Gabriel Bunge

Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins the fourth section on wakefulness of this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition by noting that contemporary people see the night mainly as a time for rest, and that staying awake is usually done for the sake of work or of feasting. By contrast, Scripture and the Fathers saw the night as the preferred time for prayer as we also see in Jesus’ own practice. For the Apostle Paul, keeping watch was “not the least important thing that distinguishes the Christian from the drowsy children of this world.” (80)

Watching and waiting belong to the oldest customs of the Church and this eschatological note of waiting for the return of the Lord was passed on to the early monks who organised the entire course of their day with this goal in mind. The practice of rising at night to pray required a certain willpower, but should not be seen as merely “an ascetical test of strength aimed at ‘conquering nature’. ‘Nature’ mistreated in such a way would sooner or later settle accounts on its own.” (83)


Biblical man and the Fathers held watching and praying in high esteem for various reasons. The eschatological “waiting for the Lord”, which really ought to characterize every Christian, has already been mentioned. It imparts an entirely new quality to time, in that it sets a fixed goal for its endless streaming and thus impresses its own stamp on the whole of life, which strives toward this goal. “Living for today” is something quite different from realizing the uncertainty of the “day of the Lord” and therefore wisely “making the most of the time.”

Watching and waking brings about in the praying Christian that “sobriety” which guards him against being overcome with sleep and against the intoxication of the children of darkness. In turn, sobriety of the mind, which (in contrast to the “coarsening” effect of sleep) “refines” the mind, makes the one who keeps watch receptive to the contemplation of the divine mysteries.

Sleep flees from the one who, like Jacob, watches his flocks at night, and if it still takes hold of him, then this sleep is for him like waking is for someone else. The fire with which his heart burns simply does not allow him to be submerged in sleep. Indeed, he sings psalms with David: “Lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”

The one who has arrived at this degree and has tasted its sweetness understands what has been said. For such a one has not become drunk with material sleep, but only makes use of natural sleep. [Barsanuphios and John] (83-84)

Father Gabriel acknowledges that the rhythms of modern life make it more difficult to keep vigil.

“Lately, in these times” even the majority of monks have to be content with less … Christ’s example and the rule stated in the letter of the recluse John of Gaza (cited above) make clear, nevertheless, what is at stake and how one can still “watch and pray” even today. For even Christ would hardly have spent every night in prayer. Evidently, though, he was accustomed to withdraw to pray alone in the late evening, after sunset, or else “in the early morning, a great while before daylight”, as any devout soul who prayed the psalms would do. These are precisely the times that the Fathers, too, generally reserved for prayer. The individual will have to determine the quantity on the basis of his own experience, together with the advice of his spiritual father, who will take into account age, health, and spiritual maturity. One thing is certain, in any case: Without the effort of watching and waking, no one attains that spiritual “sobriety” that the monk Hesychios from Mount Sinai so extravagantly praises.

How lovely and delightful, luminous and pleasing, extraordinary, radiant, and beautiful a virtue is sobriety, when with thee, Christ our God, and accompanied by the great humility of the watchful human intellect!

For indeed, it sends out “to the sea and its depths” its branches of contemplation, and “to the river its shoots” of delightful, divine mysteries. Sobriety is like Jacob’s ladder, upon which God rests and the angels ascend. (86-87)

In the third section of the second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Places and Times,” Father Gabriel (Bunge) turns his attention to the topic of regularity in prayer, noting that “practice makes perfect” is also true of prayer:

A “practicing Christian” is, to the mind of the holy Fathers, not a man who more or less faithfully fulfils his Sunday duty, but rather one who day after day, his whole life long, prays several times a day, that is, practices his faith regularly, just as he regularly performs other functions necessary for life – eating, sleeping, breathing … Only in this way will his “spiritual activity” attain that natural character that appears self-evident in the case of the functions just mentioned. (72)

Both the Old and the New Testaments refer to regular times of prayer, a practice that the Fathers draw on and reinforce. The details of such times vary. Tertullian refers to the third, sixth and ninth hour found in the New Testament and adds to these one’s prayers at the beginning and at the end of the day and at night, giving the five hours that have been preserved by Islam. The Desert Fathers of Egypt knew only two (fairly short) set prayer times but sought ways of keeping the mind at prayer during the rest of the day and night. Palestinian monasticism knew more prayer times and developed the biblical notion of “seven times a day I praise thee.” Nevertheless, the purpose of such varying practices was that of acquiring “unceasing prayer.”

