Saint Gregory of Nyssa – On Prayer (3)

3. God’s gifts through prayer.

Just think,  that even if we extended our conversation with God and we prayed and thanked Him throughout our whole life we would still be so far behind in paying back the price due to God in return that we would not even have started to make a reimbursement to our Benefactor. Time is divided into three parts: the past, the present and the future. The Lord’s benevolence is seen in these three stages. If you consider the present, you live in it; the future, is where your hopeful expectations lie; the past, would not exist if He hadn’t made you. You received his kindness when you came into being because of Him, and having been born you received his kindness again, since you live and move “in Him” as the Apostle says[1]. Future hopes also depend on this same action. You are ruler only of the present. Therefore, even if you keep continually thanking God in all things, you would just about manage to give back what you owe for the present, without  finding a way to pay back all that you owe for the future or the past. Yet, while we so greatly lack the ability to thank God as much as we should, we don’t even show our gratitude as far as we are able. I’m not even speaking about the whole day; we don’t even give over the least part of the day to be still in the Lord.

Who laid out the earth beneath my feet? Who made the waters passable by intention? Who fixed the heaven for me as a chamber? Who bears the sun like a torch for me? Who sends out springs within the ravines? Who laid out the courses of rivers? Who placed irrational beasts under the yoke to serve me? Who made me overflow with life and thought, despite being nothing but lifeless dust? Who formed this clay into the image of the divine character? Who restored back to its ancient grace the divine image that had been clouded by sin? Having been evicted from paradise, cut off from the tree of life and covered in the ruinous pit of material life, who drew me back to my first happy and blessed state? “There is none who understands” says Scripture[2]. For if we saw all this we would give never-ending and ceaseless thanks throughout the whole length of our life. However, nowadays nearly the whole of the human race is only alert to material things. All their interests are here, all their enthusiasm is in this; this is where all their memory and hope is concentrated.  Human nature doesn’t go to bed and doesn’t sleep in its desire to have more of everything in which more can be found. Whether it is in honour or glory, or an abundance of money, or the disease of appetite, in all these things human nature always looks towards having more. Whereas no mention is made at all of the true blessings of God, neither for what is already seen nor for what is promised. However, it’s time for us to turn our attention, as far as it is possible, to the actual meaning of the words of prayer.

4. Vain repetitions: meaning and content

It is obvious that we will gain what we want by learning how to put our request into words. What, then, is the teaching? “When you pray” it says “do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do.”[3] They think that they will be heard because of their many words. The meaning of the teaching is clear of itself, when laid out bare thus, and we don’t need to have a finer understanding of it, except, however, to examine what is meant by the term “vain repetitions”[4]. So that we can avoid doing what is forbidden, by knowing exactly what this means.

I believe this strange and newly coined expression was used in order to rein in pointless thoughts and to curb those entrenched in vain desires, i.e. in order to check the foolishness of those who let their desires overflow into unhelpful and idle things. Whatever is sensible and intelligible and tries to be useful is legitimately called speech, whereas whatever spills over into imaginary desires through groundless gratification is properly called “vain repetition” (battologia). Putting it more plainly[5] you could say that “vain repetitions” means chattiness, talking nonsense, babbling and whatever else carries these meanings.

What does this expression advise us to do then? It advises us not to experience the same misfortune of infantile thinking at the time of prayer.  Just like people with somewhat flawed intelligence don’t consider how they will actually accomplish something they have in mind, but invent some power based fortunate lot in life for themselves, imagining treasuries and kingdoms and that great cities are named after them. They even envisage in their mind that they really are amongst everything that their vainglorious thoughts have portrayed. Indeed, there are those who are seized by this vainglory even more vigorously, going beyond natural means, they gain wings or shine like stars, or lift up mountains with their bare hands, or make the heaven into a roadway for their use, or exist for thousands of years by becoming young again after growing old, and all sorts of other similar frothy and idle inventions borne by the hearts of those who are more infantile than infants. Accordingly then, when it comes down to it, someone who doesn’t think about whether some of the desired goods are attainable, but idles away in non-existent desires is both foolish and wretched, because he wastes time on these dreams when he could be using the time to do something useful instead. If a person is not intent on benefitting his soul during the time of prayer, but instead has the pretense of including God alongside the impassioned movements of the mind, then he is truly an idler and someone who stutters and repeats himself in vain. Since he is praying for God to cooperate in his own vainglory and become a servant of it.

