Monday, July 22, 2013

Augustine on Prayer

If you are preaching this Sunday -- and especially if the subject of prayer will play a large part in your sermon -- take a few moments to read Augustine's Letter 130 (clunky English here, Latin here).

He is writing to one Proba, "a widow, rich and noble, the mother of an illustrious family," in response to her questions about how to pray and what to pray for.

He begins by urging her to be "desolate," so as to be separated from the transient happinesses of worldly pleasure.  If possible, she should distribute her money to the poor.  And yet, ironically, he advises her to pray for "a happy life," understood philosophically and spiritually.

Apropos of this Sunday's Gospel reading (Luke 11:1-13), Augustine offers these tidbits:

[T]he Lord gives [a lesson] in the parable of the man to whom a friend in his journey had come, and who, having nothing to set before him, desired to borrow from another friend three loaves (in which, perhaps, there is a figure of the Trinity of persons of one substance), and finding him already along with his household asleep, succeeded by very urgent and importunate entreaties in rousing him up, so that he gave him as many as he needed, being moved rather by a wish to avoid further annoyance than by benevolent thoughts: from which the Lord would have us understand that, if even one who was asleep is constrained to give, even in spite of himself, after being disturbed in his sleep by the person who asks of him, how much more kindly will He give who never sleeps, and who rouses us from sleep that we may ask from Him.

More tentatively, he also offers this symbolic interpretation of the egg, the rock and so forth:

With the same design [Jesus] added: Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evilknow how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give good things to them that ask Him?  
We have here what corresponds to those three things which the apostle commends: faith is signified by the fish, either on account of the element of water used in baptism, or because it remains unharmed amid the tempestuous waves of this world — contrasted with which is the serpent, that with poisonous deceit persuaded man to disbelieve Godhope is signified by the egg, because the life of the young bird is not yet in it, but is to be— is not seen, but hoped for, because hope which is seen is not hope, Romans 8:24 — contrasted with which is the scorpion, for the man who hopes for eternal life forgets the things which are behind, and reaches forth to the things which are before, for to him it is dangerous to look back; but the scorpion is to be guarded against on account of what it has in its tail, namely, a sharp and venomous sting; charity, is signified by bread, for the greatest of these is charity, and bread surpasses all other kinds of food in usefulness—contrasted with which is a stone, because hard hearts refuse to exercise charity. 
Whether this be the meaning of these symbols, or some other more suitable be found, it is at least certain that He who knows how to give good gifts to His children urges us to ask and seek and knock.

We're not convinced, but neither is he.

Chapter 11 is a quick commentary on the Our Father, and -- surprising nobody -- Augustine's words will sound instantly familiar to Lutherans:

When, therefore, we say: Hallowed be Your name, we admonish ourselves to desire that His name, which is always holy, may be also among men esteemed holy, that is to say, not despised; which is an advantage not to God, but to men. 
When we say: Your kingdom come, which shall certainly come whether we wish it or not, we do by these words stir up our own desires for that kingdom, that it may come to us, and that we may be found worthy to reign in it. 
Anyway, there's a lot more where this came from, and we recommend it highly.

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