Praying with the Fathers of the Church: A Reflection per Day for Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter
by Mike Aquilina
For the Greeks and Romans of Jesus' time, religion was an assortment of gods and cults. No god could claim exclusive devotion, and popular religion had no common doctrine. If anything united the many "pagan" cults, it was their businesslike quality. The basic premise of Roman religion, according to one scholar, was transactional, like a purchase in the marketplace: "the gods can be induced to exchange services for sacrifice," (The Rise of Christianity, 86).
If you uttered a certain formula, or if you offered a particular sacrifice, or if you went on a prescribed pilgrimage, then a particular god might come through with a favor for you.
But maybe not. The gods were by nature capricious, and they did not always deliver. They observed no moral code and they felt no bond of affection with mere mortals. We were all—gods and humans—thrown into this mess willy-nilly, somehow, and we owed each other nothing. But on a slow day, we might work out a deal.
The prayer of Jews and Christians was a different matter altogether. It assumed a profound relationship. It assumed obligations. It assumed a bond of love. Read the Psalms and you'll see that it sometimes made promises, this for that, but it never presumed on the delivery of goods. It presumed only on the justice and mercy that were characteristic of the God of Israel.
This was the kind of prayer practiced by the early Christians. And it's the kind of prayer that changed the world. It made an impression on Greeks and Romans because it was so strikingly different. Even as the pagans felt reluctant to abandon old superstitions, they couldn't help but admire the effects of prayer on Christians: not so much in the way it changed their circumstances, but rather in the way it changed Christians.
Prayer changes believers the way profound love changes a human being. It inspires greater ambition, hope, discipline, and courage. What we won't do, we'll do for love.
Jesus did not want his disciples to lapse into pagan patterns of prayer. "In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Mt 6:7-8).
God isn't found in the rote recitation of a formula, but in a family relationship. God is your Father.
Jesus, nonetheless, kept to the forms of prayer observed by his people. He recited the Sh'ma, the great watchword of Jewish faith. He made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He attended Sabbath services at the synagogue. He meditated on the Scriptures. He paid the Temple tax. He spent long nights in prayer. He fasted and gave alms.
Jesus did what ordinary people do. He worked, ate, slept, played with children; he had conversations with friends and strangers. Yet he strove to make his whole life a prayer to the Father. And he urged all his disciples to do the same: to "pray always without becoming weary" (Lk 18:1). St. Paul echoed this principle as he said, "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thes 5:17).
This was the great challenge of the early Christians: to pray always, in many ways, but never to fall into the mere prattling of formulas. It was a constant concern of the Church's pastors. We see it in the Pastoral Epistles of the New Testament, where St. Paul began to sort out the types of prayer (1 Tm 2:1), and it continued in the generations that followed, as the Fathers of the Church reflected on the Scriptures and drew out the practical meaning for Greek, Roman, African, Persian, and other congregations that were unfamiliar with Jewish practice.
The teaching is rich and still useful. It is so wide-ranging that it could fill a library of books. The Church Fathers are those recognized by Christian tradition as teachers and examples of the faith. Because the Gospel spread so quickly and so far, the Fathers (and Mothers) were diverse. Their writings bear the marks of many different cultures. They varied also in their approaches to prayer, so much that they are often divided into "schools" based on their distinctive practices or even their places of origin ("Alexandrian," or "Antiochene," or "East Syrian").
Still, we can find teachings that they all held in common. And certainly we can all benefit from their reflections on Christ and the life of faith. The word "Catholic" means "universal." And so we can lay claim to the good doctrine of every age and place. Like St. Justin Martyr in the second century we can say, everything that's good is ours!
I offer three basic teachings of the Fathers before we get into our points for meditation through the holy seasons in the coming year.
1. Our prayer begins with the Church's worship, the liturgy. Before they could "say prayers," the early Christians were caught up in the rites. They were baptized. They attended Mass. Sunday attendance is considered the baseline for Christian prayer. By the third century, St. Cyprian assumed that the devout would want to receive the Eucharist daily (On the Lord's Prayer, 18). Jesus commanded that the Church "do this" in remembrance of him. The Fathers were faithful to that command.
