A Patristic Homily on the Gospel Reading for today, Tuesday in the First Week of Lent, from the Catena Aurea of St Thomas Aquinas, using the words of Sts Augustine, John Cassian, John Chrysostom, and Pope Gregory the Great.
Judaism has the teaching that God is the Father of us all. In the teaching of the Trinity, Christianity personalizes it – God the Father is not just the All-Father, as in Judaism and even in many pagan paths, he is the generative source of God the Son and to the degree we stand in Communion with the Son his Father is also Our Father in Heaven, not just in an Omnipotent Creator sort of way, but in an intimate, loving, paternal way. We do say “Lord” and “King” along side “Father”. But we also say, “Daddy”. Thomas Aquinas patristic commentary on the Our Father is long. Please read the whole thing. Scroll down to where you’ll see verse 9 in red: 9. “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in Heaven, Hallowed by thy name.” The rest follows. For today’s Patristic Homily, we’ll stick to the first two verses of today’s Gospel:
7. “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.8. Be ye not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.”
The hypocrites use to set themselves so as to be seen in their prayers and the Ethnici (that is, the Gentiles) use to think that they shall be heard for their much speaking; so Jesus tells us, “When ye pray, do not ye use many words.” We should indeed pray often, but in short form, lest if we be long in our prayers, the enemy that lies in wait for us, might suggest something for our thoughts. Yet to continue long in prayer is not, as some think, what is here meant, by “using many words.” For much speaking is one thing, and an enduring fervency another. The Lord Himself, as it is written, continued a whole night in prayer, and prayed at great length, setting an example to us. Yet also the monks of Egypt are said to use frequent prayers, but those very short, and as it were hasty ejaculations, lest that fervency of spirit, which is most behoveful for us in prayer, should by longer continuance be violently broken off. Let prayer then be without much speaking, but not without much entreaty, if this fervent spirit can be supported; for much speaking in prayer is to use in a necessary matter more words than necessary. But to entreat much, is to importune with enduring warmth the heart Him to whom our entreaty is made; for often is this business effected more by groans than words, by weeping more than speech.
Jesus thereby dissuades us from empty speaking in prayer; as, for example, when we ask of God things improper, as dominions, fame, overcoming of our enemies, or abundance of wealth. He commands then that our prayers should not be long; long, that is, not in time, but in multitude of words. For it is right that those who ask should persevere in their asking; “being instant in prayer,” as the Apostle instructs; but does not thereby enjoin us to compose a prayer of ten thousand verses, and speak it all! What He condemns is many words in praying that come of want of faith; “as the Gentiles do.” For a multitude of words were needful for the Gentiles, seeing the daemons could not know for what they petitioned, until instructed by them; they think they shall be heard for their much speaking.
True prayer consists rather in the bitter groans of repentance, than in the repetition of set forms of words. For we use many words then when we have to instruct one who is in ignorance, what need of them to Him who is Creator of all things; “Your heavenly Father knoweth what ye have need of before you ask Him.”
So in our prayers we do not instruct, but entreat; it is one thing to inform the ignorant, another to beg of the understanding: the first were to teach; the latter is to perform a service of duty. We do not then pray in order to teach God our wants, but to move Him, that we may become His friends by the importunity of your applications to Him, and that we may be humbled, being reminded of our sins.
So we ought not to use words in seeking to obtain of God what we would, but to seek with intense and fervent application of mind, with pure love, and suppliant spirit. Yet even with words we should at certain periods come before God in prayer, that by these signs of things we may keep ourselves in mind, and may know what progress we have made in such desire, and may stir up ourselves more actively to increase this desire, that after it have begun to wax warm, it may not be chilled and utterly frozen up by divers cares, without our continual care to keep it alive. Words therefore are needful for us that we should be moved by them, that we should understand clearly what it is we ask, not that we should think that by them the Lord is either instructed or persuaded.
Still it may be asked, what is the use of prayer at all, whether made in words or in meditation of things, if God knows already what is necessary for us. The mental posture of prayer calms and purifies the soul, and makes it of more capacity to receive the divine gifts which are poured into it. For God does not hear us for the prevailing force of our pleadings; He is at all times ready to give us His light, but we are not ready to receive it, but prone to other things. There is then in prayer a turning of the body to God, and a purging of the inward eye, whilst those worldly things which we desired are shut out, that the eye of the mind made single might be able to bear the single light, and in it abide with that joy with which a happy life is perfected.