Prayer: entering a Divine Conversation

The Divine Office as contained in the Anglican Breviary begins with Matins (p. B1 for Sundays). In spite of the impression that perhaps Matins is the first Office of the liturgical day it is in fact not so. The first Office of Sunday is the 1st Vespers of Sunday (p. B27). The first Psalm of the Divine Office is not Psalm 1 (as given in Matins for Sunday) but in fact Psalm 110. The same is true for the Divine Office according to the Rule of St. Benedict which also begins with the 1st Vespers of Sunday and with the same Psalm.

The introductory versicles are our plea to God for His divine help in being able to pray at all. The plea itself is not a plea “made up” by a committee of Bishops or experts, but is in fact a quote from Scripture – the word of God. “O Lord open thou my lips, and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” The versicle and its response are taken from Psalm 51: 15. The other opening verislces from Scripture are, of course, taken from Psalm 70: 1. The latter begin all the Hours except Matins which begins with Psalm 51:15. They are in the singular (me) and not, as the Prayer Book distorts it, in the plural. The message of the opening versicles is in fact that “prayer” is an already established given, not something we create or make up. Prayer happens on God’s initiative, not ours. What may seem a small change in the 1552 Prayer Book is in fact a negation of the “givenness” of prayer and an (unintended ? ) assertion of the malleability of prayer by human subjects. It asserts our initiative and control in rivalry to God’s. The better practice therefore – in spite of the Anglican Breviary’s apparent concession to “strict Prayer Book usage” (p. A3) – is to follow the traditional and scriptural usage. The very words of Scripture “given” to us by God are the gate through which we enter prayer. It literally fulfills St. Pauls words to us in Romans that:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings.

Romans 8, 26

The comment accompanying this verse on informs us that: “The Spirit is said to ask, and desire for the saints, and to pray in us; inasmuch as he inspireth prayer, and teacheth us to pray.” Prayer is clearly on God’s initiative and he teaches us by giving us the Scripture itself as the building blocks for our prayer. Spontaneous extemporaneous prayer is not necessarily to be the preferred mode for prayer in spite of many assertions to the contrary heard today. Again what is assumed by so-called spontaneous or extemporaneous prayer is that prayer is malleable. It presumes that I am (or we) doing prayer and God first comes in as the One who listens to our prayer (rather than as the One who first initiated it). Prayer is treated as first and foremost as a human and not a divinely given activity. Such an approach is fundamentally in error. Prayer, such as traditionally given to us, is first and foremost a divine activity into which we are graciously allowed to enter.

This point is made very clear in the first Psalm used for the Divine Office: Psalm 110:

The Lord said unto my Lord …

The Psalm presents to us a divine conversation between Father and Son which is already ongoing. The human subject does not begin prayer and does not create the content for prayer either. God the Divine Trinity does. The Divine Spirit – as we saw above – is the means by which we are inserted into the conversation. Prayer is, to quote St. Evagrius, the mind’s conversation with God (On Prayer, 3 The Psalm which opens the “Psalmody” (liturgical recitation/singing of the Psalms) reinforces that prayer is a “given” and specifies what kind of “given” it is: an entry into the divine conversation. Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity provides an interesting possibility for visualizing this message. The faces of the “Angels” are turned inward, and in particular we see the Angel on (the viewers) left hand turned toward the middle Angel and the middle Angel turned toward the middle Angel. This could be understood as the conversation between Father and Son. The third Angel is turned toward both the others and in between the left hand Angel and the one on the right hand (the third Angel) stands a Chalice which is visible due to an “open spot” at the Table (or Altar). That open spot is the “place” where we are let into the conversation. It is the Holy Spirit (here understood as the third Angel) who lets us into that conversation. Note that all three persons are “open” towards the open spot at the Chalice. If we follow Paul Evdokimov’s “reading” of this Icon a clearly Eucharistic aspect comes to the fore. The Priest and congregation gathered for the Sacrifice of the Mass are all facing “East” in other words are all oriented towards the Father. This is so because the Canon of the Mass (where the Sacrifice is offered) is addressed to the Father. There are, of course, other readings of this Icon (for example Leonid Ouspensky’s that disagree with Evdokimov’s but we will not engage that further at this time). The important thing to take away from all this right now is that prayer is “given” to us and not created by us.

The “Our Father” is not an invitation to freestyle out life of prayer but a clear teaching of that prayer primarily addresses the Father, in Jesus Christ actualized through the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus gives us (hence prayer is, again, a “given” ) a pattern for prayer addressed to the Father. He, the very Word of God become flesh, is teaching what prayer is and how to do it. The Bible, as word of God, is intimately linked to the Word of God (Jesus Christ). In a sense the Bible contains the Word of God clothed in words. Using Scripture as the building blocks of prayer is therefore to almost literally “pray in Jesus Christ. Our prayers are drawn from out of the Scriptures, or perhaps we could say, prayer (insofar as it depends on Scripture) draws us into the world of Scripture and so into the Word of God: Jesus Christ.

It seems, to me, an inescapable fact that prayer is a given (to us) and not something we create or do (other than in a derivative sense). Prayer is God’s initiative to let us share in His divine triune life. Prayer is not therefore something for us to change in accordance with our – or my – theological and cultural opinions (or lack thereof). Prayer is the means of our transformation. We are formed in and by prayer. It – prayer – changes us, not we it. Even a seemingly small deviation, such as the one asserted by the Prayer Book, is at least an assertion of our initiative in prayer in rivalry of God’s initiative. It puts the human subject first. In this assertion the human subject let’s God into its life rather than the Divine Trinity letting us into His. The world as it is constituted by the human ego makes some (limited) room for God in it, a process which is essentially idolatry insofar as it seeks to shape God in such a way as to fit into the world created and governed by our ego. Prayer – in its liturgical sense – is given to us so that we may enter God’s world and so that He may shape (re-create us in the Image of God to use Pauline terms) us to fit into His world. This kind of prayer means entering a Divine Conversation which we did not start, do not choose the subject, and do not conclude. The conversation is there, independent of the human subject, but open to the human subject to enter into and so be a participant.

Gregory Wassen +


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
This entry was posted in Anglican Breviary, Book of Common Prayer, Psalmody. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Prayer: entering a Divine Conversation

  1. I am not a blogger, and am not even sure I am posting this comment on Fr. Gregory’s essay ‘Prayer, Entering…’ in the right place. It is an uncommonly excellent essay. there are several parts, and the integration of the Spiritual Homily together with the AB “tutorial” is simply wonderful. Importantly, the messages came through. Thankyou.

    (I have printed out essentially every essay of Fr. Gregory)

    Christopher Green

  2. Pingback: Made Ready to hear | The Anglican Breviary

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