Mt 6:6-6:15 Praying like Pagans

This is a syndicated post from Daily Meditations with Fr. Alfonse. [Read the original article...]

Thursday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time
(click here for readings)

By Benedict Augustine

Jesus said to his disciples:
In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them.’”
During Jesus’ times, the pagans, predominantly Greeks and Romans, had an exasperating habit of composing and delivering long prayers that had little to do with anything. First, they would address each of their multiple gods, including the florid recital of each god’s genealogy and exploits; then, they would actually describe their particular problem, again with elaborate figurative language crammed with numerous allusions to various myths; and finally, they would praise the gods in flattering terms and quote pious platitudes. Obviously, their purpose in making these prayers was not actually appeal to the gods, but rather to appeal to the men listening.
One can find a few examples of these pagan prayers in the Greek tragedies, like those of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. In each of the tragedies, after so much action takes place among the main characters, a chorus delivers a lengthy prayer to the gods before the plot proceeds to the next episode. At the beginning of this tradition, these prayers had a bigger precedence and reflected a sincere piety, but these spiritual meditations quickly degenerated into poetic convention as tragedies grew more popular. Audiences would revel in the style and movements of these prayers/poems, soon allowing their souls to suffer the same fate: their own piety flattened into affectation, a mark of civility and culture, not an openness to the divine. By the end of the fifth century BC, a vain liturgy propounding a false religion created a vain populace deluded with falsehoods.
Ultimately, St. Paul would have to come and sort through the spiritual confusion that resulted from this Hellenistic combination of aestheticism and polytheism. Before him, Plato recounts a few of the dialogues Socrates had on this very issue. Obviously perceiving the contradictions that arose from multiple gods, many of whom hated one another and led dissolute lives, Socrates innocently asks in the dialogue Euthyphro how one should worship the gods. Needless to say, his partner could not say, nor could Socrates himself offer a complete solution except to live justly and study philosophy—a conclusion that Socrates reaches in nearly every dialogue. Following Socrates’ example, most of the philosophic schools after him eventually intellectualized the activities of piety and prayer, reducing religion to a matter of thinking and feeling correctly. For the rest of the Greeks, and the Romans after them, they simply continued the traditional forms of religion, enjoying the shows and superstitions, while the educated elite could try to think their way to heaven.
Probably observing this spiritual eclecticism rampant in the Gentile communities, and even filtering into some of the Jewish communities, Jesus instructs His disciples on how to pray before they start imitating the babbling of their neighbors. Unlike the inflated appeals of the pagan poets, the content of the Lord’s prayer reorients the disciple to serving and praising God, not God serving and praising him: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” Even in its simple direct style, the Lord’s prayer places God before man, stressing sincerity over showiness. Prayer becomes an exercise of the heart, of one’s internal disposition instead of an exercise of the mind, of one’s external concerns. The humble petitions of daily bread, forgiveness, a resistance of temptation, and a deliverance from evil, each reflect the ardent aspiration for holiness, not glory or power. Saying this prayer sincerely and often would help form the disciples in the image of Christ, who became holy as His father was holy.
In His words, and even more in His actions, Jesus teaches that prayer constitutes the core of an individual’s  being. Prayer reflects what rests, or does not rest, within one’s soul. Those who do not pray at all suffer from personal emptiness. In ignoring God, they consequently ignore their own souls, depriving their lives of inspiration, growth, and love. Their only choices for fulfillment rest in gaining more knowledge or more material goods and services. Ironically, the pursuit of knowledge will more often lead many skeptics to despair of knowledge itself—also known as existentialism and relativism—and the pursuit of material goods leads them to suffer from addictions as a result of depression.
Those who babble their prayers experience the same flattening as the pagans of the Roman Empire. They never know God because they never actually seek God. They follow the currents of fashion in their beliefs, and often form God in their own image instead of allowing God to form them in His image. For this reason, a plethora of mystery cults, churches which served as exclusive social clubs that dabbled in spirituality, and state religions worshiping the emperor, popped up all over the empire. One does not have to stretch his imagination to see the same kinds of development in modern society.  Ultimately, this superficial piety does not last, does not satisfy, and does not really change anything in the person or the person’s culture.
If one prays as Jesus tells him to pray, he will experience true conversion: he will change from within, which will strengthen him against the forces hoping to change him from without. Most importantly, one must say the Lord’s prayer with Jesus, and Jesus’ sacrifice, in mind. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says, “No one can build a bridge to the infinite by his own strength. No one’s voice is loud enough to summon the infinite. No intelligence can adequately and securely conceive who God is.” Therefore, prayer never happens in isolation, but in communion with Christ and His church. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus helps the disciples to find God, and eventually to find themselves.

(113)

Fr. Alfonse (767 Posts)


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