Praying with Origen

Born only 30 years after Tertullian, Origen was another of the most important of the early church fathers, and this treatise is a gem. However, it is quite different from the former. Tertullian spoke of prayer in a way that made it sound like corporate worship or liturgy, but Origen's warm take sounds much more like what we normally think of as prayer.

Origen agrees with Tertullian in many of the particulars about prayer: three times a day are best, with "holy hands" lifted up; women should be dressed modestly and veiled. Interestingly, he seems to allow women to preach if they are veiled: "any woman who prays or preaches with unveiled head dishonors her head." (Chapter 1)

However, Origen's definition of prayer seems to be much broader than that of Tertullian, encompassing not only spoken requests. He identifies from 1 Timothy four types of prayer: requests (supplication), prayer (requests for loftier things), intercession, and thanksgiving. In fact, in order to accommodate Paul's exhortation to pray without ceasing, Origen speaks of "the whole life of a saint as one great continuous prayer."

Origen answers a number of common objections to prayer, such as that nothing comes of prayer and it is therefore superfluous, or that prayer is not needed because God already knows our needs. In fact, it appears that some in his day did away with all outward forms, including baptism and the Eucharist. Again, this treatise could have been written today.

Origen has a few unique (and colorful?) emphases. He states that "we are not to babble or ask for little things" or earthly things, since God knows what we need. We are to be forgetful of everything outside prayer. He also states that it is not possible "to think of giving oneself to prayer apart from [sexual] purification." In fact, he is reputed to have castrated himself to further his prayer life. (Fortunately, that practice is not approved by the church.)

What about the interplay between our requests and God’s will? According to Origen, "we receive the best of gains when we have come the right way to pray," and yet, "he that is content with what comes to pass becomes free from every bond, and does not protest against God for ordaining what he wills for our discipline."

Origen's work concludes with a beautiful meditation on the Lord's Prayer. He says that our entire lives should say "Our Father in the Heavens" because our lives should be heavenly, not worldy. Elsewhere, he asks, "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?"

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga
Director of the CCEL

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