The observance of a fixed number of times of prayer, distributed throughout the day (and the night), which requires a certain self-discipline, has therefore, essentially the sole purpose of building bridges that enable our inconstant mind to make its way across the river of time. Through this practice the mind acquires that dexterity and facility of movement which no artist or craftsman can do without. To be sure, this is in part simply routine, but it is necessary in order to accomplish what is really at stake: the art – of carpentry, of playing the violin, of soccer… – and, indeed, of praying, which is the highest and most perfect activity of our mind, as Evagrius assures us. The better the training, the more perfectly natural the movement will seem to be, and the greater the joy, also, that we experience in the action. (76)

This training is not without trials however and “the most formidable opponent is a certain weariness, often indefinable, which can set in even when there is not lack of necessary leisure time” and which can lead to one doubting everything.

What should you do, then? You must force yourself, that is, activate the power of your will, so as to observe in any event the prescribed number of prayer times, even if the office itself has to be reduced to a minimum, one psalm, three Glory Bes, one Trisagion, and one genuflection – provided you are capable of it. If the soul’s oppression is too great, one must make use of the ultimate remedy.

If this battle against you increases in force, my Brother, and stops your mouth and does not allow you to recite the office, not even in the way that I have described above, then force yourself to get on your feet and walk up and down in your cell, while saluting the Cross and making prostrations before it, and our Lord in his mercy will allow [this battle] to pass. [Joseph Hazzaya].

When words seem to have lost all meaning, the only thing remaining is the physical gesture, a theme to which we shall later return and treat in detail. (77-79)

All of us are quite familiar with the term “orientation” from everyday language. Most people probably associate it with the idea of being “aligned” in a particular way. Someone who “loses his orientation” has in fact lost sight of his direction and goal. Scarcely realizes anymore that “orientation” means, very precisely, “east-ing”. “To orientate oneself” means to turn to the east, toward the sunrise (ἀνατολή). (57)

In the second section of this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition devoted to “Places and Times,” Father Gabriel (Bunge) examines a wide variety of patristic witnesses in order to explain the deep theological resonances involved in turning East for prayer. This practice was of the utmost importance for the Fathers, and Origen is adamant that there is no reason that should ever prevent a Christian from praying facing the East. The Fathers were convinced that the practice of praying facing East was of apostolic origin. In seeking to explain and commend this practice, they outlined a rich theological symbolism in which bodily orientation reflected their convictions about the inner, spiritual attitudes are expressed, and formed by, bodily actions.

The Fathers taught that we turn East to pray because of salvation history. Saint Basil the Great writes:

Therefore we all look to the east during prayer, but few know that we are in search of our original home, Paradise, which God planted in the Garden of Eden, to the east. (60)

Father Gabriel writes:

Paradise is that place in which God’s “original”, initial, and most authentic will was realized in creation. The sin of the first human couple disturbed this order and led to their banishment from this “original home”. Nevertheless this initial creative will of God remained in force. Therefore included already in the punishment was also the promise that this banishment would not be final. …

Christ’s work of salvation consists in fulfilling this promise and thus validating again God’s original will in creation. …

When the Christian, therefore turns to the east to worship, then in his mind’s eye arises that Paradise as the “original home”, where he is totally himself: living in perfect harmony with his Creator, with whom, indeed, he speaks there face to face, in harmony with his equals, with himself and with the creatures that surround him. He looks at the “tree of life”, from which he is now no longer excluded thanks to Christ’s death on the Cross – which is why the easterly direction for prayer has been marked with a cross on the wall from time immemorial. (60-62)

This brings us, then, to the Christological reason for turning East. Saint John of Damascus develops this by arguing that we should turn to the Lord in body as well as in spirit, and he outlines the scriptural metaphors for dawn and light that are applied to Christ. While the East emerges as the preferred point of the compass in Old Covenant salvation history, this is strengthened in the New Covenant.

