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Things in themselves so supremely great, so far above man, so utterly above our perishable nature, as to be impossible for the race of rational mortals to grasp, as the will of God became possible in the immeasurable abundance of the Divine grace which streams forth from God upon men, through Jesus Christ the minister of His unsurpassable grace toward us, and through the cooperant Spirit. Thus, though it is a standing impossibility for human nature to acquire Wisdom, by which all things have been established—for all things, according to David, God made in wisdom—from being impossible it becomes possible through our Lord Jesus Christ, who was made for us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
For what or who is man that he shall know the counsel of God, or who shall conceive what that Lord willeth? Since the thoughts of mortals are weakling and our purposes are prone to fail; for the body that is corruptible weighs down soul, and mind with its store of thought is burdened by its earthly tabernacle; and things on earth we forecast with difficulty, but things in heaven whoever yet traced out? Who would not say that it is impossible for man to trace out things in heaven? Yet this impossible thing, by the surpassing grace of God, becomes possible; for he who was caught up unto a third heaven traced out things in the three heavens through having heard unutterable utterances which it was not permitted for man to speak. Who can say that it is possible for the mind of the Lord to be known by man?
But this, too, God graciously gives through Christ who said to His disciples: “No longer do I call you servants, because the servant knows not what his lord’s will is, but I have called you friends, because all the things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you; so that through Christ there is made known to them the will of one who, when He teaches them the will of the Lord, has no desire to be their lord any longer but instead becomes a friend to those whose lord he was before.” Moreover, as no one knows the things of man save the Spirit of man that is in him, so also no one knows the things of God save the Spirit of God.
Now if no one knows the things of God save the Spirit of God, it is impossible that a man should know the things of God. But mark how this too becomes possible: but we, he says, have received not the spirit of the world but the spirit which is from God, that we may know the things graciously given to us by God, and these also we speak not in words taught of human wisdom but in those taught of the Spirit. But I think, right pious and industrious Ambrosius, and right discreet and manful Tatiana, from whom I avow that womanly weakness has disappeared as truly as it had from Sarah of old, you are wondering to what purpose all this has been said in preface about things impossible for man becoming possible by the grace of God, when the subject prescribed for our discourse is Prayer.
The fact is, I believe it to be itself one of those things which, judged by our weakness, are impossible, clearly to set forth with accuracy and reverence a complete account of prayer, and in particular of how prayer ought to be offered, what ought to be said to God in prayer, which seasons are more, which less, suitable for prayer . . . The very apostle who by reason of the abundance of the revelations is anxious that no one should account to him more than he sees or hears from him, confesses that he knows not how to pray as he ought, for what we ought to pray, he says, we know not how to as we ought. It is necessary not merely to pray but also to pray as we ought and to pray what we ought. For even though we are enabled to understand what we ought to pray, that is not adequate if we do not add to it the right manner also.
On the other hand what is the use of the right manner to us if we do not know to pray for what we ought? Of these two things the one, I mean the ‘what we ought’ of prayer, is the language of the prayer, while the ‘as we ought’ is the disposition of him who prays. Thus the former is illustrated by “Ask for the great things and the little shall be added unto you,” and “Ask for the heavenly things and the earthly shall be added unto you,” and “Pray for them that abuse you,” and “Entreat therefore the Lord of the harvest that He send out workers unto his harvest,” and “Pray that you enter not into temptation,” and “Pray that your flight be not in winter or on a Sabbath,” and “In praying babble not” and the like passages: the latter by “I desire therefore that men pray in every place lifting up holy hands without anger and questioning, and in like manner that women array themselves decently in simplicity, with modesty and discretion, not in or gold or pearls or costly raiments, but, as becomes women of pious profession, through good works. Instructive too, for prayer ‘as we ought’ is the passage:
“If then you are offering your gift at the altar and there think you that your brother hath aught against you, leave there your gift before the altar, and go back—first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift;” for what greater gift can be sent up to God from a rational creature than fragrant words of prayer that is offered from a conscience devoid of taint from Sin? Similarly instructive is “Deprive not one another, save by agreement for a season that you may give yourselves to prayer and may be together at another time again, in order that Satan may not have occasion to exalt over you by reason of your incontinence.
