Augustine wrote no treatise on prayer, yet it is not surprising that, among over 6,000,000 words of his that still exist, prayer is given considerable attention in a number of his writings.
The most know source about prayer in Augustine is Letter 30 to Proba, which progressively goes through the lines of the Lord’s Prayer. Although not a treatise on prayer, his Enarrationes in Psalmos gives an insight into Augustine’s understanding of the relationship of Christ and the church in prayer. As well, his Confessions is regarded as a lengthy written prayer.
Although references to prayer are frequent in many of his writings, it must be admitted that he did not describe or promote any method or system of praying. He did, however, make a few distinctions between types of prayer, such as laus (Latin for “praise”) and oratio (A Latin word he used generally for prayers of petition). In different writings, he covered various aspects of petitionary prayer. He described prayer as yearning – our desire for God was in itself a form of petitionary prayer without words.
He saw prayer as pedagogy, because what we sought was refined (and maybe even our petitions changed) under promptings from a responsive God that strengthened and modified our yearning. Prayer was instructional, because through our prayer relationship God directed and strengthened our desire for eternity. For Augustine, the Christian life on earth was a pilgrimage towards heaven, and prayer was a way that a Christian maintained and increased his desire for the goal of eternal happiness. Prayer was the heart’s yearning for God.
He accepted the practice of petitionary prayer for temporal realities such as health, happiness and sustenance. As God’s creation, these realities are good, but should not be sought as gaols in themselves. He said that these supports to temporal happiness could validly be prayed for to the extent that they would also sustain and promote our goal for eternal happiness. He accepted that any delay in our receiving what we prayed for was God’s taking part in supervising what we sought. God was teaching us to ask for only what – be it spiritual or temporal in nature – advanced our eternal destiny. Furthermore, and delay in God’s answering our prayer made us more appreciative of the gift once it was granted.
For Augustine, the reflective reading of the Scriptures – especially the psalms - was a powerful and effective way of praying, and had the benefit of allowing the Scriptures to set the agenda for a person’s prayer. In this way, a person allows the sentiment of the psalmist – lament, fear, hope, thanksgiving – to immerse us so thoroughly that the sentiment becomes our own. Prayer thus becomes an engagement of the heart with yearnings that initially are not one’s own. He held that this prayerful use of Scripture not only taught a Christian about what to pray but also brought about the desire being prayed for.
Prayer with the lifting of our heart of God, and this could be greatly assisted by using the Word of God in prayer. For this goal and for prayer generally, Augustine did not think the use of any words of our own was necessary in prayer. Augustine advocated that prayer required discipline. With his very active mind and with the constant demands on his time, it is certain that Augustine was in this regard teaching from sore experience.
He went so far as to say that the difficulty, even the impossibility, of controlling thoughts is evidence of how much we need the grace of God even in our praying. He advised that difficulty in prayer did not absolve anyone from persisting with it, and suggested that practical steps to support prayer needed to be implemented. He suggested the regular use of a set time and posture, to train the mind and body to focus on the eternal at that time. The temporal and physical reinforcement offered by a set time and posture would reinforce the focus and fervour of the prayer then undertaken.
As to posture, he did not suggest that the knees be bent or arms outstretched, but the use of a posture that could be steadily maintained. He specifically recommended that the actual time of praying be kept short. Short prayers frequently repeated was what he recommended.
Augustine and “unceasing prayer”
Augustine was aware that Saint Paul recommended that Christians pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17), and knew that this puzzled some people and was misinterpreted by others. Augustine said that what Paul was recommending was fulfilled when a genuine desire for God is present in a person without interruption. Always to desire God was “praying without ceasing.” As a telltale sign of this state of unceasing prayer, it is present when a person’s activity constantly conforms with Christian principles, i.e., when a person loves God and loves neighbour for the love of God.
In such a person, the manner of living fully the Christian life reflects the yearning of the heart. A person’s words of praise and petition to God are thereby mirrored in action; indeed, the goodness of the person’s actions further deepens the quality of his or her praise, petition and godly yearning (Enarrationes in Psalmos 34.2.16). As Augustine explained it, unceasing prayer calls for the conformity of one’s heart and activity with the language of prayer in the Scriptures. For unceasing prayer, we pray the Scriptures, and let our lives fully reflect what we pray, In this regard, Augustine singled out the activities of forgiveness and almsgiving as both necessary and effective activities for unceasing prayer. The former activity is internal and the latter external, but both are remedies against sin that enhance the adoption of the core Christian precept – love.
Forgiveness and almsgiving are both tests of the reality of a person’s unceasing prayer. In summary, Augustine’s response to Paul’s directive, “Pray without ceasing” was: “Your desire is your prayer. If your desire is continuous, you are praying without ceasing.” (Enarrationes in Psalmos 37.14)
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery about Rosia (In the Middles Ages it was incorrectly suggested that Augustine may have visited there), click here.
For further reading
Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopaedia. ISBN: 0-8028-3843-X Published in 1999, 880 pages. Edited by Allan Fitzgerald O.S.A. (Stocks of this publication are long exhausted, but second-hand copies are sometimes for as little as US$25 from Amazon.com, or elsewhere online.)
The promotional material of the encyclopaedia states, "This indispensable, one-volume reference work provides the first encyclopaedic treatment of the life, thought, and influence of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the greatest figures in the history of the Christian church.
The encyclopaedia is the product of more than 140 leading scholars throughout the world. This comprehensive publication contains over 400 articles that cover every aspect of the life and writings of Augustine. It traces his profound influence on the church and the development of Western thought through the past two millennia…." AN2247