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(updated on July 23, 2008)





To Learn to Pray or to Learn to Live?

by Armand Vellleux[1]


As Christians, we belong to a long spiritual tradition coming from Jesus of Nazareth and extending its roots beyond him through four thousand years of religious experience of the people of Israel. Though this religious experience was particular to that people, it was not elaborated independent of that of the other peoples of the Middle East, nor was it solely a reaction to the traditions and customs of these latter. It germinated in the common religious substra­tum of mankind. Finally, the great Judeo-Christian religious tradition has never been an immutable reality; it has indeed constantly evolved, from its origins to the present day.         

For this reason, when we desire to go deeply into the prayer of the great biblical witnesses, it is well to resituate it within the larger context of the reli­gious experience of the whole of mankind. And when many Christians nowa­days experience a taste for prayer and desire to learn-or re-learn-to pray, this phenomenon should be analyzed in relation to the evolution of the reli­gious sentiment and the relation of that to the experience of faith in contem­porary man and woman.


To Learn to Pray

Frequently today one hears various persons who, talking to a spiritual guide, or coming to the guesthouse of a monastery or a "Center for Prayer", repeat in their turn the request of the disciples to Jesus: "Teach us to pray".

Such a thirst for spiritual values is doubtless explained to a large extent by the profound dissatisfaction engendered by a materialistic and unidimensional civilization-whether in our western capitalist societies or in the various socia­list regimes which are more openly atheistic. But is such an explanation alone sufficient? And is it always an authentic thirst for spiritual values?

Many Christians have long ago abandoned traditional forms of prayer because they no longer seemed to satisfy their spiritual needs, and have practi­cally ceased to pray; but now they experience a malaise, almost a sense of cul­pability, that they desire to calm by rediscovering prayer in new forms by means of new methods or techniques. Others sense, beyond this void, a need and even a much deeper yearning, and desire to be guided in the ways of spirit­ual experience.

No matter how deep this renewal is or is not, it must be seen in relation to a widespread religious revival, a vast movement of resurgence of religious senti­ment which is not peculiar to Christianity alone, but which can likewise be seen in the religions of Asia, in the traditional religions of black Africa and in Islam. Such a religious revival should not be too quickly identified with a spir­itual renewal and does not necessarily lead to it. It could even be simply the final spasm of a form of religiosity that is in the process of disappearing in the context of the appearance of a new balance and a new relation between the experience of faith and its religious expression.


Faith and Religion

While it is necessary to avoid separating faith and religion, it is also impor­tant not to confuse them. By faith I understand the authentic spiritual expe­rience by which a person makes contact with his or her deepest self, enters into relation with God who dwells there, and becomes aware of the bonds which unite oneself to Him, to the rest of humanity and to the cosmos. Religion is constituted by the ensemble of traditions, beliefs, rituals and moral laws which constitute the expression of the collective memory of this experience of faith, and by which this faith can be maintained, sustained and in some way relived. A collectivity can also find in this its identity and its cohesion.

Throughout history, each time that a person has had a mystical or spiritual experience that is more significant for him/herself, he/she has felt the need to objectify the memory of it in a place, an altar or a temple, and periodically to relive this experience in various rites, sacrifices and liturgies. By this religious activity, one enters into contact with the collective religious substratum which is expressed in the myths and great archetypes elaborated in the various reli­gions. However, in our age when we witness a considerable widening of the field of consciousness in all areas, the collective power of rites and cults has greatly diminished and we see a loss of the place of "ritual" and hence of the "religious" taken in this restricted and specific sense, and a greater impor­tance given to mystic experience properly so-called. Individuals perceive much more clearly their personal responsibility for expressing this experience of faith through their lives rather than through a ritual activity. The radical lessening of "religious practice" in the traditional sense in recent decades must perhaps be seen in relation to this development which is of extremely vast importance, rather than in relation to some dechristianization or increase of materialistic atheism.

If the evocative force of collective ritual symbols of the past has become blunted, contemporary humanity has become more sensitive to the symbolic value (at times with extreme intensity) of the realities which it lives or which surround it. The phenomenon of torture, which is present in every part of the world, has become for contemporary humanity a disturbing and eloquent symbol of the active presence of the forces of evil in humanity, much more so than any "liturgical" symbol which has become obsolete and frequently is incomprehensible apart from explanations.

