Hello, and welcome back to the book club! Last time, we focused on Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Now we are turning our attention to Kneeling with Giants by Gary Neal Hansen. This book is interesting since it looks at different aspects of prayer from many famous Christians in history and how those might help modern Christians to further enrich their own prayer lives
Hansen’s book begins with a look at language: Which words should a Christian use when engaging in dialogue with God? To answer this question, Hansen looks at three methods used by three teachers:
‘All three ways of praying in part one of this book help us pray by putting words in our mouths, giving us language when we have none or giving us better words than we could think of ourselves. They all start with ancient prayers rooted in Scripture. Still, these three approaches could hardly be more different from each other. St. Benedict of Nursia taught his monks to pray using the words of the liturgies from the church’s daily services. Martin Luther taught the early Protestants to use their own words, but to follow the outline of topics in the Lord’s Prayer. And teachers in Eastern Orthodoxy have taught that we should pray by constantly repeating what they call the Jesus Prayer.’
St. Benedict (Orthodox Icon)
Thomas Cranmer Unknown
In Chapter One, Hansen starts with the Daily Office as exemplified by St. Benedict. This is the set of scripture readings, hymns and psalms that are used by both monks and laity throughout every day of the week. The Daily Office is also known as the Liturgy of the Hours and usually consists of seven or six offices.
Hansen also includes the Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, which is an amalgamation of some monastic hours into two distinctive prayer services (Morning Prayer consisting of elements from the morning offices of the Catholic Daily Office, while Evening Prayer features those from the evening offices).
In Hansen’s case he has been using both Catholic and Anglican versions of the daily office for some time, and he has found them to be helpful. He highlights some benefits of using the Daily Office:
‘First, praying the office can bring order to our busy lives. Even outside a monastery, people really can stop what they are doing and pray multiple times throughout the day. … In a fifteen-minute break, a Western Christian can pray Terce, Sext or None and still have time for coffee’ (Pg.23). Sometimes, due to the busyness of our lives and work, we often find that we have little or no time for prayer. But, with the daily office, we can at least keep touch with God during certain hours of the day (e.g. either morning, noon, and night) and we can even use prayer to even help inform our work schedule: ‘If you pray morning and noontime prayer, the workday looks like two open stretches between times of prayer, rather than a frantic scramble punctuated by a sandwich crammed in at your computer terminal. The rhythm connects us to the eternal, so temporal demands fall into context. This is not squeezing prayer into a busy schedule. Prayer creates the schedule, so the day feels less busy and more productive’ (Pg.23)
Second, the Daily Office can teach us how to pray in that it provides the actual words for praise, confession and intercession. ‘The office leads us through the whole range of ways people really need to pray: confession of sins, praise and thanks, asking for help for ourselves and others. It does these things with clarity, depth and wisdom. By giving us good words, the liturgy builds our skills. Then, when we go to pray on our own, what we have learned is waiting there to help us’ (Pg.24). It can help those whose prayer-lives have fallen into a rut to move beyond that point and be able to pray more effectively. ‘ (The office helps to push) us toward a complete conversation with God. It prods the neurotically guilty to thankfulness, the obsessively grumpy to praise and the annoyingly cheerful to some honest complaint. It might even help us grow as people’ (Pg.24).
The third benefit of the Daily Office is that it can help make prayer possible during the most trying and/or depressing times. ‘With the divine office, all we have to do is read the words, moving through the liturgy. At first it may seem more like listening in on other people’s prayers, but eventually we notice that some fragment of the service expresses our own longings – some biblical cry for help or bitter lament. Even convinced we can’t pray, we find we actually have prayed’ (Pg.25).
A fourth benefit from the office is a sense of peace, a peace that is derived from the rhythm of life that opens people up to God and eventually can open them up to new forms of prayer.
