Origen on Prayer

Origen on Prayer

Until the third century, as far as we know, no full treatise on the subject of Christian prayer had been written. According to Eric Jay, "Christian literature of the first two centuries by no means ignores the subject of prayer. It would be difficult to cite any work by a Christian author in this period which has not some reference to prayer."1 It is hard to imagine otherwise, for the Apostles and their successors were men who would have subscribed wholeheartedly to Friedrich Heiler's assertion, "Prayer is the central phenomenon of religion, the very hearthstone of all piety."2 Within fifty years, three works on prayer were produced by men who were all born on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.3 Among these men was Origen of Alexandria (184/185-253/254) who presented a work on prayer (De Oratione) that reads more as a practical pastoral handbook than a major theological treatise. More clearly than any of Origen's other writings, On Prayer reveals the depth and warmth of his religious life and piety and seeks to offer advice which any beginner in the devotional life would find practical and helpful.

Life of Origen

Among the Early Church Fathers, Origen was as towering and prominent as Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (1225-1274). In the Western Church both Jerome (347-420) and Ambrose (c. 340-397) unhesitatingly copied Origen's work and thus bequeathed it to posterity. Bernard (1090-1153) and Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1327) read his works in the original, and Erasmus (1466-1536) admitted that one page of Origen meant more to him than ten pages of Augustine.4 One author affirmed, "His work is aglow with the fire of a Christian creativity that in the greatest of his successors burned merely with a borrowed flame."5

Eusebius (260-339), the main authority on Origen's life, described Origen as "not yet seventeen"6 when the persecution by Emperor Septimius Severus (145-211) broke out against the church, falling with particular severity in Egypt.7 Origen was born in Alexandria to Christian parents immediately after what Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) called "the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous."8 He was educated by his father, Leonides (d. 202), who instructed him within the framework of a standard Hellenistic education, but also had him study the Christian Scriptures. As the oldest of seven sons, Origen began to bear the heavy weight of supporting his family after his father was beheaded for his Christian faith.9 When he was eighteen, Origen was appointed to the task of giving catechetical direction for the Alexandrian church where Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) had once taught.10 Origen taught during the day, devoted the greater portion of the night to the study of the Bible, and lived a life of rigid asceticism.

This youthful teacher soon distinguished himself not only as an eloquent teacher and preacher, but also a more innovative scholar and systematic thinker than others of his generation.11 Origen traveled extensively throughout his life and gained notable influence throughout the ancient world. With the aid of stenographers supplied by friend, Ambrose, Origen produced a prodigious number of works, much of it aimed at refuting Gnosticism. His growing influence and notoriety led to imprisonment and torture during the persecution of Christians under Decius (A.D. 250). Later supporters considered him a martyr and saint, but many of his supporters actively resisted the imposition of the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325). As a result, a century after his death Origen was labeled a heretic and most of his works were destroyed.12 Only two works survived intact: a treatise defending prayer (De Oratione) and a refutation of a pagan critic of Christians (Against Celsus).

Treatise On Prayer

Origen's treatise, On Prayer was addressed to his friend Ambrose and an unknown lady, Tatiana.13 and was written in A.D. 233 or 234. Erasmus recognized "the spirit of Origen is everywhere aflame, burning here with such intensity as to make it impossible for the reader to remain untouched."14 The treatise consists of two parts: the first part (Chs. 3-17) deals with prayer in general,15 the second part (Chs. 18-30) with the Lord's Prayer in particular.16 An appendix (Chs. 31-33) giving instructions as to the attitude of the body and soul, gestures, the place and the direction of prayer, and the different kinds of prayer.17 In conclusion, Origen begged Ambrose and Tatiana to be content with the present writing until he could offer something better, more beautiful, and more precise.18 Apparently, Origen was never able to fulfill his promise.