2. It is good for us to have a set program, a plan, for our basic devotions. The oldest surviving Christian document, apart from the New Testament, is the Didache. (Portions of it are probably older than many of the New Testament texts.) This anonymous book gave rather exact prescriptions for Christian prayer. It assigned two days per week for fasting. It assumed regular attendance at Sunday Eucharist. And it prescribed the recitation of the Our Father three times daily.
3. But there is a distinction among vocal prayer, mental prayer, formal prayer, and conversational prayer. The Fathers wanted us to speak with God habitually, as we would speak to a family member or friend. St. John Chrysostom said: "Prayer is, after all, conversation with God." (Homilies on Genesis, 30.5.) And Evagrius of Ponticus put it a little more precisely: "Prayer is intimate conversation of the mind with God." (Treatise on Prayer 3). The goal is to make prayer habitual and interior. Prayers should lead us to prayer. One of the Desert Fathers said that our prayer will be perfect when we no longer realize when we are praying.
But "perfect" takes practice. Habits are formed over the course of years. We need to pray, as the saints did, till it's just what we do.
Consider this beautiful story about a conversation in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century:
Abba Lot came to visit Abba Joseph and said: "Abba, when I am able, I recite a short office, I fast a little, I pray, I meditate, I stay recollected. As far as I can I try to keep my thoughts pure. What else should I do?" Then Abba Joseph got up. He stretched out his hands to heaven and his fingers became like burning lamps.He said to Abba Lot: "If you will, become all fire."
Like the prayer of the early Christians—and the prayer of Jesus himself—our prayer will take many forms. May these prayers, all together, take up our entire life in prayer and as prayer.
Reflections from the Fathers for Advent 2016 through the Christmas Octave
11/27 "With your honorable conduct and your irreproachable deeds, prepare the Lord's way, smooth out his path so that the Word of God may act in you without hindrance." Origen, Homilies on Luke, 21
11/28 "Follow after humility, as one in love with it. Be in love with it, and it shall glorify you." St. Basil, Homily on Humility
11/29 "You touched me, and I burned for your peace." St. Augustine, Confessions, 10.27
11/30 "Nothing graces the Christian soul so much as mercy—mercy as shown chiefly towards the poor." St. Ambrose, On the Duties of Clergy, 1.11.38
12/1 "The will of God is our sanctification, for he wishes his image—us—to become likewise his likeness; that we may be holy just as he is holy." Tertullian, Exhortation to Chastity, 1
12/2 "If you think you are really faithful, but have not yet the fullness of faith, you need to say like the Apostles, 'Lord, increase our faith' (Lk 17:5). For some part you have of yourself, but the greater part you receive from him." St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 5.9
12/3 "Cherish all the sheep whom Christ sought by his blood and passion." St. Cyprian, Letters, 66
12/4 "What is the meaning of 'Prepare the way of the Lord'? It means: make ready for the reception of whatever Christ may wish to do." St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, 6
12/5 "Exceeding gently, the finger of your justice, in love and compassion, touches the wounds of one who is to be healed." St. Ephrem of Syria, Nisibene Hymns, 11.4
12/6 "Confess what you have done in word or deed, by night or day. Confess in an acceptable time, and in the day of salvation receive the heavenly treasure." St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 1.5
12/7 "The Lord Jesus had compassion upon us in order to call us to himself, not frighten us away. He came in meekness; he came in humility." St. Ambrose of Milan, On Repentance, 1.1.3.
