What We Believe About Prayers for The Dead
A psychiatrist recently listed five of the most upsetting experiences people can have. They were as follows: death of a child, death of a spouse, a jail sentence, death of a relative, an unfaithful spouse. Three of the five were related to death.
Some time ago an intriguing story appeared in one of our magazines. It was the story of a man on his way home from the office on a rainy Friday evening to face a cluster of minor problems involving the various members of his family. As he made his way home through mid-Manhattan, he happened to see a man who had just been run down by a car, lying dead in the middle of the street. This was only his second or third contact with death and it really shocked him. The conscious realization that he too was going to die one day hit him like a sledge hammer. It made a difference when he got home that night. The problems that he thought were so great, were not as big as he imagined. The thought of death had given him a new perspective.
REFUSING TO FACE REALITY
One of the striking characteristics of our time is the absurd lengths to which we go to keep death out of sight and out of mind. Dr. John Brantner, a University of Minnesota clinical psychologist, said recently that American society "deals very badly with death and the dying. ... As a society we fear death and through our fear we foster it," he said. Studies have shown that dying patients want very much to talk about death. It helps them accept it and relieves anxiety, but few people are comfortable about bringing up the subject.
Tolstoy, in his masterful tale "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch," describes the conspiracy of silence that we maintain in the presence of the dying. "Ivan Ilyitch's chief torment was a lie – the lie somehow accepted by everyone that he was only sick, but not dying, and that he needed only to be calm."
Simone de Beauvoir, in "A Very Easy Death," writes of her mother dying of cancer, "At the time the truth was crushing her, and when she needed to escape it by talking, we were condemning her to silence, we forced her to say nothing about the anxieties and to suppress her doubts, she felt both guilty and misunderstood."
In earlier days, along with the other basic facts of life like birth, marriage, bearing children, and raising a family, death was openly accepted as a fact of life. The burial ground surrounding the church stood in the very center of the community. The body was not viewed in a funeral parlor; it was brought right into the living room of one's home. One could riot evade the fact of death. One had to accept it and learn to live with it.
THE CAUSE OF MORBIDITY
Please do not misunderstand. The intention is not to be morbid. It is quite the opposite. If there is anything morbid about death, it arises out of the refusal to face it and take it into account. Our Orthodox Christian faith is not morbid when it takes death frankly and openly into account. Our Church calendar provides many occasions when we are asked to face up to the fact of death. Easter is one such occasion. Sunday is another. Every Sunday is a "little Easter" celebrating Christ's victory over death. On our Church calendar every year, there are special Memorial Saturdays or "Saturdays of the Souls" which provide another opportunity for us to face up to death. On these Saturdays the Divine Liturgy is celebrated and special prayers are offered for our deceased loved ones. We pray for the dead especially on Saturdays since it was on the Sabbath day that Christ lay dead in the tomb, "resting from all His works and trampling down death by death." Thus, in the New Testament, Saturday becomes the proper day for remembering the dead and offering prayers for them.
There are two questions often asked about the practice of praying for the dead that we have in the Orthodox
1. WHY do we pray for the dead?
2. WHAT can we expect of these prayers?
WHY DO WE PRAY FOR THE DEAD?
Christianity is a religion of love. Praying for the dead is an expression of love. We ask God to remember our departed because we love them. Love relationships survive death and even transcend it. There is an inner need for a relationship with a loved one to continue to be expressed even after a loved one has died. Often even more so after a loved one has died since physical communication is no longer possible. The Church encourages us to express our love for our departed brethren through memorial services and prayers.
The anniversary of the death of a loved one is very painful. The Church helps us cope with this pain by encouraging us to have memorial prayers offered in Church for departed loved ones on the anniversaries of their deaths, i.e., forty days after the death, six months, a year, etc. This gives us the opportunity to do something for our loved one. It helps express and resolve our grief.
Death may take loved ones out of sight but it does not take them out of mind, or out of heart. We continue to love them and think of them as we believe they continue to love us and think of us. How can a mother forget a child who has passed over to the life beyond? The same love which led her to pray for that child when he lived will guide her to pray for him now. For in Christ all are living.