On Prayer opens with a statement on how the impossibility of human nature is made possible by the grace of God, the work of Christ, and the Holy Spirit through our prayers.19 Origen is concerned to address the issue of how prayer for particular things can be reconciled with the sense that all reality is under God's providential and stable guidance.20 Origen defended the importance of prayer, distinguishing God's providence from his foresight, and allowing that the overarching providence of God can actually be influenced by human prayer.21 However, the affirmation that all things are made possible through Trinitarian activity in prayer does not negate the essential element of obedience within the one praying.

Origen spends a considerable amount of time in the treatise considering "how one ought to pray."22 For him it matters a great deal that a disciple should pray correctly. He asked:

It is necessary not only to pray, but also to pray "as we ought" and to pray for what we ought. Our attempt to understand what we should pray for is deficient unless we also bring to our quest the "as we ought." Likewise, what use to us is the "as we ought" if we do not know for what we should pray?23

Origen clarified the phrase, "as we ought," to be the words of prayer, while also referring to the disposition of the person praying, "For what better gift can a rational being send up to God than the fragrant word of prayer, when it is offered from a conscience untainted with the soul smell of sin?"24 Concerned with the preeminence of the spiritual over the physical, Origen's thought is manifested in his insistence that purification ought to be essentially a spiritual phenomenon: the putting off of anger and the forgiving of those that have offended against us.25 Origen wrote:

The person praying must stretch out "holy hands" by throughly purging the passion of "anger" from his soul and harboring no rage against anyone and by forgiving each the sins he has committed against him. Next, so that his mind may not be muddied by thoughts from outside, he must forget for the time being everything but the prayer he is praying. (How can such a man fail to be highly blessed?)26

To pray "as we ought," the believer must learn to "pray for the things that are chiefly and truly great and heavenly."27

The example of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6 is presented as the preeminent example of leaving "to God what concerns the shadows that accompany the chief goods."28 Origen gave a beautiful interpretation of the opening address of the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father, who art in heaven," which anchored his preceding theological argument. Until this main point is understood, Origen believed, and rightly employed in the prayers of a believer, he or she cannot proceed with the following petitions contained within the prayer. Origen pointed out that the Old Testament does not know the name "Father" as an alternative for God, in the Christian sense of a steady and changeless adoption.29 Only those who have received the spirit of adoption can recite the prayer rightly.30 Therefore, the entire life of a believer should consist in lifting up prayers that contain, "Our Father who art in heaven," because, argues Origen, the conduct of every believer should be heavenly, not worldly. Origen explained:

Let us not suppose that the Scriptures teach us to say "Our Father" at any appointed time of prayer. Rather, if we understand the earlier discussion of praying "constantly" (1 Thess 5:17), let our whole life be a constant prayer in which we say "Our Father in heaven" and let us keep our commonwealth (Phil 3:20) not in any way on earth, but in every way in heaven, the throne of God, because the kingdom of God is established in all those who bear the image of Man from heaven (1 Cor 15:49) and have thus become heavenly.31

In his concluding thoughts, Origen gave special instructions regarding the posture of prayer, the heart of prayer, and the time and direction of prayer. His main emphasis, in which all believers struggle, is in preparation for prayer. Origen concluded:

It seems to me that the person who is about to come to prayer should withdraw for a little and prepare himself, and so become more attentive and active for the whole of his prayer. He should cast away all temptation and troubling thoughts and remind himself so far as he is able of the Majesty whom he approaches, and that it is impious to approach Him carelessly, sluggishly, and disdainfully; and he should put away all extraneous things. This is how he should come to prayer, stretching out his soul, as it were, instead of his hands, straining his mind toward God instead of his eyes, raising his governing reason from the ground and standing it before the Lord of all instead of standing.32


Origen's intent was to direct his audience into the mysteries of a life of ardent and unceasing prayer.33 He led many during his time to the church and away from the heresies that had gripped many within the ranks of the educated class.34 When the reader goes beyond what may be foreign within Origen's words, his message that this life is a preparation for the glory that is to come in the providence of God, and prayer is the means by which we lay claim to this providence, the gift and joy of prayer may be realized.

