Prayer in the early days of the Church

Tertullian, an ecclesiastical author of the late second century, writes in one of his first treatises on prayer that “only prayer conquers God” (De oratione 29, 2). It’s a provocative phrase! But already in the Old Testament, the book of Sirach tells us that “The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and he will not be consoled until it reaches the Lord” (Sirach 35:17). In fact, prayer is above all a gift from God, as Evagrius Ponticus recalls in a Christian treatise on prayer written in the fourth century: “If you want to pray, you need God, who is the one who gives the gift of prayer” (De oratione 58). Prayer is a gift from God that needs to be cultivated.

When we pray, we are not alone. Even if we pray individually in a room, in a Church, or from Click To Pray, for example, we are always in communion with each other. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the third century, affirms that Christian prayer is simultaneously spiritual, Christological – that is, capable of decentering us from ourselves to remain in Christ – and ecclesial. When we raise our hearts to God, we are united with the life of Christ and, there, we enter into prayerful communion with the praying Church. We are entering, we say today, into a Worldwide Network of Prayer.

John Cassian, a 5th-century master of prayer, tells us that it is possible to reach a “state of prayer” when it nourishes our inner life and directs it directly towards God. To get there, you need to follow a path that requires discipline and dedication. It is not always easy and obvious to find a way to pray. But perseverance in prayer always bears fruit. It is also this author who warns in his Conferences that “in the spiritual life, not progressing is equivalent to regressing” (Conlationes VI, 14). To this end, he uses the image of a boat that must strive to overcome the impetuous current of the river with the incessant use of the oars if it wants to reach its highest point; if he lowers his arms, he is carried by the flow of the current towards the lower part of the river and stays away from the source. For this reason, “no virtue is achieved without effort” (Conlationes VII, 6).

Let us ask the Lord for the gift of prayer so that we can pray without ceasing, as Saint Paul does (cf. 1 Thess 5:17), so that our heart may be in tune with the Heart of Jesus.

Fr. Antonio S’Antana, SJ

Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (Portugal)

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