The same love makes her wish to communicate with him. Yet, all communication must take place in Christ and through Christ. No other communication with I the dead is possible or lawful for the Christian. God is God of the living. Our dear ones live in Him. Only through Him is it possible for us to communicate with them. Every liturgy in the Orthodox Church contains prayers for the dead such as the following: "Be mindful of all those who slumber in the hope of a resurrection to everlasting life. Give them rest, O God, where the light of Thy countenance shineth". The ancient Eucharistic prayers of both East and the West intercede for the dead as well as for the living.
Just as we pray for the deceased, so we believe they continue to love us, remember us, and pray for us now that they are closer to God. We cannot forget the example of the rich man in Hades asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers lest they, too, go to that place of torment. Though he had left this life, he did not cease to be concerned for his brothers still on earth.
The Orthodox Church prays for the dead to express her faith that all who have fallen asleep in the Lord, live in the Lord; their lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). Whether on earth or in heaven, the Church is a single family,
one Body in Christ. Death changes the location but it cannot sever the bond of love. "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matt. 22:32). He is "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Ex. 3:6). He is
the God of persons who, though dead physically, are very much alive in His presence.
WHAT CAN WE EXFECT OF OUR PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD?
Since a person's eternal destiny is determined immediately after death (though one must wait for the General Judgement to receive the full measure of one's reward), we must not expect our prayers to snatch an unbeliever from Hades to Paradise. It is our present life that determines our eternal destiny. Now is the time to repent and accept God's grace. Death puts an end to that state and commits each person to his special judgment. This is why the Lord said that work must be done "while it is day" because "the night cometh when no man can work". "Day" means the present life, "when it is still possible to believe," writes St. Chrysostom, while "night" is the condition after death.
What happens beyond the grave belongs entirely to God. He has told us as much as we need to know; the rest is covered with a veil of mystery which man's curiosity is incapable of piercing. The faithful have committed themselves to God for the duration of their earthly lives. Now, it is well and good for them to commit their departed loved ones to the mercy of God through prayer, for they have the assurance that God in the riches of His mercy has ways to help them beyond our knowing.
FOCUS ON OURSELVES
Whether our prayers for our departed loved ones bring any benefit to them is a question we must leave to the mercy of God. But of one thing we are certain: such prayers do benefit those who pray for the departed. They remind us that we too are going to die; they strengthen faith in the life beyond; they nourish reverence toward those who have died; they help build hope in divine mercy; they develop brotherly love among those who survive. They make us more cautious and diligent in getting ready for that ultimate journey which will unite us with our departed loved ones and usher us into the presence of God. They remind us that now is the time for moral development and improvement, for faith, repentance and love; now is the time to strive for the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to those "who have fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith." In other words, the Lord never told us that after we die, somebody else's prayers will get us into heaven – no matter how many memorial prayers they offer in our behalf. Salvation is a personal matter between each person and his Lord to be achieved in this life.
LOVE NEVER FORGETS
Dr. Paul Tillich believed that the anxiety of having to die is I he anxiety that one will be forgotten both now and in eternity. Burial means a removal from the face of the earth. This is what men cannot endure. Memorial markers will not keep us from being forgotten. One day they will crumble to dust. The only thing that can keep us from being forgotten is our faith that God knew us before we were born and will remember us for all eternity.
In a lesser but still very real way, memorial prayers offered by loved ones serve to relieve the anxiety of being forgotten.
The first child of Dr. Martineau, an eminent minister, died in infancy and was buried in the French cemetery of Dublin. Before they left Ireland for Liverpool, the father and mother paid a farewell visit to the grave of their first-born son. The years went by. Mrs. Martineau died. At the age of 87, Dr. Martineau was a lonely old man. But when he was at the tercentenary of Dublin University, he stole away from the brilliant public function to stand once more by the tiny grave that held the dust of his first-born child. No other living soul recalled that little one's smile or remembered where the child was sleeping. But the father knew and the little buried hands held his heart. A father's heart never forgets. Love always remembers. That is why the Orthodox Church has always encouraged us to hold special memorial prayers and services for the departed.
A MEANINGFUL CUSTOM
It is customary among Orthodox Christians from Greece to bring a tray of boiled wheat kernels to church for the memorial service. The wheat kernels express belief in everlasting life. Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). Just as new life rises from the buried kernel of wheat, so we believe the one buried will rise one day to a new life with God. The wheat kernels are covered with sugar to express the bliss of eternal life with God in heaven.
