall, I like it so far. But I am myself, so I cannot turn off the critical mind, in both the neutral and negative sense of the word critical.

Keller, as one may expect from a conservative Presbyterian pastor, is severe towards the mystical tradition of apophatic and contemplative prayer throughout. He admits room for silence before God, but mostly as a response after we’ve already done our talking at God, citing the venerable J.I. Packer for this belief.

The version of Christian mysticism he takes issue with is certainly something I’d be concerned about, if ever I’d met it. His discussion of mysticism in chapter 4 begins with a modern analyst’s consideration of Meister Eckhart and John Tauler, then moves into Thomas Merton. Of these three, a certain amount of Eckhart’s teaching was condemned by the mysticism-friendly Latin church of the Middle Ages (and its modern successor, Roman Catholicism). I admit to not knowing the details of Tauler’s teachings, but I do know that not everything Thomas Merton wrote would have been approved of by the Roman Catholic Church. That is to say, these three do not the mainstream of Christian mysticism make.

Keller’s criticism of mysticism quickly shifts to the lens of John Jefferson Davis, who is wary of The Cloud of Unknowing and the Jesus Prayer. The former is one of those books everyone recommends but that I’ve not yet read. The Jesus Prayer I am much better acquainted with. Nonetheless, I shall treat Keller’s discussion of Davis’s critique of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Keller and Davis distrust the mysticism of The Cloud because the goal of this sort of prayer is:

to get beyond discursive thoughts and to experience pure attentiveness to God the Spirit through the quiet, reflective, and repetitive use of a single word such as God or love. Davis rightly criticizes this by insisting that the use of language is not incidental but is instead essential to God’s eternal being as a unity of three persons, and that believers are to be sanctified in the form of the truthful words given to Jesus by the Father and conveyed to us by the Spirit. (Keller, Prayer 57)

Here lies my ongoing wrestling match with the Reformed, which is the verbocentric universe. Keller has already said elsewhere in the book that, since God exists as Trinity, we have ‘every reason’ to believe he uses language. He also implies through some deft equivocal language that all actions of God are verbal, as opposed to the point the Scriptures he uses make, which is that every word of God is an action — but perhaps this is simply lack of clarity on his part or over-incisiveness and nitpicking on mine.

Nevertheless, I have difficulty imagining that language such as we know it, in its flaws and imperfections, has anything to do with the inner-Trinitarian life. Indeed, I would never want to venture any guess as to how the Most Holy Trinity communicates amongst himselves. That the Triune God communicates to us with words is inescapably true. To say that the use of words is ‘essential to God’s eternal being as a unity of three persons’ is dangerous and possibly blasphemous.

Frankly, we need to consider what we mean. Clearly some sort of social Trinity has been imagined here. This is a little like what the Cappadocians say, but not really. Triadology may be as it may be, I see no relevance on how inner-Trinitarian conversations have to do with the infinite gulf between the Creator and the created.

In fact, I would argue that it is our own feebleness that makes language an essential part of prayer. God, who is beyond all creation and therefore beyond language, chooses to communicate to us in flawed human language. It is thus an appropriate response for us to try the same.

But none of this is actually my main issue, which is that Davis as presented by Keller seems to think that these two modes of prayer are mutually exclusive, which they are not.

Books … or people?

Fact: I am not a sap who typically says things like, ‘It’s the human connections that really matter. It’s about the people in our lives. People matter more than experiences. What’s really important is family and friendship.’

Allow me briefly do that.

I am about to read the book Prayer by Timothy Keller as part of a church group. Fact: I have never read a Tim Keller book before. I’m not really the sort who reads American ‘celebrity’ pastors. I do read British ‘celebrity’ Orthodox bishops and archimandrites, though. Due to my own trajectory, my own personality, my own past, my own likes and dislikes, my own sins, my own virtues, I am less likely now to read books by people like Tim Keller than books by people like Father Zacharias of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England.

I was thinking about this, and about writing a post about that trajectory, and the books that have helped me get where I am, from Andrew Murray’s A 31-Day Guide to Prayer read whilst a teenager, to James Houston’s The Tranforming Power of Prayer at age 22, to now, 33 years old and reading Kallistos Ware in my spare time (and St. Cyril of Alexandria at work!).

At the end of that draft, I felt, ‘To what avail?’

