Chris Hall, in Worshiping With the Church Fathers
, examines the topic of prayer in the fathers and lands on an insight that is fundamental to prayer:
Our image of God. That is, what image of God do we have in our heads and hearts when we begin to pray? That image, Hall reminds us — and a host of theologians and writers have said the very same thing, will shape how we pray.
What are your suggestions for developing a healthier image of God? What do you think of one recited prayer being used over and over? (Other than the Lord’s Prayer.)
He tells a delightful story from John Cassian about Serapion and Photinus. Photinus was charged with implementing Theophilus’ no-image idea of God and he explained it to Serapion, but this crushed Serapion’s prayer life because Serapion conceived of God in very physical terms. He thought God had a body — and so did many other early Christians of this period.
Chris Hall then reminds us that God accepts our prayers: “God’s grace is always surrounding, supporting and empowering us we pray; even when we err … God still accepts our feeble offerings” (118).
“We do not have to pass a theology exam before we dare to pray” (118).
Hall then mentions a few bad ideas of God: distant, demanding, whiny parent; divine drill instructor; self-indulgent grandfather.
Serapion, so Hall explains, could learn from Evagrius and Cassian and Abba Isaac who believed in the wordless and imageless form of prayer. It is about the mind’s ascent to God, where prayer is not so much an activity of the mind but the state of the mind. In addition, they believed in retreat into the desert to find utter solitude in order to focus on God. And they believed in examining the life of Jesus for instruction in prayer — and he was perfect and yet prayed.
And Abba Isaac instructs the one who wants to pray to learn to use Psalm 70:1 as a formula to which the mind returns: “Hasten, O God, to save me: O Lord, come quickly to help me.” Why choose this?
Because “it contains an invocation of God in the face of any crisis,
the humility of a devout confession,
the watchfulness of concern and constant fear,
a consciousness of one’s own frailty,
the assurance of being heard,
and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand” (135).
While it might strike anyone as odd to select this verse, what times shows is that the one who is struggling can make profound use of this verse. (Hall provides plenty of examples.) And Isaac also believed in disciplined use of the hours of prayer — regular times for prayer.