In the first of a series of reflections on the sermons of Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century theologian and one of the so-called ‘Three Cappadocians,’ we consider whether being “too busy to pray” is a purely modern phenomenon.
Gregory of Nyssa
Gregory (c. 335 — c. 394 A.D.), bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia, was the younger brother of Basil the Great and one of the so-called ‘Three Cappodocians’ who were amongst the most prominent defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century.
“This was a period when a great theological battle was being waged between those who believed in the doctrine of the Trinity — the belief that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, all of them equal in nature — as agreed and promulgated by the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325; and the Arians, who taught that the Son and the Holy Spirit were created beings and inferior to the Father.”
Having rejected a career as a rhetorician, Gregory was living a monastic life in Pontus when his elder brother Basil appointed him bishop of Nyssa, a small town in Basil’s own metropolitan district of Caesarea in Cappadocia.
This was a period when a great theological battle was being waged between those who believed in the doctrine of the Trinity — the belief that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, all of them equal in nature — as agreed and promulgated by the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325; and the Arians, who taught that the Son and the Holy Spirit were created beings and inferior to the Father.
This was a theological battle into which the Emperors of the fourth century frequently waded, and it is therefore unsurprising that Gregory — who was firmly in the Trinitarian camp — was deposed as bishop of Nyssa in his absence by a synod which met there in 376 chiefly consisting of Arian bishops. He fled his diocese, but returned in 378 on the death of the Emperor Valens and was given a triumphal reception.
He was subsequently appointed archbishop of Sebaste, a post which we administered only for a few months, and was one of the foremost Trinitarian theologians attending the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381, which upheld the Trinitarian faith and formulated the Nicene Creed as we have it today.,
Sermon #1 on the Lord’s Prayer: “Too busy to pray?”
We have in our possession five sermons delivered by Gregory on the Lord’s Prayer, which can be found in the New Testament in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Although Gregory’s second through fifth sermons are each based on a line or two from the Lord’s Prayer — “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and so on — the first of his sermons is simply a reflection on the need to pray:
“For the present congregation needs instruction not so much on how to pray, as on the necessity of praying at all…”
Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon 1 on the Lord’s Prayer
“… For the present congregation needs instruction not so much on how to pray, as on the necessity of praying at all, a necessity that has perhaps not yet been grasped by most people.”
Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon 1 on the Lord’s Prayer
For, says Gregory, most people would rather use their time in gainful employment — rising early to open up shop; being first to the market-place to purchase wares; working on their manual craft; getting more and more produce out of their plots of land — than engaged in prayer.
In other words, says Gregory, everyone’s mind is focussed on earthly and material pursuits, and forgetful of the need of prayer — thinking it, in fact, an unproductive waste of one’s time.
But, he says, if only people embarked on their daily endeavours prayerfully, so much more would be achieved. The husbandman who wishes to maximize his produce would not be so covetous of earthly wealth, and so disputes between neighbours would cease to arise. The person who sets out on an expedition prayerfully, his undertaking will prosper. And those who have a lawsuit against them, by prayer they will be vindicated.
“In the Gospels Jesus doesn’t promise those who follow him health, wealth and prosperity in this life: he only promises us, in this life, a new family (the family of fellow believers) and persecution. The material prosperity only necessarily comes in the next life.”
Now in this respect, I think Gregory has edged too close to proclaiming a health, wealth and prosperity gospel. The health, wealth and prosperity gospel is the form of teaching which says that if you trust enough in Jesus, you will have health, wealth and prosperity in this life. But in the Gospels Jesus doesn’t promise those who follow him any such thing in this life: he only promises us, in this life, a new family (i.e., the family of fellow believers) and persecution. The material prosperity only necessarily comes in the next life.
Prayer undoubtedly has many benefits, both for the life to come and for the here and now. Prayer can move mountains. Any commerce or endeavour or journey which Christians undertake should undoubtedly be undertaken prayerfully — it is right to ask God to bless our endeavours and to cause them to prosper, and he often will do. But we must not think of prayer as some magic formula to material blessing. Much less must we think of it as a means of twisting God’s arm.
However, Gregory’s sermon poses an interesting question for us today: “Is being too busy to pray a modern phenomenon?”
As Christians, it’s likely we find ourselves distracted with many other things. Television, video games, social media, sports events — it all absorbs our time and leaves us, often, with the feeling, “I’m just too busy to pray.” That is, of course, once we’ve done a full day’s work or picked up the children from school, done the household chores, run the gauntlet of the weekly supermarket shop…
Gregory, however, shows us that there really is nothing new under the sun.
“If we find it a struggle to pray — and certainly I do — then it probably says more about our conception of God than about the business or otherwise of our lives.”
Whether people in the UK are busier than their ancestors or not, since time immemorial there has been the temptation to busy ourselves with commerce, trade, working, study — anything but the ‘unproductive waste of time’ that is prayer.
If we find it a struggle to pray — and I think most of us do; certainly I do — then it probably says more about our conception of God than about the business or otherwise of our lives.
Do we view God as one who is interested in our daily lives, as well as in our ultimate destiny? Do we view him as a caring Father, one who, if we ask for bread, will not give us a stone? — one on whom we can cast our cares, because he cares for us?
It is, of course, worth pointing out that in one respect at least, the UK of a hundred, a hundred and thirty years ago is closer to Gregory’s age than is our own. And that is this: In the late fourth century, as (arguably) in the UK in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people were assumed to be Christian by default.
In Gregory’s age you may have been a Trinitarian Christian or an Arian Christian — often largely depending on where in the Empire you lived at any particular time — but still you were assumed to be a Christian of some tincture. Only those who explicitly opted out, such as the Emperor Julian ‘the Apostate’, were considered non-Christians.
“If Christianity is simply the routine you go through on a Sunday, then of course one is not likely to see the need to pray in any and every circumstance. Whereas if prayer is something you do struggle with, then actually this is a cause of rejoicing.”
When Gregory says, therefore, that many people don’t pray because they don’t see the need to pray, he is almost certainly speaking to a congregation many of whom weren’t actually converted. If Christianity is simply the routine you go through on a Sunday, then of course one is not likely to see the need to pray in any and every circumstance.
Whereas if prayer is something you do struggle with, then actually this is a cause of rejoicing. The very struggle to pray is an indication that the Spirit of God is at work in you, urging you to pray. If the Spirit of God were not working in you, you wouldn’t be having the struggle.
So whether you’re one who struggles to pray, or you’re someone who doesn’t see the need to pray, let me make one recommendation that will help in either case: Read the word.
When people pray in the Bible, their prayers are biblical prayers — they are saturated with the word of God and what he has revealed of himself (example).
Therefore why not pick up a Bible and read some of the mighty acts which God has done — whether that be in the days of Moses at the Exodus, or in saving the sins of his people through his Son Jesus Christ — and use the revealed word of God as fuel for your faith and for your own prayers?
The reflections in this series are based on Gregory’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Beatitudes, which can be found in Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.
You can read Gregory of Nyssa’s First Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer online in another translation at https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily1%20Lords%20Prayer.html.
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