Prayer — being at a loss for words

Evagrius speaks of the highest form of prayer (“pure prayer”) – as having three qualities: (1) It is “unceasing” (1Thess 5.17), (2) it is “imageless” (forms no image of God in the mind), and (3) it is “wordless” (it passes beyond the limits of finite words and concepts).

My guess is that “images” and “words” are linked. “Words” are inseparable from “images.” When we reach a communion with God that is outside the mediation of all images, that communion will be wordless as well, ineffable (not an experience of God ‘in’ and ‘through’ and ‘in terms of’ relating to words and their meanings). That’s my sense of what Evagrius means by prayer being “free of thoughts.” To say X is to take a step away from X. Think about it. So long as our experience of God consists in saying things to God about him, we remain a step removed from being (experiencing ourselves as) immediately present with/to him. When you think about it, the same is true of intimacy with other people. If you mouth is open and you’re spouting words, you’re not as intimate as you might otherwise be.

Not to be misunderstood, Evagrius advocated praying with words too (using the psalms, praying Scripture, etc.), a lot. So it seems imageless/wordless communion with God was for him the goal, but we must use words to get there. “Wordless” prayer isn’t something we just up and decide to ‘do’, i.e., it is not a refusal to use words. Rather, it is where one arrives from exhausting language (not refusing to use it) in the contemplation of God, experiencing transcendence as one comes to an experience of oneself in/with God that words can neither comprehend nor express (“joy ‘unspeakable’ and full of glory”?). Denys Turner says it well:

…You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God.

…the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….

…the ‘way of negation’…is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately. If talk about God is deficient, this is a discovery made within the extending of it into superfluity, into that excess in which it simply collapses under its own weight.

Language ends but we keep going, not because language is false or untrue, but because there’s more to us (and God) than words. One still exists, just on the other side of the limits of finite images and words. This is why prayer is ultimately a subversive act in the world; it refuses to derive one’s essential value and identity from the politics or the market. “We” are more than words, so words have to fail at some point. For Evagrius, I think, it is only words in prayer that can get us to wordless prayer (the ineffable communion of the soul with God).

What I wonder about (and hope is true – because I love words and don’t want to give them up!) is whether when our experience of God escapes the confines of finite images and words, when we are comfortably wordless in God’s presence, we are still able to employ images and words to share, teach, celebrate with others, etc. Obviously this must be the case. That’s why mystical language (and poetry – and theology, at its best) strains the capacities of language so.

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Lex orandi lex credendi

ig6mPDon’t freak out on me. I’ve used Alex Grey’s work to illustrate points before. His work can be weird and unsettling, but he’s also impossible to get away from once you contemplate it a bit.

I’m into another Benner book: Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life. I may get around to sharing a passage from it in a separate post, but for now I wanted to share something which reading his book brought to the surface for me.

Lex orandi, lex credendi (“the rule of praying is the rule of believing”) is an expression Christians have long employed to emphasize prayer’s primacy in and over belief and doctrine. Traditionally, it was liturgy (or worship) which led to theology. Theology and doctrine served liturgy as a way to express the meaning of the gospel’s transforming power in life and our celebration of it. One way to apply this to belief and doctrine is to measure the weight and implications of belief in terms of the effects they have upon the lived experience of prayer. Can I pray this doctrine? Can it inform, enrich, and expand my living as an act of prayer? Or—if you’re Fr Aidan—Can I preach it? It’s the same practical-existential concern.

People inevitably want to know what relevance a belief has for their day to day concerns. What difference does it make? And where people fail to see the practical relevance such questions have for life’s relationships, decisions, and vocations, they fail to engage those issues in a meaningful way for any length of time. So in focusing on the implications which a belief has for our understanding of prayer, we bring belief to bear upon one of the most practical everyday concerns of religious persons and thus have an opportunity to judge the existential support for truth-claims. For me, this is what lex orandi lex credendi gets at. Prayer becomes the primary existential stage upon which any theology may be examined and judged. Evagrius (Egyptian monastic of the 4th century CE) expresses it well: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

More specifically, I want to know if all our living can become prayer, if we can, in the totality of our being and acting, at all times and in all circumstances, become an uninterrupted act of prayer. By this I don’t mean to ask if we can manage to carry on a conversation with God that runs continuously alongside all the day to day conversations and activities we attend to at home and work, like a software program running alongside other programs, as though these are different and competing spheres of engagement we juggle without letting either compromise the other. On the contrary, to say “life is prayer” or “I am become all prayer” is to say the mundane day to day conversations and activities are prayer. They are where I converse with God, and my conversation with God can enfold all those activities within its embrace.

Spiritualpractice-50This is only possible, I think, if God is embraced as the transcendent summum bonum, the end of all desire, whom we desire in desiring anything at all, even if we desire imperfectly. Learning to make God the end of all our conversations and actions begins with seeing God in all our actions and conversations. That vision then transforms all our living into an unending conversation with him, and we become all prayer. We see and converse with Christ perceived in all things. I respond to others in the belief that Christ is receiving the words I say, the actions I do. Is this imaginable? St. Paul seemed to think so. “Whatever you do,” Paul writes (Col 3.23), do it “as for the Lord rather than for men.” Does this mean only that our motivations are observed by Christ as a third party and that our actions, if motivated properly, are counted as ‘good’ because measured by Christ as the measure of the Good? I think he’s saying more, namely, that we can consciously make Christ the object of all our actions, so that what we say and do to others becomes the means of a more fundamental relating to Christ.

This is more than pretending that Christ is truly present in all things and acting accordingly. It’s relating to Christ in all things as offering himself to us and so transforming the mundane into the sacred. If I feed the hungry, I feed Christ. If I do harm to my neighbor, I harm Christ. If I befriend and do kindly to the homeless, I am kind to Christ. And in an important sense, I’m only rude, or kind, or helpful to others because Christ is, first and preeminently, present receiving my saying and doing. God measures our actions as summum bonum by receiving them, not by observing them as a third-party.

So if prayer is a conversation in which I recognize, converse with, and offer myself to God in Christ through the Spirit, becoming all prayer appropriates all created contexts as an extension of that conversation. We don’t pray alongside doing other things. We engage God directly in engaging anything. Again, this is more than seeing God in all things conceptually (which may be just an academic recognition of the truth that everything in our world is being sustained by God). It is meeting God in all things, conversing with him in all things, as personally as we meet him in ourselves, because the God we meet in ourselves is in all things, and how can we not converse with God wherever we perceive him?

                       Prayer
All that is real on thee depends
and from thy breath of love extends;
With thee infused all is;
To thee alone all sends
its praise back.
Beautiful. You are so beautiful,
in all things. I see you in their eyes
and deep within their depths I find
eternal surprise after surprise.