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 was a never-ending repetition of the prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, or simply the name Jesus. The intent of the Jesus prayer was to emphasize hesychia, or rest in God. This form of spirituality thus became known as hesychasm.[x]
St John Climacus refined the Jesus prayer further. He directed the banishment of multiple thoughts to make the practice into a “pure prayer”. To do this, he recommended the control of respiration: “let the remembrance of Jesus combine with your breathing; then you will understand the use of hesychia.”[xi] “At first the name of Jesus is the lamp that lightens our darkness; later it becomes a full moon in the sky of our heart; finally it is the rising sun. Then a dialogue with Christ begins, in which he, having become the master of our heart, makes his will known to it.”[xii] Hesychasm as a movement was to persist in Greek Orthodoxy at the monastary at Mount Athos, and received a theological formulation by St Gregory Palamas (1296?-1359). In response to those who opposed hesychasm, and who accused hesychasts of an overly mystical experience and claiming to see the essence of God, Palamas made a distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies. The divine essence is indeed invisible, but “the whole man” can participate in the divine energies. This doctrine of participating in the divine energies has gradually taken hold in the Byzantine Church.[xiii]
This kind of approach to prayer was developed independently in the West, though not with such permanent consequences for doctrine and theology. An unknown English mystic of the fourteenth century, who wrote Cloud of Unknowing, also strove to drive out all thoughts, in order to concentrate on God alone, and thus pierce the cloud of unknowing. To do so, the author of Cloud recommends repeating a simple word with profound meaning, such as God, sin, love.[xiv]
A transition in monasticism occurred, from the personal mysticism of the east to the organized devotion of the west, with an emphasis on common prayer. St Benedict (480-550) organized daily prayers, with seven services following the “liturgy of the hours”, each with an elaborate musical setting. Private prayer became a strictly personal affair, as Benedict says: “if perchance a brother desires to pray by himself let him go out and do it speedily”.[xv] As Old comments, “those not engaged in ‘religious vocations’ hardly had either the training or the leisure to maintain such a complicated discipline of daily prayer.”[xvi]
Writings from the barbarian kingdoms of this period seldom refer to solitary prayer, but there are exceptions. St Isidore, for example, references Origen on the subject.[xvii] The term “meditation” became customary during this period, usually referring to reflection on a specific passage of Scripture. But before studying Scripture, Bede recommended another type of meditatio, namely a “prayer of the heart”, or “pure prayer”, voicing “sorrow for sin and longing for heaven.” This prayer should not be long, but short and repetitive, with the result of peace of spirit, and joy in the familiar Holy Scripture.[xviii] The idea of pure prayer was further expounded by John of Fecamp (eleventh century). He emphasized the importance of having a Scripture text as the object of pure prayer and contemplation. Based on the models of Bede, John of Fecamp, and later Hildemar, the monastic life of contemplation became a life filled with short and frequent prayers, “so often and so spontaneously renewed that it becomes continual … sometimes plunging the soul into a silence which anticipates that of heaven.”[xix]
It is interesting to note that the church father Origen, who was referred to as an expert on prayer, did not make any warnings against “vain repetition” in prayer (Mt 6:7, KJV), but interpreted this passage as meaning “let us not speak vain things, but the things of God.”[xx] Thus, reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation were slowly systematized, and elements of repetition were incorporated into them.[xxi]
Prayer life outside as well as inside the monastery tended to be more and more communal. Thus, the liturgy became a guide to the daily prayers of ordinary people. In England, it became customary to recite psalms while washing, and at other times the words of the psalms from the Divine Office would spontaneously come to people’s lips.[xxii]
It also became normal to focus prayer and contemplation on subjects outside the textual bounds of Scripture. Jocelin of St Bertin “consecrated the hours of the day to the Passion”, and sang psalms to the Five Wounds,[xxiii] Anselm and others contemplated the pierced side of Jesus “whence flow the treasures of his Sacred Heart.”[xxiv] Common people directed their prayers to the saints, spurred on not by the work of theologians, but by popular preachers. Mary increasingly became an object of devotion in contemplation. The stage was set for the introduction of the rosary.
Assessment. In theory, mystical prayers could be practiced by ordinary Christians, and not just by monks. Any Christian could intone the Jesus prayer in his inward being, no matter what the situation. However, as monks become more and more cloistered, they became less available to mentor other Christians, and to guide them in their prayer lives. A monk could possibly attain to the peace of “pure prayer”, and perhaps even feel a participation in the divine energies, but this was simply beyond achievement for a lay person.
