True Prayer


Andy Hawes


St Simeon the New Theologian (a Byzantine monk of the late tenth century) wrote ‘ the theologian is he whose is prayer is true.’ The relationship between our prayer and our believing is dynamic and a critical one: true prayer and true belief go together. St Simeon (with all the Fathers) taught that prayer begins with a humble acceptance of the Faith:‘ As for those who are curious and cheerfully meddle with divine things [they should understand that] it is not possible to say anything at all outside of what has been written and taught by the Fathers [about Scripture].’

‘Cheerful meddling’ seems to be the order of the day among those who would set themselves up as ‘Prayer Guides’ or ‘ Retreat leaders’. The wisdom of St Simeon and the whole patristic canon that only true faith can lead to true glory has been cast aside for the personal pick and mix approach to Christian doctrine.

Recently, leading a retreat in a small retreat house, I refused to use their preferred collection of services for morning and evening prayer produced by the Iona Community for the simple reason that that none contained the Lord’s Prayer and at no point in any of its ‘credal statements’ was God known as Father. True prayer must begin with true doctrine.  Or to be exact true prayer and true doctrine are two sides of the same coin.

I have also encountered men and women of no formal theological training and teaching who have a profound and mature grasp of orthodox doctrine because they are people of humble and honest prayer formed by openness to Scripture and participation in the sacramental life of the church.

There is very little that can be done in helping anyone to a fuller knowledge and experience of Christ if they deliberately and wilfully choose to reject Scripture. ‘I’d rather not use the Old Testament’ said one person. ‘I don’t like St Paul’ said another. ‘Do you really believe it is the ‘word of God?’ asked one person who came seeking spiritual direction. Some of these were in ordained ministry in the Church of England!

It takes a great deal of patience, teaching and prayer before any true ‘Ghostly Counsel’ can begin. Heaven knows where individuals end up with ‘non-directive prayer guides’ who share an ‘open approach’ to the Faith. If I were looking for a spiritual director I would ask two questions: ‘Do you believe in the authority of Scripture?’ and ‘Do you believe in the Devil?’ If the answers were affirmative I would trust them with my soul. If they were negative I would be shaking the dust off my feet!

The description ‘Spiritual Director’ is heavily criticised and widely rejected in the spirituality industry as too authoritative.  This is a sign that much that advertises itself as Christian Spirituality is not Christian at all. Let St Simeon have the last word: ‘The Master who says “search the scriptures” (John 5:39) says “search” and not “meddle”! Search the Scriptures and do not busy yourselves with disputes that lie outside the sacred writings.. so that you may not be tossed about by every wind that comes from the trickery of unstable men’!