Hansen encourages that the best method of starting the Daily Office is to pick one from either tradition (Catholic, Anglican or otherwise), pick a time of the day and then move on from there. For beginners, he recommends the night office of Compline because it ‘has few daily variations, (thus) making it easy to learn’ (Pg.28). He does acknowledge that it takes some time to get used to going to-and-fro between different parts of prayer-books, and he encourages people to simply practice at getting better at using the office. He then moves on to Scripture readings (in the case of the Book of Common Prayer the readings are often given in a lectionary), psalms, and seasonal prayers known as collects (pronounced as CUL-lects), which will deepen and enhance the Christian’s prayer life throughout the year. In the case of the Catholic daily office, it is a little more complicated since it involves a more intimate understanding of the many parts of the prayer books, and Hansen tells his readers to begin with a part like the Ordinary or the. But, above all, it is just simply a case of patience:
‘Whether it feels exciting or a bit stiff, press on. Each hour is different, so try to get to know its “personality” before moving on to another. If it begins to feel boring, press on; you may move from familiarity to affection. Press on even if some parts bother you: Protestants may be troubled by the theology of some Catholic prayers, and many today cringe at traditional masculine language. Think of it as praying with your older, slightly curmudgeonly friends. Stick with it until you can enter the flow of the service. A solid try takes at least a couple of weeks; give it that before you switch to a different version.’
Hansen does admit that some people may find themselves uncomfortable with the idea that the office originated from Catholicism (invoking the presence of saints and angels), or with the repetition involved in the office.
Hansen also highlights certain other advantages from the daily office. One is perspective, where the office helps us to see things in God’s perspective, which is illustrated in the life of St. Benedict himself. ‘ “By searching continually into his own soul he always beheld himself in the presence of his Creator. And this kept his mind from straying off to the world outside.” This was not a permanent retreat from conflict; Benedict returned to active ministry, and with great success. Prayer enabled him to see his life in perspective, in relation to God, and that equipped him to serve’ (Pg.33).
I confess that, ever since I first read Hansen’s book, I have used the Daily Office to guide and enhance my own prayers because it gives an ordered structure of prayer. J felt that she preferred to pray in her own words or to pray through passages in the Bible, but she admits that the Daily Office was useful when she was going through a dry spell. On the one hand, we do not care for praying to saints and angels, but, as for the structure of the daily office, we agree that it is helpful. We noticed this in particular with the use of different prayers and the lectionary as well as the structure it gives to the day. Plus the fact that the structure itself helps us not to ask for a long list of things but to help us keep things simple.
R talked about how devotional books are often written in the northern hemisphere in that they often reflect that environment and culture, so we need to first get our heads around that difference in order to use them. This led to a discussion of the different devotionals that we have used over the years. J’s example was My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. GM talked about the prayer book type of prayer, because that was what he learned first, before learning to pray in his own words. We also discussed about using the Bible in our prayers, even the less exciting bits such as the genealogies as well as our favourite stories. We talked of the benefit of the Anglican lectionary, which stops us just reading our favourite parts of the Bible. Another benefit is the use of familiar prayers that are often shared in the Daily Office, giving modern Christians the chance to use prayers that have been handed down from generation to generation. The one problem we saw with this method is the constant flipping back and forth between different sections, which can prove distracting during prayer. I recommend that anyone who wants to use the Daily Office might try the Divine Hours series by Phyllis Tickle because Tickle’s way of structuring the Daily Office means you only go through a certain number of pages without the need to flip to another section. Otherwise, we have nothing but positive things to say about this type of prayer.
Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder
In Chapter Two, Hansen focuses on the Lord’s Prayer, in particular the teaching of the Reformer Martin Luther on how Christians should use this prayer as a structure for their prayers. Hansen mentions the benefits:
‘First, using the Lord’s Prayer as our outline ensures that we pray for a wide range of things. Clearly Jesus did not want our prayers to be dominated by a single issue, whether praise or confession or intercession. This can help those of us who tend to bring the same issues over and over. Second, it reminds us that prayer is a requirement: Jesus commanded us to pray. Since Jesus said, “Pray then in this way” (Matthew 6:9 …), we can’t leave these topics behind. With Luther’s method, any time of prayer, short or long, can follow the pattern Jesus gave us. And third, according to Luther, this helps us pray with confidence. If Jesus commands us to talk about these things, by implication God promises to listen to these things. That can especially help people who are afraid to pray.’
