Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tradition and Prayer

Since the last entry, I've been thinking a bit about the different ways that tradition permeates Christian life. That, in itself, sounds a little odd because I know that most talk about tradition focuses on theological content and very little on practices. That has made a lot of 'traditionalism' seem arid, theoretical and, well, let's be honest, pointless to its critics. Nor is this criticism an unfair one. There are a lot of people of whatever tradition whose adherence to their tradition is a purely intellectual one which has little to do with what they practice each day. That is and should be a scandal for any Christian (or anyone really) who respects Christian tradition over the ages.

Yet, I would suggest that this is a distinctly impoverished view of tradition. Tradition as only an intellectual edifice is really just another way of describing an ivory tower and we all know how useful that is. Besides, Christianity is not, strictly speaking, a philosophy in the sense of merely believing certain propositions. No, Jesus offers us a way of living, not just a way of thinking. Yes, of course, our thinking helps to determine our way of living, but we still have to do something. This is where practices come in.

To demonstrate my point, I could pick any number of Christian practices- prayer, service, fasting, meditation and on and on- to see how what has been handed down (Latin- tradere)to us over the centuries has helped make us better pray-ers, servers, fasters, meditators. Prayer is an excellent example of this because Christians have been praying for more than two thousand years and Jews another couple of thousand years before that. One would think that tradition, as the collected experience of Jews and Christians over the millenia, would have something to say about how prayer works. And it does.

As an example, let's take the Lord's Prayer- a prayer which was very consciously handed down (tradere- again. Can you sense a theme?) and which is the quintessential Christian prayer in most people's mind. Say Christian prayer to anyone and you're liable to get back "Our Father who art in Heaven...." This prayer is so important that there are several patristic commentaries on it (the most notable ones by Origen, Tertullian and St. Cyprian) and I don't know how many books, sermon series and what not explaining it right up to today. And that makes sense because Jesus clearly intended it to be the template for prayers by his followers. From its intimate address to the immediacy of its requests (give us today our daily bread) to its recognition of our need for forgiveness and for forgiving, it is a microcosm of how Christians should live their lives each day. And, if we remember this little prayer, our own practice of our faith is likely to be deeper and more profound. That is, of course, why St. Benedict insisted on praying this prayer three times a day in his Rule and why almost no Christian weekly service goes by (even by the most non-traditional, formal prayer despising Protestants) without it. And that is all to the good.

This is, then, tradition in its very best sense- a practice which deepens our faith. Nor is the Lord's Prayer the only example of prayer informed by tradition. We are blessed by generations of mighty pray-ers (and prayers) and, if we are inclined to look, we can probably find ways of approaching prayer which will make sense to someone somewhere. Personally, I'm grateful for Brother Lawrence, whose practice of God's presence in the day to day activities of his life makes it possible for me to prayer in the busyness of my life these days. I'm grateful for the whole practice of lectio divina which, although I'm hardly an amateur, shows a way to read Scriptures as something other than a history book or an instruction manual. I'm also grateful to the whole tradition of catholic liturgy (in my experience, as expressed in the Anglican catholic tradition) which, somehow, links our story as a Christian people with worship, praise and a call to action in the world. All this is merely scratching the surface of what is out there, but I think you get the idea. The riches of the tradition of Christian prayer are almost endless.

Ultimately, this is the point of having a tradition. Old things aren't valuable just because their old. Anyone who has read any history realizes that there was every bit as much dreck in previous periods as there is manifest today. What has happened has been a sifting of the good from the bad which has allowed us to see the best from all ages. At its best, tradition outlines what works because those things have stood the test of time. That is the riches of any tradition and the peculiar inheritance which we are privileged to enjoy today.


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