Who taught you how to pray? Who or what have been mod­els of prayer for you? What type of lan­guage and words do you use in prayer? I’ve noticed, for instance, that many Chris­tians use the word just” a lot in prayer. Lord, we just ask that you bless our wor­ship today. We just pray that there would be a move­ment of your Spir­it in us today. We just con­fess our sins to you.” Why do we use just” so often in prayer? In all like­li­hood, because we’ve heard oth­ers pray­ing this way. Per­haps most of us have nev­er thought much about the lan­guage we use in prayer or the mod­els of prayer we imi­tate or have assim­i­lat­ed from our Chris­t­ian community.

I bring up the issue of mod­els for prayer because ancient Chris­tians like the church fathers believed that our dis­po­si­tion — our char­ac­ter as man­i­fest­ed in deeply habit­u­at­ed pat­terns — is sig­nif­i­cant­ly shaped by those we lis­ten to and imitate. 

There are, for instance, some peo­ple who real­ly know how to pray and are worth imi­tat­ing. King David comes to mind. A prin­ci­pal rea­son the ancient church prayed the Psalms again and again — some ear­ly monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties prayed all 150 Psalms each day — was the firm belief that through the rep­e­ti­tion of the Psalms our char­ac­ter — our dis­po­si­tion toward God and our neigh­bor — is honed and healed. As we pray the Psalms, the dis­po­si­tions of the psalmist become our own. Ear­ly monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties offered this mod­el of repet­i­tive prayer to the church. 

As Chris­tians prayed the Psalms day and night, they expect­ed that David’s expe­ri­ences in prayer and spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion would become their own. Athana­sius empha­sizes this point in his let­ter to Mar­celli­nus on how to inter­pret the Psalms. The aston­ish­ing thing in the Psalms,” Athana­sius coach­es, is how they lend them­selves to per­son­al appro­pri­a­tion: the one who hears is deeply moved, as though he him­self were speak­ing, and is affect­ed by the words of the songs, as if they were his own songs.

The expe­ri­ence of the psalmist, whether it is the con­fes­sion of sin, the expe­ri­ence of per­se­cu­tion or the exal­ta­tion of wor­ship, slow­ly seeps into the con­scious­ness of those who pray them. He who recites the Psalms is utter­ing the rest as his own words, and each sings them as if they were writ­ten con­cern­ing him, and he accepts them and recites them not as if anoth­er were speak­ing, nor as if speak­ing about some­one else. But he han­dles them as if he is speak­ing about himself.” 

The Psalms are like a mir­ror to the per­son singing them, so that he might per­ceive him­self and the emo­tions of his soul, and thus affect­ed, he might recite them.” As David con­fess­es his sins, those who pray with him con­fess their own. 

For in fact,” Athana­sius writes, he who hears the one read­ing receives the song that is recit­ed as being about him, and either, when he is con­vict­ed by his con­science, being pierced, he will repent, or hear­ing of the hope that resides in God, and of the suc­cor avail­able to believ­ers — how this kind of grace exists for him — he exults and begins to give thanks to God.” 

John Cass­ian reit­er­ates Athanasius’s point: Pen­e­trat­ed by the same feel­ings in which the psalm was com­posed, it is as if we became the authors of it … The sacred words reawak­en our expe­ri­ence, remind­ing us of the assaults we have under­gone and still under­go, every day, of the marks of our neg­li­gence or, on the con­trary, of our fer­vor, bless­ings of divine vis­i­ta­tion or wiles of the ene­my, the hav­oc wrought by the for­get­ful­ness that is so ready to creep into our soul, our frailty … and our blindness.” 

The Holy Spir­it knows we need help learn­ing how to pray; the Spir­it knows we are apt to stum­ble and per­haps lose our way if we exclu­sive­ly rely on our own words and thoughts in prayer. Cassian’s and Athanasius’s point is that it is our thoughts, words and actions that need remold­ing, reshap­ing. We need men­tors in prayer, and the psalmist is one of the best. If we lis­ten care­ful­ly, immers­ing our­selves in the Psalms our own dis­po­si­tions will change, in prayer and out. 

One last point on the Psalms: for the church fathers, Christ was present every­where in the Psalms. Should this sur­prise us? It was his Spir­it that inspired the psalmists to pray. As Augus­tine puts it: When we lis­ten to the Psalms … we must pay atten­tion to see­ing Christ, to dis­cern­ing him … Yes, he will show him­self to those who seek him, he who appeared to peo­ple who were not seek­ing him. He who saved those who scorned him will not shun those who desire him.” 

Originally published March 2018

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