Thursday 19 June 2014

The Great Delusions - #3 - Only Spontaneous Is Spiritual!

There is a widespread delusion, which has been introduced only in recent times, which suggests that liturgical prayer is not spiritual and that only spontaneous prayers are pleasing to God. This was certainly what I was taught. Spontaneous words came from the heart, it was said, while written down words at best came from the head. I have on occasion decided to spontaneously treat my wife to a meal in a restaurant. Unfortunately it usually happens that the restaurants we visit are filled with people who planned ahead and booked a table. It might appear that my spontaneity is more romantic and thoughtful, but while the less spontaneous couples are enjoying a candlelit dinner, my wife and I have often been left to spontaneously share a meal in McDonalds.

Even those Christian traditions which give great value to spontaneity allow it only a very limited character. Those who insist that only spontaneous prayers can be spiritual, do not insist on spontaneous hymns and songs. Why have hymn books and song books if written down texts are not spiritual. Why do such congregations read the Bible, if the written word is not spiritual? And if the Scriptures are excused from condemnation then how can it be unspiritual to offer the very words of Scripture in prayers and hymns?

In my own experience those godly and serious men who could stand up and speak about a passage of the Bible spontaneously were those who had spent much of their lives preparing for such opportunities. Because they read and studied the Bible so thoroughly they were able to say something of value whenever it was required. If we have not prepared anything in the storehouse of our hearts then we will have nothing to give when it is required. This is a scriptural principle.

The Liturgical services of the Church are that spiritual school which each one of us requires if we are to learn to offer acceptable worship to God. If I asked my bishop, or any of the older and most faithful priests and monks in our Church, to offer prayer they would certainly be able to do so. But every word they prayed would resonate with the years of attentive prayer and study with which they had occupied themselves. They have made the language of worship, the language of heaven, their own.

Spontaneity without preparation produces outcomes without spiritual depth or substance. This is true of any field of activity, not only within Christian spirituality. I cannot just choose to play a wonderful piece of music on the piano. I must put in years of work, submitting to the discipline of studying the works of great composers, following their notation with accuracy and humility. There is no benefit in listening to a person who has made no effort in their musical studies, and if they launch into a piece without learning how the greatest composers constructed their own works then it will be painful and tedious for all those who listen.

A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good. (Matthew 12:35)
How can we expect to spontaneously produce anything spiritual if it has not already been stored as treasure within the heart? I have not yet been so transformed by participation in the liturgy and in the study of Scripture that the words and phrases of my own prayers naturally fall into the patterns of these much greater and more significant texts. I have not yet learned to become fluent in the language of heaven.

This is the difference between that spontaneity which has made no effort, and that sense of things coming naturally which is the fruit of a lifetime of perseverance and application. Liturgical prayer allows us to gain experience in using the best of prayers so that our own spirituality is formed by the words we use as we make them our own. Liturgy reminds us that the spiritual life is one of great effort and application. Our Lord says..

No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.

And St Paul says…

Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.

Why do we imagine that all of the spiritual life will suddenly become accessible to us without effort? If we are training for an sporting event we will have to spend many months and years running alone in the rain, feeling pain and discomfort, loneliness and frustration. Our first efforts at training may well make us feel like we are completely unable to make any progress. But if we persevere then the training becomes more enjoyable, we become fit, we have the hope of greater progress.

We can’t have it all at once. The Liturgical worship of the Church demands patient endurance of us. If we could have it all at once it would not be worth having. If I want to think of what grace may be given to one who perseveres in learning the language of heaven I think of Pope St Kyrillos, or Pope Shenouda, praying at the altar as men who had endured a lifetime of spiritual training in the liturgical worship of the Church and had been transformed by it. The liturgical prayers are a means and a source of great grace, of the transforming presence of God Himself, but we must make every effort and persevere to the end if we wish to find ourselves standing before God. The precious grace in the worship of the Church is not given without cost, and those who understand its value treat it as the Pearl of Great Price, hidden in a field and not manifest to all, but worth selling all that we have to obtain it.

Do not be deceived. Prayer and Spirituality without preparation is not any sort of sacrifice of praise at all.

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