FOCUS ON CHRIST
When Orthodox Christians pray for loved ones, they focus not only on the departed, but especially on Christ who "by his death trampled upon death and to those in the tombs bestowed life eternal."
Memorial prayer services which affirm the reality of physical death and also the reality of resurrection into life eternal play a vital role in the healing of grief.
On Memorial Saturdays the Church prays universally for all the departed. However, a special litany is included to pray personally for departed loved ones whose names are submitted to the priest by parishioners.
One of the great theologians of the Orthodox Church, Prof. Christos Androutsos, stated that memorial prayers should be offered only for those who have repented and not sinned deeply. It is not proper – he said – that they be offered for the impenitent sinner. Since, however, the exact moral state of those departing is unknown, in practice they are offered for all.
In summary, we pray for the dead:
1. Because they are still living in God's kingdom. Our love for them still needs to be expressed. The bond of love does not cease. Through memorial services and prayers, love continues to be expressed.
2. Such prayers benefit those who offer them, strengthening their faith in eternal life.
3. Although we do not believe that someone else's prayers, offered after we die, will get us into heaven, we continue to pray for the deceased beseeching God's mercy in their behalf. Orthodox prayers for the dead invoke God's "mercy" to bestow "comfort" and "forgiveness" upon the deceased. The Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue held at Llandaff on July 18, 1980 agreed on the following statement regarding prayers for the departed: "After death and before the general resurrection the souls of those who have fallen asleep in the faith are assisted by the prayers of the Church, through the crucified and risen Christ – through Him alone and nothing else".
4. Memorial prayers help us focus on the Risen Christ Who is the Resurrection and the Life.
What We Believe About Prayer
IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
The great importance of prayer can be seen in the life of Jesus. Every major decision in His life was preceded by prayer. It preceded His "baptism: "... when Jesus . . . was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, 'Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased' " (Luke 3:21-22).
He prayed all night before choosing His apostles: "In these days He went out into the hills to pray; and all night He continued in prayer to God. And when it was day, He called His disciples, and chose from them twelve. . ." (Luke 6:12,13).
He prayed before His transfiguration: "... He took with Him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white" (Luke 9:28-29).
He prayed in the early morning: "A great while before day, He rose and went out to a lonely place, and there He prayed" (Mark 1:35). Jesus prayed while others were sleeping. Jesus healed when others were helpless. Can the two be unrelated?
He prayed before His Passion: "Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and He said to His disciples, 'Sit here while I go yonder and pray'. . . And going a little farther He fell on His face and prayed, 'My Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt' " (Matthew 26:36-40). Note that Jesus "fell on His face" and prayed, displaying utter humility before the Father. He was persevering, praying the same prayer three times. When He did not get His own will, He yielded to God's will because He trusted; He believed that God knows when to give, how to give and what to give and whether to withhold.
THE PENDULUM OF GREATNESS
Arnold Toynbee said once, "There is a pendulum of greatness. Its movements are two: withdrawal and return." We see the pendulum in action in the life of Jesus. He withdraws into God's presence through prayer, then returns strengthened and renewed to do God's will.
Prayer can be an escape from life but it was never intended to be so. It is meant to be a powerhouse and a guidance center as it was for Jesus.
In the words of Staretz Silouan:
"Sometimes the Holy Spirit draws a man so completely to Himself that he forgets all created things and gives himself entirely to contemplation of God. But when the soul remembers the world again, filled with the love of God, she feels compassion for all and prays for the whole world. In thus praying, the soul may again forget the world, only to return once more to her prayer for all mankind''.
TWO GREAT MOVEMENTS OF THE SOUL
The two great movements of the soul have always been withdrawal and return. Withdrawal into God's presence through prayer for strength and vision and return to the world to serve God and His people. Without prayer the quality of our service deteriorates. Without prayer we forge the world; with prayer we remember. Prayer is the dynamic for involvement.
Let me share with you these words of Henri Nouwen: "In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.' In the middle of sentences loaded with action—healing suffering people, casting out devils, responding to impatient disciples, traveling from town to town and preaching from synagogue to synagogue – we find these quiet words: "In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.' In the center of breathless activities we hear a restful breathing. Surrounded by hours of moving we find a movement of quiet stillness. In the heart of much involvement there are words of withdrawal. In the midst of action there is contemplation. And after much togetherness there is solitude. The more I read this nearly silent sentence locked in between the loud words of action, the more I have the sense that the secret of Jesus' ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before dawn."