Bede and John of Fecamp properly emphasized the role of Scripture as the proper basis for meditation. However, since their technique emphasized the repetitious, mystical element, Christians who practiced prayer in this way found that it made no effective difference whether the object of contemplation was Scripture or some tradition that had grown beyond Scripture. So prayer and meditation began to stray beyond the bounds of Scripture. The Rosary
By the twelfth century, popular prayers to Mary were becoming widespread. The Ave Maria became the model prayer for exalting Mary and her motherhood. The “Psalter of Mary” was a series of hymns which expressed the themes of the Ave Maria. It became the origin of the rosary.[xxv]
Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, the rosary underwent a gradual development.[xxvi] It began as a vocal prayer, consisting of 150 Hail Marys (based on Lk 1:26-38): Hail Mary, full of grace! the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Alternating with each Hail Mary were 150 Our Father prayers (the universally known Lord’s prayer of Mt 6:9-13). The number 150 was meant to be symbolic of the psalter. By the fourteenth century, the structure had settled into 15 repetitions of 10 Hail Marys, with one Our Father between each “decade”. In the sixteenth century, the trinitarian prayer Glory be to the Father was also added after each decade: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. All these prayers were often recited with the aid of a string of alternately colored beads.[xxvii]
It was soon recognized that such mechanical repetition was a shallow form of devotion. A twelfth-century manuscript tells the story of a nun who prayed the Ave Maria 150 times before a picture of Mary, when Mary herself appeared and suggested only 50 repetitions, more slowly, and with more devotion.[xxviii]
After each decade, a phrase referring to Jesus or Mary came to be inserted, usually based on the psalms. These “mysteries” covered subjects such as the Annunciation of Mary, the glorification of Jesus and Mary in heaven, and Mary’s sorrows. The insertion of these mysteries made the rosary into more than a repetitive vocal prayer, giving opportunity for simultaneous mental prayer and meditation upon the mysteries.
By the time of the sixteenth century, the rosary and the recitation of the mysteries were standardized. This was due primarily to the work of the Dominicans, in works such as Our dear Lady’s Psalter (1483) and The Rosary of the Glorious Virgin Mary (1521). It is interesting that over the years the rosary has been flexible in its recitation. For example, since the apparition of Our Lady at Fatima in 1917, the “Fatima” prayer was added by many to the end of each decade: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those in greatest need. This prayer is believed to have been taught by Mary to the three children to whom she appeared.
Here is a modern variation of the rosary recited by Roman Catholics in the United States:[xxix] Introductory prayer: (begin by making the sign of the cross), Apostle’s Creed (said on a crucifix), Our Father, 3 Hail Marys (for increase of faith, hope, and charity), Glory be to the Father. 1st mystery: the annunciation (begin with pause for silent contemplation). Read aloud a pertinent passage of Scripture. Follow with Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, Glory be to the Father, Fatima prayer. 2nd mystery: the visitation. (Follow each mystery with silent contemplation, Scripture, then prayers). 3rd mystery: the nativity.
4th mystery: the presentation. 5th mystery: the finding in the temple. Conclude with Salve Regina (a set prayer to Mary the Holy Queen), and a prayer to the Father (a set prayer that includes the words “…we beseech thee, that meditating upon these mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may both imitate what they contain, and obtain what they promise…”). These five mysteries are the joyful cycle. The next cycle is the sorrowful mysteries: the agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross, and the crucifixion. The final cycle is the glorious mysteries: the resurection, the ascension, the descent of the holy spirit, the assumption, and the coronation.
The rosary was accepted within the church because of a widespread desire to give common people an alternative to the recitation of the psalter, and to provide a formal basis for contemplative prayer.[xxx] It was called “the poor man’s prayer book”,[xxxi] and was affirmed by a series of papal bulls dating from the 1494 up until the present century.[xxxii] Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) called the rosary “the compendium of the entire Gospel.”[xxxiii] The mysteries are focused on God’s plan and work of redemption, and on Mary’s intimate role in the major events of our salvation.[xxxiv] Thus, the rosary “structurally reflects the Christological-eccesiological role of Mary in the church.”[xxxv]
Assessment. The common Christian of the medieval period hungered for personal devotions. But common Christians could not find a model that they could understand and practice in the mystical prayers of their spiritual betters, the monks. So the rosary developed as a grass-roots movement of devotion among the common people. The church stepped in to formalize the rosary, and regulated its structure in a well-meaning attempt to improve on the shallowness of its repetition and ritual. Today, one will find those within the Roman Catholic church who can ably defend the rosary as devotion, but one will also find many Roman Catholics for whom the rosary is no more than vain repetition.
