Practical Prayer

Early Christianity

Practical Prayer
Friday, September 7, 2018

In the same way as the early church, the desert Christians were deeply committed to Jesus’ teachings and lived practice. Withdrawal to the wilderness—whether into close-knit communities or solitude—was only for the sake of deeper encounter and presence.

Diana Butler Bass describes the natural flow from 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.” [1] In other words, these ancients taught that prayer was participation in God’s love, the activity that takes us out of ourselves, . . . and conforms us to the path of Christ.” [2]

The desert fathers and mothers—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 (5th century) 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.” [3]

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 presence and intention is prayer. As other spiritual 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.

Belden Lane helps clear away any romanticism we might associate with desert spirituality:

[The] desert is, preeminently, a place to die. Anyone retreating to an Egyptian or Judean monastery, hoping to escape the tensions of city life, found little comfort among the likes of an Anthony or a Sabas. The desert offered no private therapeutic place for solace and rejuvenation. One was more likely to be carried out feet first than to be restored unchanged to the life one had left. [4]

In the tradition of Moses and Jesus, the Christians who wandered into the desert entered a wild, fierce, unknown place where they would encounter both “demons” and “angels” (Mark 1:13)—their own shadowy selves which contained both good and bad. Belden Lane writes: “Amma Syncletica refused to let anyone deceive herself by imagining that retreat to a desert monastery meant the guarantee of freedom from the world. The hardest world to leave, she knew, is the one within the heart.” [5]

References:
[1] Roberta C. Bondi, To Pray and to Love (Fortress Press: 1991), 12-13, 14.

[2] Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (HarperOne: 2009), 48.

[3] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (Cistercian Publications: 1975), 84.

[4] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press: 1998), 165.

[5] Ibid., 168.

Image credit: Saint Catherine’s Monastery (detail), built between 548-565 near the town of Saint Catherine, the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Communities formed as city dwellers came out to seek advice and solace. The historical model of contemplation offers the rhythm of retreat and return. It was in the wilderness that African contemplatives carved out unique spiritual boundaries. —Barbara A. Holmes
FacebookTwitterEmailPrint