Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Heart of Prayer

One of the problems of the utilitarian society in which we live is that we tend to think of things in terms of their usefulness to us. We need technological advances because they make our lives more efficient and convenient. Certain people are good to know because of what they can do for us. And on it goes.

Interestingly, we can even see evidence of this utilitarianism in our discussions about prayer. A walk through most any Christian bookstore will yield remarkable evidence for this. The phenomenally popular “Prayer of Jabez” hints that if you practice this Old Testament prayer regularly, then you will prosper beyond your wildest imaginings. Other books point to formulas for prayer that, if recited properly, will yield whatever result for which you are praying. Still other books, especially ones that focus on centering prayer, talk about the benefits of their prayer to the body, i.e., if you practice their prayer form, you will have lower blood pressure, be less prone to depression, and have more focus and alertness.

Now I’m not saying that God won’t bless people with prosperity, nor am I intimating that God secretly wants people to be hypertensive, depressed, and anxious. But I think that the people who write these volumes and the marketers who promote them are barking up the wrong tree (or the wrong totem pole, as the case may be). I suspect that what has happened in these cases is that many of these writers have witnessed the popularity of things such as the New Age Movement and quasi-religious organizations such as Science of Mind and Unity, and they are trying to say that Christianity in its more traditional form can offer something similar.

However, to make this claim is, to my way of thinking, a serious error. False mysticism is dangerous because it is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) attempt to entice a Christian to embrace clearly heretical paths. All of the movements noted above each share a common error: They seek to raise man to the same plane as God, or, at worst, seek to find ways that force God to do man’s bidding. This is a serious problem and it is one to which serious Christians should be alert and from which one should run at all costs.

Having spent some time talking about what prayer is NOT, let’s take a few moments talking about what prayer IS. Although I do not profess to be an expert in prayer, I believe that prayer is the process by a person or a community develops a relationship with God. It is noteworthy that all men were created in the image and likeness of God. Prior to Adam’s fall, man enjoyed an intimacy and a communion with God that was lost with the transgressions of our first parents. It is this intimacy and this communion that we seek to regain through the life of prayer. Prayer is the desire of the human heart for intimacy with its Creator.

Saint Augustine says it very well in his famous Confessions: “...Man, being a part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee, -- man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that Thou 'resistest the proud,' -- yet man, this part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee. Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”

The true purpose of prayer, according to Augustine, is a response to the goodness of God. We respond to God’s gift of life in us and we express what our deepest, fundamental desire is: To draw closer to the God of our salvation. In fact Augustine, goes further when he says, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.” The saint implies that until our hearts are filled with God, until we are conformed to his will through our life of prayer, then we can never know true rest. This is why, in the end, these fads of prayer do not satisfy and ultimately wither and die. They seek to force God to change to suit us, rather than forcing ourselves to change to suit God. Until the human heart does the latter it cannot know true peace. Let us each pray that God will open our hearts to conform ourselves in His image and likeness.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Power versus Service

A couple of weeks ago, a friend forwarded an article from the National Catholic Reporter ( The NCR is one of the more militantly liberal papers in the Catholic world and, as you might expect, it isn't normally at the top of my reading list. However, this particular article did catch my interest. It was written by John Allen, a thoughtful man, who, though theologically liberal to the core, tends to write with a balance and grace that is worth reading. His column this time was on the just-concluded annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America. For those of you who are not familiar with the CTSA, it is probably safe to say that the society is an organization of liberal academics who spend much of their time challenging church doctrine. I'll admit that the last sentence borders on the "catty", but a quick perusal of the documents of the CTSA will show it to be true.

Allen wrote of the speech given by Daniel Finn, the President of CTSA, in which Finn described the changing approach of the CTSA. Finn stated that, in the past, CTSA had issued position papers that openly debated points of church teaching. Now, Finn says, this has become an ineffective strategy. He says that this type of direct, confrontational approach is no longer effective and that Vatican congregations will not even pay positive attention to this type of activity or use it to facilitate dialogue (which simply translates, "We'll talk until you agree with me.") Instead, Finn stated that dealing with theological opponents and with the Vatican calls for a new understanding of "power" and its exercise.

Allen writes, "Finn’s comments came as part of a broader analysis of power, in which he argued that theologians have been insufficiently attentive to the way that power operates, which he described as 'part of the software of daily life.' He drew on his experience in community organizing, as well as in higher education, to lay out a theory of how power – in both good and bad forms – works in daily human interactions.

"An understanding of power, Finn suggested, among other things leads to an appreciation for the importance of maintaining relationships in obtaining one’s aims. He quoted a maxim among community organizers that the most powerful person in a community is usually the one with the longest list of phone numbers."

This problem of power highlights what, I think, is one of the major sticking points between liberal Christians and more traditionally-minded ones. That one could even frame a discussion in these terms suggests that liberals see Christianity in terms of the Hegelian Dialectic. For those who do not recall the dialectic, it is the theory that suggests that life is a series of unending conflicts between a dominant thesis against which is developed an antithesis. These two engage in a struggle for power until a synthesis emerges which then becomes a new thesis. And so on. Karl Marx used the philosophy of Hegel to create his Communist Manifesto. In this line of thinking, the struggle is everything because the synthesis is most often written by the winner.

For a liberal Christian, then, the idea of a fixed Revelation is ludicrous because Revelation is constantly being modified and expanded as it goes through ever more syntheses. This is why a liberal Christian can support women's ordination or homosexual marriage and do so with a straight face. To them, as Christianity has developed, its understanding of itself and its place in the world has changed. Christianity, then, must modify itself to accommodate these changes or risk irrelevance. Power for them is a tool to be wielded in order to shape the faith for a new generation. The faith is not a deposit to be protected and cherished, but a lived experience that is ever-changing according to the time.

Now compare that with what a traditional Christian, such as an Anglican Catholic, believes. We believe that God has acted definitively and for all time in the person of Jesus Christ. We believe that the faith which has been given to the Apostles has been passed on and lives through the bishops, whose primary obligation is to see to it that the faith is preserved whole and entire for future generations. The primary task for the traditional Christian, then, is not the exercise of power in order to shape the faith. It is, however, the exercise of service to the Tradition, a submission to it, if you will. For Christians like us, our concern is to see to it that the faith that our children receive is the same faith that we received. This means that we place ourselves at the service of the Scriptures; we resist changes in liturgy and worship. We don't do this because we are clutching at ecclesiastical power. Rather we do this in order to maintain that which was given to us.

Liberal Christians seek to exercise power to bring about change. They seek to remake the Church in the world's image. Traditional Christians seek to exercise service to the Word and Tradition. They seek to remake the world in Christ's image. I'll side with the traditional.