For prayer ‘as we ought’ is restrained unless the marriage mysteries which claim our silence be consummated with more of solemnity and deliberation and less of passion, the ‘agreement’ referred to in the passage obliterating the discord of passion, and destroying incontinence, and preventing Satan’s malicious exultation. Yet again instructive for prayer ‘as we ought’ is the passage: “If you are standing at prayer, forgive aught that you have against any man;” and also the passage in Paul “Any man who prays or preaches with covered head dishonours his head, and any woman who prays or preaches with unveiled head dishonors her head” is descriptive of the right manner of prayer.
Paul knows all these sayings, and could cite, with subtle statement in each case, manifold more from law and prophets and gospel fulfillment, but in the moderation, yes, and in the truthfulness of his nature, and because he sees how much, after all of them, is lacking to knowledge of the right way to pray what he ought, he says “but what we ought to pray we know not how to as we ought,” and adds thereto the source from which a man’s deficiency is made up if though ignorant he has rendered himself worthy to have the deficiency made up within him:
“The Spirit himself more than intercedes with God in sighs unspeakable and He that searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because His intercession on behalf of saints is according to God.” Thus the Spirit who cries “Abba Father” in the hearts of the blessed, knowing with solicitude that their sighing in this tabernacle can but weigh down the already fallen or transgressors, “more than intercedes with God in sighs unspeakable,” for the great love and sympathy He feels for men taking our sighs upon himself; and, by virtue of the wisdom that resides in Him, beholding our Soul humbled ‘unto dust’ and shut within the body ‘of humiliation,’ He employs no common sighs when He more than intercedes with God but unspeakable ones akin to the unutterable words which a man may not speak. Not content to intercede with God, this Spirit intensifies His intercession, “more than intercedes,” for those who more than conquer, as I believe such as Paul was, who says “Nay in all these we more than conquer.”
He simply “intercedes,” I think, not for those who more than conquer, nor again for those who are conquered, but for those who conquer. Akin to the saying “what we ought to pray we know not how to as we ought, but the Spirit more than intercedes with God in sighs unspeakable,” is the passage “I will pray with the Spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit; and I will sing with the understanding also.”
For even our understanding is unable to pray unless the spirit leads it in prayer within hearing of it as it were, anymore than it can sing or hymn, with rhythmic cadence and in unison, with true measure and in harmony, the Father in Christ, unless the Spirit who searches all things even the depth of God first praise and hymn Him whose depth He has searched and, as He had the power, comprehended. I think it must have been the awakened consciousness of human weakness falling short of prayer in the right way, above all realized as he listened to great words of intimate knowledge falling from the Savior’s lips in prayer to the Father, that moved one of the disciples of Jesus to say to the Lord when He ceased praying, “Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples.” The whole train of language is as follows: “And it came to pass, as He was at prayer in a certain place, that one of His disciples said to Him when He ceased “Lord, teach us to pray even as John also taught his disciples.”
For is it conceivable that a man who had been brought up under instruction in the law and hearing of the words of the prophets and was no stranger to the synagogue had no knowledge whatsoever of prayer until he saw the Lord praying in a certain place? It is absurd to pretend that he was one who did pray after the Jewish practice but saw that he needed fuller knowledge as to the place in reference to prayer. What was it, too, in reference to prayer that John used to teach the disciples who came to him for baptism from Jerusalem and all Judea and the country round about, but certain things of which, as one who was greater than a prophet, he had vision in reference to prayer, which I believe he would not deliver to all who were baptized but privately to those who were disciples with a view to baptism?
Such are the prayers, which are really spiritual because the spirit was praying in the heart of the saints, recorded in scripture, and they are full of unutterably wonderful declarations. In the first book of Kings there is the prayer of Hannah, partially, because the whole of it was not committed to writing since she was ‘speaking in her heart’ when she perservered in prayer before the Lord; and in Psalms, the seventeenth psalm is entitled “A prayer of David,” and the ninetieth “A prayer of Moses, man of God,” and the hundred and second “A prayer of a poor man at a time he is weary and pours forth his supplication before the Lord.”
These are prayers which, because truly prayers made and spoken with the spirit, are also full of the declarations of the wisdom of God, so that one may say of the truths they proclaim “Who is wise that he shall understand them? And understanding, then he shall fully know them.” Since therefore it is so great an undertaking to write about prayer, in order to think and speak worthily of so great a subject, we need the special illumination of the Father, and the teaching of the first born Word himself, and the inward working of the Spirit, I pray as a man—for I by no means attribute to myself any capacity for prayer—that I may obtain the Spirit of prayer before I discourse upon it, and I entreat that a discourse full and spiritual may be granted to us and that the prayers recorded in the Gospels may be elucidated.
So let us now begin our discourse on Prayer.
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