Pastor’s Blog-March 2020

Mar 6, 2020 by

Somewhere around the end of the fifth century or the beginning of the sixth, someone known as Dionysius wrote about an even more ancient tradition of prayer from the second and third centuries. In the next few months, we will be discussing a distinction this tradition made between two ways of knowing and experiencing God in prayer. These two ways of prayer were known as kataphatic prayer, or “calling God by name,” and apophatic prayer, or “the way of unknowing.” Both of these ways of prayer are essential to Christian prayer. This month, we will begin to look more closely at the importance of “calling God by name.”

In clarifying the way of knowing and experiencing God known as kataphatic prayer, Dionysius drew largely from Gregory of Nyssa of the fourth century. It was Gregory who referred to this way of prayer as “calling God by name.” To Gregory, this term meant two things: first, reflecting on a biblical name or image of God (such as the God of compassion or of humility, etc.) until we understand deeply what it means about God to us, and second, reflecting on the way we, as those made in God’s image, live into this name or image by taking on the characteristics of God.1 This practice goes far beyond merely making a list of God’s names and images; it is a lifetime’s work that involves the uncovering of our own blinding passions, of the distortions we have of God, the world, ourselves, and others.

Most all of us call God by name when we pray. When we use a name for God, such as Lord or Almighty, that name conveys an image for us of who God is. These images resonate with us more at sometimes than at others in our life’s journey. They relay to us what we really
believe about God. Sometimes we may be surprised to learn just what it is we do believe about who God is. For example, our parents or guardians had a big influence on us when we were small. It is only natural that our image of our parents (strict; lenient; loving; distant, etc.) and our image for God got mixed together in our young minds, and we ended up ascribing to God some of our parents’ characteristics. This early image of God may still be functioning in a deep way in us, in contrast to our mental beliefs about God chosen when we became adults. We may believe strongly in our minds that God is a loving God, but if we had a judgmental parent, we may still carry with us in our hearts the feeling that we are always under judgment and can never live up to others’ expectations, including God’s. These two beliefs end up conflicting with each other, which causes us to suffer.

In this way, much of what we believe often stands in the way of our prayer and our life. How can we want to spend time in prayer with a God who only loves us is we are perfect or only when we are successful, etc.? A first step in getting ourselves out of this dilemma is learning to call God by new names.2 We will examine more about how to do this next month.

Wishing you a blessed Lenten Season, Betsy Caudill

1. Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), p. 85. 2. Bondi, pp. 94-95.

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