Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Pray about it."

I regret that I don't have the time and energy to offer a lengthy and/or original post at the moment - one is actually on the way, slated to go 'live' later this week - but I would like to share some wise and challenging words from Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest who blogs at Glory to God for All Things. Father Stephen acknowledges that some may initially be offended by what he has to say, but his hope (and my hope, too) is that candid words like these can be helpful to those who are willing to consider them thoughtfully:
The simple truth, painful as it is, is that "pray about it" is among the worst spiritual advice ever given to someone. Not that God should not be prayed to – but that most people have so little experience in such a reality that "praying about it" is tantamount to asking them to write an algorithm on the topic or express it in terms of quantum mechanics.

. . .

We often think we know what is best for our lives, and pray accordingly. But the simple truth is that we rarely have any idea what is necessary in our lives (or that of anyone else) in terms of salvation. Salvation is far more than coming to make a statement that "Jesus is the Lord of my life." It is the daily living consequences of having accepted Christ as Lord of life. Such a consequence is difficult and demanding, sweeping away all false idols before it and healing even the secret thoughts of our hearts. It is terrifying.

Few of us would ever complete a short time in prayer and actually ask for such an all-encompassing event in our lives. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31).
If you would like to read the rest of Father Stephen's post - and I hope that you will - please click here. AMDG.

The photo that illustrates this post was found here.


At 12/01/2010 11:54 AM, Blogger Michelle said...

I'm quite good at quantum mechanics and still would not have the first clue about how to describe prayer in that framework!

Thanks for a quick to read, but long to digest post...

At 12/01/2010 2:06 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for the comment - yes, the point that Fr. Stephen is making is rather subtle, and I think it does take a while to digest (hence his initial caveat asking people to reflect before responding, as his tone may initially put some people off).

There are a number of things going on in the post, but I think that two of the most important points are these:

1) Prayer isn't about what we want or what we think is best for us - God know us better than we know ourselves, and God knows what we truly need.

2) We often fail to attend to the communal aspects of prayer and, by extension, discernment. Fr. Stephen notes that American culture tends to treat prayer as a purely individual and internal exercise (and, perhaps implicitly, as an approach to problem-solving - note the original context of the "pray about it" story in his post, as well as the reference to quantum mechanics). In fact, prayer and discernment should take place in a communal context (which could mean the family, not simply the church) and do involve authorities other than the individual (this is where the "listening to elders" part comes in).

This is bound to be challenging for people who are used to thinking of prayer in the purely individualistic and subjective way that Fr. Stephen warns against - this is why I thought it would be worthwhile to share his post and to invite reflection on its contents.

At 12/01/2010 4:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of something that Father Florovsky says in the introduction (or preface) to the Festal Menaion - I don't have it with me as the copy I ordered still hasn't arrived - which if I remember correctly comments on the widespread notion that set prayers are for beginners and that we should be encouraged to move beyond them, something that was certainly familiar to me - in fact I have distinct memories of publishing things that aimed to help people do precisely that. Florovsky says something to the effect that, while there is truth in that, the point of such prayers is to teach us to pray, and that we cannot assume that we know how to do that unless we have learnt from that which the Church give us.

I hope I haven't misreprensented him, but his comments, and my experience of prayer in an Orthodox context, does represent something of a sea-change from some of what one often encounters in contemporary western "spirituality" which can too easily give free reign to the thoughts and the ego.

At 12/01/2010 8:01 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


I have the Festal Menaion with me, so I looked at Fr. Florovsky's introduction to find the section you refer to. I think this is it:

"It has often been suggested, by many authorities and expert masters of spiritual life, that 'prayer books,' the fixed formularies of worship, are only intended for the beginners. This is undoubtedly true, if the statement is properly understood. Fixed formulae are, of course, no more than a means towards something much greater. Yet they are an appropriate means. It is spiritually dangerous to neglect the 'books,' to dispense with them hastily, and to indulge arbitrarily in extempore improvisations of one's own composition. It is more than merely a question of discipline. The settled formulae not only help to fix the attention, but also feed the heart and mind of worshippers, offering topics for meditation and reminding them of the mighty deeds of God. There is no room for psychologism or subjectivism in Christian worship. The goal and purpose of worship is the 'prayer of the mind', to the complete exclusion of all 'passions.' Serenity is here the measure. Let all human flesh be silent, and with awe and trembling stand. . . ." (32)

I think you capture Fr. Florovsky's point accurately. Even if fixed prayers are meant as "a means towards something greater" and as a help to beginners (that is, to all who pray - as Metr. Anthony of Sourozh put it, we are all beginners), they also provide a disciplined structure that offers lasting guidance and support - even, as can often occur, when we chafe at structure or find the texts set out for us less stimulating than they were when we encountered them for the first time (I could imagine writing a post or two on this, especially as applied to the liturgy and the festal cycle).

I could write a bit more, but I think we're on the same page - almost literally so, as far as the Menaion is concerned!

At 12/02/2010 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for looking that up, Joe. If you are ever inclined to write more, I'd be interested in reading it!



Post a Comment

<< Home