And when you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
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Cornelius a Lapide
And when ye pray, &c. Foolish and imprudent was this vanity and ostentation of the Scribes by which they affected the public streets, where was a greater crowd of people, that they might stand before them, and exhibit their prayers and devotion, when they ought rather to have sought for a secret place for prayer, in which they might collect their thoughts, and converse with God alone without distraction. What therefore is commonly said of three places unfit for study, that it is useless at a window, in the street, by the hearth, because of the various distractions which occur at those places, may be even more truly said of prayer. Prayer is useless at a window, in the street, by the hearth.
Stand praying. From this and other passages Jansen is of opinion that the Jews stood, not knelt, to pray. But I say that the Priests and Levites sacrificed and sang Psalm to God standing, and the people who were present also stood, because if they had knelt they would have been unable to witness the sacrifices, especially in a great press of people, on account of the screen, three cubits in height, interposed between them and the altar. Again the people stood to hear a sermon, or to receive benediction, as in Solomon"s case; also in a solemn thanksgiving for victory, or any similar benefit, as we stand when a Te Deum is sung. S. Azarias and his fellows stood and sang the Benedicite in the fiery furnace of Babylon.
But at other times, the Jews prayed kneeling, especially in acts of adoration or penitence. Especially Solomon at the Dedication of the Temple prayed and worshipped kneeling. For—mark this, ye courtiers and delicate ones, who like the Jews, bend one knee to Christ—he kneeled with both his knees upon the ground. ( 1 Kings 8:54). So Daniel kneeled down three times a day and worshipped God. So Micah 6:6. "I will bow my knees to the Most High God." For this is the manner of adoration among all nations. Hence the words, "I will leave me seven thousand men in Israel, whose knees have not been bowed to Baal." And God says ( Isaiah 45:23), "Every knee shall bow to me." And ( 2 Chronicles 29:30), "They bowed their knee and worshipped." This standing then to pray on the part of the Scribes and Pharisees was a part of their pride and vanity. They thought themselves to be worthier and holier than the rest of the people.
As for Christians, from the very beginning they have been accustomed to kneel down to pray. For when Christ was near to die, he prayed, kneeling down; yea, prostrating Himself upon the earth. See also S. Peter ( Acts 9:40), and S. John
( Revelation 19:10, Revelation 22:8); and S. Paul ( Acts 20:36; and Ephesians 3:14, "For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ"). Christians, therefore, in memory of the fall of Adam and his posterity, pray kneeling at all times except Sundays and the Paschal season, when they pray standing, in honour and as a figure of the Resurrection of Christ, as S. Justin teaches (Qust115), "Whence is this custom in the Church? Because we ought to retain in everlasting remembrance both our fall through sin, and the grace of our Christ by which we have risen again from our fall. So for six days we kneel in token of our fall through sin, and on the Lord"s Day we stand in token of our deliverance from sin and death." S. Irenus teaches that this practice began in the time of the Apostles. (Lib. de Paschat.) Tertullian enjoins the same custom. (Lib. de Corona Militis. c3.)
But thou . . . enter into thy closet. Gr. Ï„Î±Î¼ÎµÎ¹ÌƒÎ¿Î½, i.e., any private place such as thy bedchamber; Vatablus renders, thy cell.
SS. Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose understand by closet the heart or the mind, and their privacy, as though he who prays should enter there and shut it, so that no distractions may creep in to draw away the soul from God. As S. Jerome says: "Shut the door—i.e, shut thy lips and pray inwardly in thy mind, as Hannah, the mother of Samuel, did" ( 1 Samuel 1:13). Hear S. Ambrose: "The Saviour says, Enter into thy closet, not that which is enclosed by walls which shuts up thy bodily limbs, but the closet which is within thee, in which thy thoughts are enclosed. This closet for prayer is ever near thee, and ever private, of which there is no witness or judge but God alone." "God who," says S. Cyprian (Tract. de Orat.), "is the hearer of the heart, not of the voice." It was a saying of Francis, that "the body is a cell, and the soul a hermit, which tarries in its cell wheresoever it may be, even among men, to pray to the Lord, and meditate upon Him. Cassian gives another reason (Collat9 , c34): "We must pray in silence, that the intention of our prayer may not become known to our enemies the demons, lest they should hinder it."
This meaning is true, but mystical rather than literal. But there is no reason why closet here should not be understood in its plain ordinary sense, of any private place. Hear S. Cyprian: "The Lord bids us pray secretly in hidden places apart, in our very chambers, because it is more agreeable to faith, in order that we may know God is everywhere present, hears and sees all, and in the plenitude of His majesty penetrates the most hidden and secret places, as it is written. "Am I a God nigh at hand, and not a God afar off." ( Jeremiah 23)
Song of Solomon , then, Christ does not here condemn public prayer in church, which has been the common laudable practice both of Jews and Christians, as is plain from 1 Kings 8:29, Acts 1:24. Tertullian (in Apol. c30.) writes. "Looking up thitherwards (to heaven), we Christians pray, with hands expanded as innocuous, with head uncovered, because we are not ashamed." For the Jews, especially the priests, were wont to pray with their heads covered, as I have said on the Pentateuch. Our missionaries also in China cover their heads when saying mass, in accordance with an Indult of Pope Paul V, because among the Chinese it is a mark of disgrace to uncover the head. "Finally," proceeds Tertullian, "we pray without a prompter, because we pray from the heart." Lastly, the temple is the proper place of prayer, in which one and all may pray to God as secretly as though they were praying in their own bedchambers.
That is indeed a ridiculous heresy which has sprung up lately in Holland, from a wrong understanding of this passage by a certain innovator, who rejects all temples, and holds the conventicles of his sect nowhere but in bedrooms. The Calvinists, too, when they ask a blessing before meat, cover their faces with their hats, that they may pray in secret; but then a hat is not a bedchamber, as is very plain.