06 November 2007

Inner prayer, "vain repetition" and images

Taking up a theme involved with inner prayer (the subject of two previous postings, here and here), one has to ask about the efficacy for one's prayer life of repeating the same prayer over and over (i.e., in this case, the so-called Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me") and, for some people, hour after hour.

Isn't that the sort of "vain repetition" Jesus is talking about in Matthew 6.7 when he says, "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words." The idea of repeating a simple prayer like the Jesus Prayer seems to be in conflict with the instruction here. Saying, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" over and over is repetition.

Actually, I don't think it is at all what Jesus is talking about. Yes, it is technically repetition. But is it, for being repetition, meaningless, or vain, repetition? It isn't repetition per se that is forbidden; it's meaningless repetition. Also, there is the matter of "many words". The key is, I think, in the Greek words used in the passage: "battalogeo" is better translated "tedious babbling" (we all know someone...), hence the superiority of the NIV here; "polulogia" (many words) connotes one who uses too many words, one who keeps explaining himself to you even after he's convinced you, long after you understand the point and you start to wonder if he thinks you're stupid for letting him convince you so soon, so he's going to keep on talking until he gets to the point at which you should have been convinced if only you were smart enough to wait that long. Kind of like some callers to radio talk shows, who keep making their point after the host gets it -- and so do you.

In commenting on this passage, Calvin says:


He reproves another fault in prayer, a multiplicity of words. There are two words used, but in the same sense: for battologia is “a superfluous and affected repetition,” and polulogia is “unmeaning talk.” Christ reproves the folly of those who, with the view of persuading and entreating God, pour out a superfluity of words. This doctrine is not inconsistent with the praises everywhere bestowed in Scripture on earnestness in prayer: for, when prayer is offered with earnest feeling, the tongue does not go before the heart. Besides, the grace of God is not obtained by an unmeaning flow of words; but, on the contrary, a devout heart throws out its affections, like arrows, to pierce heaven. At the same time, this condemns the superstition of those who entertain the belief, that they will secure the favor of God by long murmurings.


What Calvin thinks -- and clearly I think he's correct -- is that Jesus is rebuking those who believe "the efficacy of prayer to lie chiefly in talkativeness. The greater number of words that a man mutters, the more diligently he is supposed to have prayed."

Now, it isn't that Calvin is dispositive of anything. But I do happen to think he's correct. There are, in the English translation of it, ten words in the Jesus Prayer. Hardly "battalogia" or "pulologia". (Amaze your friends with words like those!) Hardly the approach to prayer that a used car salesman would take, as if artful expression in a long-winded sales pitch will persuade God more effectively than a simple, heart-felt request. No, a prayer such as the Jesus Prayer is the heart-felt cry of a person with so much to pray about, so many people and their needs, so many things weighing him down with concern (an entire world at war, for example) that the only thought he can cogently express, the single petition which covers and includes all else burdening him is, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me [and hear all the other petitions I would make if words did not fail me for the weight of them on my soul!]."

Most people I know feel a certain pressure to offer specific, detailed petitions to God, as if the longer and more detailed the prayer the greater efficacy in prayer. They sound a bit like people at parties who know it's polite to talk so, fearing silence, they never shut up. I wonder: if you can really do that all the time, just how burdened for those things are you really? I also wonder: do you think God won't know what you're approaching him for unless you deliniate it for him in minute, and verbose, detail?

But then, why pray at all? Calvin, still commenting on the passage from Matthew says,

Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from Him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things. God himself, on the other hand, has purposed freely, and without being asked, to bestow blessings upon us; but he promises that he will grant them to our prayers. We must, therefore, maintain both of these truths, that He freely anticipates our wishes, and yet that we obtain by prayer what we ask.


Prayer is not an exercise in saying or thinking words. Prayer is the natural result of the soul's quest to commune with God. Or, as Theophan would put it, "Prayer is the way of ascent to God."

Now, to get back to images during prayer.

Perhaps you've had the experience of wandering thoughts while you pray. Perhaps (thinking about Theophan's caution against images) images come to mind while you pray. I think it's unavoidable: you are flesh as well as spirit. But recall that Theophan's great concern is not images per se. He is talking about being aware of the "eye of God" on your "inner being". The eye of God -- have no image or concept of that. How could you? Well, you can always try. As Calvin wrote: The human mind is an idol factory. Beware.

No. Images will come to your mind as you pray, repeatedly, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." (Or any prayer exercise you may engage in, really.) The imortant thing is to have no images of God in mind as you pray.

As for those other images and wandering thoughts. Think about them for a moment. What are they? As you pray, are you distracted by things you have to do? Like shopping? But why ought that be a distraction from prayer? If you acknowledge God's ownership over all you have, and recognize a duty to exercise stewardship, then certainly shopping is a proper subject of prayer.

I don't want to suggest that you simply make these "distractions" from prayer immediately subjects for prayer. Neither do I want to minimize these as distractions from prayer.

I want to suggest that when your prayer life is right and something like shopping comes to mind, you may actually be praying about the shopping -- or whatever -- you have to do. Perhaps you are praying and you are distracted just momentarily by the thought of someone, a friend, a sick or dying relative. If Theophan is correct, and the words you utter are not essential to prayer, then perhaps those images represent something that you are praying about without being thoroughly conscious of it. Perhaps -- think about it for a moment -- those images represent some of the things you are burdened with and for which the Holy Spirit is praying on your behalf (see Romans 8.26).

Or it may be that God is talking back to you as it were. If you are praying and are "distracted" by the thought of shopping --or something else on an ever-growing to-do list -- perhaps you need to re-evaluate your life. We do a lot. Activity may suggest a life filled with purpose, but sometimes activity is just activity and more activity is just more activity. Perhaps those distractions from prayer are, more importantly, distractions from your entire life (see Luke 10.38-42). Perhaps God is giving you those images and wandering thoughts not as distractions, but because they are His testimony as to what are your real distractions.

Let me suggest, in true Calvinistic fashion there are two areas of thought with regard to images and concepts in prayer: God and Man (i.e, specifically, you). Have no images with respect to the first. As for the significance of images and concepts or distractions, you have to exercise your judgment about their meaning and significance. There is nothing automatic, nothing obvious about their meaning and significance.

As Theophan says,

Attention to what goes on in the heart and to what comes forth from it is the chief work of a well-ordered Christian life. Through this attention the inward and the outward are brought into due relation with one another. But to this watchfulness, discernment must always be added, so that we may understand aright what passes within and what is required by outward curcumstance. Attention is useless without discernment.

3 comments:

james seraphim said...

Thank you Frank, for the fine article. I notice you quote both Calvin and st Theophan, the two are quite different in their theology, do you know about The Orthodox Church?

james seraphim said...

Thank you Frank, for the fine article. I notice you quote both Calvin and st Theophan, the two are quite different in their theology, do you know about The Orthodox Church?

James Frank Solís said...

James, thanks for reading and commenting. Calvin and Theophan are different in their theology, but perhaps not as different as one might suppose looking at the face of things. I believe I can honestly say I do know about the Orthodox Church and her theology, especially her approach to theology: A theologian is one who prays truly; and one who prays truly is a theologian (Evagrius Ponticus). Many of our own (Reformed) theologians quite agree: truly theology is done on one's knees and must result in doxology. More to the point, I'm sure I don't exaggerate to say I've devoted hundreds of hours of study to the OC, including tens of hours listening to various podcasts at the Ancient Faith Radio site. I was especially blessed and edified by those of Father Tom Hopko (of blessed memory).

Again, thanks for reading, and for the comment.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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