This is what I’m saying, for instance: Someone approaches God in prayer, and not understanding in his mind the height of the power that he is approaching, mistakenly insults his greatness with his base and lowly request. This is like someone who through extreme poverty or plain boorishness considers clay vessels to be valuable. Then, he approaches a king who is intending to share out honours and riches.  However, this person disregards royal petitions, and instead thinks it more fitting for someone of such great worth, to mould something out of clay and create something that he has in mind. Likewise, whoever has not been educated in prayer yet prays like this, does not raise himself up to the height of his Giver, but wants to bring divine power down to the base and earthly level of his own desires. Thus, he exposes his impassioned impulses to the knower of hearts; not so that the incongruous movements of the mind can be cured, but for them to become worse, so that the evil impulses might be carried out with God’s help! For example, he says to God “Since that person grieves me and my heart is ill-disposed towards him, knock him down!” The only thing he doesn’t shout out is, “Let my own passion become Your passion, let my own evil pass over to You”.

Given that in human battles it’s not possible to ally yourself with one side, without sharing in the irritation of the angry against their opponent, it is equally clear that the person, who incites God against his enemy, is also asking God to join him in his wrath and become a participant in his anger. This would mean that the Divine falls into passion, has a human disposition and alters from His good nature into brutal harshness. The same is true of the fame fanatic[6], or the person who through pride desires to have more than others, or hurries to win a court case, or someone who pursues the winner’s crown in gymnastic competitions, or vies for applause at the theatre, and quite often those who are worn down by the raging passion of youth. All these people do not direct their supplications to God so that they will be freed of the sickness that is ruling over them, but rather pray in order to make the disease overcome them completely. They deem the complete failure in these things to be a great calamity, so really they are using vain repetitions, pleading with God to collaborate with their mind’s own sickness. The worst thing of all is, they want the Divine to be hostile to those who are hostile to them, separating the workings of God into either benevolence (love for mankind) or cruelty. They want Him to be compassionate and gentle with them, yet at the same time bitter and harsh towards their enemies. Oh the folly of those who use vain repetitions! If God is harsh towards them, then he certainly won’t be tame with you! However, if He inclines towards mercy with you, according to your hope, of course, how then can he switch and do the opposite, turning mercy into malice?

Yet, the argumentative have opinions, ready to hand, disputing such views. They immediately call upon the words of the prophets to defend their own malice. They say, for example, that David wants sinners to disappear from the face of the earth[7] and wishes for his enemies to be covered with shame and reproach[8]; Jeremiah wanted God to take vengeance on those who opposed him[9]; Hosea asked that his enemies be given a childless womb and dry breasts[10]. They gather up many such scatterings of text from Holy Scripture, contriving to maintain that they should pray against their enemies and that God’s goodness should collaborate with their spite. However, we will take a different path from these people, who, on such grounds, are led to the direct opposite view. To stop them from babbling we will answer each of the things mentioned with what follows.

[1] Acts 17:28

[2] Romans 3:11

[3] Matthew 6:7

[4] This is one word in the Greek of the New Testament «βαττολογία» <battologia>. It is an unusual and rare word in Greek. It is clear that St. Gregory of Nyssa thought it was not an original Greek word, although it is mentioned in several ancient sources including Aesop, for example. It can be interpreted literally as “Battos-speech.  Battos was a King of Cyrene known for his weak voice, stammer and composition of hymns that said the same things over and over again (cf. Herodotus Histories IV). His name became synonymous with stuttering and repetitive speech.

[5] Here St. Gregory says literally, “interpreting it in better Greek one would say…”

[6] ὁ δοξομανῶν literally a “glory maniac” someone who is “fame-mad”.

[7] e.g. Psalm 103: 35 LXX

[8] e.g. Psalm 70: 13 LXX

[9] Jeremiah 11:19 LXX

[10] Hosea 9:14


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