The development of the rosary reflects on two negative characteristics of the medieval church. First, it is questionable whether the rosary would have developed at all, had the leadership of the church been pastoring the spiritual prayer lives of its flock more effectively. Secondly, the rosary and the devotion to Mary were inextricably intertwined, and reinforced each other. This was to the detriment of the believer’s contemplation of Christ and Christ alone as the power of salvation. The Devotio Moderna
The Devotio Moderna, or Modern Devotion, was a reform movement in the Netherlands in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. For its originator, Gerard Groot (1340-1384), contemplation was not an intellectual or a mystical achievement, but could be achieved only with the practice of charity.[xxxvi] His efforts at reform attracted many into the Devotio Moderna movement. For the followers of Devotio Moderna, meditation was not confined to set times, but was to be practiced all day long, even during times of manual labor.[xxxvii] One follower developed the habit of praying when the clock struck. Another, who was a cook, prayed continuously, especially while doing his work in the kitchen. Kneeling during prayer helped to focus devotion.[xxxviii]
But instead of eradicating the unwanted practices which spawned the movement, “when all is said and done, [Groot’s] effort to reform the religious life of his time resulted simply in the creation of a new form of it.”[xxxix] To encourage continuous meditation, more aids to meditation were developed. So one of Groot’s disciples, Gerard Zerbolt (d. 1398), in his treatise Spiritual Ascent, called people to conversion, imitation of Christ, charity, and humility, and prescribed a method for meditation that was far more systematic than anything Groot put forward. Zerbolt specified the object, the time and the length of devotion.[xl] He suggests: “you ought to order your exercises in your heart … read therefore from time to time and afterward you will be stronger for prayer,”[xli] “make short prayers especially when temptation grips you, lest it overwhelm you, and also when you leave the house, that the Lord watch over your coming and going.”[xlii]
A number of books appeared during this time, in an attempt to systematize devotions, with subjects such as the contemplation of Christ’s passion, the joy and sorrows of Mary, the Song of Songs, the virtues, and the mass.[xliii] Henry Elgar (d. 1408) prescribed certain exercizes, each with a definite object: “lectio, meditatio, affectio, oratio, examinatio, compunctio cordis, contemplatio.”[xliv]
In the Scala Meditatoria (1486-1489), Wessel Gansfort gave a very formal method of meditative prayer, consisting of various steps.[xlv] Scalae, or ladders, were a known method developed long before Wessel for reviewing theological doctrines point by point. Wessel’s contribution was that he uncovered scalae within the Scriptures themselves, and documented them for the purpose of Scriptural devotions.[xlvi] In De oratione et modo orandi, Wessel talks about staying attentive in prayer, not through tall ladders or long prayers, but through short ones. He then expounds the seven short prayers contained within the Lord’s prayer, and connects each one to the form of address: Our Father.[xlvii] In Ladders of meditation, Wessel argued that in prayer we must always keep our aim in view.[xlviii]
Similarly, the Rosary, or Resetum exercitiorum spiritualium et sacrarum meditationum of John Mombaer (1494) specifies the chiropsalterium method for for meditation and prayer: while praying the psalms, the brother should stroke his thumb along the inside of his other fingers. Each finger symbolized one of 28 different reflections or prayer intentions, dealing with repentence, forgiveness of sins, invoking God’s help, praising God’s glory, etc. These had to be learned by heart so that while stroking each finger the associated words would arouse the desired pious thoughts and intentions in the mind of the brother. Even if the text did not exactly coincide with the one of 28 reflections prescribed, the person could keep himself devoutly occupied.[xlix] Mombaer also recommended a mnemonic technique, in common use throughout the medieval period, of compressing the subject matter of every verse into one or two points, so that it could be recalled correctly. Recitation of these “mnemotechnical verses” would require the person’s full attention, with the result that the person was fully preoccupied with the subject. This technique should be used throughout the day, no matter what the person’s activity.[l]
We see that the whole concept of “meditation” evolved quite a bit over the period of the Devotio Modernis school. At first it meant to reflect on Christ’s life or passion, and ended in the complex techniques for Scripture meditation set down by Wessel and Mombaer.[li]
Assessment. The Devotio Modernis school was not a widespread movement within the Roman Catholic church, and it was by no means a monolithic movement that was uniform in its goals, theology, and methods. But we do see within Devotio Modernis a fresh consideration of Scripture and the basis that it should be for personal prayer. The complex mental calisthenics of Wessel and Mombaer were little known, and never became widespread, because of the difficulty in performing them. However, they were part of the overall efforts of Devotio Modernis. It should not escape our notice that Devotio Modernis had a great influence on the thinking of Luther and Melancthon, who were in the generation that followed Wessel and Mombaer. The End of the Medieval Period – The Exercises of Ignatius
These Dutch efforts on methodical prayer influenced developments in Spain. There, a Benedictine abbot named Garcia Jimenez de Cisneros (1455-1510) composed his Exercises for the Spiritual Life, a compilation of already existing methods for devotion and prayer. Cisneros describes three sets of regular exercizes that monks are to perform: purgative, illuminative, and unitive. After passing through these, the disciple can arrive at the stage of contemplation.[lii] In the Spanish work, we notice a gradual shift from emphasizing the objects of devotion, be it Scripture, the mysteries of the rosary, or the significance of Mary, to studying the interior life of the believer.