Some favorite Scriptural promises concerning prayer are: "Call to me and I will answer you, and will show you great and hidden things which you have not known" (Jer. 33:3).
"Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear" (Is. 65:24).
"In nothing be anxious but in everything through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God and the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your mind, and your hearts in Christ Jesus."
Jesus was convinced that God always heard Him in prayer. After he resurrected Lazarus from the dead, He prayed:
"Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I know that You always hear Me . . ." (John 11:41).
"Ask, and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened, or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" (Matt. 7:7-11).
If you ask Him for bread will He give you a stone? If you ask Him for fish, will He give you a serpent? Never!
As someone so well said, "Man finds it hard to get what he wants because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give because He would give the best, and man will not take it."
A PERSONAL TESTIMONY
I share with you a personal testimony on prayer written by A. Levitin who spent many years suffering for the Christian faith in Soviet prisons. He writes under his pen-name, A. Krasnov. These are his words:
"The greatest miracle of all is prayer. I have only to turn my thoughts to God and I suddenly feel a strength which bursts into me from somewhere, bursts into my soul, into my entire being. What is it? Psychotherapy? No, it is not psychotherapy. For where would I, an insignificant old man who is tired of life, get this strength which renews me and saves me, lifting me above the earth? It comes from without, and there is no force on earth that can even understand it.
"I am not a mystic by nature, nor am I characterized by susceptibility to supernatural phenomena or special experiences. I am susceptible only to that which is accessible to every man; prayer. Since I grew up in the Orthodox Church and was raised by it, my prayer pours forth in Orthodox forms (I do not, of course, deny any other forms).
"The basis of my whole spiritual life is the Orthodox liturgy. Therefore, while in prison I attended the liturgy every day in my imagination. At 8 a.m. I would begin walking around my cell, repeating to myself the words of the liturgy. At that moment I felt myself inseparably linked with the whole Christian world. Therefore during my Great Litany I always prayed for the Pope, for the Ecumenical Patriarch and for our own Patriarch Alexi. Reaching the central point of the liturgy, I would say to myself the eucharistic canon – and then the words of the transubstantiation, standing before the face of the Lord, sensing almost physically His wounded and bleeding body. I would begin praying in my own words, and I would remember all those near to me, those in prison and those who were free, those who were alive and those who had died. And my memory would keep suggesting more and more names ... the numerous priestly servants whom I had known from childhood, and my own numerous teachers.
"The prison walls moved apart and the whole universe became my residence, visible and invisible, the universe for which that wounded, pierced body offered itself as a sacrifice. Then the Lord's Prayer sounded in my heart especially insistently, as did the prayer before the communion; "I believe Lord and confess." All day after the liturgy I felt an unusual élan of spirit, a clarity and spiritual purity. Not only my prayer, but much more, the prayers of many faithful Christians helped me. I felt it continually, it worked from a distance, lifting me up as though on wings, giving me living water and the bread of life, peace of soul, rest and love".
WHAT IS PRAYER
Prayer is "to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life" (Theophan).
Prayer is the test of everything ... the source of everything ... the driving force of everything ... the director of everything (Theophan).
Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God in praise and thanksgiving to Him and in supplication for the good things that we need, both spiritual and physical (Theophan).
Prayer is to stand before God with the mind, mentally to gaze unswervingly at Him, and to converse with Him in reverent fear and hope (St. Dimitri of Rostov).
Prayer . . . uplifts and unites human beings with God (St. Gregory Palamas). Prayer is our personal communication system with our home base. Prayer is a booster cable from our depleted lives to the ever dependable power of God which never fails to start us up again.
Prayer is the response of the soul to the love of God.
Prayer is taking our burdens to God, knowing He will help us carry them and renew us for the journey.
Prayer is the prelude to peace, the prologue to power, the preface to purpose, and the pathway to perfection (W.A. Ward).
Prayer is listening to God.
Prayer is opening the door of the heart to receive the Holy Spirit.
Prayer is a gift from God to us.
