By Patrick T. Twomey
Late second-century Christianity, a period during which martyrdom was a distinctive form of Christian testimony, offers a dramatic display of what prayer cannot do, and a sign also of what it can do. Reading, for instance, the story of “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity,” one is struck by the resolve and quiet confidence with which martyrs faced their death.
“The day of their victory shone forth. Happily they processed out of the prison into the amphitheatre as if into heaven, with a joyous countenance, trembling with joy, not fear. Perpetua, a matron of Christ, beloved of God, was following with a shining face and peaceful gait, with the strength of her eyes casting down the gaze of all. Moreover, Felicity rejoiced that she had safely given birth so that she might fight the beasts” (Chapter I, 1; translations my own).
This important treatise ends with superlative praise. “O most brave and blessed martyrs. O truly called and elected into the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ! Those who magnify and honor and adore you ought to read these examples no less than the ancient stories for the edification of the Church” (Chapter VI, 4). What precisely constitutes edification in these tales? No doubt the stories work to instruct and encourage Christians in a life of trial, testing, and danger. There is no thought of escaping the cross. Tribulation is presumed. Martyrdom is the defining mark of discipleship. Victory is in death.
The tradition of placing this work among those of Tertullian is broadly questioned, and there is currently great enthusiasm for claiming Perpetua as its author. Still, the historical placement of the narrative, occurring at the time Tertullian writes, provides a stunning backdrop to a particular reflection by Tertullian on the life of prayer. He is profoundly aware that prayer cannot be employed as a means of divine deliverance from sufferings intrinsic to Christian witness. Thus something available during the period of the Old Testament is set aside in the new dispensation. “The old prayer indeed was liberating from fire and beasts and hunger, and yet it did not receive this form from Christ” (Ex Tractatu Tertulliani de Oratione, cap. 28-29; CCL 1, 273-274). Suggesting that Christian prayer is weaker, he immediately clarifies by saying: “How much more effective is Christian prayer!” Still, he insists, “No longer does prayer place an angel of dew in the midst of fire, nor does it stop the mouth of lions, nor does it transfer to the hungry the food of the fields. Grace has arrived, and yet prayer averts no sense of suffering … [allowing the one who suffers to know only] what in the name of God he suffers.”
What then is the point of prayer? “Now,” he says, “the prayer of the just turns aside all the anger of God, keeps vigil for enemies, prays for persecutors.” Strikingly, prayer may now only invoke what is good. “Christ wants [prayer] to work no evil and assigns all power to it from the good.”
At this point, Tertullian describes prayer fit to the new dispensation:
prayer knows nothing except to recall the souls of the departed from the journey of death, to reform the weak, to remedy the sick, to cast out demons, to open the doors of prison, to break the chains of the innocent. The same prayer drowns sin, repels temptations, extinguishes persecutions, consoles the fainthearted, strengthens the strong, leads back wanderers, mitigates waves, confounds thieves, nourishes the poor, rules the rich, raises the lapsed, lifts the fallen, sustains the ones standing.
Thus prayer comes only from what is good, willing only what is proper. It does not curse the enemy, nor court grievances, nor seek revenge. The statements that prayer “extinguishes persecutions” and “breaks the chains of the innocent” refer, it seems, to what prayer may prompt in the heart of a supplicant for the benefit of others. It does not promise personal deliverance, for the martyr’s victory is in trial and death.
Finally, in one of the most exquisite passages of ancient Christian literature, Tertullian describes evidence of this prayer “from the good” in the natural order, in the world which itself groans for salvation. “All the angels in fact pray.” To this heavenly chorus he adds every creature: cattle, wild beasts, and the birds of the air; for “every creature prays. The cattle and wild beasts pray. They bend the knee and go forth from their stables and caves looking to heaven with a peaceful countenance, breathing as if praying in their own way. Even the rising birds are directed to heaven and expand a cross of wings instead of hands, saying something that seems to be a prayer.”
What are we doing when we pray for others or for ourselves? The Catechism of the 1979 BCP says only that we “bring before God the need of others or our own need” (p. 857). It remains circumspect about the capacity of prayer to deliver from trial. While the New Testament offers many examples of healing and deliverance, their interpretation must be set alongside the obvious truth that trials, tribulations, and suffering of every kind are woven into the fabric of mortal existence. Deliverance from suffering and evil must be something akin to deliverance in the midst of evil, a procession into the amphitheatre as if into heaven.
There is hope in such an austere view of prayer. We are not summoned to escape the trial of life only to be cast down first by the sorrow that comes and then by a feeling that faith has failed. Rather, prayer, though not a deliverance from fire and beasts, serves as a conduit of good, proceeding from eternal goodness and pouring out a river of graces to the world. Hands stretched out like wings make the sign of the cross, directing the prayer of the spirit to heaven. In this way prayer is a present help: mysterious communion with God in a beautiful, brutal world.
The Rev. Patrick T. Twomey is rector of All Saints Church, Appleton, Wisconsin.