Praying for dung

August 5th, 2015

At a different high school in the city where I grew up, one of the best senior class pranks I have ever heard of was executed. Some industrious students released three live pigs into the halls of the school, each with a number painted on its side. The numbers were 1, 2 and 4.

The class a year ahead of mine at my own high school — a class which always excelled in awesomeness and danger — pulled off something pretty good too. Maybe even better than the pigs. There is a pizza chain in Austin, Texas called Mangia Pizza, whose memorable mascot is the Mangia-Zilla.

The Mangia-Zilla lived on top of a Mangia Pizza restaurant. Then one morning in 1998 the sun, rising gently over the halls and classrooms of A.N. McCallum High School, revealed the Zilla standing on my school's roof in all its lush green glory. Mind you, the Zilla is not light. That was an accomplishment.

Those are happy high school prank stories.

There is also the gross story of the guys who unloaded a truck-bed full of dung from the farm into someone's front yard.

Presumably the residents had not asked for the pile of dung to be dropped in their yard. Yet a pile of dung always does grab the attention.

Isaac of Nineveh

Perhaps this is the reason St. Isaac of Nineveh (7th century) conscripted dung into his teaching on prayer. Isaac preached:

"When someone asks a human prince for a load of dung, not only will that person be despised as a result of his despicable request, but he has also offered an insult to the prince by means of his stupid request. Exactly the same applies when someone asks for the things of the body in prayer." (Homily 3, B 32).

Isaac's plain-spoken teaching in this regard is certainly jarring. Should one really not ask for things of the body in prayer, even if one is starving or homeless, etc.? Let us assume that St. Isaac is not saying something so absurd and unbiblical, but rather is using a striking example to grab our attention and get us to see something important. What if asking for material things is like asking for dung because of how much better the spiritual things are for which one could ask?

Thomas Gallus, a spiritual theologian in the early 13th century, onetime resident of the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, later an Abbot in Vercelli, Italy, is helpful in this regard. Thomas Gallus was obsessed by the mystical treatises of the early 6th century Syriac monk who wrote as Dionysius the Areopagite. Gallus commented on all of Dionysius' writings multiple times. Gallus also commented avidly on the Song of Songs.

Gallus seizes on a phrase of Dionysius — “all pure prayers” from Divine Names 3.1 — and turns it into a threefold typology of kinds of “chaste prayers.” For Gallus, there are “chaste prayers,” “more chaste prayers” and “most chaste prayers.”

Chaste prayers are prayers for bodily goods. Gallus writes that chaste prayer “asks only that temporal things be obtained and unsuitable things be removed.” More chaste prayer, for its part, “is for spiritual things, as in Ps. 50:11-12: take away my iniquity, create a pure heart in me, O God.” The prayer which is most chaste, however, “is that which no longer asks for the gifts of the bridegroom, but the bridegroom himself.”

Most chaste prayer is the prayer which asks for divine union, for the consummation of Jesus Christ’s spiritual betrothal to the soul. Those are the best prayers of all.

Thomas Gallus is right. Praying for the bodily things one needs is not dung. But when compared with the surpassing greatness of spiritual union with Jesus Christ, one can appreciate St. Isaac's poignant wisdom. In St. Paul's words, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Phil. 3:8, KJV).

Seems St. Isaac is right too.

Later in the same sermon, St. Isaac exhorts his hearers and readers to union with Jesus:

"Thirst for Jesus, so that he may inebriate you with His love" (Homily 3, B 34).

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of "Christ the Lightgiver" in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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