Prayer is the treasure buried within.
Prayer is tuning in to God's eternal, unchanging love.
Prayer is heaven in the heart ... the kingdom of God within you.
Prayer is creating an openness where God can give Himself to us.
Prayer is Jacob's ladder by which we ascend to God and God descends to us.
Prayer is placing the human predicament, however confused it may be, in the hands and care of God, with confidence He knows how best to untangle the complication and bring calm.
Prayer is best felt in the heart when I trust God enough to bring Him into the depths of my life and into the deeply personal hurts of my life.
Prayer is not bargaining with God, trying to convince Him to change. It is, rather, our asking Him to change us so we can see His ways and His plans more clearly.
Prayer is the heart's moment to bathe itself in the beauty of God's love and the cleansing of God's care.
Prayer is sorting out life's options and choosing the best with God's help and counsel.
Prayer is the destruction of fear (Fr. John of Kronstadt). Prayer is holding all people in our hearts through love (Fr. John of Kronstadt).
Prayer is the descent of heaven into the soul (Fr. John of Kronstadt).
Prayer is the abiding of the most Holy Trinity in the soul in accordance with the words of Jesus, "We will come to him, and make our home in him" (Fr. John of Kronstadt).
Prayer is to be with God (Origen).
Prayer is an ascent of the spirit to God (Fvagrios Ponticus),
Prayer is a continual intercourse of the spirit with God (Evagrios Ponticus).
The soul came forth from God and to God it may ever ascend through prayer (Fr. John of Kronstadt).
Prayer is remembering to call home because you are a child of God.
The pulse of prayer is praise. The heart of prayer is gratitude. The voice of prayer is obedience. The arm of prayer is service (W. A.' Ward).
Prayer is a matter of love. The more one loves, the more one prays.
Prayer is remembering why we serve. If we forget to pray in order to have more time for service we shall soon forget the meaning of service.
Prayer is helplessness that asks Jesus to come in and take over (O. Hallesby).
Prayer is giving my worries to God and receiving His peace in return (Phil. 4:6-7). What an exchange!
Prayer is learning to love others as unselfishly as Christ loves me, which includes bearing their burdens and praying for them as persistently and fervently as I pray for myself.
Prayer is coming to know God as I open myself to Him.
Prayer is standing at attention before God.
Prayer is a dialogue between two persons who love each other.
Prayer is heart-to-heart talk with Jesus.
Prayer is spiritual breathing.
Prayer is slipping into God's presence.
The man who has learned to pray is no longer alone in the universe; he is living in his Father's house.
Prayer is a means of grace, a sacrament.
Prayer is the "hot line" between God and us – a line always open for communication.
Prayer is light in darkness and hope in despair. A former American P.O.W. from North Vietnam said, "Apart from prayer there was nothing – absolutely nothing – that gave me hope. Without my contact with God through prayer all was darkness – absolute darkness".
Prayer is a state of continual gratitude (Fr. John of Kronstadt).
Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the mighty hand of God.
Prayer changes others, changes our circumstances because it changes us.
"The essence of the state of prayer is simply 'to be there', to hear the presence of another person, Christ, and also our fellow man in whom Christ challenges me. . . The perfect prayer seeks the presence of Christ and recognizes Him in every human being" (Evdokimov).
Prayer is raising my eyes to God lest I begin to think that I am the highest point in the universe.
Prayer is friendly conversation with God – sharing our thoughts, feelings, needs and appreciation. It is making earnest, sincere requests to God, for yourself and others.
Prayer is hemming the day in with God, thus making it less likely to unravel. Prayer is what Abraham said, "May I presume to speak to the Lord, dust and ashes that I am?" (Gen. 18:27). Yes! You may!
Prayer is coming to God with great faith and great expectations:
"Thou art coming to a King,
Great petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such
None can ever ask too much".
God does not exist to answer our prayers, but by our prayers we come to discern the mind of God.
Prayer is the blank canvas before the Painter. (Dr. Alexis Carrel).
Prayer is the empty cup standing before God asking to be filled. Prayer is God's action in us through the Holy Spirit.
Prayer at its best is a grateful day opener, a beautiful day brightener, and a joyful day closer.
Prayer is not saying to God, "Please do with me what I want," but "Please do with me what You want."
