Methods of Personal Prayer
in the Medieval Church
by Mark Malyj
CH223, Medieval Church
Prof. Clair Davis
Westminster Theological Seminary
March 28, 1996
The medieval church period was a time of dynamic developments in the methods of personal prayer. The early church had already addressed the appropriate situation of prayer, including posture, the direction toward which Christians should pray, and the hours of prayer. Over the next one thousand years, the Roman Catholic church built upon this tradition. Elaborate methods and techniques of prayer were developed. Some had a definite mystical dimension, such as the methods of pure prayer, the Jesus prayer, and other techniques of meditation and contemplation. Later on more complex techniques were developed: the rosary, the ladders and chiropsalterium of the Modern Devotion school, and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius.
The thesis of this paper is that personal prayer became increasingly less relevant to most Christians as the diversity in prayer technique developed, and especially as the object of prayer shifted from Scripture to quasi-Scriptural and other concerns. The object of prayer, meditation, and contemplation shifted to Mary, the Sacred Heart, the passion of Christ, the saints, and self-examination. Personal prayer became either a very subjective experience, or a ritualistic one. The resulting powerlessness of prayer was one of many reasons why the Roman Catholic church became weak and corrupt. The Reformation re-established Scripture as the primary aid to personal prayer.
We will consider the development of method in personal prayer, starting with the ancient church period, then the transition to monasticism in the medieval period, the development of the rosary, glimmers of reform in the Devotio Moderna school, and the final achievement of the medieval period - the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. Methods of Prayer in the Ancient Church Period
Before the Medieval period, some methods were already being developed for Christians to follow in their prayers. Tertullian's instructions were to stand while praying, with hands moderately raised and spread out, the purpose being "to make our confession to Christ, while we represent the Lord's passion and likewise pray."[i] Origen agreed, appealing to 1Tim 2:8 ("I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer"), and Ps 141:2 ("May the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice").[ii] Both Tertullian and Origen thought kneeling was appropriate for confessing sins, for "at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow."[iii] Tertullian noted that Christians marked themselves with the sign of the cross frequently, not only while praying, but that God might sanctify all their activities and movements.[iv] Origen was firm in requiring Christians to face east when they prayed, "as though the soul beheld the rising of the true light."[v]
Set times also developed for prayer, undoubtedly because the first Christians carried over dawn and nightfall prayers from the daily Jewish synagogue services.[vi] This expanded to include prayer at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, "due to the Christian conviction of the appropriateness of prayer at those hours which marked the events of their Lord's Crucifixion."[vii] Origen encouraged a man to "link together his prayer with deeds of duty and to fit seemly actions with his prayer." That is the man who prays without ceasing. "The whole life of the saint is one mighty integrated prayer." Origen went on to command that part of this life of prayer shall consist of set times for prayer, not less than three times each day.[viii] Any place for prayer is appropriate (1 Tim 2:8), and especially "the place of the coming together of the faithful."[ix] Transition to the Medieval Period
Personal prayer was a key element in the life of the monk early in the development of monasticism. The Fathers of the desert developed the "Jesus Prayer," which...
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