Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins this fourth subsection of the third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition by pointing out that contemporary Christians tend to pray silently when they pray alone. However,
Men in biblical times, in contrast, not only read in an undertone (sotto voce), that is, they actually read aloud to themselves, but they also meditated and even prayed as a rule in an audible voice as well. Therefore we find again and again in the psalms, for instance, expressions like: “Hear the voice of my supplication.” Furthermore, the psalmist “cries aloud to the Lord,” and we even hear “his words” and “the sound of his cry.” (123)
The same applies to the freely formulated prayers which we find in the writings of the Fathers and which were clearly meant to be said for all to hear.
Ineed, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, too, are full of such prayers, some of which are very short and simple, while others are quite extensive; all of them, at any rate, are spontaneous.
The story is told of Abba Makarios the Great that he visited a brother in the skete every day for four months and did not once find him idle. When he visited him yet again and remained outside standing at the door, he heard him saying tearfully: “Lord, do your ears not hear me crying to you? Have mercy on me on account of my sins, for I do not grow weary of calling to you for help.”
Such a direct expression of emotions might seem strange to modern man, as something not at all in keeping with his ideas of “prayer” and “meditation”. And yet the spiritual Fathers – including those in the Christian East down to this day – teach that one should recite even the prayer of the heart in an undertone, at least at the beginning and for a certain time, that is, until it has become truly united with one’s heartbeat. For they knew that this, as in the case of reading or “meditating” in an undertone, is an excellent means of bringing distractions under control, which are otherwise so difficult to overcome. (125)
Hearing one’s own voice makes it easier to concentrate on the words, for
even though prayer is and of itself a purely spiritual phenomenon, the body must necessarily be able to make its contribution to it. (126)
However, the biblical witnesses to prayer were not so much concerned with the practical benefits of praying aloud. Instead their cries were rather an expression of the immediacy of their relationship to God. They were praying to the “living God,” who is contrasted to the idols who have mouths but cannot speak etc. He alone possesses a face in the true sense of the word.
These and other very graphic ways of speaking about God are much more than mere poetic metaphors. The more spiritualized the image of God in the Old Covenant becomes, the more “anthropomorphic” – having a human form – speech about God can and must be, if the relationship with God is not to evaporate into impersonal abstractions. The Old Testament prophets are the most often cited examples of this paradoxical development. Their God is, as John would later say, entirely “spirit”, in sharp contrast to all the pagan reification of the divine. For precisely this reason, though, they can dare to speak of him in an unprecedented, concretely anthropomorphic way.
In the Incarnation of the Word, this personal being of God, his being present for us as well, has transcended all imaginable limitations. His nearness in the Son is a light that blinds the unbeliever with radiance. Only to the believer does the Son grant access to the “hidden Father”; he even makes it possible for the believer to call him by the familiar name of “Abba – dear Father”, as only a child would dare to address his father who is physically present. (127)