Prayer is to bring to light the Divine Presence within us, to remove the obstacles of sin so that the grace of Baptism may become fully active in the heart. Thus prayer is to become what we already are, to gain what we already possess, to come face to face with the One Who dwells even now within our innermost self.
There are four answers to prayer: "No". "Yes". "Wait". "I never thought you'd ask".
Prayer is asking that we may receive. Even the royal and divine Son of God had to ask in prayer. A person said to a politician once, "I voted for you even though you did not ask me." The politician replied, "But you're such a close friend I didn't think I had to ask." Whereupon the voter replied, "Yes, but it's nice to be asked". "Ask and you shall receive," said Jesus.
Most modern industries now schedule morning and afternoon coffee breaks when a worker can pause for a moment and refresh himself. Efficiency experts have determined that a person will be more productive if he is given a break from his work.
Our spiritual life is similar to this in many ways. We need "prayer breaks" throughout the day – special and scheduled times to spend with God in prayer. Such "prayer breaks" become in reality "power breaks" for us, making us more poised and productive Christians in the world.
WE CAN PRAY
We cannot always be near
Our friends to help,
To share with them in time of need
And sweet communion find
In their blest fellowship –
But we can pray.
We cannot always speak
The winning word
To one who needs to find the way.
Our minds oft fail, our spirits lag.
Or doors are closed to our approach,
But we can pray.
Prayer can multiply our work
Our presence, our range of good,
Leap o'er miles, go through doors,
Bind us close to those we love
And bless all those who need our help –
So let us pray!
DESCEND WITH THE MIND INTO THE HEART
Theophan the Recluse defines prayer as "standing before God with the mind in the heart." What do these words mean? Fr. Kallistos Ware explains,
"So long as the ascetic prays with the mind in the head, he will still be working solely with the resources of the human intellect, and on this level he will never attain to an immediate and personal encounter with God. By the use of his brain, he will at best know about God, but he will not know God. For there can be no direct knowledge of God without an exceedingly great love, and such love must come, not from the brain alone, but from the whole man—that is, from the heart. It is necessary, then, for the ascetic to descend from the head into the heart. He is not required to abandon his intellectual powers – the reason, too, is a gift of God – but he is called to descend with the mind into his heart."
A HEAD AND HEART FAITH
The head seeks God but it is the heart that finds Him. "For man believes in his heart and so is justified ..." writes St. Paul (Romans 10:10). When the head descends into the heart, the "head" faith becomes a "heart" faith. It becomes not just a "head" faith or just a "heart" faith but a "head-in-the-heart" faith. Just as love, charity and the other important virtues cannot exist only in the mind but are primarily of the heart, so it is with our faith and trust in God. We are not to let Jesus remain in the mind and give Him only a cold intellectual allegiance. He must descend into the heart where we shall be able to feel His presence and yield our will to Him.
To return again to Theophan the Recluse:
"You must pray not only with words but with the mind, and not only with the mind but with the heart, so that the mind understands and sees clearly what is said in words, and the heart feels what the mind is thinking. All these combined together constitute real prayer, and if any of them are absent, your prayer is either not perfect, or it is not prayer at all."
St. John Chrysostom says that God hears our prayers more loudly when we are praying with the mind in the heart.
A UNION OF MIND AND HEART
The over-intellectual scholars in Constantinople criticized St. Gregory Palamas and his way of prayer. Faith to them was only a matter of the mind not of the heart. For Gregory Palamas it was both. And the Church supported his view.
"You must descend with your mind into your heart," Theophan insists. "At present your thoughts of God are in your head. And God himself is, as it were, outside you, and so your prayer and other spiritual exercises remain exterior. Whilst you are still in your head, thoughts will . . . always be whirling about like snow in winter, or clouds of mosquitoes in the summer. . . All our inner disorder is due to the dislocation of our powers, the mind and the heart each going its own way. The mind must come to an initial concord with the heart, growing eventually into a union of the mind with the heart."
WE THINK WE PRAY
Father John of Kronstadt talks about people who "call prayer that which is not prayer at ali: for instance, a man goes to church, stands there for a time, looks at the icons or at other people, and says that he has prayed to God; or else he stands before an icon at home, bows his head, says some words he has learned by heart, without understanding, and without feeling, and says that he has prayed – although with his thoughts and his heart he has not prayed at all, but was elsewhere, with other people and other things, and not with God."
