St. Cyprian on Disciplined Prayer

In honor of the Feast of Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian,  (September 16th) let us look at Cyprian’s excellent Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, where he speaks of a topic that is very relevant today vis-a-vis the discussions between traditionalist and charismatic Catholics on the proper posture for prayer. Rather than preface the saint, we shall let him speak for himself: 

Let our speech and petition when we pray be under discipline, observing quietness and modesty. Let us consider that we are standing in God’s sight. We must please the divine eyes both with the habit of body and with the measure of voiceFor as it is characteristic of a shameless man to be noisy with his cries, so, on the other hand, it is fitting to the modest man to pray with moderated petitions. Moreover, in His teaching the Lord has bidden us to pray in secret—in hidden and remote places, in our very bed-chambers— which is best suited to faith, that we may know that God is everywhere present, and hears and sees all, and in the plenitude of His majesty penetrates even into hidden and secret places, as it is written, “I am a God at hand, and not a God afar off. If a man shall hide himself in secret places, shall I not then see him? Do not I fill heaven and earth?” (Jer. 23:23-24) And again: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.” (Prov. 15:3)

And when we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we ought to be mindful of modesty and disciplinenot to throw abroad our prayers indiscriminately, with unsubdued voices, nor to cast to God with tumultuous wordiness a petition that ought to be commended to God by modesty; for God is the hearer, not of the voice, but of the heart. Nor need He be clamorously reminded, since He sees men’s thoughts, as the Lord proves to us when He says, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” (Matt. 9:4) And in another place: “And all the churches shall know that I am He that searches the hearts and reins” (Rev. 2:23) [Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, 4]

What can we say? Although Cyprian obviously reminds us that God searches the hearts and is not impressed by bodily movements, he also states that when we “celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest” there are nevertheless certain  postures and gestures which are more fitting for divine worship; namely, those that are done under discipline. In case we misunderstand what he means by discipline, he goes on to contrast the moderate, disciplined prayer of the godly man with the prayer of the “shameless” man, who prays with “noisy cries” and “throws abroad” his prayers indiscriminately with “wordy” petitions. We see then that, at least as far as Cyprian is concerned, the sort of prayer services or liturgies that commonly go under the phrase “charismatic” these days would not have met with the approval of the famous bishop-martyr of Carthage.

This is also an important citation because, according to some, the pre-Nicene Church was more fluid and charismatic in their liturgies. The liturgy did not become “crystallized” in any sort of rigid form until after Nicaea. While it is true that the liturgical rubrics were more fluid in the patristic age than in later ages, it certainly does not follow that therefore the worship of the Church was entirely devoid of order. As St. Cyprian states here, the liturgies he celebrated and extolled as the norm for the Church were somber, disciplined, affairs, imbued with a spirit of order and reverent silence.

“Let all things be done decently and according to order” (1 Cor. 14:40)

Phillip Campbell, “St. Cyprian on Disciplined Prayer,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, Feb. 13, 2012. Available online at