Are we not presently at an important turning-point of human history, where the relation between the experience of faith and its religious expression, as well as their meeting point, are in the process of being redefined? This is so not only within Christianity, but in all of the religious traditions of humanity. And is it not possible that this might be seen as an authentic realization of an important aspect of the message of Jesus of Nazareth, even though regrettably late in coming? And if such is the case, it will obviously be important to dis­tinguish clearly among the numerous elements of the contemporary phenome­non of renewal of various forms of prayer that which is in line with this important evolution and that which is an instinctive reaction of conservation and self-defence in the face of the truly agonizing perspectives opened by such an evolution.

In our effort to obtain a better understanding of this contemporary phenom­enon in the light of tradition, let us pause to reflect on the prayer of Jesus of Nazareth and other witnesses of the spiritual tradition within which he was born and lived.


The Prayer of the Biblical Witnesses

With time, every religion runs the risk of exteriorization, formalism and ritualism. The traditions continue to be repeated, the formulas are recited, the rites are practiced; but the experience of faith which served as the origin of the entire religious movement and gave it its meaning is gradually forgotten or weakened. The People of Israel did not escape this danger, even though it dis­tinguished itself from all the other peoples who surrounded it by its experience of a personal God sharing its life, its wars, its efforts at liberation, etc. It is for this reason that the great prophets of Israel constantly warned the people against the illusion of a cult which might be cut off from concrete life, from justice and love and fidelity to man as well as to God.

The psalms, too, reveal to us a spirituality which is closely connected with everyday life. If these beautiful formulas of prayer still continue to be used in our days, after nearly three thousand years, this cannot be explained merely by the fact of various canonical prescriptions. There is in them something which is bound to the very depths of our being for all times and every culture. They express the full gamut of the religious sentiments which humanity can experience. Beyond all else, the psahns are the prayer of human beings living not only in communion with God, but also in contact with themselves: with their desires, their fears, their sentiments of hate and love, of vengeance and pardon. If today we are sometimes ill at case with certain psalms which are called cursing psalms, to the point of suppressing them in our Christian prayer or abbreviating them, this is perhaps because we fear being confronted with the very same sentiments which we bear in the depths of our own hearts. But if we fail to exorcise these fears and these passions by allowing them to come to the surface of our awareness in prayer, they will continue to poison our lives and that of others as well.

Israel could not avoid being a product of its own period, even in what per­tains to religious life. Its religion was that of a period where the role played by the collective unconscious, myths and the great archetype symbols was pre­ponderant. In spite of the spiritualizing tendency of the psalmists and pro­phets, Israel continued to sacrifice thousands of bulls, rams, lambs, etc., and frequently was tempted by the desire to offer human sacrifices and blood­offerings. One finds also in all this the conviction that certain acts performed or submitted to have in themselves, independently of human freedom, a value which affects the existence and the very being of a person.

In line with the prophets, but going far beyond, Jesus of Nazareth taught by his life and his preaching that the spiritual experience of faith must be expressed foremost in a life of respect for the other, mutual service, justice, love. It would not suffice to say "Lord, Lord" in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, but it is necessary to live in poverty and purity of heart. The hour has come at last when it is no longer a question of offering God worship either in the Temple of Jerusalem or on Mount Garizim, but in spirit and in truth. The "Our Father", which constitutes the response of Jesus to his disciples who asked him to teach them to pray, is not a formula of prayer to be repeated, but a rule of life. With each of the "petitions", the one praying is referred anew to that one's own responsibility for seeing that, in and through one's life, the name of God may be sanctified, that His kingdom may come and His will be done. The one praying is also referred to that one's material needs, conflicts, sins and need for pardon.

While stemming from the religious tradition of Israel, Jesus is in total rup­ture with it (as well as with all the earlier religious traditions) regarding the properly "religious" aspect, namely, the ritual and particularly the sacrificial aspect. His Father is not a God who requires either human or animal sacrific­es. He does not desire death but life. Jesus has come that all might have life in abundance; and, paradoxically, he died a violent death for having refused and rejected every violent concept of God and of "religion".

For thousands of years humanity has succeeded in living, in spite of the vio­lence which dwells in it, because it had transposed this violence into rites. Jesus has dismantled this mythic process. He was not the " innocent victim" accepting to play the traditional mythological role of the scapegoat. He was a man who consciously faced his lot, clearly even though sorrowfully accepting the consequences of his acts and his words. By his violent death, which was in no way ritual, he referred man to his own violence, that which he has been bearing within himself from all times. Those who liquidated Jesus were moved by that fear. affecting man of all times-confronted without veil or defence by all of the violence, hate and instinct for destruction that he carried within his own heart-unable as they were to bear this demanding confronta­tion.

