For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
… a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. (Eccles 3:1, 7)
For the past two weeks I have been slowly reading Earthen Vessels by Hieroschemamonk Gabriel Bunge. He is a well-known expert on the writings of Evagrius Ponticus and the Desert Fathers. He speaks with especial authority, as he has sought to understand these writings not only by close study but by living out their teachings in his own life of solitude. Bunge describes the ancient ascetical practices, in the confidence that they have much to teach us today about prayer. Thus Evagrius:
It is fitting for those who want to walk along the “way” of him who said: “I am the way and the life,” that they learn from those who previously walked along it, and converse with them about what is useful, and hear from them what is helpful, so as not to introduce anything that is foreign to our course.
This morning I read the chapter on spoken and silent prayer. When should we speak aloud to God and when should we speak silently? Prayer said aloud, if only softly (sotto voce), appears to have been the norm in the desert. This is particularly the case for the recitation of the psalms, which functioned as the backbone of the monastic rule, but also for ejaculatory prayer. Bunge tells the story of Abba Makarios the Great who daily visited a fellow monk for four months and always found him in prayer. On one occasion he stood outside the door of the monk’s cell and heard him crying to God: “Lord, do your ears not hear my crying out to you? Have mercy on me on account of my sins, for I do not grow weary of calling to you for help.” Bunge comments:
Such a direct expression of emotions might seem strange to modern man, as something not at all in keeping with his ideas of “prayer” and meditation”. And yet the spiritual Fathers–including those in the Christian East down to this day–teach that one should recite even the prayer of the heart in an undertone, at least at the beginning and for a certain time, that is, until it has become truly united with one’s heartbeat. For they knew that this, as in the case of reading or “meditating” in an undertone, is an excellent means of bringing distractions under control, which are otherwise so difficult to overcome. … Hearing one’s own voice makes it easier to concentrate on the words of Scripture, of the psalms, or of the prayer, just as the beads of the rosary slipping through the fingers, in another way, focus the attention. (p. 125)
Ah … distractions–I know them well! How the mind loves to wander. But yes, the verbalization of prayer does help. Even so … my mind wanders. My lips are praying and my mind is thinking about the Redskins and what they should do next season about Kirk Cousin’s contract. My guess: they will put the transition tag on him. Oh … there it goes wandering again.
But there are also good reasons, the Fathers taught, not to pray aloud. Did not our Lord warn us against seeking to impress others by our piety (Matt 6:5-6)? Yet whether spoken aloud or silently, God hears our prayers, as St Epiphanius of Salamis explains: “The Canaanite woman cried out and was heard, and the woman with the hemorrhage remained silent and was called blessed. The Pharisee called [in an audible voice] and was condemned, while the tax collector did not even open his mouth and was heard.”
Bunge then mentions another reason in favor of vocal prayer, one of which I had never given any thought: “God is not the only one to hear the voice of the person praying; the demons hear it, too!” (p. 128). Elder John was asked the question “When I pray or recite the Psalms, I do not understand the meaning of the words on account of the hardness of my heart. Of what benefit are they to me?” He replied:
Even if you do not understand the meaning of the words, yet the demons understand it and hear it and tremble at it. Therefore, do not cease reciting the Psalms and praying; and gradually, God will soften the hardness. (Letters From the Desert, p. 185)
The demons do not enjoy hearing the praise of God. They do not like being reminded of God’s redemptive acts on behalf of Israel. But particularly, they hate the psalmodic curses! Bunge elaborates:
The demons are reduced to “trembling”especially by those psalm verses that speak about the “enemies” and their destruction by the Lord, for example, all of the “imprecatory psalms” that present such great difficulties for modern sensibilities, because their cursing seems to be irreconcilable with the spirit of the gospel. The Fathers, who were well aware “that the just man is not cursing but praying” [Evagrius], spiritualized these texts as a matter of course and related them to the “enemies” of the human race par excellence, the demons. The latter understood this quite well and fear it. (p. 129)
All who pray the Psalter as part of the Divine Office are forced to come to grips with the Psalms of Imprecation. Who can forget these verses?
Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you. (Ps 5:10)
Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and disappointed who devise evil against me! Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away! Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them! For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it–to his destruction! (Ps 35:4-8)
Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!” (Ps 40:14-15)
Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name!” (Ps 79:6)
Remember, O Lord, against the E′domites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Raze it, raze it! Down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Ps 137:7-9)
How do we pray these words when our Lord teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44)? We may do so, suggests Bunge, only if we understand their inspired intent—execrations against the supernatural forces that seek to alienate us from the living God. These are the words the demons fear to hear. Evagrius thus counsels us to employ them when we find ourselves severely tempted:
Do not pray, when you are being tempted, until you have said a few words in anger against the one who is oppressing you. Because your soul has been assailed by thoughts, it follows that your prayer, too, is not pure when it is offered. Nevertheless, if in fury you say something against them, you thwart and destroy the mental images of the adversary. Indeed, anger usually has this effect even upon good mental images.
I admit that I have never used the biblical curses in this way, perhaps because I typically think of temptation as rising from the depths of my heart, rather than as an external power invading my heart. Evagrius wrote at some length about all of this (see Talking Back).
The demons hear our audible prayers. How they “hear” them I do not know. Yet the demons do not, the desert elders assure us, hear our unspoken thoughts. The inner sanctum of personal being is closed to them. For this reason, counsels St John Cassian, we should communicate our most intimate and important petitions to God in silence:
We pray “in secret” when we make our petitions known to God alone in our heart and with a watchful mind, in such manner that the hostile powers cannot even tell what sort of petition it is. Therefore one should pray in the most profound silence, not only so as to avoid distracting the brothers around us by our whispering and calling, or disturbing the sentiments of those who are at prayer, but also so that the purpose of our petition might remain hidden from our enemies themselves, who lie in wait for us especially when we pray. In this way, then, we fulfill the commandment: “Guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your bosom.”
By our silence we keep our enemies ignorant of our deepest desires, hopes, and fears. Why give them any more ammunition?
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” ~ The Usual Suspects.