Monday, March 19, 2018

Learning to Pray

The introduction to Bonhoeffer's short book on the Psalms - The Prayerbook of the Bible - is worth every penny you might pay for the book, even assuming you didn't read and benefit from the rest of it, which you ought to.  In noting that Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them to pray, Bonhoeffer probes and pops on of the great prayer myths that circulates in the church.
"To learn to pray" sounds contradictory to us.  Either the heart is so overflowing that it begins to pray by itself, we say, or it will never learn to pray.  But this is a dangerous error, which is certainly very widespread among Christians today, to imagine that it is natural for the heart to pray.
We imagine that prayer comes spontaneously or not at all.  Not so, says Bonhoeffer, for if it were so how could Jesus teach the disciples to pray?  There is plenty of stuff the heart can do by itself - "wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing" - but these are not yet prayer, and ought not to be confused with prayer.
Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one's heart.  It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty.
This has implications.  How should we learn to pray?  Why, the same way we learn to talk in general: by imitating our parent's speech.  In this case, taking on the speech of God.  "Repeating God's own words, we begin to pray to God."  We encounter this language of God in Holy Scripture.

This allows Bonhoeffer to develop a particular, and a particularly Christological, view of the prayers of the Bible, and particularly the book of Psalms.  Here in the Psalms we have the Word of God - but they are also prayers to God, which is to say they are particularly human words.  (What is prayer but a human word?)  How can they be both?
We grasp it only when we consider that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father who lives in eternity...  In Jesus' mouth the human word becomes God's Word.  When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God's Word becomes again a human word.
Jesus prays, and we can pray along with him, because he includes us in his prayers.
If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.
Recognising that we must learn to pray, and that we can only do so as we pray along with Christ Jesus, we learn to pray beyond our own immediate interests and feelings, to pray more than what it is in our hearts at the moment - sometimes, indeed, "it is precisely the case that we must pray against our own heart in order to pray properly."
Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God's Word, ought to determine our prayer.
All quotations from The Prayerbook of the Bible, in volume 5 of Bonhoeffer's Works, pages 155ff.

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