The anonymous author of the fourteenth century spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, and probably an English Christian monk, sums up the mainstream teaching this way: “We can know so many things.  Through God’s grace, our minds can explore, understand, and reflect on creation and even on God’s own works, but we can’t think our way to God.  That’s why I’m willing to abandon everything I know, to love the one thing I cannot think.  He can be loved, but not thought.  By love, God can be embraced and held, but not by thinking” (Carmen Butcher, trans., p. 21).
From earliest days, Christians were taught to relinquish their ideas about God in order to embrace (and be embraced) by the one thing mere thoughts can’t give them.  This doesn’t mean that Christianity shunned the intellect; it simply means that in the end, the mind stands dumb before its Maker, and the only way to the Heart of God is through the human heart—that is, through love.  So prayer, especially wordless, interior prayer, was the ultimate expression of prayer for most Christians for most of Christian history.  And even if Christians didn’t all practice some form of the prayer of the heart, its value was rarely questioned, and its practice always had teachers.
All this changed in the sixteenth century with the advent of the Protestant Reformation.  The change had been coming for centuries; medieval scholasticism was no stranger to abstract ideas and words, books and debates.   But the Reformation turned the corner abruptly, leaving the legacy of interior prayer behind.  For most of the last four hundred years the practice largely disappeared . . . until recently.
There is no question that the Protestant Reformation was not only a great gift to the Church but also to society—the democratic reforms arising from the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Anabaptists, and much later, even the Pentecostals, have deeply influenced movements for justice and peace around the world and shaped political ideologies and structures.  They also influenced important reforms within the Roman Catholic Church. However, there is a shadow to the Protestant Reformation, and as a Reformed Christian I know this shadow intimately—not only its effect on my own spiritual life, but also its legacy in the lives of those Protestants I’ve taught to pray over the last quarter century, and those who, having grown up in Protestant churches, lost their faith and walked away.
Protestantism arose as a protest made up of ideas and the words that communicate them.  Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, or ideas, on the castle door at Wittenberg in 1517.  As the Reformation grew, the ideas of the Reformers were disseminated through books and pamphlets printed on a new invention, the printing press, which made mass communication possible for the first time.  These ideas brought down kings, empowered the peasants, and made new ways of thinking possible.  I’ll not dwell on the effect of these ideas on politics, the arts, philosophy, or theology.  Instead, I’ll focus on the effect these ideas had on the experience of prayer—that is, the experience of living a life in communion with God.
To understand what happened following the Reformation, I return to what I said earlier about the difference between a magazine article about a sunset and a sunset itself.   Words can quite easily take on a magical quality; they can cast a spell over us.  Once we name something, label it, or describe it, we can find ourselves believing we’ve captured it.  A living, mysterious thing like a sunset or a flower or a person is reduced from the wild thing it is to ideas in our head and words on a page.  But those ideas and words are not the thing itself, only symbols of that thing.  They are abstractions.
Over the years, I’ve talked to thousands of people about prayer.  When I ask them to describe prayer, their first response is nearly always to describe prayer as the words we speak to God.  True, sometimes there’s a person who will say something like, “Prayer is intimacy with God,” “Prayer is listening,” or “Prayer is silence,” but by and large, the shadowy legacy of the Reformation—its heavy emphasis on thinking and the power of the words we use to label, describe, and capture what we’re thinking—has dominated Christian spirituality.
Consequently, nearly all of us pray from above the neck—with our brains and lips; our pursuit of God is largely a head-trip.
The early Reformers rediscovered some great truths about God, a rediscovery that was long overdue.  But their followers became enamored with those truths turned into ideas, and with each step along that path, God was increasingly reduced from the living Word—wild, free, untamable, even unknowable apart from the prayer of a loving heart—to mere words about God that no longer needed prayer to make any sense.  In the fourteenth century, an English spiritual director could say to his flock, “You must abandon everything you know to love the one thing you cannot think.”  But within a few hundred years, that orthodox teaching was turned upside down. God could now be thought, and no longer needed to be loved.  Prayer became a tool to get things from God, not the means of grace for knowing God as God.
As it aged, Protestantism lost the sense of mystery that was common to Christianity during most of the first fifteen hundred years of Christian history, a mystery that was still cherished among early Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin.  The mystery of God was reduced to thoughts we can think, ideas we can debate, and words we can speak or write or even pray.  The need for theological precision and intellectual rigor required of Christianity a rationalism that was foreign to its experience, especially as Christians were forced to debate not only with Christians of new sects and denominations, but also as they were forced to meet the challenges of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason.  Mystery gave way to certitude.  The pursuit of God became largely a head-trip, and prayer now required right thinking, where before all it required was love.  Prayer was relegated to religious services where experts crafted artful sermon-prayers spoken to God on behalf of others who merely listened.  Among some Christians the devotional life became a highly rational form of prayer urged upon believers who were to practice “quiet times” that were rarely “quiet times” at all so filled were they with Bible study and intercessory prayer for others.
Of course, there are plenty of Protestant Christians who have experienced some taste of the Divine and who have found ways into stillness before God.  But the shadowy legacy of the Protestant Reformation and its interaction with the Enlightenment meant that the way to God became a matter of ideas and words and activism.  Prayer became something the believer did on behalf of others or as a rational and verbal expression of devotion.  Gone was the mystery and awe, the intimacy and simplicity of the prayer of the heart—a wordless, contemplative, loving encounter with the Beloved—which had characterized Christianity for most of its history. Astonishingly, the same Reformation whose ideas fostered democratic reforms throughout Europe, making the political process accessible to all people, more often than not had the opposite effect spiritually: the ordinary believer often felt she didn’t know enough to pray, or was intimidated to open his mouth because he wasn’t sure he had the right words.
The Shadow of the Reformation :: A Short Series on Why Protestants Have Trouble With Prayer

Part One

For over a thousand years, orthodox Christianity taught that the heart is the organ of spiritual perception, the receptacle of true wisdom, not the mind; the mind is only a servant of the heart. And love is the path to this wisdom. That doesn’t mean Christians didn’t think. Far from it. Over Christianity’s long history, women and men have always applied their minds to understand their experience with the divine. But the mainstream of orthodox Christianity has known that the mind must know its proper place in the spiritual enterprise. The life of prayer has kept the balance, tutoring the mind to know its place and offer its gifts to help the heart communicate what it knows.

To be continued . . .