Prayer as Theology

“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

-Evagrius Ponticus

I love to think theological structures. I love it so much that I subjected myself to years of seminary and student debt just so I could do so in a systematized manner. In many ways theology is a lot like science. There are different aspects of it, interconnected systems, and everything now is built on what comes before (even if it’s a rejection of what came before!)

Soteriology condensed and purified

The funny thing is that I had a far more active prayer life before I entered seminary than after I left. Now, there are all kinds of excuses I could give about why this is so. But I think it comes down to a definitive split in how we view theology. I don’t really know where this split is defined. There are definitely those in many different denominations who view theology as a deeply prayerful undertaking. Teresa of Avila is a great example of a Roman Catholic who viewed theology as being deeply prayerful. She is even named a Doctor of the Church. Julian of Norwich is another example of a deeply prayerful theology.

Obviously, given the opening quote, it is clear that Orthodoxy has kept present the reality that prayer is theology and theology is prayer. I suppose this is one of the major draws to Orthodoxy for me. In spite of my varying success at having a prayer life, I have always been more drawn to those theologians who are quite clearly “prayerful” theologians over theologians who seem to think of theology as merely an intellectual exercise.

Therefore, something rather than nothing

There’s exactly the problem with the metaphor of theology as a science, and perhaps the problem as to why my prayer life suffered at seminary. Theology became more of an intellectual exercise for me than part of prayer. We put the mystics aside and focused on the intellectuals for whatever reason. Thus, my theology became detached from my physical life and moved solely into my head. I suppose you could say my theology became both dualistic and gnostic.

This is why the Orthodox Church calls its theology “mystical.” Vladimir Lossky titled his book on Orthodox theology “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.” Prayer and theology cannot be separated. That is why the Orthodox Church sees the monasteries as repositories of the Faith.

They brew up a mean beer too

I think this is why my renewed plunge into the depths of early Church Tradition is coupled with my desire to incorporate parts of the Orthodox prayer rule into my life. That wasn’t really something I consciously decided to do together, it just sort of happened that way. In retrospect, it’s either an amazing coincidence or the work of the Spirit leading me into proper theological channels.

“Your prayer will show you what condition you are in. Theologians say that prayer is the monk’s mirror.”

-St. John of the Ladder


~ by crossingthebosporus on July 14, 2012.

12 Responses to “Prayer as Theology”

  1. You do well to remind us that ‘theo logos’ is words about God. Certainly in the Western teaching tradition there is a great deal of emphasis on systematic theology and apologetics, and it terms of ministry (which is often the focus of seminary) you probably wouldn’t get far without them. But too often Westerners neglect their own mystical tradition: ‘The Could of Unknowing’ and the ‘Ascent of Mt. Carmel’ are not works we should ignore. Two of the greatest of Christian mystics, St. Isaac the Syrian and Ephrem the Syrian, lie outside the Latin/Greek tradition altogether.

    It is a salutary reminder of the limitations of what is often taught in seminary. I am happy, my friend, that you are being so guided. 🙂

    • I think most seminaries make great pastors, but I also think our western churches are perhaps in greater need of great mystics. That may very well be one of the major sources of western Christian malaise.

      • I’d agree there. I am trying to connect with the Western mystics to see what is there – have you read Newman’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’? Powerful words which take me deep to places I need to go.
        Love the points you make here 🙂

      • Most of my mystical readings have been confined to medieval/renaissance writings due to my bachelor’s degree in medieval literature. So Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Thomas a Kempis, Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, Cynewulf, Caedmon, Boethius, and more that just don’t pop into mind at the moment. And I absolutely love the Desert Fathers.

      • I wonder, tentatively, if that’s why you see the Western tradition as a little scholastic? That era does seem to have been its high point?

      • If you’re referring to my criticism of theology as a mere intellectual exercise in much of the West, then I’d say that I certainly don’t fit the medieval/renaissance mystics into that criticism of performing a merely intellectual theology. In fact, at seminary we rarely read the medieval/renaissance thinkers outside of learning about history. The theology we learned in our theology classes was far more modern.

      • Really – interesting. Who do you have in mind? I do love the thought that real theology is prayer.

      • Well, I got half the library of Moltmann dumped on me. Niebuhr was a favorite of some. Bultmann wasn’t taught by name, but his philosophical ideas were the foundation of some other thinkers we read. There were a handful of other less well-known names that I can’t remember although I can picture their books in my head. It’s been a few years, and I suppose that shows just how little their theology stuck with me. My copy of the sayings of the desert Fathers fell apart before I even got to seminary and yet that work remains far more compelling to me. Some of the medieval mystics I haven’t re-read since before seminary and yet they stay with me.

        I should say that for all I know these more modern theologians may have a better prayer life than I do. They may see their works as being prayerful It’s just that their books on theology strike me more as being largely intellectual exercises.

      • Aagh – Bultman – I tried, I really did, but I got nowhere. It was like clever philosophy to me – meant nothing in relation to Christ. Always got more from St. Isaac and St. Ephrem. And yes, I’m with you, the Desert Fathers I have in several editions, all more or less worn out 🙂

      • Yes, next time I scrape together enough money for a book the sayings of the desert Fathers is at the top of the list to re-purchase.

      • I have the edition by Benedicta Ward – picked up in a second hand bookshop 🙂

  2. That would be the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ *blushes*

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