Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
Origen's Teachings on Prayer and Church
"The Privileged Path to Knowing God Is Love"
H.H. Benedict XVI
April 25, 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last Wednesday's catechesis was dedicated to the important figure of
Origen, the Alexandrian doctor of the second and third century. In that
catechesis we looked at the life and literary works of the Alexandrian
master, focusing on his "three-pronged reading" of the Bible, which is
the animating center of all of his work.
I left out two aspects of Origen's doctrine, which I consider among the
most important and timely, so that I could speak about them today. I am
referring to his teachings on prayer and the Church.
In truth, Origen -- author of an important and ever relevant treatment
"On Prayer" -- constantly mixes his exegetic and theological works with
experiences and suggestions relating to prayer. Despite the theological
wealth found in his thought, his is never a purely academic treatment;
it is always founded on the experience of prayer, on contact with God.
In his view, understanding Scripture requires more than mere study. It
requires an intimacy with Christ and prayer. He is convinced that the
privileged path to knowing God is love and that one cannot give an
authentic "scientia Christi" without falling in love with him.
In his "Letter to Gregory" he writes: "Dedicate yourself to the 'lectio'
of the divine Scriptures; apply yourself to this with perseverance.
Practice 'lectio' with the intention of believing and being pleasing to
"If during the 'lectio' you find yourself in front of a closed door,
knock and the guardian will open it for you, the guardian of whom Jesus
said: 'The advocate will teach you everything.' Apply yourself in this
way to 'lectio divina' -- search, with unshakable faith in God, the
sense of the divine Scriptures, which is amply revealed.
"You must not be satisfied with only knocking and searching: To
understand the things of God, 'oratio' is absolutely necessary. To
encourage us to do this, the Savior did not only say: 'Seek and you
shall find,' and 'Knock and it shall be opened unto you,' but he also
added: 'Ask and you shall receive'" (Ep. Gr. 4).
One can see clearly the "primordial role" that Origen played in the
history of "lectio divina." Bishop Ambrose of Milan -- who would learn
to read the Scritpures from Origen's works -- introduced it in the West,
to hand it on to Augustine and the successive monastic tradition.
As we mentioned earlier, the highest level of knowing God, according to
Origen, comes from loving him. It is the same with human relationships:
One only really knows the other if there is love, if they open their
hearts. To show this he illustrates the significance given at that time
to the verb in Hebrew "to know," used to show the act of human love:
"Adam knew Eve, his wife and she conceived" (Genesis 4:1).
This suggests that union in love procures the most authentic knowledge.
As man and woman are "two that become one flesh," in the same way, God
and the believer become "two that become one in the spirit."
In this way, the prayer of the Alexandrian reaches the highest mystical
levels, as is shown by his "Homilies on the Song of Songs."
In one passage of the first homily, Origen confesses: "Often -- God is a
witness to this -- I felt that the Bridegroom drew very near to me;
afterward he would leave suddenly, and I could not find that which I
searched for. Again I have the desire for his presence, and he returns,
and when he appears, when I hold him in my hands, he leaves again and
once he is gone I begin again to search for him" (Hom. Cant. 1:7).
I recall what my venerable predecessor wrote, as a true witness, in
"Novo Millennio Ineunte," where he showed the faithful "how prayer can
progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the
person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit's
touch, resting filially within the Father's heart … becoming," John Paul
II continued, "a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless
demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful
purifications. But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable
joy experienced by the mystics as 'nuptial union'" (No. 33).
We come to Origen's teaching on the Church, and precisely -- within it
-- on the priesthood of the laity. As the Alexandrian affirms in his
ninth Homily on Leviticus, "this discourse is important for all of us" (Hom.
In the same homily Origen -- referring to Aaron's prohibition, after the
death of his two children, to enter the Holy of Holies "at any time"
(Leviticus 16:2) -- he admonishes the faithful: "From this we can see
that if one enters the sanctuary, without the proper preparation, not
dressed in priestly dress, without having prepared the prescribed
offerings and having offered them to God, he will die. …This discourse
is meant for everyone. It guarantees that we know how to approach God's
"Or do you not know that the priesthood was given to God's Church and to
all believers? Listen to how Peter speaks to the faithful: 'Elect race,'
he says, 'royal priesthood, holy nation, a people bought by God.' You
have priesthood because you are a 'priestly people,' and therefore you
must offer sacrifice to God. … But so that you may offer it worthily,
you need pure vestments, distinct from the common vestments of other
men, and you need the divine fire" (ibid.).
On one hand the "girded loins" and the "priestly vestments," which
represent purity and honest living, and on the other the "perpetually
lit lamp," which represents the faith and science of the Scriptures --
these become the necessary conditions for the exercise of the priestly
ministry. These conditions -- right conduct, but above all, the
welcoming and study of the Word -- establish a genuine "hierarchy of
holiness" in the common priesthood of all Christians.
Origen places martyrdom at the top of this path of perfection. In the
ninth Homily on Leviticus he alludes to the "fire for the sacrifice,"
that is, the faith and knowledge of Scripture, which must never be
extinguished on the altar of he who exercises the priesthood.
He then adds: "Each one of us has within us" not only fire, but "also
the sacrifice, and from his sacrifice he lights the altar, so that it
will burn forever. If I renounce everything I possess and take up the
cross and follow Christ, I offer my sacrifice on God's altar; and if I
give my body over to be burned, having charity, and meriting the glory
of martyrdom, I offer my sacrifice on God's altar" (Hom. Lev. 9:9).
This path of perfection "is for everyone," so that "the eyes of our
heart" will contemplate wisdom and truth, which is Jesus Christ.
Preaching on the discourse of Jesus of Nazareth -- when "the eyes of all
in the synagogue were upon him" (Luke 4:16-30) -- Origen seems to be
speaking to us: "Even today, if you want, in this gathering, your eyes
can gaze upon the Savior.
"When you turn your heart's gaze to contemplate wisdom and truth and the
only Son of God, your eyes will see God. O happy gathering, that of whom
Scripture speaks as having their eyes fixed on him! How I would like
that this gathering receive a similar witness, that the eyes of all, of
the unbaptized and of the faithful, of women and men and young children,
not the eyes of the body, but those of the soul, look at Jesus! …
Impressed upon us is the light of your face, O Lord, to whom belongs
glory and power forever and ever. Amen!" (Hom. Lc. 32:6).
[Translation by ZENIT]
[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father greeted the people in
various languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last week we looked at the life and writings of Origen of Alexandria.
Today, I would like to consider two significant themes in his work.
Origen's teaching on scripture greatly influenced the Church's rich
tradition of lectio divina. Through the prayerful and faith-filled
reading of the scriptures, we are drawn in love to mystical union with
God. Just as a man and a woman become "one flesh" in marriage, so -- in
prayer -- the Church and each of her members become one in the Spirit
with the divine Bridegroom. Regarding the Church, Origen teaches us the
importance of the priesthood of all the faithful. As a member of this
common priesthood, every believer is called to put on "priestly attire"
by living a pure and virtuous life. Loving intimacy with God through
prayer and the offering of an upright and moral life -- these are two of
Origen's most important lessons for us; these are the ways we keep the
"gaze of our hearts" fixed on the "Wisdom and Truth who is Jesus
Christ." God bless you all!
* * *
I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims
present at today's audience, especially the Delegates to the Nineteenth
General Assembly of the Society of African Missions, and also the girls
and staff from Hekima Place, Karen, Kenya. May your pilgrimage renew
your love for Christ and his Church, and fill your hearts with joy in
the Lord. God bless you all!
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