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§ 101. Prayer and Fasting.


In regard to the importance and the necessity of prayer, as the pulse and thermometer of spiritual life, the ancient church had but one voice. Here the plainest and the most enlightened Christians met; the apostolic fathers, the steadfast apologists, the realistic Africans, and the idealistic Alexandrians. Tertullian sees in prayer the daily sacrifice of the Christian, the bulwark of faith, the weapon against all the enemies of the soul. The believer should not go to his bath nor take his food without prayer; for the nourishing and refreshing of the spirit must precede that of the body, and the heavenly must go before the earthly. "Prayer," says he, "blots out sins, repels temptations, quenches persecutions, comforts, the desponding, blesses the high-minded, guides the wanderers, calms the billows, feeds the poor, directs the rich, raises the fallen, holds up the falling, preserves them that stand." Cyprian requires prayer by day and by night; pointing to heaven, where we shall never cease to pray and give thanks. The same father, however, falls already into that false, unevangelical view, which represents prayer as a meritorious work and a satisfaction to be rendered to God.675675    De Orat. Domin. 33: "Cito orationes ad Deum adscendunt, quas ad Deum merita operis nostri imponunt."De Lapsis 17:"Dominus orandus est, Dominus nostra satisfactione placandus est."Epist. xl. 2: "Preces et orationes, quibus Dominus longa et continua satisfactione placandus est."75 Clement of Alexandria conceives the life of a genuine Christian as an unbroken prayer. "In every place he will pray, though not openly, in the sight of the multitude. Even on his walks, in his intercourse with others, in silence, in reading, and in labor, he prays in every way. And though he commune with God only in the chamber of his soul, and call upon the Father only with a quiet sigh, the Father is near him." The same idea we find in Origen, who discourses in enthusiastic terms of the mighty inward and outward effects of prayer, and with all his enormous learning, regards prayer as the sole key to the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures.

The order of human life, however, demands special times for this consecration of the every-day business of men. The Christians generally followed the Jewish usage, observed as times of prayer the hours of nine, twelve, and three, corresponding also to the crucifixion of Christ, his death, and his descent from the cross; the cock-crowing likewise, and the still hour of midnight they regarded as calls to prayer.

With prayer for their own welfare, they united intercessions for the whole church, for all classes of men, especially for the sick and the needy, and even for the unbelieving. Polycarp enjoins on the church of Philippi to pray for all the saints, for kings and rulers, for haters and persecutors, and for the enemies of the cross. "We pray," says Tertullian, "even for the emperors and their ministers, for the holders of power on earth, for the repose of all classes, and for the delay of the end of the world."

With the free outpourings of the heart, without which living piety cannot exist, we must suppose, that, after the example of the Jewish church, standing forms of prayer were also used, especially such as were easily impressed on the memory and could thus be freely delivered. The familiar "ex pectore" and "sine monitore" of Tertullian prove nothing against this; for a prayer committed to memory may and should be at the same time a prayer of the heart, as a familiar psalm or hymn may be read or sung with ever new devotion. The general use of the Lord’s Prayer in the ancient church in household and public worship is beyond all doubt. The Didache (ch. 8) enjoins it three times a day. Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, wrote special treatises upon it. They considered it the model prayer, prescribed by the Lord for the whole church. Tertullian calls it the "regular and usual prayer, a brief summary of the whole gospel, and foundation of all the other prayers of the Christians." The use of it, however, was restricted to communicants; because the address presupposes the worshipper’s full sonship with God, and because the fourth petition was taken in a mystical sense, as referring to the holy Supper, and was therefore thought not proper for catechumens.

As to posture in prayer; kneeling or standing, the raising or closing of the eyes, the extension or elevation of the hands, were considered the most suitable expressions of a bowing spirit and a soul directed towards God. On Sunday the standing posture was adopted, in token of festive joy over the resurrection from sin and death. But there was no uniform law in regard to these forms. Origen lays chief stress on the lifting of the soul to God and the bowing of the heart before him; and says that, where circumstances require, one can worthily pray sitting, or lying, or engaged in business.

After the Jewish custom, fasting was frequently joined with prayer, that the mind, unencumbered by earthly matter, might devote itself with less distraction to the contemplation of divine things. The apostles themselves sometimes employed this wholesome discipline,676676    Comp. Acts 13:2; 14:23; 2 Cor. 6:576 though without infringing the gospel freedom by legal prescriptions. As the Pharisees were accustomed to fast twice in the week, on Monday and Thursday, the Christians appointed Wednesday and especially Friday, as days of half-fasting or abstinence from flesh,677677    Semijejunium, abstinentia.77 in commemoration of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. They did this with reference to the Lord’s words: "When the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, then will they fast."678678    Matt. 9:15.78

In the second century arose also the custom of Quadragesimal fasts before Easter, which, however, differed in length in different countries; being sometimes reduced to forty hours, sometimes extended to forty days, or at least to several weeks. Perhaps equally ancient are the nocturnal fasts or vigils before the high festivals, suggested by the example of the Lord and the apostles.679679    Luke 6:12. Acts 16:25.79 But the Quatemporal fasts680680    From quatuor tempora.80 are of later origin, though founded likewise on a custom of the Jews after the exile. On special occasions the bishops appointed extraordinary fasts, and applied the money saved to charitable purposes; a usage which became often a blessing to the poor. Yet hierarchical arrogance and Judaistic legalism early intruded here, even to the entire destruction of the liberty of a Christian man.681681    Comp. Matt. 9:15; Gal. 4:9; 5:1.81

This rigidity appeared most in the Montanists. Besides the usual fasts, they observed special Xerophagiae682682    Ξηροφαγίαι, aridus victus. See Tertullian, De Jejuu, 15; Hippolytus. Philos. VIII. 19.82 as they were called; seasons of two weeks for eating only dry or properly uncooked food, bread, salt, and water. The Catholic church, with true feeling, refused to sanction these excesses as a general rule, but allowed ascetics to carry fasting even to extremes. A confessor in Lyons, for example, lived on bread and water alone, but forsook that austerity when reminded that he gave offence to other Christians by so despising the gifts of God.

Against the frequent over-valuation of fasting, Clement of Alexandria quotes the word of Paul: The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, therefore neither abstinence from wine and flesh, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.



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