12/8 "What is greater than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom Glory itself chose?" St. Ambrose of Milan, On Virginity, 2.2.7
12/9 "What I need is the meekness by which the prince of this world is destroyed." St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Trallians, 4
12/10 "Let us be pious in secret, not encumbered with parade and show and hypocrisy. Let us cast away the sheep's clothing, and rather let us become sheep." St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Titus, 2
12/11 "Beware of surrendering yourself to the tyranny of sorrow. You can command yourself; the tempest is not beyond your skill." St. John Chrysostom, Letters, 9
12/12 "Whatever can help to guide us to purity of heart, we must follow with all our might; but whatever hinders us from it, we must shun as a dangerous and hurtful thing." St. John Cassian, Conferences, 1.5
12/13 "Put Christ about you, and not gold. Where Mammon is, there Christ is not. Where Christ is, there Mammon is not." St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians, 10
12/14 "It is truly a subject of joy that we can see the signs of victory against death, even our own incorruptibility, through the body of the Lord." St. Athanasius the Great, Letters, 11.14
12/15 "Open, open your hearts to the joy of the Lord, and let your love overflow from your heart to your mouth." Anonymous (first century), Odes of Solomon, 8.1
12/16 "We meet to read the books of God. . . . With the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast." Tertullian, Apology, 39
12/17 "Whoever does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God. Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." St. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, 1.2
12/18 "A theologian is one who prays; and one who prays is a theologian." Evagrius of Ponticus, Chapters on Prayer, 60
12/19 "Memory is related to past time, hope to future. . . . We love, persuaded by faith that the past was as it was, and by hope expecting the future." St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 2.2
12/20 "The knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by Mary's obedience. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith." St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3.22.4
12/21 "God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man." St. Aristides of Athens, Apology, 2
12/22 "Mary is more blessed in receiving the faith of Christ, than in conceiving the flesh of Christ." St. Augustine, On Holy Virginity, 3
12/23 "Let the sinner rejoice, since he is invited to grace. Let the Gentiles exult, for they are called to life." Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermons, 21
12/24 "May he—who did not shrink from taking a beginning like ours—perfect in us his gifts, and may he also make us children of God, he who for our sakes wished to become a child of man." St. Augustine, Sermons, 184
12/25 "You alone and your mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your mother. Who . . . can compare in beauty to these?" St. Ephrem of Syria, Nisibene Hymns, 27.8
12/26 "Not by chance or in vain did he abase himself so greatly. His intention was only to exalt us." St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, 2.3
12/27 "With his Mother's flesh God clothed himself, / Since from Virginity he was made man." Prudentius, Hymn on the Divinity of Christ, 435-436
12/28 "There is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity." Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermons, 21.1
12/29 "You, who are your mother's beauty, yourself adorned her with everything! / She was, by her nature, your bride already before you came." St. Ephrem of Syria, Hymns on the Nativity, 11
12/30 "God the Father begot God the Son outside time, and made him of a Virgin in time. The first nativity exceeds time; the second nativity enlightens time." St. Augustine, Sermon, 140.
12/31 "For his nativity on both sides was marvelous: divine without mother, human without father." St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 33.2
1/1 "Our Lord Jesus Christ, in very deed and not merely in appearance, received a body from Mary Mother of God." St. Alexander of Alexandria, Letters, 1.12
Reflections from the Fathers for Lent 2017 through the Easter Octave
3/1 "He who sits upon the Cherubim throne washed the feet of the traitor. And do you—you who are earth and ashes and cinders and dust—do you exalt yourself, and are you highminded?" St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 71.2
3/2 "He who calls himself but dust and ashes is exalted." St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, 1.5
3/3 "Strive cheerfully; for nothing is lost. Every prayer of yours, every psalm you sing is recorded. Every alms, every fast is recorded. Every marriage duly observed is recorded." St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 15.23
3/4 "You are a vessel; but as yet you are full. Pour out what you have, that you may receive what you have not." St. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, 2.9
3/5 "During these days of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library, which books are to be read through thoroughly." St. Benedict, Rule, 48
3/6 "During these days let us add something to our ordinary burden of service, such as private prayers or abstinence from food and drink, so that each one may offer up to God in the joy of the Holy Spirit something over and above the measure appointed . . . and thus long for the holy feast of Easter with the joy of spiritual desire." St. Benedict, Rule, 49
3/7 "The duty of fasting is rendered acceptable to God when it is made perfect by the fruits of charity." St. John Cassian, Institutes, 5.35
3/8 "Feed prayer on fasting." Tertullian, On Repentance, 9
3/9 "You who are a sinner like myself, hurry to embrace repentance, as a shipwrecked man the protection of some plank." Tertullian, On Repentance, 4
3/10 "Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus. I watered them with my tears. I wiped them with my hair. And then I subdued my rebellious body with weeks of abstinence." St. Jerome, Letters, 22.7
3/11 "The heavens, and the angels who are there, are glad at a man's repentance." Tertullian, On Repentance, 8
3/12 "I lost, O Lord, the use of yesterday.
