How to pray for everything your soul needs

September 1st, 2015

Over the last six months, I have had the chance to do some research on both Thomas Gallus (early 13th century) and Peter John Olivi (later 13th century). (Full disclosure: My teacher Boyd Taylor Coolman is currently finishing a book on Thomas Gallus.) Peter John Olivi gets one of his teachings on prayer from Thomas Gallus, so Gallus' teaching obviously stuck with him. This particular teaching on prayer has stuck with me too. (I also refer to it here.) When I started to wonder why this particular teaching on prayer stuck with me, it slowly became clear. It is extremely helpful as a tool for considering one's actual prayers, and the needs of one's soul. It helps me pray better.

I think it can help you too.

First, I'll run through the teaching, then I'll show you what I mean about how helpful it is.

Thomas Gallus himself loved the writings of the sixth century Syriac monastic mystic who wrote as Dionysius the Areopagite. In one of Dionysius' treatises called Divine Names (section 3.1) he refers to "all pure prayers". Thomas Gallus wrote spiritual commentaries on Dionysius' writings, and it is from this simple phrase that he unfolds his teaching on chaste prayers.

Tomb of Thomas Gallus in the Basilica of Sant'Andrea at Vercelli, Italy.

Gallus says that there are three kinds of chaste prayers. First, there are chaste prayers; second, more chaste prayers; third, most chaste prayers.

Each of these kinds of chaste prayers is appropriate to us since, as members of Christ's church, we are spiritually engaged to him: we are Jesus Christ's beloved bride, awaiting the day of our marriage and its consummation. Praying chastely is how we wait for our wedding day, so to speak. Thomas Gallus makes these connections biblically by reading the Song of Songs allegorically in light of New Testament passages like Ephesians 5:21-33, which depicts the marriage of Christ and the Church, and Revelation 21:2: "And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband". Since the Bible depicts the whole people of God as spiritually betrothed to Jesus Christ, and so awaiting for our full uniting to God, Thomas Gallus thinks that describing different kinds of prayers as different degrees of chaste prayers makes sense of where we are spiritually.

Here's how he does it.

Plain old chaste prayers, for Gallus, refer to prayers where we ask for bodily or temporal or material things. We might ask for an illness to be removed from a family member, we might pray to be able to get a certain job, etc.

More chaste prayers, in turn, refer to prayers we pray for spiritual things. This could be a prayer for more faith, a prayer for spiritual refreshment, a prayer for wisdom for oneself or someone else (James 1:5). If we pray for the ability to love a particular enemy, or for an increase in our soul of spiritual love for God and neighbor, it would qualify to Gallus as a more chaste prayer. Or if we pray that our friend would be guided by the Spirit to resist a certain temptation, it is a more chaste prayer.

Most chaste prayers, however, are not for anything bodily or even anything spiritual. Most chaste prayers are prayers for God himself, for God alone. Most chaste prayer is the prayer which asks for divine union, for the consummation of Jesus Christ’s spiritual betrothal to the soul. These, Gallus thinks, are the best and highest prayers of all.

Notice how the hierarchy Thomas Gallus (among many others) sees between material things, spiritual things, and God himself is reflected in the threefold order of prayers. Material things are lower than spiritual things, and God is even beyond spiritual things. Also, notice how this makes most chaste prayers a kind of limit prayer: Chaste prayers and more chaste prayers both ask God for some good that God creates, whether it is a material good or a spiritual good. But most chaste prayers ask for nothing created at all: They only ask for God, who is beyond all things, even all spiritual things, as their creator. It is only because God is beyond all things that God can be lovingly present to each thing in his entirety, without neglecting something else or encroaching on the material and spiritual things God is near. In theological language, it is only because God is absolutely transcendent that he is able to be absolutely imminent, more lovingly near to each thing than it is to itself, nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

OK, so that's Thomas Gallus' teaching: chaste prayers, more chaste prayers, and most chaste prayers. Here's how I've discovered it is so helpful.

When I first heard this teaching of Gallus, I sort of thought: How cute and quaint. A medieval mystical theologian has thought of a nice neat orderly device for thinking about our prayers. Medieval Christians saw divinely given order everywhere else, so why not there too? But since the teaching stuck with me, it eventually happened that one day I analyzed my prayer life in light of it. The result was convicting!

I noticed that the vast majority of prayers I pray are prayers for material things, prayers for myself or my family regarding bodily conditions or health or success of one kind or another. In comparison, very few of my prayers in an average day are for spiritual things. Even worse, I noticed that I had gone several days without intentionally praying a single prayer Gallus would regard as most chaste!

I've noticed that keeping Thomas Gallus' teaching about chaste, more chaste, and most chaste prayers handy in my mind helps me to pray for all three. I shouldn't just pray for bodily things for myself and others, but for the spiritual gifts, the wisdom, the moral guidance and renewal my family and friends (and the whole church and world!) and I need. But, when it comes down to it, my soul, and your soul and everyone's soul doesn't just need God's material gifts or spiritual gifts or guidance and help. We need God.

As a deer longs 
for flowing streams, 
so longs my soul 
for thee, O God. 
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God. 
When shall I come and behold 
the face of God? 
  - Psalm 42:1-2

We need God more than anything. We need God more than all things put together. We need divine union, in the language of Dionysius or Thomas Gallus.

Keeping Thomas Gallus' teaching on chaste prayers close helps me remember to pray for everything my soul needs. I hope it helps your soul too.

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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