Jesus put an end to all sacrificial religion. And it is doubtless one of the greatest paradoxes of the history of Christianity that his death was interpreted at a very early date in sacrificial terms-that which, in the New Testament, was simply a parallel with the sacrificial world of the Old Covenant being transformed into theological interpretation.

Perhaps we have arrived at last today at the point where this essential aspect of Jesus' message can be realized and is in the process of being realized, not only in historical Christianity, but also within the other great religions of humanity. Thanks to a development of human consciousness, which doubtless is part of the movement of humanity towards its pleroma, many things which have been relegated for centuries to the collective unconscious have risen to the conscious level, and the great traditional archetypes have lost their efficacy. At no time can faith evade the test of concrete life; less than ever can it today take refuge in ritual.


Prayer in Spirit and in Truth

Jesus is all prayer, in his very being as in his life, since he is, in his whole being, relation to the Father, a desire directed towards the Father. His full being is expressed in its fullness in the exclamation "Abba, Father". But at the same time, his being cannot be dissociated from his mission. It is for this reason that those few prayers which the evangelists place on his lips are inti­mately connected with his work of salvation: "I thank you, Father, for you have hidden these things from the wise and the great and have revealed them to the little ones..." "I pray not only for these, but for all those who, due to their word, believe in me..."

The Jesus in whose name we pray-in whose person we pray-is not merely a historical personage who lived two thousand years ago. He has been raised up and transcends all the limits of time and space. He is present to us to the point of being part of the very structure of our personal being, since he is the pleroma in which we all participate. By the fact that he has been given the Name, and that the fullness of the divinity dwells in him, he is the plenitude of consciousness, the fullness of the "self". To the extent that we consciously live, that we are in contact with our "self", that we are "ourselves" (our deep and true selves), to that very extent we participate in his being, we become per­sons of desire and relation: we become prayer.

The prayer of Jesus in Gethsemani, like that of the psalmist, but with immensely greater intensity, is that of a man in touch with himself, with his fear and his distress in the face of the apparent failure of his mission to man­kind, as well as with the sense of his mission itself. Because he is "in touch" to such an extent, he can experience these heart-rending realities without being broken. His prayer is that of a free man. He teaches us not to objectify our miseries in various scapegoats, but rather to confront our own miseries, our own failures, our own self-deficiencies.

When man existentially makes contact with his wounds and his weaknesses, the awareness of his needs dawns upon him and spontaneously expresses itself in a prayer of request and supplication. But underlying all these needs, there is in him a deeper desire which is a radical and transcendental aspiration towards Being, Life, Plenitude. Created in the image of God, and having received within himself at the time of his creation a seed of divine life, man is born with an infinite capacity for growth, the possibilities of which are fully revealed only in Jesus, in whom this seed of divine life attained its full flowering. In him, the image of God is perfect; he is so fully man--to the full extent that God has called man to be--that he is God. If Jesus is fully "prayer" because he is totally desire turned towards the Father, our own life also be­comes prayer to the extent that we consciously live this desire, this aspiration towards Life which constitutes our very being.

This desire is not something that we have to stir up within ourselves; it is given to us. It is the groaning of the Spirit of which Paul speaks in chapter eight of the Epistle to the Romans: "We do not know how to pray, but the Spirit of God prays within us with unutterable groanings". And a few verses earlier, Paul had explained how the Spirit of Jesus is united to our spirit to express with him one and the same cry: "Abba, Father", which is simulta­neously from ourselves and from him, and by which we are constituted and proclaimed children of God. Moreover, Paul connects this "cry" with the groaning of all creation which is in labor, which groans out in the pains of childbirth, while awaiting the full revelation of the adoption as children of God. Therefore, we are all part of that great cosmic prayer which is totally and substantially expressed in Jesus. This prayer becomes our own-and we become prayer-to the extent and at those times when we consciously assume it and express it.

But how are we to express it? It is here that important differences between the various religious traditions become apparent. In the face of the mystery of the divinity, the religious person of the Judeo-Christian tradition easily be­comes talkative. That person tries to speak of that person's God, even forget­ting rather too easily that all the images used to do this are precisely only imag­es and that these become idols as soon as one forgets their relative character. One also tries to express one's self to one's God, to express to Him one's needs, one's expectations, one's gratitude, one's adoration, one's love, etc., making use of the language of gestures as well as that of words. The religious person of the great traditions of the Far East, particularly those of India, spontaneously prefer the silent adoration before the mystery of the divine. Such a person prefers to become lost in God rather than to say things to him or to speak to him.

