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Augustine and Prayer

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This morning I gave a lecture on Augustine’s idea of prayer at the CSA-Biñan as part of the school’s program in understanding Augustinian core values. During the course of the preparation for the talk, I looked at the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes use of Augustine’s works. I already knew that Augustine is the most quoted Father of the Church in the Catechism. I was surprised to find out that even in the fourth part of the Catechism, he is also quoted more than any of the Doctors, Fathers and spiritual writers referenced there.

Below is a table that shows the frequence of quotations (I have left out quotatations from Missals and documents like the Didache)

Author Category Frequency
Augustine of Hippo Father 10
John Chrysostom Father 7
Tertullian Father 6
Cyprian Father 6
Ambrose of Milan Father 5
Cyril of Jerusalem Father 4
Gregory of Nazianzus Father 3
Origen Father 3
Peter Chrysologos Father 3
John Damascene Father 1
Basil Father 1
Gregory of Nyssa Father 1
Ignatius of Antioch Father 1
Ignatius of Loyola Founder 2
Evagrius Ponticus n/a 2
Isaac of Nineveh n/a 1
Teresa of Avila Doctor 2
St. Thomas of Aquinas Doctor 2
Therese of Lisieux Doctor 1
John of the Cross Doctor 1
Alphonsus Liguori Doctor 1
Jean Vianney Priest 1
Guy the Carthusian Spiritual Writer 1

This only shows how the Church has made her own the teachings of St. Augustine even on the subject of prayer.

The ten references to Augustine are spread throughout the fourth part of the Catechism which is divided into two chapters: “Christian Prayer” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Paragraph Context Source
2559 Prayer in the Christian Life I Sermones 56, 6, 9
2560 Prayer in the Christian Life I De diversis questionibus octoginta 64,4
2616 In the Time of Jesus I, 1, ii Enarrationes in psalmos 85, 1
2628 In the Age of the Church I, 1, iii Enarrationes in psalmos 62, 16
2737 The Battle of Prayer Epistulae 130, 8, 17
2762 The Lord’s Prayer Epistulae 130, 12, 22
2785 Our Father in Heaven II De sermo domini in monte 2, 4, 16
2794 Our Father in Heaven II De sermo domini in monte 2, 5, 17
2827 The Seven Petitions II De sermo domini in monte 2, 6, 24
2837 The Seven Petitions II Sermones 57, 7

The works quoted in this part of the Catechism can also serve as an introduction to Augustine’s idea of prayer.

Epistola 130, aka “the Letter to Proba” (411) is Augustine’s instructions to a wealthy matron who was at the time enrolled among “the widows” of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI recently made us of it in the encyclical “Spe salvi” on the subject “What are we to hope for?” In this letter, Augustine develops his teaching according to three ideas (a) the disposition of the one who prays (b) what should be prayed for (c) how should one pray. He also answers one question that Proba asks him: What did Paul mean when he wrote “we do not know how we ought to pray”. The letter also contains a short catechism on “the Lord’s Prayer” and information about how Christians from the East pray.

The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount is Augustine’s explanation of Matthew 5-7. Here we find a catechism on the Beatitudes and how these become a program for Christian life and prayer. An important part of the book is how Augustine explains the Our Father in terms of the beatitudes.

The Enarrationes on the Psalms is a series of conferences that Augustine gives on the 150 Psalms of the psalter. The psalms provid the language for prayer and were regularly prayed in Church. Augustine gave those conferences to instruct both priests and laity to understand what they were praying.

Sermons 57, is Augustine’s catechism on the “Our Father” as given to those who are enrolled for baptism. Edmund Hill, OP (The Works of St. Augustine, a translation for the 21st Century.) dates it between 410-412.

The lecture I gave is basically the same article that one finds in Ten Augustinian Values which I posted on the web in 1999. I had to read some new materials on the subject of prayer, materials which were not available to me at the time I wrote the article. I also had to review a few others.

Thomas Hand, OSA. “Augustine on Prayer” in Spirituality For Today (ed.) by John Rotelle (1963, 1986). I recently purchased a new copy of the book. It is a commentary on about 500 texts from the works of St. Augustine arranged according to an outline that is catechetical. Materials are organized in a way that can be easily incorporated into a lesson in catechism.

Michele Cardinal Pellegrino, Spiritual Journey: Augustine’s Reflections on the Christian Life dedicates the eight chapter to “Grace and Prayer”. Again the emphasis here is on texts from the work of St. Augustine. Materials are arranged under the following topics: Necessity of Grace, Necessity and Efficacy of Prayer, What Are We To Pray For?, How Are We To Pray? Prayer and Life. Basically, the outline resembles that found in Hand’s book but here, the topic of prayer follows the section on grace.

Rebecca Weaver, “Prayer” in Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (ed.) Alan Fitzgerald, OSA. The article discusses Augustine’s doctrine on prayer using Augustiine’s idea of life as a pilgrimage to God. Thomas Hand already recognized this and so begins his book with the Chapter called Prayer and Man’s Quest for Happiness. The theme is in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana Book I.

If I do revise the article on “Prayer” in “Ten Augustinian Values”, these and some other references will be taken into account.

An Augustinian Experience of Prayer

Part of the lecture was an exercise in prayer. The procedure followed resembles the one used by the group of John Main which I think is closest to the idea of Augustine that prayer is one’s desire for God. The exercise also makes clear that prayer is like breathing; it is not a requirement imposed from outside but something that is necessitated by our being human. To be human is to pray.

I had another exercise in prayer but because of time and material constraints, I had to put it aside for the moment. It is an exercise in lectio divina and is designed to give one the experience of reading one’s life in the light of Scriptures. The exercise would have taken started with a reading from Luke’s story of the “Prodigal Son”. The exercise would have revolved around the participants’ reflection on questions that will allow them to write a letter to God as if they were the prodigal son.

A Quote from the Letter to Proba

I concluded the lecture by reading a section of Augustine’s Letter to Proba. The quotation is important in that it puts prayer in the context of a journey: we are pilgrims, away from our true home; we journey through this vale of tears and darkness, like the prodigal son, knowing that where the Father is, there is life; there, one can finally be at home. Here is the quote.

In the darkness, then, of this world, in which we are pilgrims absent from the Lord as long as “we walk by faith and not by sight,” the Christian soul ought to feel itself desolate, and continue in prayer, and learn to fix the eye of faith on the word of the divine sacred Scriptures, as “on a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in our hearts.” For the ineffable source from which this lamp borrows its light is the Light which shineth in darkness, but the darkness comprehendeth it not- the Light, in order to seeing which our hearts must be purified by faith; for “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God; ” and “we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, foe we shall see Him as He is.” Then after death shall come the true life, and after desolation the true consolation, that life shall deliver our “souls from death “that consolation shall deliver our “eyes from tears,” and,.., our feet shall be delivered from falling; for there shall be no temptation there. Moreover, if there be no temptation, there will be no prayer; for there we shall not be waiting for promised blessings,: but contemplating the blessings actually bestowed.

Originally posted 2009-10-16 01:10:56. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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