Thus the unwritten apostolic tradition of worshipping God while facing east has various reasons that complement one another and which John Damascene carefully notes in the course of the chapter. Since everything beautiful should be dedicated to God, the Author of all that is beautiful and good, and since the dawn is not doubt one of the most beautiful things, it should be reserved for the worship of God. This is a “cosmic” argument, then, that even a non-Christian could have formulated, which is why the east had a privileged place even in non-Christian times and in non-biblical traditions, as we will see later. Nevertheless it is biblical man – the Christian, based on the fullness of revelation in which he shares, to a greater extent than the Jew – to whom salvation history discloses the entire theological depth of this “orientation”. Facing the east, the Christian worships God with a view of the “ancient fatherland”, which he has been seeking since he was banished from Paradise. At the same time he thereby turns towards the Crucified, who through his death and Resurrection has opened again for us the gate to our original home, into which he has preceded us, as Luke 23:43 suggests. From thence, from the beginning, we await the Lord in his second coming in glory, which will bring the fulfilment of the promised salvation. (65-66)

This interpretation is also expressed in the symbolism of baptism.

In the sacrament, what was bestowed upon humanity as a whole in salvation history is bestowed upon me in an utterly personal way.

When, therefore, you renounce Satan, utterly breaking all covenant with him, that ancient league with hell, there is opened to you the Paradise of God, which he planted in the east, whence for his transgression our first father was exiled; and symbolic of this was your turning from the west towards the east, the place of light. [St Cyril of Jerusalem]

The relation between the “east” and Christ is so close in the mind of the Fathers that Ambrose in the same context, with regard to the newly baptized turning from the west toward the east, can simply say: “Whoever renounces the devil turns toward Christ and looks at him directly.”

Whenever a Christian places himself in the presence of his Lord to pray, therefore – even if this is not always said explicitly or consciously adverted to – he renews with this turn towards the east that act of turning away from the evil one and of professing the triune God, which he performed once and for all in baptism. (66-67)

Central to this act of orientation – and to the prioritising of it above all other considerations – is a commitment to turning to the One whom we wish to address.

After all this, who would claim that “orientation” in prayer was an anachronistic side issue? When its meaning is understood and where it is consciously put into practice, it preserves the praying Christian from the flight into non-essentials – which today more than ever is a danger. The Muslim knows very well why he bows in prayer toward Mecca – with no regard whatsoever to the architecture of the room in which he happens to be. The Zen disciple, too, knows very well why he does not need such an “orientation” at all while meditating, since any thought of addressing “Another” is foreign to him.

And the Christian? He ought to know that his sanctification consists solely in union with God while completely maintaining his “otherness” as a person. After all, the “type”, the pattern of this unconfused unity, which indeed makes it possible, is the unity of the three Divine Hypostases of God, who is essentially one (Evagrius). He is reminded of this precisely by turning his “face” – both spiritually and physically – towards the east, toward the Lord! (71)

The second chapter of Father Gabriel (Bunge)’s Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition is entitled “Places and Times.” In it he begins by pointing out that

the human being consists of soul and body, and since the latter is tied up with space and time, human prayer in fact always occurs in space and time also. Choosing a suitable place and setting aside the most appropriate hours of the day or night are therefore by no means inessential prerequisites for what the Fathers call “true prayer”. (51)

He then proposes to follow Origen in considering the importance of “place”, “orientation” and “time” in a life of prayer.

The section dealing with place in prayer is entitled “Go into your room.” Noting that for many Christians today prayer has come to be identified with public prayer, or has been displaced by various forms of meditation, Father Gabriel points to the practice of prayer in the life of Jesus, who not only participated in public prayer but also withdrew to pray in solitude. This was a practice that He passed on to His disciples as we see in the example of the apostle Peter withdrawing to pray at the sixth hour. (Acts 10:9)

The Fathers taught that, while Christians can pray anywhere, it is particularly helpful to dedicate a particular space to prayer. Indeed, the first Christians often reserved a particular room in their houses for prayer when they were able to do so.

This emphasis on withdrawing to pray and praying in secret was partly a warning against the danger of hypocrisy and vainglory. It was also recommended in order to avoid distraction in prayer. But there was also a more profound reason. For, in prayer

things occur between the Creator and creature that by their very nature are not meant for the eyes and ears of others.