The weakening of the great traditional archetypes, along with the crisis of language which has affected the western cultures for a long time, is to a large extent at the source of the crisis of prayer experienced in the West which had known until recently a prayer that was predominantly ritual and verbal. This very real crisis should not be minimized, in spite of the presence of an authen­tic spiritual thirst and the sometimes spectacular development of certain forms of prayer.

Fortunately, our period of history is also characterized by the encounter of the various great religions of the world which had previously existed in isolation from one another. The fact that the Word of God became flesh within a particular religious tradition---just as He became flesh at a particular time and place--does not lessen in any way the value of the other religious traditions. In our day, if Christianity wishes to be faithful to the universal design of Christ Himself, it must know how to integrate the religious forms of the other spiritual traditions within the expression of its faith in Christ. In this regard, the Christian West has a great deal to learn from the mystical traditions of the East, in order to come to the full flowering of its own mystical roots. And in fact, to an ever greater extent Christians are drawn to the prayer of silent ado­ration.

In the current religious revival, which cannot fail to be a cause for joy, it is important to distinguish between that which is oriented toward the future and life, and that which is rooted in the past. Those forms of spirituality which develop a mystical and contemplative experience which is bound up with daily life, inseparable from the human search for psychological growth and affec­tive maturity, as well as from the struggle for justice, seem to me to constitute the heart of the Church of the future. As regards the recrudescence of reli­gious fundamentalism, the forceful return of ritualism and the development of a verbal prayer appealing to a large extent to the collective subconscious level, I see in this one of the last convulsions of a form of religiosity which is in the process of undergoing a profound transformation. For we are truly at a turning point of humanity, at the meeting point of two great cycles of civiliza­tion, where the relation between the experience of faith and its religious expression is in total mutation.


Can Prayer be Taught?

Many from the West go to the East or to oriental masters in order to learn meditation and prayer; many others, as I indicated at the beginning, remain in the West and go to spiritual guides or various Centers of Prayer, asking: "Teach me to pray". But can one teach prayer? If the truest and deepest prayer is the Breath of the Spirit within the depths of our heart, can one human teach it to another human? Does a mother teach her child how to breathe?

Obviously one cannot breathe with the same ease in every context. If one is enclosed in a box which is hermetically sealed, it is not possible to breathe long. Without going to such an extreme, it is obvious that any polluted atmosphere makes breathing difficult. Thus, it is not by giving lessons in pro­per breathing that one will protect those who work with asbestos from asbes­tosis.

One sometimes encounters persons who live in situations which are totally false or extremely ambigious in their married life, their life in community, their social life, etc., and who desire to be taught how to pray, but are not dis­posed to question their way of life and to re-establish harmony in it. Prayer is scarcely possible for them, even with the use of the most sophisticated methods.

To learn to pray?-Perhaps. To learn to live?-Definitely! Much more than simply learning to pray, it is a question of learning to live in such a way that our life might be prayer, that it might be a presence as constant as possi­ble to this thirst for life which is the breathing of the Spirit of God in us. A life of prayer is an integral life, a life in which all of the elements form a har­monious whole, in which one is in harmony with oneself, with others, with the cosmos, with God. Harmony is prayer.

To learn to live is to learn to grow, and for this to learn to heal one's wounds and also to learn how to grow old. How can one become a person of prayer without being in full communion with the movement of life which bears us progressively and irrevocably towards the conclusion of our earthly pilgrim­age? To learn how to grow old takes on a special importance in our modern contraceptive society, which is terribly aging, but where one pretends to remain young indefinitely, refusing to those who are truly young the support and contribution of true old age. And what is more beautiful than an old man or woman whose life has become a prayer?

Finally, to learn to live-and thus to learn to pray-is also to learn to die, for death is not improvised. And here again, the supreme lesson comes to us from the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemani and on the cross. The total giving up of his being in the rending of a cry: "Into your hands 1 commit my spirit" expresses his total self as prayer, as total abandon, as absolute and uncondi­tional self-giving. Beyond all of the ritual offerings and all of the formulas of giving, our death will be our ultimate prayer. Our life of each day must be a conscious anticipation of this.



Monastery of the Holy Spirit

2625 Highway 212 S. W.

Conyers, GA 30208



Translated by Fr James Conner

Osage Monastery

Sand Springs, OK 74063



[1] This article originally appeared in French as a chapter of a book on prayer today by profes­sors of Scripture at the University of Montreal and published in 1981 by Les Editions Paulines of Montreal under the title L Eglise en Prière We are grateful for the permission to publish it in English, and to Fr James Conner for translating it far Cistercian Studies.