Pray with a Humble Heart – Cyprian

Here St. Cyprian prepares to analyze the Our Father by reflecting upon the basic attitude of humility and modesty necessary if prayer is to please God, reflecting upon the example of Hannah, mother of Samuel, and the story of the humble Publican and the Pharisee.

Let our speech and our petition be kept under discipline when we pray, and let us preserve quietness and modesty – for, remember, we are standing in God’s sight. We must please God’s eyes both with the movements of our body and with the way we use our voices. For just as a shameless man will be noisy with his cries, so it it fitting for the modest to pray in a moderate way.

Furthermore, the Lord has taught us to pray in secret, in hidden and remote places, in our own bed-chambers – and this is most suitable for faith, since it shows us that God is everywhere and hears and sees everything, and in the fullness of his majesty is present even in hidden and secret places, as it is written I am a God close at hand and not a God far off. If a man hides himself in secret places, will I not see him? Do I not fill the whole of heaven and earth?, and, again, The eyes of God are everywhere, they see good and evil alike.

When we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we should remember our modesty and discipline, not to broadcast our prayers at the tops of our voices, nor to throw before God, with undisciplined long-windedness, a petition that would be better made with more modesty: for after all God does not listen to the voice but to the heart, and he who sees our thoughts should not be pestered by our voices, as the Lord proves when he says: Why do you think evil in your hearts? – or again, All the churches shall know that it is I who test your motives and your thoughts.

In the first book of the Kings, Hannah, who is a type of the Church, observes that she prays to God not with loud petitions but silently and modestly within the very recesses of her heart. She spoke with hidden prayer but with manifest faith. She spoke not with her voice but with her heart, because she knew that that is how God hears, and she received what she sought because she asked for it with belief. The divine Scripture asserts this when it says: She spoke in her heart, and her lips moved, and her voice was not audible; and God listened to her. And we read in the Psalms: Speak in your hearts and in your beds, and be pierced. Again, the Holy Spirit teaches the same things through Jeremiah, saying: But it is in the heart that you should be worshiped, O Lord.

Beloved brethren, let the worshiper not forget how the publican prayed with the Pharisee in the temple – not with his eyes boldly raised up to heaven, nor with hands held up in pride; but beating his breast and confessing the sins within, he implored the help of the divine mercy. While the Pharisee was pleased with himself, it was the publican who deserved to be sanctified, since he placed his hope of salvation not in his confidence of innocence – since no-one is innocent – but he prayed, humbly confessing his sins, and he who pardons the humble heard his prayer.

This excerpt on the humility & modesty in prayer of Hannah and the Publican comes from a treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by Saint Cyprian of Carthage, bishop and martyr (Cap 4-6: CSEL 3, 268-270).  It is used in Roman Office of Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, with the accompanying biblical reading taken from Judges 2:6-3:4. 

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Cyprian was a pagan public speaker and teacher from Carthage in North Africa who converted to Christianity around the year 246 AD. He immediately set himself to the study of Scripture and the writings of the first great Latin theologian from North Africa, Tertullian. Saint Cyprian grew so rapidly in holiness and knowledge of the faith that he was appointed bishop of Carthage only two years later. Within only a few months of his election to the episcopacy, the persecution of Decius broke out and Cyprian was forced to flee his see. Upon returning, he set himself to dealing with the problem of the reconciliation, after suitable penance, of those who buckled under pressure and lapsed in their faith. After a few years of peace, the persecution of the emperor Valerian began. Cyprian gave himself up and was martyred in Carthage on September 14, 258. St. Cyprian’s writings that survive are mainly letters and short treatises. Most notable among them are De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitatis (251) on the Unity of the Catholic Church and the importance of the Episcopate as safeguard of this unity.