A brother went to the cell of Abba Arsenios at Scetis. He looked through the window and then saw the elder as if completely on fire. The brother, though, was worthy of seeing this. And when he knocked, the elder came out and saw the brother quite alarmed and said to him: “Have you been knocking for long? Have you perhaps seen something here?” And he replied, “No.” And after speaking with him, he sent him away.

This mysterious “incandescent prayer” is known to us from other Fathers also; Evagrius speaks of it, as does John Cassian. The time for it is principally at night, when the visible world withdraws into darkness; the place for it is the barren “desert”, the high “mountain” that separates us from everything, and when these are not accessible, then the hidden “room”. (56-57)

Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionby noting that psalmody, prayer and meditation have been a regular part of spiritual discipline from time immemorial. However, he argues in this section that the distinction between them is insufficiently appreciated today.

The distinction between psalmody and prayer that is evidently presupposed … and which is a matter of course in the writings of the early Fathers, appears strange to the modern reader. Are not psalmody and prayer one and the same, so that one can rightly speak of the “prayer from psalms” or of “praying the psalms”? And is not the Psalter the “prayer book of the Church”, which took it over from the synagogue? The Fathers would have answered: Yes and no. “Psalmody is not yet praying”, for the two belong to different (not separate) orders. (42)

The psalms are first of all Scripture and form prophetic word of God to humanity that “opens a prospect on to Christ and his Church” whereas prayer is our speaking (or singing) to God, a dialogue with God. While the Psalter includes this sort of prayer or praise addressed to God, it also includes other genres, including those that appear “to the modern reader as the exact opposite of Christian prayer!” (44)

In order to appropriate the Psalter and make it our own, we need “zeal in practicing ‘meditation’.” (44)

By “meditation” (μελέτη) the Fathers (and the psalmist himself) understood a constant repetition of certain verses or entire passages of Sacred Scripture sotto voce (in an undertone), with the goal of grasping their hidden spiritual sense. (44)

This hidden meaning of Scripture is revealed to praying Christians only when the Lord Himself opens their eyes.

Biblical “meditation”, then, has to do mainly with the objective facts of salvation history, in which God reveals himself, his “Name”. “Reflection” upon the enigmatic history of the Chosen People or on one’s own destiny, in which this history is repeated, is thus never an end in itself, but should always lead to “being mindful” of God himself, and thus also to “prayer” in the strict sense. For in prayer, man responds to this salvific action of Go, whether it be in petitions, hymns or praise. (46-47)

Thus psalmody, prayer and meditation are both different and intertwined and are part of a dynamic process.

The “spiritualization” of this Old Testament word of God – in the Holy Spirit

opening its horizons towards Christ and his Church – must not be done through toned-down translations and certainly not, as has become the custom today, through omissions! Only inspired “meditation” is capable of accomplishing this “spiritualization”, which is of course necessary for the Scriptures of the Old Testament in general. The Christian finds the key to such an opening up towards Christ and his Church in the “typological” manner in which the New Testament – and subsequently the Fathers of the Church – read the Old Testament word of God. (48)


I must confess that this section, and particularly the distinction that Father Gabriel draws between psalmody and prayer, has made me just slightly uncomfortable. Much of what he says is true and very helpful. It is also clear that he was – at least partly – writing in the context of current (or recent) Catholic issues around the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, although I have not seen anything to indicate and that the fact that he originally wrote this book as a Catholic makes it anything less than Orthodox, and my disquiet now does not have anything to do with that. Rather my disquiet is rooted in wondering whether his exclusion of the Psalms from constituting “true prayer” does not represent a particularly Evagrian view of the patristic heritage. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not anti-Evagrius (okay, it seems difficult to deny that his cosmological speculations were of dubious orthodoxy, but his teaching on spiritual life is helpful and has clearly been received in the tradition) but I seem to remember other patristic references to praying the psalms and wonder if there is not a broader tradition that Father Gabriel is downplaying. I don’t have the resources (or the time) at present to look this up further, but I think also of the idea (found in Saint Augustine) that the prayer of the psalms is the prayer of Christ himself.

Of course, these differing perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and so I will keep an open mind to see how this develops in the rest of the book.

Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionby discussing the distinction between “action” and “contemplation” in the life of prayer. These two pillars of the spiritual life have undergone a shift of meaning. “Theory” and “practice” have come to mean two completely different things from what they once meant, with the first coming to mean “untested conjecture” and the second “practical experience” – a complete transformation of the patristic understanding of these terms.

