Wednesday, August 5, 2009

John Chrysostom: Pagans Pray with Many Words - Christians with Many Repetitions

But how is it that the text says that "she continued" her prayer? Surely the woman's length of prayer was short, for one thing: she did not reach to drawn-out expressions nor extend her supplication to great length; rather, the words she uttered were short and sweet. "Adonai Kyrie Elohi Sabaoth, if you will only look upon the lowliness of your handmaid and remember me, not forget your handmaid and give your handmaid a male child, I will give him as a gift before you til the day of his death. He will not drink wine or strong drink, and iron will not reach his head." What sort of lengthy words are these? So why did he suggest it in saying, "She continued"? She kept saying the same thing over and over again, and did not stop spending a long time with the same words. This, at any rate, is the way Christ bade us pray in the Gospels: telling the disciples not to pray like the pagans and use a lot of words, he taught us moderation in prayer to bring out that being heard comes not from the number of words but from the alertness of mind. So how is it, you ask, that if our prayers must be brief, he told them a parable on the need to pray always, namely the one about the widow who by the constancy of her request wore down the cruel and inhumane judge, who had fear neither of God nor of men, by the persistence of her appeal? And how is it that Paul exhorts us in the words, "Persevere in prayer," and again, "Pray without ceasing"? I mean, if we must not reach to lengthy statements, and must pray constantly, one command is at variance with the other. It is not at variance, however - perish the thought; it is quite consistent: both Christ and Paul bade us make brief and frequent prayers at short intervals. You see, if you extend your prayers to great length without paying much attention in many cases, you would provide the devil with great security in making his approach, tripping you up and distracting your thoughts from what you are saying. If, on the other hand, you are in the habit of making frequent prayers, dividing all your time into brief intervals with your frequency, you would easily be able to keep control of yourself and recite the prayers themselves with great attention. This, in fact, is what she also did, not reaching to long-winded expressions, but unceasingly making her approach to God at frequent intervals.

- John Chrysostom (around A.D. 347 to around A.D. 407), Homilies on Hannah, Homily 2, in St. John Chrysostom, Old Testament Homilies, Volume 1, pp. 85-86 (2003), Robert C. Hill translator.