He goes on to say, "Thus he who does not pray with his heart does not pray at all, because only his body prays, and the body without the mind is nothing more than dust.''
"Descend from the head into the heart. Then you will see all thoughts clearly, as they move before the eye of your sharp-sighted mind. But until you descend into the heart, do not expect to have due discrimination of thoughts. . .
« . . the union of the mind with the heart is the union of the spiritual thoughts of the mind with the spiritual feelings of the heart. . .
"Do not be lazy about descending. In the heart is life, and you must live there. Do not think that this is something to be attempted only by the perfect. No. It is for everyone who has begun to seek the Lord."
THE JOURNEY WITHIN
By descending with the mind into the heart through prayer the Church is calling on us to make what Dag Hammarskjold called "the longest journey, the journey inward" to the center of our being which is nothing other than the Presence of God within.
The secret of sanctity and of happiness is open to all. If for five minutes a day we can quiet our imagination, close our eyes to the things of our senses, enter within our soul which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and there commune with our Lord, life will flow happily, serene and consoled even in the midst of pain.
When you are on an ocean-going vessel you are not meant to remain indefinitely in any harbor, no matter how attractive it might be. You are to sail the seas of life. Your visits to any harbor should have only one purpose – to make you a more seaworthy vessel. The purpose of prayer is just that: not to keep us anchored in safe harbors but to enable us to sail the seas of life no matter what the weather.
Dive into prayer often. Let the words not remain only on your lips. Let them go from your lips to your mind to your heart. Let your heart be without words but never your words without heart. As you so pray, the strengthening presence of Jesus will be with you. The healing love of Jesus will be poured upon you. The resurrecting power of Jesus will flow through you to touch, bless and heal your mind, soul and body.
"Executives are hard to see
Their costly time I may not waste;
I make appointments nervously
And talk to them in haste.
But any time of night or day,
In places suitable or odd,
I seek and get without delay
An interview with God".
+ + + + + + + + + +
"Come now, little man!
Flee for a while from your tasks, hide yourself
for a little space from the turmoil of
your thoughts. Come, cast aside your
burdensome cares, and put aside
your laborious pursuits. For a little
while give your time to God, and
rest in Him for a little while. Enter
into the inner chamber of your mind,
shut out all things save God and
whatever may aid you in seeking
God; and having barred the door of
your chamber, seek Him."
— Anselm of Canterbury
THE FRUIT OF PRAYER
St. Isaac the Syrian said once, "Capture the mother (prayer) and you shall have the daughters".
The daughters of prayer are many.
A recent study at Harvard revealed that people who pray regularly suffer less from high blood pressure. One of the daughters of prayer is less pressure, more inner peace, because there is more trust in God.
Dr. Alexis Carrel, a famous doctor and Nobel Prize winner, said: "Prayer is a force as real as terrestrial gravity. As a physician, I have seen men, after all other therapy has failed, lifted out of disease and melancholy by the serene effort of prayer. It is the only power in the world that seems to overcome the so-called 'laws of nature'; the occasions on which prayer has dramatically done this have been termed 'miracles.' But a constant quieter miracle takes place hourly in the hearts of men and women who have discovered that prayer supplies them with a steady flow of sustaining power in their daily lives." So here is another one of the beautiful daughters of prayer in addition to inner peace: healing power.
THE HOLY SPIRIT
The third daughter of prayer is the Holy Spirit.
"Spiritual life comes entirely from His most Holy Spirit" (Theophan). And the Holy Spirit comes through prayer. "And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (Acts 4:31).
It was when they were gathered together in prayer that they were filled with the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles as they were praying. Prayer was the key that unlocked the door to the Holy Spirit. "Prayer is always possible for everyone, rich and poor, noble and simple, strong and weak, healthy and suffering, righteous and sinful. Great is the power of prayer; most of all does it bring the Spirit of God and easiest of all is it to exercise" (St. Seraphim).
UNION WITH GOD
Another daughter of prayer is union with God. Prayer unites us with God. It brings us into His very presence. There is no other virtue as important as prayer. None of the other virtues unites us with God. They only try to make us fit to be united with God. Prayer – and prayer alone – unites man with God. When Jesus said, "I am the vine, you are the branches, without me you can do nothing". He was talking about union with Him. What is it that keeps the branches attached to the vine? It is prayer.