The last and greatest medieval work in the area of methodical prayer was the Exercizes of St Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, and leader of the Counter-Reformation, was a transitional figure between the time of the medieval church and the Reformation.
For Ignatius, regular self-examination was the key to assessing the spiritual, mental and emotional well-being of the disciple, and indicated whether he was truly devoted to the service of God.[liii] This is indicated in the complete title of Ignatius’ book: Spiritual Exercies whereby to conquer oneself, and order one’s life, without being influenced in one’s decision by any inordinate affection.[liv]
Ignatius presents four weeks worth of exercises. The first week is a meditation upon sin and its consequences, to prepare us for repentence. The second week is a meditation on Christ and his Kingdom, and what state of life He would have us serve Him. The second week ends with “the Election”. The third week is a contemplation of the Passion, to help us to count the costs of following Christ. In the fourth week, we contemplate the risen Lord, and thereby gather hope and courage for ourselves. The Exercises are filled with references to the fundamental truths of the Gospel. They are intended for anyone who has a desire to free himself from the entanglements of sin and the world, and to give himself entirely to God.[lv]
In Chapter 37 of his Directory to the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius gives specific instructions on three methods of prayer. First, he gives a list of objects to consider in prayer, such as the commandments, the seven capital sins, the three powers of the soul, or the five bodily senses. Second, prayer ought to focus on complete phrases when individual words by themselves do not make sense, for example, ‘Who art in Heaven’, or ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’. Third, it is helpful to dwell “upon each single word of some form of prayer for the space of time usually occupied by a single respiration.” Ignatius also makes provision for flexibility: “when a person is tired or unwell he will not be fit for protracted meditation and mental effort, but will at such times find more help in the second or third method.”[lvi]
The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius have become a bedrock of Roman Catholic spirituality. In 1922, Pope Pius XI called them “the plan” which has “the greatest efficacy for dispelling the most stubborn difficulties which now confront human society.”[lvii] Ignatius insisted that we must have a definite goal in life, and that to achieve it we must constantly pray for divine help for us to be conformed to the will of God.[lviii] “After reaching a decision, and choosing what I have decided, I offer up my Election to God. I ask him to confirm it by His grace, and trust that he will provide me with the light and strength I need to live up to the choice I have made.”[lix]
Assessment. The Spiritual Exercises were meant to be a manual for the use of directors of retreats. These directors were the spiritual guides who led others to interior contemplation. Many modern Christian devotional books on contemplation, meditation, and prayer can are comparable to the Spiritual Exercises in their approach and content. Not only Roman Catholics, but Protestants also have benefited from the ideas and methods of Ignatius, although they may be ignorant of this fact.
In practice, however, the spiritual exercises have tended to become a psychological technique, leading one through the steps needed to achieve profound interior contemplation.[lx] So today one can find many theologians in the Zen, Buddhist or New Age movements, who appeal to the Spiritual Exercises as a way to inner peace.[lxi] Conclusion
The age of spiritual self-examination in the prayer methods of Cisneros and Ignatius was the same period during which Martin Luther was going through his own agonizing self-examination. The end result of Luther’s search was his discovery of justification by faith, and the launching of the Reformation. Within the new Protestant movement there was a marked break with the rigid methodologies of prayer that had intensified over the centuries. There was a recognition that prayer had to be restored to the regular members of the church,[lxii] people who were neither monks or mystics, people who were neither intellectual or mystical prayer athletes.
In contrast, those who stayed within the Roman Catholic church took the methodology of prayer to one final level, the self-examination of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Christians today can benefit from the diversity of methods for prayer which developed in the medieval period, from the Jesus prayer of the hesychasts, to the pure prayer of Bede and John of Fecamp, to the scala of Wessel Gansfort, to the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. However, the power of prayer and meditation can only be the Word of God. Therefore, Holy Scripture must be the basis for personal prayer. This is the primary lesson that we can learn from the development of methods of personal prayer in the medieval church.
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