In the opening chapter of his 1955 book Das Betrachtende Gebet – the title of which one could translate into English as “Contemplative Prayer” or “The Prayer that Observes” – the late Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes:

The better a man learns to pray, the more deeply he finds that all his stammering is only an answer to God’s speaking to him; this in turn implies that any understanding between God and man must be on the basis of God’s language. It was God who spoke first, and it is only because God has expressed, “exteriorized,” Himself in this way that man can “interiorize” himself toward God. Just think of the Our Father which we address to him every day: is not this his own word? Were we not taught it by the Son of God, who is God and the Word of God? Could any man ever have produced such language on his own initiative?[1]

When read in light of the common lessons of the Fathers of the Church, the truth of Balthasar’s proposition becomes apparent. Balthasar was a loyal devotee of the Fathers, as most Catholic theologians, priests, and religious have been for centuries. Even later Fathers themselves strove for fidelity to the teachings of the Fathers who preceded them. St. Maximos the Confessor, like most of his peers among the late Greek Fathers, could not have imagined theologizing without the writings of St. Gregory Nazianzen. St. John of Damascus, whom Catholics often regard to be the last Church Father, understood himself as systematizing the Fathers’ teachings rather than creating his own, even as he creatively combatted both Christianity’s First Great Iconoclasm and the teachings of Islam – two new challenges to the orthodox Christian faith with which previous Fathers had not been faced.

Yet when I assert that later Fathers were loyal to the teachings of the Fathers who preceded them, I do not simply mean their doctrinal teachings. Rather, I mean the whole composition of their teachings: liturgical, doctrinal, and moral. For the Fathers, orthodoxy was one coherent whole. Liturgical orthodoxy, doctrinal orthodoxy, and orthopraxis (orthodox living) were part of their one concept of orthodoxy. Thus, for example, someone could not be doctrinally sound without being liturgically sound or vice versa. More than simply co-existing, the three forms of the one Christian orthodoxy inform and support each other.

A tidy Latin phrase that is often used in theology to summarize this genius of the Fathers is lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, which literally means “the law of praying, the law of believing, the law of living.” How one prays informs how one believes and how one lives, how one believes informs how one prays and how one lives, and, of course, how one lives informs how one prays and how one believes. The true Christian is orthodox in the fullest sense – liturgically, doctrinally, and morally.

Based on lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, it is clear that what and how one prays largely determine one’s status as a true Christian. On the one hand, it would be easy to read that sentence as banal. If any statement is as frequently repeated within Christian circles as 1 John 4:8’s “God is love” (whose repeatability has the unfortunate consequence of diminishing its shock value), then it must be this: Prayer is important. On the other hand, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi explodes the modern sensibility that liturgy, doctrine, and life are separate spheres and can be kept as such. Within that terse, formulized version of the genius of the Fathers, right prayer is both begotten by and a co-begetter of right belief and right living.

However, it would be wrong for the Christian to presume that the proper lex orandi can come from within himself. In fact, to think that would be to deny the need for God’s grace in order to be saved. At Confessions, Book X, Chapter 27, St. Augustine famously writes (in prayer to the Lord): “You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent[;] you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”[2] No doubt, Augustine’s acknowledgement of how utterly dependent he was upon God to instigate their conversation-prayer lies behind Balthasar’s message with which I opened this essay.

According to an old anecdote, when Balthasar was a young seminary student, he survived boring lectures by stuffing his ears with wax and reading St. Augustine’s writings.[3] Although I do not recommend imitating Balthasar’s behavior exactly, there is nevertheless something beautiful behind that humorous account. Balthasar knew that his soul was better served by the rich writings of the Doctor of Grace than by monotonous lectures. He knew that if he was going to become a priest of Mother Church, he first had to learn the vibrant prayer of Her Fathers.

It is often said that the Fathers of the Church were unanimous (i.e. of one shared spirit, in this case with the Holy Spirit) in doing theology on their knees. Although this is not wrong, it is also not the most fitting explanation for their literary craft. Instead, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi takes that crown. In the most beloved writings of the holy Fathers of the Church, prayer, belief, and practice dance to the amorous rhythm of orthodoxy. The dance remains open to any Christian who should honestly strive to lose his second left foot.

But how do we enter the dance? One excellent way for the layperson to pray with the Fathers is to read the daily Office of Readings (part of the Liturgy of the Hours), wherein lessons from the Fathers often expound the biblical passages. Another is to read St. Augustine’s Confessions; I recommend the Chadwick translation (see footnote #2). In either path, read slowly and with both of your spiritual ears open to the Lord. Since the goal is to pray with the Father of the Church himself and not simply with his words, ask for his intercession and guidance. After all, someone like St. Augustine has been guiding his Catholic disciples for 1,600 years. Finally, we always begin and end our readings in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. In this prayer alone lies the totality of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The Sign of the Cross is the nod of assent from the Church, the Bride of Christ, in “an answer to God’s speaking” to Her. It is our “yes” to His offer to teach us the dance of Christian orthodoxy.

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 14.

[2] Augustine, “Book X,” in Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World Classics (Oxford University Press, 1998), 201.

[3] Rodney Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 4.