Prayer – Augustine-1

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. With respect to Western theology, the same might be said of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine of Hippo was a 4th century church father from North Africa. His writings have dominated the thought of the Western Church, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, for the last 1600 years. Yet in all of Augustine’s voluminous works, there is only one substantial treatment on the subject of prayer. Letter 130 is the first of two letters to a young widow named Proba. This letter is a response to a request by Proba for instruction on how to pray. Augustine responds with a few thoughts on prayer.

Before Augustine began to address the question of how to pray, he answered the more important underlying question, “What manner of person should you be to pray?” Often these underlying issues are never addressed in our rush to answers. But before we can ever learn how to pray, we need to look inwardly to our own hearts. The form of our prayers is completely meaningless if the form of our hearts is not shaped to Christ. So what type of person ought we to be in order to pray? “It becomes you, therefore, out of love to this true life, to account yourself ‘desolate’ in this world, however great the prosperity of your lot may be.”[1] The rich, Augustine argued, cannot pray unless they count themselves desolate. Your station, rank, or wealth in this life will not bring satisfaction. “Men are not made good by possessing these so-called good things…Therefore true comfort is to be found not in them.”[2] Proba came from a good family. She had wealth, children, and status. She was a widow, but her material place in life was comfortable. But Augustine instructed her that when it comes to prayer, she must find herself desolate and greatly desirous of the life found in God. Only the needy can truly pray.

After addressing the inward heart issue, Augustine then instructed Proba on the how and what of prayer. She had become “disturbed” by Paul’s words, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom 8:26). Her concern was that she might do more harm than good if she prayed wrongly. So she didn’t pray at all. Augustine provided an answer, “A short solution of your difficulty may be given thus: ‘Pray for a happy life.’”[3] A “happy life,” Augustine explained, is one who “has all that he wishes to have and wishes to have nothing which he ought not to wish.”[4] The happy life is a life that has health, health for one’s children, and things necessary for life. But beyond this, the truly happy life is one that desires God. “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life” (Ps 27:4). The happy life is primarily marked by a desire for and love of God. And if this is true, then all the other desires of one’s life will be properly ordered.

He illustrated this by going to the very words we often use in prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is the model prayer given to us by Jesus. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” or when we pray for needful things, our desires should be ordered by the wisdom of Proverbs 30:8, “give me neither poverty nor riches.” It is good, and leads to a happy life, to ask for what is needful. But it is a misunderstanding of prayer to ask for riches, wealth, or honor in order to be greater than this or that man. Augustine noted, “[He] who asks merely from a desire for these things, and not in order through them to benefit men agreeably to God’s will, I do not think that he will find any part of the Lord’s Prayer in connection with which he could fit in these requests.”[5] Again, our heart must be re-oriented toward God before we ask for what we want. Our prayers are to ask God for neither too much nor too little.

Augustine finished the letter by noting that Paul’s words in Romans 8:26, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” linger. Mystery will remain for us because we will never fully understand the depths of God’s will. But prayer, when rightly order, teaches us to submit to God. It also teaches us patience. And we learn that God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for [his] power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). “If you seek and relish the things that are above, you desire things everlasting and sure.”[6]

[1] Augustine, The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J.G. Cunningham, vol. Vol. 1, Nicene and Post-Nicene Father of the Christian Church (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 460, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf101.i.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 462.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 466.

[6] Ibid., 469.