And I thought of Fr Raphael’s tutelage in the Jesus Prayer. And I thought of the accountability of praying the daily office with my brother as part of the Witness Cloud. And I thought of the time spent talking about spiritual growth and prayer with a number of people over the years — friends, family, mentors.

If my hard heart is softer, my mind more attuned to God, it is more recognizably so through these interactions.

But the books have helped. I know that they have. Yet sometimes one feels like, after so many books about prayer, Morning Prayers, Jesus Prayers, extemporaneous prayers, prayers in tongues, etc, etc, one still sits at the bottom rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, as poor and sinful as ever one was at the start.

John Cassian in the Philokalia – Discernment

StJohnCassian_vice4The final selection from Cassian in The Philokalia is selections, primarily from Conference 2, about discretion/discernment. Here we meet various Desert figures and desert stories, including one of my favourite stories, which I’ll recount in a moment. (For a newcomer to these discussions, I’ve talked about Cassian in The Philokalia thrice recently: once on the eight thoughts, once on purity of heart, then on scopos and telos with a bit of textual background.)

The virtue of discretion/discernment is said to be the most important. Without it, monks go too far, after all — consider those, like John Chrysostom and Francis of Assisi, who end up with chronic health conditions because of extreme asceticism in their youths. I heard somewhere that Francis, for one, regretted having gone too far. On the other hand, some abuse the flexibility inherent in all communal life. Thus, ‘hospitality’ becomes an excuse for overindulgence.

The extreme examples given by Cassian are about monks who almost die of thirst or starvation because of their lack of discernment. One monk converts to Judaism at the instigation of a demon disguised as an angel. In John of Ephesus’ sixth-century Lives of Eastern Monks, some monks venerate a local woman whom the demons have disguised as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most of us are not likely to go as far as these.

Nonetheless, in questions of fasting, vigils, Scripture reading, prayer routine, discernment is needed. We have the wisdom of our elders in the faith — that great Cloud of Witnesses. But each of us is different. Thus, by prayerful discernment, we can consider with the guidance of Scripture, the Fathers, and the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts what is the right path to holiness for our individual selves.

If only most of us ever spent the time and energy involved!

(Fun fact: The BCP recommends putting together your own rule of life, after the Supplementary Instruction that follows the Catechism.)

To close, here’s the story I esteem from this selection so much. I’ve not got The Philokalia with me, so this is actually a translation from the Latin original at New Advent:

I will tell you a fact which may supply us with some wholesome teaching, without giving the name of the actor, lest we might be guilty of something of the same kind as the man who published abroad the sins of the brother which had been disclosed to him. When this one, who was not the laziest of young men, had gone to an old man, whom we know very well, for the sake of the profit and health of his soul, and had candidly confessed that he was troubled by carnal appetites and the spirit of fornication, fancying that he would receive from the old man’s words consolation for his efforts, and a cure for the wounds inflicted on him, the old man attacked him with the bitterest reproaches, and called him a miserable and disgraceful creature, and unworthy of the name of monk, while he could be affected by a sin and lust of this character, and instead of helping him so injured him by his reproaches that he dismissed him from his cell in a state of hopeless despair and deadly despondency. And when he, oppressed with such a sorrow, was plunged in deep thought, no longer how to cure his passion, but how to gratify his lust, the Abbot Apollos, the most skilful of the Elders, met him, and seeing by his looks and gloominess his trouble and the violence of the assault which he was secretly revolving in his heart, asked him the reason of this upset; and when he could not possibly answer the old man’s gentle inquiry, the latter perceived more and more clearly that it was not without reason that he wanted to hide in silence the cause of a gloom so deep that he could not conceal it by his looks, and so began to ask him still more earnestly the reasons for his hidden grief. And by this he was forced to confess that he was on his way to a village to take a wife, and leave the monastery and return to the world, since, as the old man had told him, he could not be a monk, if he was unable to control the desires of the flesh and to cure his passion. And then the old man smoothed him down with kindly consolation, and told him that he himself was daily tried by the same pricks of desire and lust, and that therefore he ought not to give way to despair, nor be surprised at the violence of the attack of which he would get the better not so much by zealous efforts, as by the mercy and grace of the Lord; and he begged him to put off his intention just for one day, and having implored him to return to his cell, went as fast as he could to the monastery of the above mentioned old man— and when he had drawn near to him he stretched forth his hands and prayed with tears, and said O Lord, who alone art the righteous judge and unseen Physician of secret strength and human weakness, turn the assault from the young man upon the old one, that he may learn to condescend to the weakness of sufferers, and to sympathize even in old age with the frailties of youth. And when he had ended his prayer with tears, he sees a filthy Ethiopian standing over against his cell and aiming fiery darts at him, with which he was straightway wounded, and came out of his cell and ran about here and there like a lunatic or a drunken man, and going in and out could no longer restrain himself in it, but began to hurry off in the same direction in which the young man had gone. And when Abbot Apollos saw him like a madman driven wild by the furies, he knew that the fiery dart of the devil which he had seen, had been fixed in his heart, and had by its intolerable heat wrought in him this mental aberration and confusion of the understanding; and so he came up to him and asked Whither are you hurrying, or what has made you forget the gravity of years and disturbed you in this childish way, and made you hurry about so rapidly?

