The fourth century Christian monk Evagrius of Pontus once wrote, “If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.” It is a maxim that would strike many Christians as true, and yet it appears today that there is a widening gap between the spiritual and the scholarly.
Theology has all too often taken the form of a cold, disinterested science while the mystical life of a Christian imbued with the Holy Spirit rejects the over-analyzation of ascetic study. Perhaps it is for this reason that the great Catholic theologian Hans urs von Balthasar bemoaned that since the middle ages “there have been few theologians who were saints.” Today, we see less academics in the Church and less pastors becoming academics.
The modern distinction between the spiritual and the theological is precisely that—modern. Reaching back to the early Church, we find the two deeply intertwined. In his Confessions, for example, Augustine opens with the paradox of asking whether we first pray (in order to know God) or first know God (in order to pray).1 Yet for Augustine the problem remains open, the paradox left hanging. There is no need, Augustine believes, to prioritize theology over prayer or vice versa. We are simply caught up in the mystery that is prayer, and we experience this prayer as a type of knowing. Indeed, the Christian tradition, which has often seen itself as a tradition of ideas, is in actuality a tradition of prayer.
So, what is prayer and what has it become? For many it takes the form of simply asking God to act – “Make haste to help me O Lord, My salvation!” (Ps. 38:22). We should note that asking God to act, even to hurry up, is a perfectly legitimate and even biblically supported request. But in an age of dictated immediacy our expectations surrounding the specific nature of God’s response to us seems to take over all too quickly. God is reduced in our minds from the eternally benevolent Lord who knows what we need before we ask (Matt 6:8), into the rational instigator of a cause and effect plan not yet unfolded; now that A has happened, we just need B, and only B, from God. “Do this,” we say, “that I may know your presence.” We want God to move, it had just better be in the direction we asked.
As a pastor I have found a recurring issue with Christians who have stumbled in their faith because “prayers were not answered.” God should have done something, but when pressed on its content, this typically means only the fixed idea of the thing they wanted. God is addressed as a material gift-giver. Surely, the Bible tells us to “pray about everything” (Phil. 4:6), and our request for God to act is to be encouraged. James writes “we have not because we ask not” (James 4:2). Yet our subconscious persuasion to see the answer to our prayers displayed ahead of time fails to recognize both the sovereignty of God and the way in which Jesus himself commanded us Pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matt 6:10).
To return to Evagrius’ maxim, the point here is the same for theology. The theologian should not be trying to solve a puzzle or fix a problem. The work of theology is not to contain God’s glory in a catalog of systematized explanations but to articulate the word of God in the here and now. It is a process of listening and replying, and thus prayer makes theological knowledge possible, only to have knowledge circle back into the mystery of prayer.
Prayer is primarily the cultivation of our attention toward a God who speaks, converting the mind to God. As Simone Weil once said, “we do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.” Prayer is the place where we turn our attention to the unattainable majesty of God and wait upon the Lord for a time that is His. “For what is prayer except a confession of our own failure, our hunger, our incompleteness before God? What is prayer except a renunciation of power, giving up any ‘total perspective’ in order to stand expectantly before God?”2
When we let our desires dictate our prayers, we fail to see the God who surpasses every desire. Prayer is a practice in the dispossession of our self, being left speechless by a reality we cannot control.