6.13.2006

Calvin on Prayer

Following are excerpts from my spirituality paper, the beginning and end specifically.

In the contemporary spirituality setting, largely we have two things, books written by contemporary authors, and re-workings of ancient texts that seem to meet our present needs. What I will examine in this paper, the spiritual teachings of Calvin on prayer, do not seem to meet our present need. For some, myself included, the spirituality of John Calvin represents a hard word from a man known not for his soft ways but for his controversies and his scathing critiques. This seems especially true when one turns to his theologically robust, Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is not a work written for our own time. But then, maybe our own time needs the voice of the other, to remind us of where we have been.

By accessing Calvin in his own words we gain nuance. Interestingly enough, the longest chapter in his Institutes is on prayer. In it, he details in earnest the many things necessary for rightful praying, answering many questions along the way. I do not believe that one can lay the type of foundations for the church that Calvin has laid, without a robust spirituality. The judge of time, renders many works smaller than they first appeared. This is not the case with Calvin’s Institutes.

In summation, Calvin’s rules are these: 1. Pray in a proper frame of mind, divested of all earthly, distracting thoughts. 2. Pray with a sense of urgency, recognizing that all we need comes from God. 3. Pray with humility, acknowledging one’s proper place under God. 4. Having done these three things, pray expectantly; with an appreciation for the holiness of God that strikes terror, and the goodness of God that gives hope, these two being intimately bound up together.

A healthy spirituality is theologically informed. On the one hand we cannot let the musings of humans rule over our real experiences. But on the other hand, our real experiences should largely conform to the orthodox teachings of the church. If they do not, it may be acceptable, but probably is not. Regardless, it is not lightly that we stray from what the community has decided is normative. A figure such as Calvin is helpful in this respect. By returning to him in his own words, we gain access to a tradition that though sometimes hard, is enlightening to what may be some of the defiance’s of our own contemporary tradition. We have to ask ourselves, do we pray with a proper frame of mind? Do we pray with urgency, recognizing our desperate need for the life giver, and what is more, the life sustainer? Do we pray humbly, recognizing that though we in the West “have it all” we often lack what is most important. And finally, do we pray with fear, yet grateful expectation? Often we do not. If we are to mature in our spirituality, we need more than the latest best seller on the topic. We need a hard voice to call us to repentance, fear and awe, a place where our spiritual life can flourish.

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