Action and contemplation, the two Latin expressions corresponding to these Greek terms, have not fared much better, either. The shifts in meaning and valuation that have occurred in this regard could very well be responsible for the reversal and revaluation of “practice” and “theory”, also. They go to the very roots of our modern understanding of ourselves and hence have an immediate effect on our understanding of the spiritual life as well.

An “active life” – in the spiritual sense – is probably understood by most people today to be a life of “active” love of neighbor, that is, one of charitable deeds. When the original religious motivation is gone, it becomes mere “social activism”.

In contrast to this “active life”, there is the “contemplative life”, as it is practiced by the so-called “contemplative orders” in the seclusion of their cloisters – a life, it is generally thought, which is reserved for only a few. Such a life consists, then, of contemplating (from contemplation the things of God. Prayer is regarded as the first and greatest occupation of these contemplative orders. (35)

The first activity is directed outwards and has therefore generally been seen as more useful by society than the second which is directed inwards. However, there has been a more recent shift, with

a new reevaluation of these two forms of life … Since activity easily deteriorates into “activism”, which ultimately leaves people empty, more and more lay people and religious are turning to various forms of “meditation”, and not a few of them even dedicate all of their available time to “contemplation”. (35-36)

All this would have seemed rather strange to the Fathers. Although they made a clear distinction between a praktikos and a theoretikos, their understanding of this was totally different, and ultimately praktikos and the theoretikos are one and the same person, for, in Evagrius’ analogy, the praktikos is to the theoretikos as Jacob is to Israel. For the Fathers, the “practical” is concerned with the passionate part of the soul, with fighting the passions by means of the virtues and an ascetical life.

This “spiritual method” consists essentially of “keeping the commandments”, an endeavour assisted by all those practices that we designate as “ascetical” in the widest sense. Their goal is, with God’s help, to restore to the soul its natural “health,” which consists of “apatheia”, freedom from the “sicknesses” (or passions – πάθη) that estrange it from God. Without this dispassionate character, which is attained by degrees, the spiritual life (and prayer with it) deteriorates into self-deception, and that removes man even further from God. (38)

While this “active life” does include activity, it is not simply directed outwards. Instead,

Praktike, rather, embraces the entire realm of relations that a human being has to himself, to his neighbour, and to things; it is therefore called “ethics” as well.

In the patristic perspective, theoria or contemplation is “the natural “horizon” of praxis, which gradually leads to it and which contains it in embryo. Therefore,

All of those (apparently) “external aspects” of prayer, to which in the following pages such great significance will be attributed, belong jointly and severally to “the practical manner of prayer”, although, being what they are, they already contain within themselves their goal, “the contemplative manner”, as their natural horizon. As is true of the praktike in general, they are bound up with difficulties, just like the life of constant self-denial that Jacob led for seven years as suitor of the beloved Rachel. And yet this is not a matter of “self-redemption”, however that may be understood! For the goal of praktike – “purity of heart”, which alone enables a human being to “see God” – is always the fruit of the cooperation of “God’s grace and human effort,” in that order! The “contemplative manner of prayer” itself is then, just like theoria in general, a “charism”, pure and simple, a “gift” of the Father to those whom he has found worthy of it. (40-41)

Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, entitled “No one after drinking old wine desires new,” by discussing the concepts of “spirituality” and “spiritual life.” He notes that there is great confusion around these concepts in contemporary understanding and that they are often vaguely understood as referring to interiority and to various forms of devotion and piety, including those found outside of Christianity.

The fact that the concept of “spirituality” is so vaguely defined has extremely negative consequences for the Christian understanding of “the spiritual life”. For, as a result, many other things appear to be “spiritual” that actually belong to an entirely different sphere. This becomes clear immediately when we turn to Scripture and, moreover, to the Fathers. For here the adjective “spiritual”, in the connection that is of interest to us, refers unambiguously to the Person of the Holy Spirit. (27-28)

Whereas the Old Covenant had viewed the Holy Spirit as the impersonal power of God, in the New Covenant the Spirit is revealed as the “other Paraclete” who is sent by the Son in order to teach us all things.

