Friday, February 03, 2012

Four Impediments to Prayer (Abba Ammonas)

TITLE: Four Impediments to Prayer
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 3 Feb 2012

Many scholars continue to uncover the richness of the spirituality of the desert fathers. As the modern world runs out of original ideas, one finds that the inspirational and the motivational stuff marketed by gurus all over, often look good on the outside, but bland on the inside. On the contrary, the desert monks' teachings seem so bland on the outside, but full of rich wisdom on the inside. Indeed, the most profound things in the world tend to be simple things.

Bernadette McNary-Zak, an Associate Professor of religious studies at Rhodes College, has formed another bridge to help modern readers appreciate the ancient desert fathers and their wisdom. Through the study of the works of Abba Ammonas, a prominent leader of the monastic movement in the 4th Century, MacNary-Zak gives us a glimpse of how Ammonas practices and teaches spiritual formation. Powerful in spiritual discernment, harsh on sin, sensitive to the movement of God, Ammonas's works are nutritious fodder for those of us students of Christian spirituality. I am particularly intrigued by Ammonas's 4 teachings about the impediments to prayer. After all, in nearly every Church, prayer seems to be a primary spiritual discipline. Embarrassingly, prayer is less of a lifestyle and more of a scheduled prayer meeting, or saying grace over each meal. All of these prayers are nothing if we do not deal with the barriers that inhibit our praying.

With regards to prayer, Ammonas has strong words.

"There are four things, and, if anyone has even one of them, that person cannot be converted, nor does God accept his prayers." - Abba Ammonas in (Bernadette McNary-Zak, Useful Servanthood, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010, 140)
A key point to note with regards to Abba Ammonas is that the spiritual journey is a movement, from imperfection to perfection through union with God.

Impediment #1 - Arrogance
Ammonas says that our default position should not be one of being pleased with ourselves. Instead, we ought to assume that 'his work is not pleasing to God' as a default position. The human nature is no better than the beast because sin has corrupted the original perfect man. This is why the inclination of man is always away from God, and toward self-righteousness. Letting our arrogance run loose with ourselves being pleased with our own deeds is simply anathema with regards to prayer.

"Adornment of the body is the ruin of the soul, but provision for [the body], according to the fear of God, is good." (144)

Impediment #2 - Grudges Against Another Person
Ammonas warns that any attempt to pretend or to hide one's sin against another person, will affect our praying. God will not listen to us. He points out that such people 'deceive' themselves to the point that they think they have a 'portion of mercy or forgiveness from God.' Those of us who tries to rationalize our behaviour by blaming others are only deceiving ourselves.

"If you live with brothers, do not order them about in every matter, but labour with them, so that you may not lose your fruit." (147)

Impediment #3 - Judging Others

Ammonas also warns that those of us who judge others will ourselves be judged. He says that even God the Father lets Christ judge all things. Why should any man then have the nerve to assume a judgmental disposition? One of the reasons why we are unfair judges is because when we judge, very often we highlight the sins of other people, and diminish whatever virtues they may have.

"Have no enmity against another, since your prayer will not be acceptable. Live in peace with everyone so that your prayer may be confident." (146)

Impediment #4 - No Love

Without true love, our prayers will not be heard. Those who are truly loving, will not only have mercy on all, but will also pray for all. Doing good works alone is not enough. One needs to let love motivate the doing of the good works.

"Love is the fulfillment of the virtues; to pronounce oneself righteous is the fulfillment of the passions." (146)


If we want to pray in a manner that God will hear, we need to watch our arrogance. Let there be no semblance of self-righteousness, but a recognition that our default position is of unworthiness. Second, we need to deal with our relationships. Any grudges, any bad blood, we need to take active steps to reconcile. Then, we need to refrain from putting ourselves in the judgment seat, lest we be judged. Finally, let love be the motivation for our desire to pray. Which comes back to the fulfilment of the greatest commandments: Love God, Love neighbour as much as ourselves.

Let me close with an encouragement from Abba Ammonas.

"Take care, beloved, to observe these commands which have been written down, so that you may be able to be saved with the holy ones who are faithful to the commands of our Lord Jesus Christ." (151)

Let us be mindful of these 4 impediments to prayer. Remove them. Then our prayers will be heard.


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