Anger came and stole my heart away.
O may this morning's light until the evening stay."
St. Gregory Nazianzen, "I Lost, O Lord, the Use of Yesterday" (tr. Blessed John Henry Newman in Historical Sketches, vol. 1)
3/13 "What use is the robe of a penitent if it covers the pride of a king?" St. Jerome, Letters, 17.2
3/14 "In every act we do, in every step we take, let our hand trace the Lord's cross." St. Jerome, Letters, 22.37
3/15 "Let your afflictions be books to admonish you." St. Ephrem of Syria, Nisibene Hymns, 3.11
3/16 "If you have fasted two or three days, do not think yourself better than others who do not fast. You fast and are angry; another eats and wears a smiling face." St. Jerome, Letters, 22.37
3/17 "Our way to repay God is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven." St. Patrick, Confession, 3
3/18 "Now is the season of confession: confess what you have done in word or in deed, by night or by day; confess in an acceptable time, and in the day of salvation receive the heavenly treasure." St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 1.5
3/19 "With these things then in our minds, let us emulate that blessed Joseph, who shone through all trials, that we may attain unto the same crowns with him." St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, 49.8
3/20 "They never remember God, unless they are in trouble." Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 2.1
3/21 "Fortitude is strengthened by infirmities, and calamity is very often the discipline of virtue." Minucius Felix, Octavius, 36
3/22 "God's soldier is neither forsaken in suffering, nor is brought to an end by death. Thus the Christian may seem to be miserable; he cannot be really found to be so." Minucius Felix, Octavius, 37
3/23 "Grief and death were born of sin, and devour sin." St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Statues, 5.13
3/24 "The earth, the vine, and the olive are in need of chastisement. When the olive is bruised, then its fruit smells sweet. When the vine is pruned, then its grapes are good." St. Ephrem of Syria, Nisibene Hymns, 3.9
3/25 "The archangel Gabriel answered [Mary]: 'The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you' (Luke 1:34-35). And now you ask how the bread became Christ's body and the wine and water Christ's blood. And I say to you: The Holy Spirit is present and does those things which surpass reason and thought. St. John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 4.13
3/26 "Humility is the earning of glory, glory the reward of humility." St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 104.3
3/27 "Peace is our final good." St. Augustine, City of God, 19.11
3/28 "Peace is a good so great, that even in this earthly and mortal life there is no word we hear with such pleasure, nothing we desire with such zest." St. Augustine, City of God, 19.11
3/29 "Let us draw near then, my beloved, to faith, since its powers are so many. For faith . . . healed the sick. It conquered hosts. It overthrew walls. It stopped the mouths of lions and quenched the flame of fire . . . All these mighty works were wrought by faith." St. Aphrahat, Demonstration, 1.18
3/30 "When I suffer, I shall be the freed-man of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him." St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, 4
3/31 "There is nothing great in wearing a sad or a disfigured face, in simulating and in showing off fasts, or in wearing a cheap cloak while you retain a large income." St. Jerome, Letters, 58.2
4/1 "He prays too little, who is accustomed only to pray at the times when he bends his knees." St. John Cassian, Conferences, 10.1
4/2 "It is human to err; it is devilish to remain willfully in error." St. Augustine, Sermons, 164.14
4/3 "[Human beings are] curious to know the lives of others, but slow to correct their own." St. Augustine, Confessions, 10.3
4/4 "Cleanse your vessel, so that you may receive grace more abundantly. For though the remission of sins is given equally to all, the communion of the Holy Spirit is bestowed in proportion to each man's faith." St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 1.5.
