Prayer and St Cyprian

When people ask me to recommend a book on prayer they are often surprised when I give them St Cyprian’s Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer (an online version in English — not the best of translations, alas — will be found here). How can an old book, written in North Africa in the third century, have anything to say to people of today? My answer would be: very easily, because Cyprian, whose feast we celebrate today, was a man who understood the importance of prayer in the Christian life and clearly practised what he preached.

Cyprian himself is an interesting figure. Born into a prominent pagan family, he was an adult convert to Christianity and involved in many of the controversies of his day. He was unusual, however, in being primarily interested in the pastoral needs of his diocese (he became bishop of Carthage) and in having a firm conviction that prayer is ‘the only refuge of the Christian’ from corruption and vice. His teaching on the Lord’s Prayer is a gem. He examines each petition in turn and insists on the importance of recognizing that God is always ‘our Father’, never just ‘my Father’. He also has some very pertinent observations on the preconditions, as we might call them, for prayer itself (see, especially, chapter 31). It is no wonder that he was so influential on St Benedict whose short chapter on Reverence in Prayer, RB 20, says a great deal in a little.

Why do we need teaching on prayer? It ought to be as natural to us as breathing, but we can become anxious about it, and that tends to make us self-conscious and complicated. We reach for a book to tell us how to pray rather than falling to our knees and discovering how to pray for ourselves! Let’s just admit most of us are glad to receive pointers, little helps along the way such as Cyprian gives. His treatise on the Lord’s Prayer is a modest work, meant for modest people. It is a useful reminder that prayer is God’s gift, poured into our hearts at baptism and always there for the asking.