Both the Lord’s Prayer, and Luther’s teaching on the different sections of this prayer, can be divided up into two halves: the first dealing with our addresses to God, the second with our own personal petitions. The first half consists of “Our Father in heaven. Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is heaven.” The first part “Our Father in heaven” addresses both the intimate side of God (He is our loving Father, especially in connection with Jesus) while at the same time He is “in heaven” meaning that He is the Creator who is all-powerful and beyond our control. It is this balance of awe with affection that Luther says can place us on intimate terms with God: ‘ “Now through your mercy implant in our hearts a comforting trust in your father’s love, and let us experience the sweet and pleasant savor of a childlike certainty that we may joyfully call you Father, knowing and loving you and calling on you in every trouble” ’ (Pg.42). Then, comes the next phrase “Hallowed be Your name”, which addresses the name of God, because His name is linked completely with His essence, and hopes that this name may also be honored in various aspects of our life. In Luther’s case this prayer was for holiness in his own behavior before changing later in life to an appeal for evangelism.
The third phrase “Your Kingdom come” means that we must pray for the coming Kingdom of God. On the one hand, it may seem redundant to pray for a coming Kingdom where God is already King, but, according to both Hansen and Luther, God’s Kingdom represents the highest pinnacle of service and justice and therefore we need to keep our will in line with God’s or else it only reflects our own glory. ‘If we are not living as God intends, Luther think we are robbing God of territory where he should reign – our hearts – and living like citizens of the kingdom of the devil. (Luther) was also particularly aware of the opponents of the church and its work, and he prayed with tenderness and passion, “They are many and mighty; the plague and hinder the tiny flock of thy kingdom who are weak, despised and few … Dear Lord, God and Father, convert them and defend us” ’ (Pg.44).
In the fourth phrase in the prayer “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, we display humility to allow God to transform us and conform us to His will. Although it might seem odd that a powerful God wants us to pray for His will to be done on earth, it does make us ‘partners in his planning’ (Pg.44) as well as making us feel more confident in our prayers. It also allows us to intercede on behalf of others and to make sure that our life and ministry reflects that of God’s will, even though it may not be heard or answered differently. It also makes us examine ourselves carefully in God’s light: ‘Luther knew his own will always got in the way. “O Father,” he prayed, “do not let me get to the point where my will is done. Break my will; resist it. No matter what happens, let my life be governed not by my will, but by yours.” He suggested we look hard at the ways we willingly seek ungodly goals and at selfish motives we disguise as good. … This can also be the place to ask for help in the struggle to live as God calls’ (Pg.45). Above all, it is to place our behavior in God’s hands, making sure that we behave as He directs us.
The second half of the Lord’s Prayer deals with our personal concerns: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial. But rescue us from the evil one.” The phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” deals with our own basic needs such as food and clothing, as well as those of others. We need to depend upon God but not in the sense that He is some kind of “genie” giving us more material wealth: ‘we are also challenged to simplicity, not luxury; we are not praying for daily cake. Of course we can talk to God about anything, even our desire for luxuries. However, this petition gives us confidence of a promise only when we ask for what we really need. Jesus gives us a measuring stick: we should pray for what is really good for us and for the world’ (Pgs.45-46). More importantly, we should also acknowledge Jesus as our “bread of life” as mentioned in one of Luther’s prayers: ‘ “Therefore, O heavenly Father, grant grace that the life, words, deeds, and suffering of Christ be preached made known and preserved for us and the world” ’ (Pg.46), which in turn led Luther to pray and intercede for other things.