And when he owing to his guilty conscience and confused by this disgraceful excitement fancied that the lust of his heart was discovered, and, as the secrets of his heart were known to the old man, did not venture to return any answer to his inquiries, Return, said he, to your cell, and at last recognize the fact that till now you have been ignored or despised by the devil, and not counted in the number of those with whom he is daily roused to fight and struggle against their efforts and earnestness—you who could not— I will not say ward off, but not even postpone for one day, a single dart of his aimed at you after so many years spent in this profession of yours. And with this the Lord has suffered you to be wounded that you may at least learn in your old age to sympathize with infirmities to which you are a stranger, and may know from your own case and experience how to condescend to the frailties of the young, though when you received a young man troubled by an attack from the devil, you did not encourage him with any consolation, but gave him up in dejection and destructive despair into the hands of the enemy, to be, as far as you were concerned, miserably destroyed by him. But the enemy would certainly never have attacked him with so fierce an onslaught, with which he has up till now scorned to attack you, unless in his jealousy at the progress he was to make, he had endeavoured to get the better of that virtue which he saw lay in his disposition, and to destroy it with his fiery darts, as he knew without the shadow of a doubt that he was the stronger, since he deemed it worth his while to attack him with such vehemence. And so learn from your own experience to sympathize with those in trouble, and never to terrify with destructive despair those who are in danger, nor harden them with severe speeches, but rather restore them with gentle and kindly consolations, and as the wise Solomon says, Spare not to deliver those who are led forth to death, and to redeem those who are to be slain, Proverbs 24:11 and after the example of our Saviour, break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax, Matthew 12:20 and ask of the Lord that grace, by means of which you yourself may faithfully learn both in deed and power to sing: the Lord has given me a learned tongue that I should know how to uphold by word him that is weary: Isaiah 50:4 for no one could bear the devices of the enemy, or extinguish or repress those carnal fires which burn with a sort of natural flame, unless God’s grace assisted our weakness, or protected and supported it. And therefore, as the reason for this salutary incident is over, by which the Lord meant to set that young man free from dangerous desires and to teach you something of the violence of their attack, and of the feeling of compassion, let us together implore Him in prayer, that He may be pleased to remove that scourge, which the Lord thought good to lay upon you for your good (for He makes sorry and cures: he strikes and his hands heal. He humbles and exalts, he kills and makes alive: he brings down to the grave and brings up) , and may extinguish with the abundant dew of His Spirit the fiery darts of the devil, which at my desire He allowed to wound you. And although the Lord removed this temptation at a single prayer of the old man with the same speed with which He had suffered it to come upon him, yet He showed by a clear proof that a man’s faults when laid bare were not merely not to be scolded, but that the grief of one in trouble ought not to be lightly despised. And therefore never let the clumsiness or shallowness of one old man or of a few deter you and keep you back from that life-giving way, of which we spoke earlier, or from the tradition of the Elders, if our crafty enemy makes a wrongful use of their grey hairs in order to deceive younger men: but without any cloak of shame everything should be disclosed to the Elders, and remedies for wounds be faithfully received from them together with examples of life and conversation: from which we shall find like help and the same sort of result, if we try to do nothing at all on our own responsibility and judgment.