The “spiritual man”, therefore, is one who, thanks to the Holy Spirit and “taught by the Spirit”, is able to judge “spiritual things”  “spiritually” in order to discern them. This is, of course, in contrast to the sensual, “natural man”, who can neither receive nor understand “the things of the Spirit of God”, precisely because he does not possess the Spirit of God and the “wisdom of God” remains “folly” to him.

Therefore “spiritual” always signifies, both here and in other contexts in Paul’s writings, “endowed with the Spirit” – wrought or inspired by the Holy Spirit; it is by no means a decorative epithet! (28-29)

The Fathers followed Saint Paul in adopting the distinction between the natural or psychic (i.e. of the unaided human soul) and the spiritual that is wrought by the Spirit. When the adjective “spiritual” is used it is in order to designate that something is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

However much we may talk of “spirituality” and however fond we may be of using the epithet “spiritual”, the Person of the Holy Spirit is the Great Absent One in the “spirituality” of the West, as has often been lamented. As a consequence, we regard many things as “spiritual” that in fact belong to the realm of the “natural man”, who is lacking precisely in the “gift of the Spirit”. We mean here everything that falls within the scope of the “feelings” and “emotions”, which are of a thoroughly irrational nature and are by no means “spiritual” or wrought by the Spirit. (29)

The Fathers distinguished between a “rational” and an “irrational” part of the soul and prayer belongs to the “rational” part.

Prayer is not a matter of “feeling” and certainly not one of “sentimentality” – which is not to say that it consists of a purely “intellectual act” in the modern sense of the word. For “intellect” is not identical with “understanding”, but is rather to be rendered by “core of being”, “person”, or, in biblical terms, “the inner man”. (33)


…we would do well to distinguish carefully, with the Fathers, between that which is really “spiritual”, namely, what is wrought by the Person of the Holy Spirit, and all that belongs to the domain of the “natural man”, that is, our irrational wishes and desires. For the latter are, at best, indifferent in value; most often, though, they are the expression of our “self-love”, which is the exact opposite of a “friendly love for God, in other words, [quoting Evagrius] that “perfect and spiritual love in which prayer acts in spirit and in truth.” (33)

Resorting constantly to “that which was from the beginning” requires some justification in an age when people like to regard the novelty of a thing as a standard of its value. … Why this high esteem for “what was handed down” and this unique rank that is accorded to the “beginning”? Or in a more personal vein, addressing the writer of these lines: Why does he not speak, rather, of his own experience, instead of bringing up his holy Fathers all the time? (17)

Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, aptly entitled “No one after drinking old wine desires new,” by addressing the theological nature of tradition. In contrast to human traditions which can and perhaps should be discarded, for the writers of Sacred Scripture, “that which was from the beginning,” (1 Jn 1:1), the “traditions which you were taught” and which we are to “hold,” (2 Thess 2:15) this connection with “the beginning,” is of fundamental importance.

This fellowship (koinonia) of believers among themselves and with God is what Scripture calls “Church” and “Body of Christ. …

Whoever wants to have “fellowship with God”, therefore, can never disregard those before him who were made worthy of this fellowship! … Hence only that Church is genuinely “Christ’s Church” which stands in an unbroken, living fellowship with the apostles, upon whom the Lord, indeed, founded his Church. (20)

Just as “the good thing committed to thy trust” (2 Tim 1:14) has been set down in the writings of the apostles, so it has also been passed on in an analogous way in unwritten forms and, according to Saint Basil the Great, “with regard to piety, both have the same force.” Hence,

Both forms of apostolic tradition possess what one could call the “grace of origin”, since it was in them that the deposit entrusted to us at the beginning took shape. (21)

This same attitude is found in Basil’s disciple Evagrius who emphasises “the pattern of sound words” which we have heard from the Fathers. We are receivers and need to be guided by them in order to avoid the danger of introducing novelties that would lead us astray and make us “a stranger to our Saviour’s way,” thereby estranging us from the Lord Himself. However, this does not mean that we are to imitate everything the Fathers did as to do so would only make us the laughing stock of the demons. Indeed, the Fathers could themselves “distinguish very well between a ‘personal charism’ and ‘tradition’.” (23)

Thus the preservation of tradition is first of all the preservation of fellowship.

