Practical Prayer

The Desert Fathers and Mothers

Practical Prayer
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

In the same way as the early Church, the desert Christians were deeply committed to Jesus’ teachings and lived practice. Their chosen solitude and silence was not anti-social but a way to become better at seeing clearly and at loving deeply. Withdrawal was only for the sake of deeper encounter and presence.

Diana Butler Bass describes the natural flow from solitude to prayer to active love:

“[Jesus’ invitation to] ‘Come follow me’ was intimately bound up with the practice of prayer. For prayer connects us with God and others, ‘part of this enterprise of learning to love.’ Prayer is much more than a technique, and early Christians left us no definitive how-to manual on prayer. Rather, the desert fathers and mothers believed that prayer was a disposition of wholeness, so that ‘prayer and our life must be all of a piece.’ They approached prayer, as early church scholar Roberta Bondi notes, as a practical twofold process: first, of ‘thinking and reflecting,’ or ‘pondering’ what it means to love others; and second, as the ‘development and practice of loving ways of being.’ In other words, these ancients taught that prayer was participation in God’s love, the activity that takes us out of ourselves, away from the familiar, and conforms us to the path of Christ.” [1]

Through their solitude, the abbas and ammas learned to be sparing and intentional with their words and to preach more through their lifestyle than through sermons. There were few “doctrines” to prove at this time in Christianity, only an inner life to be experienced. Abba Isidore of Pelusia said, “To live without speaking is better than to speak without living. For the former who lives rightly does good even by his silence but the latter does no good even when he speaks. When words and life correspond to one another they are together the whole of philosophy.”[2]

An old abba was asked what was necessary to do to be saved. He was sitting making rope. Without glancing up, he said, “You’re looking at it.” Just as so many of the mystics have taught us, doing what you’re doing with care, presence, and intention is prayer, the very way to transformation and wholeness.  As other master teachers have taught in many forms, “When we walk, we walk; when we chop wood, we chop wood; when we sleep, we sleep.” As you know, this is much harder than it first seems.

Gateway to Silence:
Lead me into the wilderness of silence and simplicity.

References:
[1] Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Harper One: 2010).
[2] Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian Publications: 1975), 1.

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