4/5 "Every holy thought is the gift of God, the inspiration of God, the grace of God." St. Ambrose, On Cain, 1.45
4/6 "The things that pertain to sobriety and temperance must be more diligently observed at this season, so that a lasting habit may be contracted from a brief zeal." Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermons, 68.4
4/7 "Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! What kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honor, envy him not!" St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Statues, 3.11
4/8 "There is a joy that is affliction; misery is hidden within it. There is a misery that is profit; it is a fountain of joys in the new world." St. Ephrem of Syria, Nisibene Hymns, 4.13
4/9 "O surpassing loving-kindness! Christ received the nails in His undefiled hands and feet, and He endured anguish; while to me He granted salvation, without suffering or toil, by the fellowship of His pain." St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 20.5
4/10 "He who is not advancing is going back, and he who is gaining nothing is losing something. Let us run, then, with the steps of faith, by the works of mercy, in the love of righteousness . . . so that we may deserve to be partakers of Christ's resurrection." Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermons, 59.8
4/11 "[Jesus] knew [Judas] to be a thief, yet did not betray him, but rather endured him, and showed us an example of patience in tolerating the wicked in the Church." St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 50.11
4/12 "Christ saved men not with thunder and lightning, but as a wailing babe in the manger and as a silent sufferer upon the cross." St. Jerome, Letters, 82.1
4/13 "The sacrament you receive is made what it is by the word of Christ. If the word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements?" St. Ambrose, On the Mysteries, 9.52
4/14 "They hanged upon a tree Him Who stretches out the earth; they transfixed Him with nails Who laid firm the foundation of the world; they circumscribed Him Who circumscribed the heavens; they bound Him who frees sinners." St. Alexander of Alexandria, Letters, 5.5
4/15 "Praise the Lord who bore the spear and who received the nails in his hands, in his feet. He entered into hell and took its spoils." St. Ephrem of Syria, Hymns on the Nativity, 13.30
4/16 "Christ is risen from the dead! Rise with him! Christ is returned again to himself! So you, too, return! Christ is freed from the tomb! Be freed from the bond of sin!" St. Gregory Nazianzen, Orations, 45.1
4/17 "By having the water thrice poured on us and ascending again up from the water, we enact that saving burial and resurrection which took place on the third day. . . . As we have power over the water, both to be in it and arise out of it, so he, too, who has the universe at his sovereign disposal, immersed himself in death, as we in the water, to return to his own blessedness." St. Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 3.35
4/18 "Receive and believe that in the day of the Resurrection your body shall arise in its entirety, and you shall receive from our Lord the reward of your faith, and in all that you have believed, you shall rejoice and be made glad." St. Aphrahat, Demonstrations, 25
4/19 "We were imprisoned in darkness, and have come forth to the light. We were sown in corruption, and have risen in glory. We were buried naturally, and we have risen spiritually. Again we were sown in weakness, and have risen in power." St. Aphrahat, Demonstrations, 8.10
4/20 "Our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity." St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 4.18.5
4/21 "The Spirit is in us all, and he is the living water, which the Lord grants to those who rightly believe in him and love him." St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 5.18.2
4/22 "Love truth and let nothing but truth issue from your mouth, in order that the spirit which God has settled in this flesh of yours may be found to be truthful in the sight of all." Hermas, The Shepherd, 3.1
4/23 "His punishment is changed into a mercy, for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment." St. Gregory Nazianzen, Orations, 45.14
NOTE: The main series of translations from which the author has drawn are the Ante-Nicene Fathers and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1 and 2. You'll find them at www.tertullian.org and www.NewAdvent.org. The English language has undergone great changes in the last hundred and fifty years. The author has adapted the material, from Victorian English to modern English, consulting the Greek or Latin originals whenever possible.
2016, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights
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Excerpts from "The Rise of Christianity" by Rodney Stark, copyright © 1997, HarperCollins, San Francisco. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.