Desert Wisdom: Prayer as Receptivity

We connect ourselves to tradition in learning to pray because we understand that prayer (like everything else in the spiritual life) is “gift.”  The wisdom of the early Christian fathers and mothers has been preserved by the Holy Spirit specifically so that we can turn to this “great cloud of witnesses” and receive insight and inspiration from them.

In these opening pages, Bunge draws from Basil the Great and Evagrius Ponticus to illustrate the gifts which come to us through the tradition–gifts that teach us to pray.

In Chapter 1, Bunge notes the gifts of example, imitation, and enacting.  We begin with the witness of the saints as real-life examples, and whatever else prayer must be, it must be real.  But examples alone are insufficient.  We must take the examples of those who’ve gone before us and imitate them—not in every detail (p. 23), but in the spirit of devotion which their examples represent.  And finally, as we move into imitation, we find that prayer becomes an action as well as attitude—a deployment as well as a disposition.

All of this comes as we open ourselves to God and to the rich deposits waiting to be mined in Scripture and tradition.  Bunge cites Evagrius’ counsel to a fellow monk, Eulogios, as a confirmation of such receptivity: “Everything is grace from above….What then do you have that you did not receive?” (p. 21)

This is one of the reasons that across the ages prayer has been said to begin in listening, not in speaking.  Listening puts us into the receptive mode.  This listening is in relation to a text and the accompanying practice of Lectio Divina.  And as Bunge’s book will surely reveal, one of the “texts” that we read (listen to, pay attention to, receive) is the writings and wisdom of the early Christians.

Every time we read these witnesses, we should prayerfully ask, “God, what is the example here that I can imitate and enact?”  In this way even the study of prayer becomes prayer itself.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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