Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Prophetess Hannah, Mother of the Prophet Samuel. Her story appears in 1 Samuel in the Old Testament, part of which appears below:
After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy maidservant, and remember me, and not forget thy maidservant, but wilt give to thy maidservant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard; therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman.
And Eli said to her, “How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman sorely troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your maidservant as a base woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your maidservant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her countenance was no longer sad. (1 Samuel 1:9-18)
Hannah who is portrayed as a faithful and pious woman vows to the Lord that if God would grant her to become pregnant with a son, she would dedicate her son to serving the Lord. It is one of several ‘miraculous’ pregnancies/births reported in the Bible. The narrative also became popular among Christians praying the Jesus prayer because Hannah prays from her heart – she is not vocalizing any words, though her lips are moving. The priest Eli, who is observing her lips move but no sound coming from her mouth, thinks she is drunk and talking to herself. Prayers as well as reading were most commonly both done aloud in those days, so it was unusual to see someone moving their lips but not uttering any sound. Eli, however, is convinced by Hannah’s words and obvious distress that she is praying from the heart and he blesses her desire. Her prayer is answered by God. She becomes a model for all those who pray from the heart or with the mind in the heart. She is the first person reported to pray in this way. St Ephrem the Syrian says:
To You, Lord, do I offer up my faith with my voice, for prayer and petition can both be conceived in the mind and brought to birth in silence, without using the voice. (THE SYRIAC FATHERS ON PRAYER AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, p 33)
Reading silently as well as praying silently were not common at one time in history and were even thought of as being strange or dangerous (like many new practices). It is probably praying out loud that helps us understand St Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8 – “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” Why would they be quarreling in prayer unless the prayers were being said aloud and others could hear them? Always praying out loud would mean others would always hear what you are praying and that might invite critical comments or arguments.
St Augustine was intrigued and startled by St Ambrose’s custom always to read texts silently. Rules for silent reading in monasteries first appeared in the West in the 9th Century. Not only did silent praying and reading have to overcome the societal prejudice that this was somehow unnatural and therefore dangerous or potentially evil, but a totally new way of thinking (repentance!) was needed to convince the powers that be that they were actually good practices to be embraced by any of the faithful. It may seem hard to imagine that silent reading or praying had to go through a long historical struggle to become accepted but that has been and continues to be part of the human wrestling with ‘new’ ideas.