The phrase “And forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” addresses both our need for ask for our personal forgiveness as well as forgiving those who have wronged us. First, we pay attention to any wrongs that we have committed before forgiving others. According to Hansen, by forgiving others it allows us to forgive ourselves: Forgiveness is not pretending that no harm has been done – that is denial. Nor does it mean the painful feelings all melt away – that is healing, which may come much later. Forgiveness is when you have been harmed, but you actively, prayerfully lift the sentence and decide not to exercise your right to prosecute or avenge’ (Pg.47) And, even though it may seem unnecessary to pray for forgiveness because God has already forgiven us on the Cross, it does help us to give us a much needed sense of humility, especially in our prayers.
The phrase “And do not bring us to the time of trial” is best summed up in Luther’s prayer about temptations from “the flesh, the world, and the devil.” The flesh might be mistaken for asceticism, which is wrong because, according to Hansen, Luther enjoyed taking pleasure in lots of things, such as his wife Katherina and beer; what he is praying against is the idea of sins such as greed and lust becoming idols and taking God’s place. The “world” is the ‘the negative influence of society on our character and behavior’ especially ‘greed and lust for approval and power’ (Pg.48). The “devil” addresses “spiritual temptation”, which would be anything that causes us to either ignore or dismiss God’s Word, that could lead us to either pride or despair. In other words, the “time of trial” addresses every one of these temptations. The last phrase “But rescue us from the evil one” means that we ask for God’s protection from everything that might afflict us. This includes everything ranging from disease to disaster, and even God’s judgment itself.
Like the Daily Office, Hansen recommends we take some time to practice Luther’s advice and that individual Christians may need some time to practice praying from even the smallest part of the Lord’s Prayer. Hansen lists three further benefits from this prayer practice: first it makes us think of prayer in ‘three time frames: each petition in a sense accomplished already, and we give thanks; each petition applies to current needs, and so we ask; each petition will be truly fulfilled only at the end of the age, and so we wait with longing’ (Pg.51). A second benefit is that as we are led to pray to God for ourselves, we are also called to pray for our family, church, and society. And the third benefit is that each petition may even lead us to our individual prayers of praise, confession, intercession and/or thanksgiving.
It makes sense to use this prayer since it is how Jesus says we should pray. It is easy to just rattle it off without thinking but this method used by Luther is a good way of actually thinking it through more deeply. GM’s experience of going to the Catholic churches in Ireland was that the Lord’s Prayer becomes a quickly repeated chant, gone over once or twice without any pause for reflection.
Like the Daily Office, it too provides a structure. It helps us to not to skip over things when in prayer. It also provides some perspective in that it makes us know when and what to say during our prayers. We also liked the bit about forgiveness – forgiving others and forgiving ourselves as well as the quote from Luther where he says we don’t want to call down God’s wrath on anyone. The reason why is because we are not helped by their ruin and we would much prefer that they would be saved with us. Another positive aspect is that Luther was not writing for monks (like Benedict was) and it’s comforting to know that he (Luther) liked the good things in life!
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow
In Chapter Three, Hansen looks at the Jesus Prayer. This is a method of meditative prayer originated with and was used by the Eastern Orthodox Christians to achieve union with God, and it originated in two books the Way of the Pilgrim and the Philokalia. It merely consists of a repeating a phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”, which is a phrase that comes from the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). It also relates to the advice the apostle Paul gave in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which encourages Christians to pray without ceasing, which is the main focus of hesychasm or “stillness” in Eastern Orthodoxy: ‘The hesychast, and anyone who prays the Jesus Prayer, wants to draw near to God. It takes preparation, but of a paradoxical kind. God is not in a place you can get to with your body. God is not reached by your intellect alone, even if you study Scripture and theology. Feelings and emotions will not bring you to God. To approach God, one must bring all of one’s self, with the intellect drawn into the heart, a unified whole’ (Pg.56). So therefore, when praying the Jesus Prayer it involves bringing our whole self to God.