Christian Rock

I belong to a group on Facebook called, ‘It’s True, Young People Do Like Traditional Liturgy.’ It draws a lot of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans/Episcopalians, as well as the odd Lutheran or even Presbyterian. Today, someone posted this sublimely beautiful video of Russian chant in four-part harmony:

I’ve heard a lot of Russian chant, and am kind of in love with basso profundo, but there is something sweet and, as I say, sublimely beautiful about the music in the above recording. As I continued my Internet wanderings — which consisted of typing up a post for 11 months from now (Guerric of Igny on Candlemas — I’m sure you can’t wait!), I played a recording called ‘Medieval Russian Chant.’

Shortly, my eldest brother was inquiring over Facebook as to whether his younger siblings were acquainted with Steve Taylor’s latest album (actually, Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil), Goliath. I admitted to never having heard of it, let alone having heard it. So I  pressed Pause on my Russian chant and trotted over to YouTube to meet Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil — seeing that two of his bandmates are Peter Furler of Newsboys fame and Jimmy A (for Abegg). Here’s “Moonshot”, where Taylor’s mouth freaks me out somethin’ fierce:


I went on to listen to a bunch more of Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil via YouTube — this eventually transitioned into Steve Taylor music videos from Squint, his 1993 album. As Michael said on Facebook, this sounds a lot like Squint but rocks harder and faster. I also agree that this is ‘prime Taylor.’ I, myself, once owned two Steve Taylor tapes, Squint and Liver (as in, more live, not the organ/food; it’s a live album); Michael has owned a lot of Taylor tapes, as well as the Squint video (as in, VHS).

I enjoy this music.

I have not been part of the whole Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) thing for many years. At some point in undergrad, my music purchases narrowed to classical and folk plus a bit of classic rock. Occasionally something happens to break these boundaries, like me buying three Coldplay albums that one time. Or I catch wind of something Christian that I approve of, like Steve Bell’s Devotion or John Michael Talbot’s Worship and Bown Down. But on the whole, when I buy music, it tends to be classical or folk. CCM mostly appears through nostalgia — playing my own Guardian, dc Talk, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline albums — or a flurry of activity on Spotify. Not actual purchases.*

Frankly, I stopped enjoying a lot of the music. I found much CCM musically, theologically, lyrically, devotionally unsatisfying. Nonetheless, I still like some of it.

As I sit here, listening once again to some Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil (right now, “Standing in Line“), I want to share some honest thoughts about Christian rock, of varying degrees of objectivity and subjectivity. Since I am the sort of person who belongs to a Facebook group about traditional liturgy, who listens to Renaissance music, swoons at the sound of Russian chant, and would rather hear Vittoria’s music for the Passion on Palm Sunday than witness a poor dramatisation — someone who writes this blog, after all — it should come as no shock that I am not sold on rock music at Sunday worship.

But since I don’t feel like getting dragged into the Worship Wars, I will say only this — whatever music you prayerfully and meditatively choose for Sunday mornings, it must be doctrinally and biblically shaped, and I hope it upholds why we go to church in the first place:

to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his [God’s] hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. (BCP, preface to Morning Prayer)

And, if Eucharist is being celebrated, to encounter the living, ascended Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of His Most Holy Body and Blood. Oh — and, traditionally, Anglicans go to confess their sins. These are the objective purposes for which Sunday morning gatherings should transpire.

Rock music exists largely to be consumed through recordings, although there is something excellent about a live performance. But it was born in the recording age, and it was radio that made Elvis so big. This means that even if we go to a traditional worship service on Sunday, we still have access to recorded music and music videos in the comfort of our own homes and our cars.

I think there’s room for some Christian rock in our homes. I mean, this blog doesn’t exist to promote what little I know on the subject. Frankly, I’d just go around promoting Steve Taylor, dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, and PFR alongside less rockin’ CCM like Rich Mullins, John Michael Talbot, Steve Bell. Maybe Third Day sometimes. Petra’s album Wake Up Call. Stryper all night long. That sort of eclecticism that reflects my teenage years. And no, Stryper was not around when I was a teenager. I’m not that old.

But I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past years with the Greek and Cypriot Orthodox. And I’ve been reading the likes of St John Climacus, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St John Cassian, St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Augustine of Hippo, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Ephrem the Syrian, Lancelot Andrewes, and others in my devotional readings. Since stopping the buying of CCM, I’ve discovered Tallis, Striggio, Bach’s choral works, and more. I have spent a bit of time with the works of Anthony de Mello. I have prayed the Jesus Prayer with a chomboschini.

