It has been awhile since I've had a chance to continue my series on Origen's On Prayer, but work in May and June has been very busy. Things are starting (just starting) to wind down, so I thought it a good time to get back to work. The passage I'm discussing is here . My own references continue to be from the St. Vladimir edition. The other parts of this series includes an introduction, parts one and two.
This passage is a bit of a hard entry to write on because it presents two problems to someone who is trying to consider its spiritual dimensions. First, in this passage, Origen indulges his own predilections by analysing the Greek words used for prayer and their meanings. His method is, of course, deeply philological: searching out the words in Scripture and discussing their usage in significant passages. Origen is the consummate intellectual and this passage, of course, appeals very much to the intellect. It is a useful passage to see how Origen goes about his scriptural exegesis, but, if one already has a tendency towards over-intellectualization, one could get bogged down in the nuts and bolts and not consider what Origen is trying to teach here.
Second, much of the discussion is centred on the word euche to which, in his philological analysis, Origen gives two basic meanings: intercession and the vow. His argument that the primary meaning is that of a vow- defined in Origen as a a promise to do something if God should do something else for them- is, I think, a bit of a stumbling block for modern readers. While ancient writers like Origen didn't really have a problem with the concept, we moderns do. All to often, we react to the idea of this kind of prayer as primitive or bargaining, so we tend not view it as really 'legitimate'. I don't know how many times I hear that we can't do this kind of 'bargaining' because it is tantamount to forcing God to do what we want or that this is simple wish fulfillment. It is, sometimes, easier to dismiss these passages where a vow is given, rather than take them seriously.
Yet, the thing about this kind of prayer is that it presumes a relationship. That is, this isn't a dictate given by us to God or vice versa, but rather it is something in which God freely participates. If we understand it this way, Jacob's vow on the road to Paddam Aram (to take the first example Origen presents) that God keep him safe and Jacob would take him as his God is an affirmation of a relationship which God initiated. It follows Jacob's vision of the ladder in which God promises to keep Jacob safe. Jacob's vow is an answer to this experience of grace and of the relationship which God initiated.
I wonder if this relational dimension to prayer isn't what we are missing by dismissing this idea of the vow. I'm not sure I've quite overcome my resistance to the idea nor am I sure that I would say all vows of this type are free from attempted manipulation of God. That is the risk we take in all relationships- human and divine. Yet, I wonder if we shouldn't reconsider this resistance. Perhaps this is what Origen can teach us.