Whoever wants to have fellowship with the Father can attain this only by “way” of the Son. One reaches the Son, though, only by way of “those who walked before us along the way” and thereby became themselves a living part of the “Way”. (24)

By adhering to such a living fellowship, we enter into a mystery beyond space and time. This is something that we cannot do of our own effort. Rather

Guarding “the good thing committed to our trust” is always the fruit of “the Holy Spirit who dwells in us” [2 Tim 1:14] and there “bear[s] witness” [Jn 15:26] to the Son. He it is, also, who does not only “guide [us] into all the truth [Jn 16:13] but also for ages to come causes the testimony of the Master himself to be recognized in the testimony of the disciples. (27)

…to pray as the men of the Bible and our Fathers in faith did, means not only making certain texts one’s own, but also to assimilate all of those methods, forms, gestures, and so on, in which this praying finds its most suitable expression. This was, in any case, the opinion of the Fathers themselves, for whom this was by no means a matter of historically conditioned externals. On the contrary, they gave their full attention to these things, which Origen summarizes as follows at the end of his treatise On Prayer.

It seems to me [in light of the preceding] to be not inappropriate, in order to present exhaustively the subject of prayer, by way of an introduction, to examine [also] the [interior] disposition and the [exterior] posture that the person praying must have, as well as the place where one should pray, and the direction in which one must face in all circumstances, and the favourable time that is to be reserved for prayer, and whatever other similar things there may be.

As the Fathers themselves knew better than anyone else, one must never take Scripture out of context if one wants to understand it correctly. For the Christian this context is the Church, and the apostolic and patristic tradition gives testimony to her life and her faith. As a consequence of those breaks in tradition which have accompanied the history of the Western Church in particular, this treasure has been practically inaccessible to many today. And this is so even though we have available today an unprecedented abundance of valuable editions and translations of patristic texts. The purpose of this book is, therefore, to put into the hands of the Christians of our time the key to these treasures.

Father Gabriel (Bunge), Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, (Ignatius Press, 1996/2002) 14-15.

Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the introduction to Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionby pointing to Christ’s relationship to His Father as the foundation of Christian prayer, which He transmits to His disciples by teaching them the Our Father.

Even before there was a Creed to sum up the Christian faith, this simple text epitomized what it means to be a Christian, precisely in the form of a prayer – that is to say, that new relationship between God and man which the only begotten, incarnate Son of God established in his own person. This is surely no coincidence. (11-12)

Human beings are created in the image of God but are also destined to grow into the likeness of God. The most essential thing about our humanity is that it is relational, a relationship that is akin to that between an original image and its copy.

Yet this relation is not static, like the one between a seal and its impression, for instance, but rather living, dynamic, and fully realized only through becoming. (12)

Just as Christ is the “face” of God who is Person, and is turned towards humanity, so too we as created personal beings have a “face.”

The “face” is that “side” of the person that he turns toward another person when he enters into a personal relationship with the other. “Face” really means: being turned toward. Only a person can have, strictly speaking, a real “counterpart” to which he turns or from which he turns away. Being a person – and for man this always means becoming more and more a person – always comes about “face to face” with a counterpart. Therefore Paul contrasts our present, indirect knowledge of God, “in a mirror dimly [Greek: en ainígmati = enigmatically]”, with the perfect eschatological beatitude in knowing God “face to face”, whereby man “shall know as he is known”. (13)

This spiritual essence is reflected in our corporal nature.

To turn one’s face toward another or deliberately turn it away from him is not something indifferent, as everyone knows from daily experience, but rather a gesture of profound, symbolic meaning. Indeed, it indicates whether we want to enter into a personal relationship with another or want to deny him this.

The purest expression of this “being turned towards God” to be found here on earth is prayer, in which the creature does in fact “turn” towards his Creator, in those moments when the person at prayer “seeks the face of God” and asks that the Lord might “let his face shine” upon him. In these and similar phrases from the Book of Psalms, which are by no means merely poetic metaphors, the fundamental experience of biblical man is expressed, for whom God is not an abstract impersonal principle, after all, but rather is Person in the absolute sense. God turns towards man, calls him to himself, and wants man to turn to him also. And man does this quintessentially in prayer, in which he, with both soul and body, “places himself in God’s presence.” (13-14)

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