Eliot Ravenwood’s recent (excellent) post about Scripture and Greek religion referenced in passing the Bible’s intstruction regarding “petitionary prayer.”

I have been researching lately the spirituality of the “Desert Fathers,” and their descendents, Anthony the great, Chrysostom, Benedict, etc., and their emphasis not only on petitionary prayer, which is a form of discursive or verbal prayer, but on non-verbal and non-discursive prayer.

My question is: “What does the Bible teach, if anything, about non-discursive prayer?”

I have some leads from the Psalms, perhaps, and inferences from the life of Jesus, but are there any explicit teachings on prayer that are not teachings on some form of discursive prayer, petitionary or otherwise?

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler


  1. Elliot Ravenwood February 20, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    K.B., can you explain more about what you mean by non-discursive prayer? Also, can you point to selections from the Desert Fathers, or their descendants, where you are finding non-discursive prayer in use or described?



  2. If you do a quick search in the Bible on Meditation (using E-sword because I’m a poor college student) it seems like it’s mentioned in the Old Testament a bit more than in the New Testament. Here’s some stuff I pulled up on meditation which is what I think you meant. Correct? If not disregard most of this post.

    There seem to be a few words used in Hebrew (I’ll take them from Strongs of course)

    A primitive root (compare H1901); to murmur (in pleasure or anger); by implication to ponder: – imagine, meditate, mourn, mutter, roar, X sore, speak, study, talk, utter.

    This word seems to be used the most in the Old Testament.

    As in (ESV) Joshua 1:8 “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night”

    The other word’s are

    A primitive root; to muse pensively: – meditate.

    Used in Gen 24:63 And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, there were camels coming.

    A primitive root; to ponder, that is, (by implication) converse (with oneself, and hence aloud) or (transitively) utter: – commune, complain, declare, meditate, muse, pray, speak, talk (with).

    Used in Psa 119:15 I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.

    The Greek word used seems to be

    From a presumed derivative of G3199; to take care of, that is, (by implication) revolve in the mind: – imagine, (pre-) meditate.

    This word is used in three verses and seems to have a diverse meaning.

    Mar 13:11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand… ESV

    The “anxious beforehand” is translated “premeditate” in the KJV.

    Act 4:25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? ESV

    The plot is translated in the KJV as “imagine”

    Finally in

    1Ti 4:15 Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. ESV

    The word “practice” is substituted for meditate in the KJV. In this instance the RSV also seems to favor translating it “practice” instead of meditate. I’m not sure why Metzger and friends would have chosen this translation of the word but they did and Metzger was god.

    Also there is a great book on mediation and like practices called “The Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster. He would be a great intro into mysticism which seems to be what you are asking about. Also Thomas Merton is sort of the “pop-mystic” (if there is such a thing) for people who are really into meditation and the like. One of my dearest friends here at school loves Christian mysticism and he dragged me into it.

    Also, interestingly enough as far petitionary prayer goes, my Professor sent me a paper to read the other day that dealt with “vow” taking and petitionary prayer. It was an interesting exposition of James 5:13-18’s usage of εὐχη and the implications of it as opposed to προσευχομαι.

    Anyway hope that helps, if not complain mercilessly.
    Matthew Angle


  3. Sure. Non-discursive prayer I take to mean something like an intentional interaction with God that does not consist of verbal interaction. For instance, feeling intense feelings, say, of sorrow, or of joy, but feeling them with reference to God, so to speak… feeling them “unto the Lord.” This is surely not not-prayer, but neither is it prayer in the normal evangelical sense of putting something into words.(“Dear Lord I am feeling sad, very sad. Amen.”)

    To quote Laurence Freeman, OSB, Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, non-discursive prayer, “…means that it is more centered in and characterized by the silence of the heart and less in the images and concepts of mental prayer or in external ritual.”

    Or, in somewhat of a contrast, non-discursive prayer could be physical, as in assuming a certain posture (kneeling, lying down), or performing some ritual or act of service. In my church, the Vineyard, we would simply distinguish “doing things” from “praying,” but to me now the distinction does not seem so easy to make. If I am kneeling before God, saying nothing, am I praying?

    During the third or fourth century AD, Roman persecution of Christians was becoming so bad that many Christians fled to the deserts of Egypt to pursue an undistracted (and unafflicted) relationship with God. From a book by Henri Nouwen (Way of the Heart, HarperCollins 1981), we hear the story of Arsenius, a “well-educated Roman of senatorial rank who lived at the court of the Emperor Theodosius as tutor to the princes Arcadius and Honorius. ‘While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” And a voice came saying to him, “Arsenius, flee from the world and you will be saved.” Having sailed secretly to Rome to Alexandria and having withdrawn to the solitary life (in the desert) Arsenius prayed again: “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation,” and again he heard a voice saying, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.” Nouwen goes on to analyze each of these three components of the “spirituality of the desert,” namely, solitude, silence, and prayer. Prayer and silence are, for him, very connected, and, at times, conflated. To pray is to be silent. To pray discursively or verbally, at these times, is not to pray.

    Books like the Philokalia and the works of Basil the Great, Anthony the Great, John Chrysostem, Gregory the Theologian, and John Climacus in the early East, Way of the Pilgrim in 19th century Russia, John of the Cross in 16th Century Spain,  and Thomas A Kempis in 14th century Germany all  take up this theme take this up in considerable detail, and arguably, even such deeply intellectual and otherwise “discursive” writers as Augustine and Dante have a theology of non-verbal prayer…

    But I wonder if there is more to be learned about “pure prayer” as some of the desert fathers called it, from the Holy Scriptures themselves than I am aware of…


  4. Elliot Ravenwood February 21, 2007 at 9:14 am

    Thanks for that summary, KB.

    Two scriptures come immediately to mind, but I’m guessing you’re aware of them already, as they certainly have also played a seminal role in the development of the tradition of non-discursive prayer.

    The first is Paul’s injunction to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17;Eph 6:18). Unless one has a terminal case of logorrhea, obeying the command will have to involve non-discursive prayer. I would take this to be the central text in support of this tradition.

    The other scripture I thought of was Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” The good Doctor Sanders has pointed out that in context this verse is more a command to surrender than a suggestion to enter into solitude and silence. However, Sanders does acknowledge that the common understanding of the verse does have Biblical support.

    Does anyone know of other verses in scripture that directly (or indirectly) support non-discursive prayer?

    On a historical note: while there were a few early fathers who went into the desert while persecution continued, the desert spirituality movement largely developed after Constantine’s Edict of Milan. Much like Arsenius, many desert fathers sought to escape the moral corruption in the alleged Christian society around them. (Arsenius’ employer, Emperor Theodosius I, was, after all, the one to officially make Christianity the creed of the empire.)

    Last thought: I highly recommend Benedicta Ward’s “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” for reading more about the lives and thoughts of the Desert Fathers.


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