Sunday, April 27, 2008

Origen, On Prayer- Part Two

Here we are again with the second entry in the Origen, On Prayer series. We are starting in the second chapter in the St. Vladimir's Press edition. In the on-line edition, it is the same link as last week starting at in the fourth paragraph here: But I think, right pious and industrious Ambrosius, and right discreet and manful Tatiana, from whom I avow that womanly weakness has disappeared as truly as it had from Sarah of old, you are wondering to what purpose all this has been said in preface about things impossible for man becoming possible by the grace of God, when the subject prescribed for our discourse is Prayer.

In the previous discussion, we talked about Origen's recognition of how far God surpasses our understanding and how we only learn about God trough God's grace. In this next passage, we see Origen explicitly making the connection that prayer is also one of the topics which we cannot understand on our own power, but, with God's grace, we may be led to understand. Given my own experiences with prayer, I think Origen is right here.

I remember very clearly how, when I first became Christian, I had a lot of problems trying to figure out how to pray. My first prayer was an oldie, I grant - the Lord's Prayer - as a result of excellent advice from a friend. Still, I felt that I had to figure out how to pray (which is completely an oxymoron). My mistake was a common one. I was trying to figure out how to pray with my head, not by seeking God and learning in relationship with him. I'm still learning how to do that, but I think that is what we all need to do.

Of course, this common difficulty in learning to prayer has spawned a whole industry in Christian publishing- the majority of which are vapour and abstraction. We all, I think, have read that kind of book which leaves us more baffled and confused than when we started. The problem, I think Origen would say, with these books is that they do not pray with the Spirit. Of course, that is as baffling a comment, I'm sure, as anything in these kinds of books on prayer that I've just criticized. Yet what I think he's driving at is that prayer isn't about knowing how to pray, but rather learning the practice of relating to God.

In this section, Origen sets out his plan that he would speak about for what we ought to pray and how we ought to pray. This is not necessarily that unusual in writing about prayer; these are the concerns of almost all books on prayer. What is different is that Origen continues his emphasis that we only know God relationally. That is what I think he means by saying that we cannot pray unless the Spirit prays first. We, all too often, think of prayer as merely petitions and requests to an all-powerful, but faintly remote God. Rather, it is relationship with a God who wants to interact with us, who seeks to interact with us. Perhaps this is, after all, what we mean by inspiration because God knows that, if we relied on ourselves along, our human frailty would distract us from that conversation.

So, in the next section, we start into the body of the argument. As a warning, it seems the passages which follow keep an introductory paragraph dealing with Origen's biography. Just read past that and you'll get to the part that I propose to move onto in my next installment.

7 comments:

Jim said...

Phil,

Thank you for this series. It is good writing.

Origen is, I think saying we can only know God relationally. I suppose I would add that we can only reach some sort of relationship via Jesus and the Spirit. Certainly I think that is what you and Origen are saying but I like to be explicit in my somewhat occ way. ;-)

FWIW
jimB
Jim's Thoughts

Jim said...

Phil,

As this seems to be a conversation between us and the lurkers, ::sigh:: I will risk a second post.

As you may recall, I am a lay contemplative. That is a non-monastic who follows a set of contemplative prayer disciplines, what the non-Christian might call meditation.

In that connection, then, I was thinking about how my prayers constitute a 'relationship.' I do not 'talk to God' save in the liturgical context.

I read somewhere that contemplative prayer is in essence, attentive listening. When I let the beads of my rosary slip between my fingers, or when I engage in centering prayer, that is what I hope I am about -- being attentive to the devine. I suppose that is the core of my understanding of a relationship. I listen for the divine presence I think of as Jesus' last gift to us -- the Comforter sent.

I wonder how that fits into your sense of 'relationship?' I know you are an evangelical sort, so I cannot picture you with a set of beads ;-). {I would however be pleased to make you a set if you wished.} How do you think of relationship?

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

Hi jim;

Well, remember that, while I'm an evangelical, I have a strong intereest in contemplative prayer, even if it doesn't come at all naturally to me. My tendency is to go into my head much before stopping and contemplating. Yet, what I've learned over the years is how much I need contemplative prayer to stay centred and to live the life that Jesus wants me to. So, my sympathies are with you on this.

Now, to answer your question about where I see relationship in contemplative prayer, I have to say that I don't see a contradiction in what you do and my attempt to discuss prayer as relationship. You are, after all, engaging in active listening which is a profoundly relational activity. In fact, if we spent more time listening to God and less time spouting off telling Him about Himself or telling Him what to do, perhaps we would connect more. I really see no contradiction.

As for the prayer beads, I can see how these could be useful as a way to engage one's concentration on prayer. It isn't necessarily my thing, but I wouldn't dismiss it either.

Peace,
Phil

Malcolm XYZ said...

Phil,

as usual your blog looks great. sorry i am saying so little about it at the moment. i am simply dropping by to say that i am starting a patristics discussion group in yahoo groups. thought you might be interested. pax.

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Patristiccafe/bszup

Malcolm XYZ said...

well Phil,

I suppose I am always looking for a way to learn more about the major fathers, and Origen is well worth much more time than what I have spent on him. Reading through this text on prayer, what I am struck with, and what I want to know more about, is Origen's understanding of the Holy Spirit. It seems to be key here, and seems to look Pauline in terms of how it intercedes for us when we pray and teaches us in fact to pray. It reminded me of Gregory of Nyssa's short work on the trinity in which he says "When I think of the three, I think of the one. When I think of the one, I think of the three. And then my eyes fill with tears and I lose all sense of where I am." Origen and Gregory both seem to give an emotive role to the Holy Spirit that makes them look like today's Pentacostals almost, which was for me surprising (and pleasantly so). For Origen at least, this seems key to his understanding of prayer. It makes me wonder then about his overall understanding of the trinity. As well, it makes me wonder about what later Greek fathers would have said about the role of the Holy Spirit in Prayer and whether the problems occuring around Origen as a historical figure in the fourth century might have played any role in the evolution of their understanding of the contemplative life.

Malcolm XYZ said...

sorry, but i did not express that last idea quite right. what i meant to say was that i wonder if Origen on prayer and his understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer might have been part of the way in which Orgigen became a problem for the fourth century fathers.

My name is Todd BTW. I use a pseudonymn because I live in a police state of sorts.

Phil Snider said...

Hi Todd;

I'm not sure that is this emotive quality in Origen's concept of the Holy Spirit was really a serious problem for him in the Origen controversies after his death. For one thing, St. Gregory's example helped this considerably, but most of the concerns about Origen was when his Platonism overrode his biblicism.

Peace,
Phil