Filed under: Discernment
It is not possible to synthesize all that Augustine thinks of prayer in just a few paragraphs. Let me suffice to say that Augustine’s concept of prayer does not substantially differ from the one which Catholic doctrine teaches us. However, Augustine does say certain things about prayer which need to be pointed out. For Augustine, prayer is not an imposed ritual “to be carried out daily from a sense of obligation. Rather, it is the breath of the soul, the spontaneous expression of his faith, hope and love in which he shakes off the limits placed on him by time and duties to enjoy the liberating embrace of the God who dwells in the most intimate core of his being34.” Prayer, therefore, is not some kind of extra duty imposed upon a person; rather, it is as natural and necessary as breathing. Its necessity derives from the fact that man is indigens Deo, a being-in-need-of-God. Or to put it bluntly: to be human is to pray. Hence, the Apostle himself urges the disciples to pray “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Augustine explains it this way:
Your desire is your prayer; if your desire is continuous, so too is your prayer. For the Apostle did not speak in vain when he said: Pray without interruption. Is it that we should always be genuflecting, always prostrating, always raising up our hands to fulfill the command to pray without interruption? If this is what we understand praying to be, I do not believe that we can pray without interruption. There is however another prayer, an interior prayer that knows no interruption, and that prayer is your desire. Whatever you are doing, if you desire that Sabbath, you never cease to pray. If you do not wish ever to interrupt your prayer, never cease to desire. Your continuous desire will be your continuous voice. It will grow silent if you cease to love.35
“Your prayer is your desire.” Desire, of course, is that rightly ordered love which we have discussed above (see n. 1, supra). Augustine is deeply convinced of what the Apostle teaches: We do not know what we ought to pray for but the Spirit Himself pleads on our behalf with groans that are inexpressible in words (Vulgate, Rom. 8:26). Indeed, when we truly pray, it is the Spirit who moves us in prayer: “The Holy Spirit, then” Augustine writes, “urges the saints to pray with sighs too deep for words inspiring in them the desire for a good so great that it is as yet unknown but for which we wait on in hope36. It is the same Spirit whom God has poured into our hearts, empowering us to love rightly and to delight in God:
He has given us Himself as the object to be loved, and He has given us the resources for loving Him. Hear from the Apostle Paul in a more explicit way what God has given us so as to empower us to love Him: The love of God is poured into our hearts. How does this happen? Relying perhaps on our own resources? No! How then? Through the action of the Holy Spirit whom He has given us.37
Prayer then is like breathing, a groaning from the depths of one’s being; Augustine also describes it as a cry: “Prayer is a cry that one raises to the Lord.” (Serm 29, 1).
The Role of Scriptures.
These descriptions of prayer that we find in Augustine’s works should not distract us from the idea that prayer is “your speaking with God: when you read (the Scriptures), God speaks to you, when you pray, you speak to God”(In ps. 86). Christian prayer is a dialogue with God; it is a “speaking with” Him who is revealed in the Sacred Scriptures. In fact, the reading of Scriptures educates the Christian on how to relate with God: forming in him the right concept of God, teaching him His ways among His people, and instructing him in the proper way to speak to Him. Father Agostino Trape describes the Augustinian way of reading the Scriptures in the following way:
(I)t is not only reading which could be called a superficial activity, it is not only that study which is only an intellectual activity, not only that meditation which can be reduced to simple internal introspection…but also and above all, it is a combination of listening and dialogue. It involves listening in faith and docile obedience to Him who is present in man and speaks to him, and reveals his love to him and invites him to respond in love…In this listening-dialogue, which is the most beautiful and fruitful form of meditation, prayer takes on, equally spontaneously, the highest forms of contemplation which are, … wonder, admiration, gratitude, adoration, praise, expectation that faith will be replaced by vision and that the divine word of the Scripture, which sounds in time, will give way to the Word which sounds in eternity; which sounds, not through the mediation of signs and creatures, but by itself, immediately38.
“Worded” prayers have their proper place in Augustine’s understanding of prayer as “speaking with God.” The prayers of thanksgiving, adoration, praise, supplication and petition that we use in liturgical, para-liturgical rites and in our devotional practices have value only when the words used are in harmony with the desire of the heart. Augustine gives us this rule in prayer: “When you pray to God in psalms and songs, the words spoken by your lips should also be alive in your hearts.” In this way, our speaking with God becomes an expression of our desire for Him who alone is to be enjoyed and loved.
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