Extempore prayer, to the Fathers, was tinged with a purely biblical color. Their hearts were replete with God’s word to the point of overflowing. Extempore prayers, which ‘man himself fits together’, in the words of St Isaac the Syrian, are nothing but a coherent and integrated recital of God’s memorized word. They express the condition of the human soul when moved and impressed by his word and will.
It is thus that meditation becomes closely linked to prayer in its first formal degree. When man applies it, he grows before God in all confidence and safety, since it is a prayer that proceeds from the core of the Bible. It is henceforth able to transform and renew man’s emotional makeup, his thought and his expression, in a radical way.
Extempore prayer, in Orthodox tradition, cannot therefore be counted as prayer unless man is imbued with the word of God. He has to be well trained in correct meditation. Otherwise, his words come forth unbiblically, and his ideas will falls short of expressing the will of God and his thought.
Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life
Reflection – One last day on Abba Matthew and meditation, and then we’ll move on to something else. ‘Extempore’ prayer, here, is what in the Western tradition we call mental prayer, generally in the sense of conversing with God in one’s own words.
We see, though, the wisdom of this Eastern sense that mental prayer must flow from meditation and interiorization of God’s word, or it is not only inadequate but in fact not really prayer. I don’t think this is such a strange idea to those of us have some experience of the practice of prayer.
Who among us has not felt at times very hampered in mental prayer, very inadequate, very much not knowing what really to say to God. I mean, we have our grocery list of prayer intentions, ever growing, and we can always lapse back into verbal prayers like the rosary if we really get stuck, but I think most of us experience fairly quickly that just talking to God is not such a simple easy thing.
The fact is, this is quite proper and a sign that we really are in the divine presence. Of course we get tongue-tied in the presence of such majesty and grandeur, even if we are not particularly aware on the level of the senses of any such thing. Our spirits know that God is not simply to be chatted up as if He were the next door neighbour or Joe the bartender.
Our own human ideas and words and thoughts are woefully short of the mark when it comes to true prayer to God. And so it is God’s word, God’s ideas and God’s thoughts that are the only true and sure way to shape our own prayers to make them real. Meditation on God’s word teaches us how to pray, gives us the right words that become our words, then, and can come out to God as the authentic sincere prayer of our own hearts.
There is much to ponder here. One thing, for example, is that this corrects somewhat a slightly exaggerated tendency today to stress personal authenticity or originality to an extreme. The most important thing is that its your creation, your words, your own original authentic production—that can be the general thought, and indeed general counsel about prayer or about lots of other things. I may even be guilty of having counselled people in that way.
We see here that, while our prayer should be certainly be our own, and in fact must be lest it become just lip service, the content of the prayer really needs to be taught to us by God. We don’t know how to pray – the Lord does need to give us the words and the attitudes of mind and heart that are adequate for that activity.
There is a whole theological anthropology, a whole understanding of the divine origin and destiny and shaping of human life, that emerges from this one simple statement, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ There is a privileging of receptivity over initiative, of passive contemplation over active intellection that we learn in a natural way simply by the fact that meditation on God’s word precedes mental prayer and shapes it.
It is all very Marian, very much connected to the Woman who received the Word of God into her womb, and only then could pray her great Magnificat of praise and exultation. Mary is the pattern here, and so on this first of May, Mary’s month, I leave you with her example as the great orans, the woman of prayer and receptivity who can teach us to meditate, to receive the word, and then bring forth God’s word and not our own empty words, for the hungry world.