1. Eric George Jay, Origen's Treatise on Prayer: Translations and Notes with an account of the practice and doctrine of prayer from New Testament times to Origen, (London: S.P.C.K., 1954), 3.

2. Friedrich Heiler, Prayer: A Study in the History and Psychology of Religion, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932), xi.

3. Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225) and Cyprian (c. 200-258) were born in the Roman province of Africa and Origen (184/185-253/254) in Alexandria. Tertullian's treatise on prayer was written at the very beginning of the century, Origen's work between A.D. 231 and 250, and Cyprian's about A.D. 250.

4. Rowan A. Greer, ed. Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works, (Mahway, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979), xi.

5. Greer, Origen, 3.

6. Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiastica, C.F. Cruse trans., (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson, 1998), 6.2.12. Our knowledge of Origen's life is largely derived from Book VI of Eusebius of Caesarea's Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius considered himself a follower of Origen and Collaborated with Pamphilus in an Apology for their master. The first book of this work survives in a translation by Rufinus of Aquileia, but is concerned with theological issues rather than with biography. As well, we possess a farewell speech addressed to Origen by one of his pupils, Gregory the Wonderworker. The evidence may be expanded by adding the testimony of Origen's later opponents as well as of his disciples. But again, it is theology rather than biography that dominates the literature related to the controversies over Origen. Only Eusebius's evidence gives us a coherent account of Origen's life. While it is sympathetic in its point of view, it is based upon Eusebius's acquaintance with "certain letters and information derived from pupils of his, whose lives have been preserved even to our day" (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, 6.2.1). Greer, Origen, 3.

7. John Anthony McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook of Origen, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2004), 2.

8. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999), 65.

9. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 6.2.12.

10. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 6.3.3.

11. Mahlon H. Smith, A Synoptic Gospels Primer: Origen (American Theological Library Association, 2008), [on-line], accessed 20 May 2013, available from www.virtualreligion.net/primer/origen.html; Internet.

12. Smith, A Synoptic Gospels Primer: Origen.

13. It has been suggested that Tatiana was the wife of Ambrose. However in the Epistle to Africanus, the wife of Ambrose is called Marcella. But Tatiana may be a second name. On the other hand she may have been the sister of Ambrose.

14. On Prayer (De Oratione) (Coptic Orthodox Church Network).

15. Greer, Origen, 81-117.

16. Greer, Origen, 117-163.

17. Greer, Origen, 164-170.

18. Origen, On Prayer, 170.

19. Greer, Origen, 81.

20. McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook of Origen, 175.

21. McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook of Origen, 175.

22. Origen, On Prayer, 82.

23. Origen, On Prayer, 82.

24. Origen, On Prayer, 83.

25. McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook of Origen, 176.

26. Origen, On Prayer, 98.

27. Origen, On Prayer, 117.

28. Origen, On Prayer, 117.

29. On Prayer (De Oratione) (Coptic Orthodox Church Network).

30. Origen stated, "It is right to examine what is found in the Old Testament quite carefully to see whether any prayer may be found in it calling God "Father." Up till now, though I have looked as carefully as I can, I have not found one. I do not mean that God was not called Father or that those who are supposed to have believed in God are not called sons of God; but nowhere have I found in a prayer the boldness proclaimed by the Savior in calling God Father. It is often possible to see God called Father and those who have drawn near to the Word of God sons." (Origen, "On Prayer," in Greer, Origen, 123-124.)

31. Origen, On Prayer, 125.

32. Origen, On Prayer, 164.

33. Following Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Origen insists upon praying "without ceasing," stressing that the life of the saint ought to be one continuous prayer. (McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook of Origen, 175.)

34. Alistair Stewart-Sykes, On the Lord's Prayer: Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2004), 107.