Theology and Prayer
THEOLOGY AND PRAYER
In ancient times the word theology did not mean exclusively a way of knowing about God but designated also a manner of praying. The Greek Fathers often used the word to describe the knowing and praying based on the ascetic life and leading to contemplation. This meaning was preserved also in the West during the greater part of the Middle Ages. For example, in the 11th century the name of the monastery of Tholey is explained as being derived from the fact that its monks spent themselves in the prayer of praise: "… appellatur Theologium, quod theoricae vitae sit aptum, vel quod de Deo inibi frequens habeatur colloquium" [ Acta Sanctorum Sept. 5 (1866) 514]; "… moderni Theologium dicunt … quod de Deo frequentius inibi a cohabitantibus versetur indisputabilis sermo" [ J. Mabillon, Acta sanctorum ordinis S. Benedicti, 9 v. (Venice 1733) 2:259].
theology kept this meaning until the 12th century and even later: the word of God—sermo de Deo, theologia —not analyzed intellectually or discussed in school, but contemplated, loved, adored, proclaimed in praise and thanksgiving.
Principles. One must say, indeed, that theology is not merely prayer or a manner of praying. It is also knowledge, a way of knowing; it is a science, scientific knowledge. But for all that, it is an activity of the intellect which takes for granted and calls into play a certain interior experience, which is nothing else than faith. Living faith is vivified by charity, it is conditioned by the acts and attitudes demanded by love, namely, consent and desire, and hence prayer. Desire for God is the psychological form love takes in the present life. Linked to faith and hope, it is the way in which man possesses in obscurity the indwelling God.
Because prayer is desire and seeking for God, the link between science and faith in theology is assured. Theology's object is God, an object apart from the theologian, which he can study, analyze, take apart metaphysically as it were, without having faith or, at least, living faith.
But the Christian who lives by faith must make a subject of this object, God. There must be a meeting of consciousness, exchange and dialogue. There must spring up an interpersonal attitude, be it only one of inquiry on the part of man. Need for God, desire for Him, love: such is the action of faith-in-prayer, and it is the inquiry this inspires that theological knowledge answers. Living faith is necessarily a searching for God, a movement toward Him. Prayer expresses this aspiration, as well as the consent and welcome given to the gift already received. Prayer is an exercise of that faith whose substance constitutes the object of theological knowledge. So one really cannot separate faith from theological science or from prayer without destroying the integrity of either. Since prayer is the practice of faith, it serves as mediator between faith and theology. If there is to be not merely theological science but true theology in the full and traditional sense of the word, it must begin with prayer—with an alloquium as St. Anselm said—as its very principle. The theologian must begin with a prayer of supplication, and there must be prayer at the end: acceptance, thanksgiving, contemplation. Between these two attitudes of prayer lies that activity of the intellect which consists in making more explicit the contents of faith, whose exercise is a concrete and personal relationship with God.
Application of Principles. One may say that there are three successive stages conditioning one another in the theologian's activity. The first is a blurred sort of faith, unorganized, conferring an initial intuition of the given revelation, and leading to the prayer of desire, of request. The second is theological reflection which develops the intuition, orders it, formulates it, allows it to move from confusion into clarity. This is the specific domain of theological study, but the search ought not to end there. One must turn back again in the other direction, proceeding from clarity to depth, from distinction to unity. Reflection should inspire new prayer, which is the third and final stage.
Such a religious attitude in the theologian depends upon his previous and habitual engagement. Generosity, watchfulness, love must characterize the whole life of the theologian. Only then will study be for him a spark touching off personal response to God, with prayer of utter consent, adoration, thanksgiving.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 188.6), the teaching of theology or doctrina is a work of the active life overflowing from the contemplative life. This is so, he says, first because the object of this teaching is God, to be known and made known; second, because the subject must be in a state of fervor of which the doctrina is an end result, the expression, the overflow. To illustrate this point in the words of Psalm 144 (145).7: Memoriam abundantiae suavitatis tuae eructabunt. … Memoria is a certain "remembrance of God" which, according to Cassian, must be continuous. This delightful and overflowing remembrance is poured out in that eructatio which in Biblical language means love and enthusiasm. All of this, incidentally, is equally applicable to preaching.
What St. Thomas says of teaching theology is valid for those who are learning, and for identical reasons, viz, because of the object studied—God and His mysteries—and because of the dispositions required in the subject himself.
Normally speaking, then, classroom lectures and private reading should end in prayer, be prolonged in contemplation and in enjoyment of the truth.
To sum up, one may say that the problem consists in putting scientific study at the service of a theology which is not complete and does not even exist in its full and traditional sense if it is not founded on consecration to God, does not begin and end in prayer. The preparation of the heart and the eructatio or overflow of contemplation can be abbreviated into one word, fervor. This super-natural fervor, which should characterize the whole life of the theologian, is what gives to theology, not its clarity—that depends on the intellect—but its soundness and vigor.
Bibliography: j. leclercq, Études sur le vocabulaire monastique du moyen âge (Studia anselmiana 48; Rome 1961) 70–79; Theology and Prayer (St. Meinrad, Ind. 1963); "Théologie traditionelle et théologie monastique," Irénikon 37 (1964) 50–74.