Praying the Jesus Prayer consists of three stages. Stage One is simply finding a time and a place to recite the prayer. This usually varies. Some use a prayer rope or chotki just so they can count beads every time they recite the Prayer; some recite for an allotted amount of time, say, five minutes; while a third method is to use a series of reminders to move Christians to say the prayer. Stage two is to concentrate on the words using the intellect. In the case of the Jesus Prayer it is simple. The first part “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” makes us know which God we worship: the word “Lord” places us in front of our “lord”; the word “Jesus” makes us trust in the God who was very merciful to those who He helped and healed during His lifetime, but with the word “Christ” it also reminds us that this is a God who is also the Messiah; and the words “Son of God” shows Jesus’ relationship to His Father. The next part of the Prayer “have mercy on me” reminds us that we calling for God’s mercy (“have mercy”), and when we say “on me” it reminds us of our individual relationship to God: ‘It reminds us that God knows us, loves us, hears us, and has mercy on us personally. Each of us has a multitude of needs to bring to God in prayer. Praying for mercy on ourselves urges us towards honesty and wholeness’ (Pg.63).
The third and final stage of praying “within the heart” is a complicated one, but it is something that actually involves the whole body:
‘The start of the journey, I believe, is to bring our bodily habit of prayer, well informed by the intellect, deep into the center of our being. Thinking about the meaning of the words has taken the prayer deep into our minds; now we can relax, still praying as we breathe, still meaning what we say, but without concentration. There is an inner concentration, though, that is not intellectual. It is an attention to who we are and what we bring as we enter into prayerful communion with God. We try to bring God a whole and undivided self, alive from the center of our being, as conveyed by the image of the intellect moving into the heart.’
Now, Hansen admits some people have objections to this method of prayer. Some object on the grounds that it might drive them to insanity; others object to it because its resemblance to Eastern methods of yoga, while another objection is that it runs against the command in the gospels to avoid using “vain repetitions” in prayer (Matthew 6:7). In response to this, Hansen says that the Jesus Prayer has a Biblical basis; that it is not a nonsense word being uttered over and over nor does it invoke other gods, rather it is focused on Christ and Christ alone. It can help us to focus more on prayer and help focus our prayers to Christ. There are also physical benefits in saying this prayer:
‘Some learn to pray the Jesus Prayer when they are angry or anxious out of a related desire to be centered. I suspect that this is a spiritually more helpful kind of centeredness than just stopping to take a few breaths. … Though feelings are not the goal, researchers have used biofeedback techniques to show that praying the Jesus Prayer causes a particularly profound state of relaxation. The mind can remain peaceful and attentive long after praying the Jesus Prayer.’
But the main benefit from this prayer is getting a grip on God’s mercy and this, in turn, can lead into unceasing prayer ‘Asking for mercy, we depend on God for our every need. Breathing this prayer more and more, it carries body, mind and heart to God, to stand contemplating the name above all names, gazing at the mystery and beauty of the One who holds the universe’ (Pg.70).
We found that this prayer was a source of controversy. J says that she found the repetitive chanting aspect of the Jesus Prayer uncomfortable in its similarity to Hindu and Buddhist pagan meditation practices. Others, such as R and E, found it useful in certain situations, such as going back to sleep during a restless night, or driving to work. I went on to say that this prayer has some breathing techniques that Orthodox monks use, so in a way it is similar to yoga but more real. GM compared it to the rosary, where Catholics would recite the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary to focus their full attention on God. In the same way, the Jesus Prayer focuses our minds back to a central place, especially since our minds have a tendency to wander. However, we are not sure if Jesus prayed that way, and maybe the idea of ‘praying without ceasing’ is more like having a relationship throughout the day, not having a scrolled prayer running in the back of our minds. GR says that the idea is to keep your mind wandering back to God. But we’re not sure if this is the way to do it. Chanting a phrase is the least creative way to do it. We feel, especially due to the subject of the similarity of the Jesus Prayer with Eastern religious practices, that it is always going to be a personal thing. However, there is a big difference between this prayer and Eastern religious practices. With yoga meditation, you are simply emptying your mind to free you of all stress. With the Jesus Prayer, however, you are focusing on God. That is one benefit from this particular type of prayer.
Thank you for joining in this discussion. Next time we look at Part 2 of Hansen’s Kneeling with Giants, which looks at praying with scripture.
Gary Neal Hansen, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers. IVP. 2012