Friday, March 16, 2007

The purpose and power of prayer--according to Tertullian

I think it is no wonder Christianity is so unpopular, considering what we can expect from our relationship with God. I mean, you can’t get anything from Him just for the asking and often what He does give you is the fortitude to bear suffering rather than relief from it. Dang! Who wants a God that doesn’t consider our own desires an indication of His will?

Yesterday’s Office of readings had a great excerpt from Tertullian’s treatise On Prayer. He first mentions that it is valuable in itself because it is an offering to God. It is sacrifice. That seems to be its primary value. Any benefit after this is icing on the cake.

Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old. What good do I receive from the multiplicity of your sacrifices? asks God. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and I do not want the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats. Who has asked for these from your hands?

What God has asked for we learn from the Gospel.
The hour will come, he says, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit, and so he looks for worshippers who are like himself.

We are true worshippers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own.

Yet, we must make sure that we safeguard the integrity of the sacrifice. Prayer without a life that corresponds to our dignity will be an empty offering. Prayer that is not accompanied by a devout life will not be acceptable.

We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart,

Not just our lips or our bodies or our minds, but our entire being.

we must fatten it on faith,

We have to trust that God is loving, merciful and will fulfill His promises.

tend it by truth,

If we are not dedicated to the truth and pursuing greater knowledge of it by delving into the Tradition, then we will slowly lose our ability to offer ourselves to God.

keep it unblemished through innocence

Do not put before yourself what is base

and clean through chastity,

Not just continence, but a total commitment to use our bodies for love at all times and in all relations, to correspond to the known will of God and the dignity, vocation and destiny of persons.

and crown it with love.

This is the most difficult thing of all, because the counter-energy to love is so deeply ingrained in us. If we try to overcome it with our own wills, rather than leaning on God and His Grace, we will fail.

We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God.

Now that he has established its primary value and the condition for its fruitfulness, he then begins to talk about the power of prayer. God answers prayer with great generosity of we offer them, under the influence of Grace, worthily.

Since God asks for prayer offered in spirit and in truth, how can he deny anything to this kind of prayer? How great is the evidence of its power, as we read and hear and believe.

But, prayers are not always answered the way we think. It seems that Christian prayer has a different, more profound effect than the prayer of
Israel before us, which at least in Tertullian’s eyes had a greater focus on material and temporal benefits..

Of old, prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger, even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. No longer does it remove all sense of pain by the grace it wins for others.

Christian prayer is primarily fruitful in the spiritual life.

But it gives the armour of patience

to those who suffer,

who feel pain,

who are distressed.

It strengthens the power of grace,

so that faith may

know what is gaining from the Lord,

`and understand what it is suffering for the name of God.

In the past prayer was able to

bring down punishment,

rout armies,

withhold the blessing of rain.

Now, however, the prayer of the just

turns aside the whole anger of God,

keeps vigil for its enemies,

pleads for persecutors.

Is it any wonder that it can call down water from heaven when it could obtain fire from heaven as well? Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God.

Here, of course, is the kicker.

But Christ has willed that it should work no evil, and has given it all power over good.

Its only art is

to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death,

to give strength to the weak,

to heal the sick,

to exorcise the possessed,

to open prison cells,

to free the innocent from their chains.


cleanses from sin,

drives away temptations,

stamps out persecutions,

comforts the fainthearted,

gives new strength to the courageous,

brings travellers safely home,

calms the waves,

confounds robbers,

feeds the poor,

overrules the rich,

lifts up the fallen,

supports those who are falling,

sustains those who stand firm.

Our prayers participates in a cosmic offering to God

All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look out to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.

Our prayers are a participation in the prayer of Christ.

What more need be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honour and power for ever and ever. Amen.

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