There can be devotional importance in Christian rock. Some of it is good music, and beauty, whether the Sistine Chapel or the Beatles, is always a glimpse of the Divine. Some of is good poetry — likewise. Some of it is theologically profound. Some of it expresses truths we all need to face about life as a Christian in this world, which is probably where it’s greatest devotional importance lies, as in Steve Taylor, “Jesus Is for Losers”:

But we need the silence. Our lives are cluttered. Facebook, TV, radio, movies, Instagram, phones at our hips, ads on every available surface, etc, etc. Music is in the background everywhere — as we clean, as we walk down the street, as we fly across the ocean, as we make love, as we eat at a restaurant, as we ride an elevator — whether chosen by ourselves or others. Christian rock is part of the noise (but so, I am aware, can be Haydn’s Die Schoepfung).

Transfiguration -- Sozomen'sOnce upon a time, I went on a bus trip to the Troodos Mountains with my friends Fr Ioannis and Fr Andreas. Fr Ioannis is an iconographer. We visited the famous “painted churches of Cyprus” — and I loved it. I learned a lot about Orthodoxy and Cyprus and iconography and all manner of things. I beheld such beauty in these churches. I should tell you more about this trip sometime.

As we travelled along, one of the Orthodox faithful asked Fr Ioannis what he thought about Christian rock. Fr Ioannis gave an answer that has always stuck with me ever since. When you listen to rock music, can you pray? Fr Ioannis feels that this kind of music is not conducive to setting your heart in quiet as prayer needs.

And we are called to pray without ceasing by St Paul.

My sister has a friend who plays drums in a band, and she says that you can tell that his drumming is something of an ecstatic experience of worship for him. So, yes, one can worship and pray to rock music.

But we need to remember Elijah, as echoed in the Brian Doerksen song, who heard the still, small voice.

As I’ve blogged before, I sometimes have anger issues. It has not been Stryper or Petra or Steve Taylor who has calmed my spirit. Today I am less prone to anger than I was two years ago, and this is because the Lord’s grace has touched me whilst praying the Jesus Prayer.

In the secret, in the quiet place. In the stillness, He is there.

Sometimes, we need to turn the music off, not up. And we need to sit in the stillness and the silence. And pray.

I’m willing to allow a place for Christian rock. I can do without it, though. None of us can do without silence, stillness, and solitude, for it is there that God has made Himself known to many a believer since at least the day Moses ascended Sinai.

*As a side note, you should buy albums (digital, CD, vinyl, whatev) of artists yo u like because they make almost no money off Spotify. In fact, they make not so much from iTunes, either, so CD or vinyl is probably to be preferred.

How can we have Jesus as our main focus?

Apse, St John's Lateran
Apse of St John’s Lateran, my pic

The fourth-century mystic, Evagrius Ponticus, proclaims in his controversial Kephalaia Gnostica that the highest end of the Christian life is contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

Which is all well and good for, you know, monks who live in the Egyptian desert, like Evagrius.

But what about the rest of us? How are we actually supposed to keep our focus on Jesus like the Franciscans/Capuchins in my most recent blog post? Life for all of us has many things that require focus. Driving a car, making dinner, filing taxes.

Or, more broadly and at a higher level, what kind of husband would I be if I did not focus on my wife? What kind of a father would my brother be if he never focussed on my nieces and nephew? What kind of a regional manager would one of my friends be if he never really focussed on the paint business? What kind of vegetables would a person grow who never focussed on gardening? How would I ever write my PhD if I never focussed on collating manuscripts, reading secondary sources, analysing Leo the Great’s style?

We all have things to focus on that are explicitly not Jesus.

And, really, these things take a lot of time, don’t they? Time and mental energy.

To provide for themselves, desert monks of Egypt would weave baskets and sell them at market. Not exactly the most mind-consuming task. Try taking care of a one-year old for a mere hour – let alone day after day – and you will find your mind very well-occupied.

I am a mere amateur at this – no Franciscan saint sits behind this laptop, no great geron of the Egyptian Thebaid types these posts. I have gone days without prayer within recent memory. Weeks without concerted Bible-reading. I am prone to frustration and anger and annoyance at other people. I can be a jerk. Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking on this question because of how bold and high I aimed in that last post.

