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the 21st Century


'If you long to pray then avoid all that is opposed to prayer. Then when God draws near he has only to go along with you.'.
(Evagrius of Pontus, 153 Chapters on Prayer, 65)

There are formidable problems with regard to prayer in the 21st century. In a talkative age it is generally assumed that prayer is about talking to God. In church services the formal, set prayers belong to a tradition that goes back a long way, before the time of that learned Greek hermit quoted above. But it is also true about individuals who today equate prayer with a sort of wordy conversation with God, for although we belong to an age of much talking, with God we become tongue-tied quite soon. Much of the problem boils down to our idea of who God is, if today we can believe in any god.

Part of the reason for this book is to investigate the idea that as human beings we have a capacity for communion with the source of all life. In the 4th century belief in God, the source of life, was an accepted norm of life - whether Christian or pagan. Today it is not so among the nations in the West. So we shall have to enquire into what God is like (if there is a god) for us today, before we can go on to look into prayer as something more than the echoes of the human voice.

But there is another problem to be faced. Who are we? Are we composed of bodies, souls and spirits as is often supposed? The idea that we have a soul has enabled much of tradition to affirm that it is through such an inner part of us that God can communicate with us and we with him. Moreover, the idea of soul, inherited from the Greeks, is that at death when the body dies, the soul still lives for whatever is to happen in the future. This is something that a great many people do not find credible.

Are we really 'divided' persons or can it be said that as human beings we have an integrated human personality which includes our bodies, minds and passions? The New Testament, like the Hebraic understanding, knows of no separation of the person, but at death we die and will be resurrected in the time of God, following the new creation in Jesus, the risen Lord. So I investigate how the idea of 'soul' came into Christianity. This will lead us on to consider whether, and in what ways, we might be said to have an innate capacity for communion with what we may call the Other, or the divine, or the source of all life.

To offset the idea that prayer has to be vocal, I then go on to look at how prayer was looked at by the monks and mystics throughout the centuries. In the past four hundred years, since the dissolution of the monasteries in the West, the idea that prayer could be just as much about listening as well as about talking has vanished for most people. While we shall be critical of ideas of God and of ourselves during the previous centuries, we shall see that there was something in the 'listening' attitude which makes sense and can be useful in a re-make of prayer for us now.

Finally, and very tentatively, I shall aim to sketch out certain possibilities of prayer for us today. And by 'us' I mean the majority of people who are not church going folk. I shall also map out these same possibilities in relation to those who find in Jesus, the risen Lord, the source and heart of communion with the God whom he called 'Father'. For as Evagrius says, in the quotation at the head of this introduction, if we find that we have the capacity of prayer, we may also find him who is the source of life going along with us.

© Aelred Arnesen

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