Anthony Meredith

Patristic spirituality is the inheritor of two related but distinct traditions, the Hebrew and the Greek. Both of these had offered answers to the all important question, 'How shall I come closer to God?' This means not simply, How shall I find out more about him?, but also (or rather), How can I enter into a relationship with him? Although the two traditions are in many ways sharply distinguished from one another, they are at one on a central point. For the Psalms there can be no climbing the mountain of the Lord without purity of heart (Ps. 24:3) and for Plato there is no way of rising to the contemplation of the absolute Good, without living a good life (cf. above all Republic 6, 7). The two indispensible requirements for anyone wishing to approach and experience the divine are in both systems a good life and open mind or eyes. In both traditions God or the absolute is regarded as somehow distinct from the visible world and therefore inaccessible to the eyes of the body.

Faced with such a united front, what were the early Christians to make of it, when faced with the figure of the historical Jesus? How did he 'fit in' to such a scheme, or rather how did it 'fit in' to him? It has already been suggested in the previous chapter that crucial though Jesus was and is to Christianity, he was not ultimate in the sense that God was. Indeed, in the Synoptic Gospels the centre of his preaching is the kingdom of God (Heaven) and the Fatherhood of God. It is only with St John and St Paul that the preacher becomes the one preached, and even there, by and large, he is the one through whom we go to the Father, to whom he reconciled the human race. The vast majority of early Christian writing is concerned with the problem of how the person of Jesus modified or radically challenged received positions about the absolute nature of God. These problems were to some extent 'resolved' in 325 at the first Ecumenical Council of the Church held at Nicaea, modern Isnic in Turkey.

The preoccupation with more strictly theological issues left the Church little space to devote itself to the question of how, given the growing awareness of the true nature of Christ as both human and divine, this 'new' perception should affect the lives of the Christian community in practice. The New

Testament itself had given little assistance on this score. It had indeed insisted on the centrality of the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, and, in the Gospel of Luke especially, presented the example of Jesus praying, but it had little to say about how Christians should set about the task of drawing near to God in religious experience. For example, with one important exception, it had given no advice about how the Christian should pray, apart that is from insisting at times on the need for continual prayer (cf. 1 Thess: 17).

The important exception is the Our Father, of which two variants survive in the New Testament, at Matthew 6 and Luke 11. It was to be the distinctively Christian prayer, available only to those who had been baptized and so incorporated into the body of Christ. A good deal of what the Fathers meant by spirituality can be gathered from the often copious commentaries they wrote on the Lord's Prayer. Before we turn to a closer scrutiny of how some of the early Christian writers understood the path to holiness and the vision of God, it will perhaps help to see what some of them made of the contents of this prayer.

The first extant commentary on the prayer, meant for the instruction of converts to Christian life, comes from the end of the second century and is the work of Tertullian (c. 160-220). After pointing out the novelty of Christian prayer, he gives a line-by-line comment on the text. The continuous use of this prayer throughout this period and the differing interpretations can be illustrated by seeing what five different Fathers make of the verse, 'Give us this day our daily bread'. In section 6 of On the Prayer, Tertullian refers the words to the Word of God, come down from heaven and giving life to the world, and also to the bread of the eucharist. This second sense he connects with the words of Christ at the Last Supper, 'This is my body'. In 231 an Alexandrian writer, Origen (185-254), gives the words a different sense in his treatise On the Prayer. In section 27 of that work he applies the words to the Word that feeds us and makes us grow in the Spirit. There is no clear and unambiguous reference in the text to the eucharist. Cyril of Jerusalem, however, towards the end of the fourth century, writes that the 'supersubstantial' bread for which we pray is Holy Bread, an almost certain reference to the eucharist; while another fourth-century writer, Gregory of Nyssa, who composed five homilies on the Lord's Prayer, provides a quite novel meaning to the familiar words. For him, in the fourth homily, the bread is the basic needs of life, as distinct from superfluities. Finally Augustine, in his Enchiridion (or 'Handbook'), section 115, of 421 CE, interprets the words to apply to the basic needs of body and soul. There is a refreshing independence about these divergent and on the whole independent understandings of the words of the prayer of prayers, an absence of stereotyping that also marks their approaches to the quest for God, which lies at the root of all spirituality. Further, the various treatments of the Lord's Prayer give us an insight into different approaches to the concerns seen as central to the prayer of Christians.

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