So here are my thoughts.

First, get your butt in church on Sunday. Or Saturday evening. Try, if you can, to make it the same church most of the time (although I do enjoy a bit of ecclesiastical tourism, myself!) – whether Roman Catholic or Anglican or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Coptic Orthodox or Baptist or Ethiopian Tawehedo or Greek Orthodox or Methodist or whatever.

Here you will meet Jesus in ways beyond your control. Sometimes it will be hard to find him because some of the people annoy you or the preaching’s a bit weak or the theology too liberal or the theology to conservative. Be there. Be attentive to the Holy Spirit. Learn, as I am striving to, to be moved by the Most Holy Trinity whether it’s Gregorian Chant or acoustic guitar or traditional Presbyterian a cappella Psalms.

Second, read the Bible every day. The Bible is God’s normative way of communicating with the human race. Yes, He spoke to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and the prophets and the Apostles and the mystics of the Church. Maybe He will speak to you in that way too.

Read the Bible. It is all about the Crucified God. I don’t care which translation you use, I don’t care which Bible reading program you follow, I don’t care what kind of meditation or study of Scripture you use. You want to focus on Jesus? Read a chapter or two of the Bible every day. Think about Jesus. You have time for this.

Third, pray every day. My Anglo-Catholic uncle once remarked that if a person doesn’t read the Bible and pray every day, he’s not sure what kind of a Christian they are. I’m not saying pull regular night-long vigils, or even a half-hour of intense prayer.

Just pray. Pray to Jesus. And pray that you will focus on Him more. I don’t care if you use the old evangelical acronym ACTS to guide you or the Daily Office or the Jesus Prayer or praying in tongues or seeking silence in your inmost being to find Christ there every day. Just pray.

These three things are probably the only things I think we should add to our regular lives. Everything else, all the spiritual disciplines, can be worked into our days without taking time from other activities and priorities. Fasting will take no time from your day.

Intercession: The heart of prayer?

El Greco, The Agonyin the Garden

I once read a book that said that worship was the most important form of prayer. This may be right, but I am not always certain that worship is prayer. Not etymologically, and certainly not in the biblical record. When St Paul exhorts people to pray, it seems often to focus on bringing petitions before God.

According to a little booklet I got of 30 days of prayer with Andrew Murray (purchased at Hull’s Family Bookstore, Thunder Bay, Ontario), intercession is the most important form of prayer.

I do not wish to say which of the forms of prayer — things like the Jesus Prayer or intercession or worship or confession of sins — is most important out of those that have been offered up as candidates. However, I think intercession should be at the heart of our prayer activity as we commune with God in our quiet place.

I hold this belief for several reasons. One is the etymological fallacy, that the English word ‘to pray’ originally means ‘to make a request’ — and the request is not always from God.

This is not, however, simply the etymology of English, but also the meaning of the Greek used in our Bibles. Luke 22:40, Christ tells the Disciples on the Mt of Olives to pray that they not fall into temptation, using the verb proseuchomai,* and then goes off to pray to the Father — once again, proseuchomai and that which he offers to God is a proseuche.** This Greek word, proseuchomai, means to make a request or offer a petition; its related noun means a request, a petition, or a vow, often one made to a god.

I believe that getting to the root of the words we see in any text is an important aspect of study. What does the Bible mean by prayer? What is its root? What is its cultural context? etc, etc.

Some famous Bible verses about prayer that use this Greek word (NIV):

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. -Acts 2:42

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. -Philippians 4:6

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. -Colossians 4:2

pray without ceasing -1 Thessalonians 5:17

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. -1 Timothy 2:1-8

Of course, a petition need not be intercessory. The standard form of the Jesus Prayer is a petition, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ But it is not an intercession.

Intercession, as an English word, is a particular form of petition. It is a petition made on behalf of someone else. The intercessor stands in the breach between a person or situation and the gracious God, pleading that Our Lord will have mercy and bring his love and mercy to bear on a particular situation.

So here I come to my final two reasons why I think intercession is at the heart of prayer. Not only is it biblical, it is also unselfish. It is an act of utter charity. Intercessions are not prayers about me — my cold, my loud flatmates, my financial situation, my research and so forth. Intercessions are prayers that are focussed on others.

As Christians, we are called to be servants of all. We are called to give up ourselves for others. We are called to live not for ourselves. We are called to live in complete charity.

Finally, intercession brings us before God in a bold way that some may think lacks humility. Who am I to ask anything for anyone else before God? God is God. He is the most powerful, majestic, awesome, beautiful being in the universe. He sustains all things by his hand and brought them into existence by a mere word.

This is why we must intercede before God for others. We need to learn that our God is not like the gods of the ‘pagans’. He is not distant. He is not so far beyond us that we cannot approach his throne ourselves. We do not need any mediator besides Christ (who is himself God!). He does not require long, complicated rituals for us to access him. He does not delegat the task of hearing petitions and intercessions to his minions.

God, Himself, wants to hear from us. He wants us to join him in his task of redemption, and this includes interceding for those around us.

We should do it in humility, but in love not quaking fear.

*For Hellonphiles or over-clever people, I always cite words by their lexicographical lemma so that my readers can find them in a dictionary. What would be the use of giving an infinitive when it is the first principal part that is needed?

**If I could do macrons, I would.

Prayer in 2004: Classic and Charismatic

Today, my historical journey on the pocket scroll will take us to the far gone, bygone days of yesteryear — 2004.

In 2004, I lost two very excellent books. I still sometimes grieve for them. One of them was The Way of a Pilgrim, the other the poems of St John of the Cross. I had acquired the former at the Métis Nation of Ontario’s annual gathering (the official name of which escapes me) for, like, 50 cents. The Way of a Pilgrim is a Russian spiritual novel about a guy who wanders all over Russia, meets with spiritual elders, and prays The Jesus Prayer, seeking ‘the self-actuating prayer of the heart.’

That’s actually what it says.

This book was my first contact with the Jesus Prayer, which has subsequently become a staple for my prayer life, alongside the more Protestant/evangelical prayers of my upbringing and the BCP.

My mother’s only concern with the Jesus Prayer was one which she also has with much contemporary worship music — it is self-focussed. Nonetheless, she agreed that the idea of a simple, repetitive pathway to perpetual prayer was probably a good thing.

The poems of St John of the Cross were a gift from my friend Emily. They’re interesting, an insight into a different approach to Christian prayer and mysticism — the original ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ vision of Christian spirituality. But, unlike contemporary Christian music, at least St John of the Cross got his spirituality from the Bible (read Song of Songs with the majority tradition as the expression of God and His Church together for that to make sense).

In those days, instead of swanky striped shirts with cufflinks made out of watch gears, I wore T-shirts and cargo pants (for my UK readers, those would be trousers). And my cargo pants (insert chuckle) had a pocket that was just the right size for two small pocket books/mass market paperbacks.

So I put them in there.

Somewhere on OC Transpo (city of Ottawa bus system) they got off without me.

So. There I was, an eager, young undergrad, seeking the idealistic depths of constant prayer and union with the Divine.

What was I to do?

The OC Transpo did not have them in their lost and found.

I like to always have a devotional/spiritual l book on the go (sometimes I absorb nothing, but it’s better than not seeking at all; sometimes I fail to have such a book on the go). So I plucked off my shelf a book I had found at Ottawa’s murky, three-storey used bookshop of dubious quality, the Book Market — Nine O’Clock in the Morning.

This book, for those of you who don’t know it, is the story of the start of the ‘charismatic renewal’ in the Episcopal Church of the USA. I was captivated by the tale of how a high-church priest who didn’t go in for or even believe in such things became an outlet for the Holy Spirit pouring Himself upon His people with rich blessings, with healings and conversions alongside the ordinary miracles of daily life.

This book, and a visit to Ottawa by Bishop Malcolm Harding of Anglican Renewal Ministries reminded me that, as a Christian indwelt by the power of the Holy Spirit, I already had all the resources I needed to enter into a deep experience of prayer — John of the Cross and The Way of a Pilgrim might be nice, might be helpful, but they are not necessary.

This is an important lesson for bookish people like me. Some Christians should probably read more books. Some Christians should probably read fewer books. I should probably often put the books down and actually pray.

Christ through his life, death, and resurrection, as well as the power of the indwelling Spirit, has already given me what I need to enter into deepest communion with the Divine. All I need to do is accept it.