To be with God is an end in itself. It is not a means to an end. To pray is to be with God. Thus prayer is not a means but the end itself, the ultimate.
"The effect of prayer is union with God" (St. Gregory of Nyssa). St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite writes concerning prayer and the union of God: "There is no other virtue that is either higher or more necessary than sacred prayer, because all other virtues – I mean fasting, vigils, sleeping on the ground, ascesis, chastity, almsgiving, and all the rest – even though they are ways of imitating God, even though they cannot be taken away from us and constitute the immortal ornaments of the soul – do not unite man with God, but only render him fit to be united. Sacred prayer, and it alone, unites. It alone joins God with man, and makes the two one spirit.''
"Prayer . . . uplifts and unites human beings with God" (St. Gregory Palamas).
In addition to the Holy Spirit and union with God another one of the daughters of prayer is love. In fact, it is one of the most beautiful daughters of prayer.
Love comes from our union with God Who is Himself the only source of love. There can be no genuine love unless we are united with the Source of Love: God. And it is prayer that unites us with God. And this is why we tell young couples who are about to be married, that if they desire a strong and lasting love relationship in their marriage they must open the door of .prayer every day and let God's love flow into their lives through prayer.
"Love comes from prayer" (St. Isaac the Syrian). St. Maximos the Confessor adds: "The person who truly loves God also prays incessantly; and whoever prays incessantly, that person genuinely loves God".
Here, then, are the daughters of prayer: inner peace, healing power, the Holy Spirit, union with God, and love. Capture the mother (prayer) and you shall indeed have all her beautiful daughters.
THE SACRAMENTS AND PRAYER
In his famous "Commentary on the Divine Liturgy," Nicolas Cabasilas emphasizes that all sacraments are accomplished through prayer. He mentions the consecration of Chrism, the prayers of ordination, of absolution, and of the anointing of the ill. "It is the tradition of the Fathers," he writes, "who received this teaching from the Apostles and from their successors, that the sacraments are rendered effective through prayer; all the sacraments, as I have said, and particularly the Holy Eucharist."
It is because of prayer that we have Holy Communion. It is the prayer of consecration – the Epiclesis – that changes the bread and the wine in the Eucharist and brings Jesus to us today. He comes to us through prayer!
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
Emphasizing the importance of prayer St. Gregory of Nyssa said, "It is necessary for us to persist in prayer which is like the leader in a circle of dancers which are the virtues. It joins the person who persists in prayer to God. . .". "The work of God is simple: it is prayer – children talking to their Father, without any subtleties."
One of the greatest theologians of the Roman Catholic Church is without doubt Thomas Aquinas. One of the most prolific teachers and writers who ever lived, he searched all his life to know God. Few people have ever written more about God than he did. Shortly before he died he knelt before the Crucified Christ and prayed. He knew he was dying. He said that he had learned more about theology on his knees in those fifteen minutes than from all the theology that he had ever studied and written about in his many volumes. In fact, it is said that after that experience of God in prayer before his death he asked that all his books be burned. He had captured the mother—prayer. All else seemed far less important.
THEOLOGY AND PRAYER
Since Thomas Aquinas was a great theologian perhaps we need to listen at Ihis point to what Evagrius Ponticus says about prayer and theology: "If you are a theologian, you truly pray. If you truly pray, you are a theologian." According to the Eastern Church, doctrine is shaped by prayer and prayer by doctrine. The great Fathers of the Church theologized from their experience of God in prayer and in His scriptural word. The doctrine of the Church is not only expressed through prayer; it comes from prayer. St. Gregory Palamas came up with a doctrine of God that was shaped entirely by prayer. Not too many of our doctrines have been shaped by prayer as directly as the one by Palamas. These, then, are the many beautiful daughters of prayer: inner peace, healing power, the Holy Spirit, union with God, love. They all come from prayer. And all of the sacraments and all of the theology of the Church flow from prayer. Its power is tremendous. It unites us with God and makes us truly God-like. It fills us with God's love and life. It is the ladder to heaven. We climb it to be with God. Mother of all virtues, it is easiest of all to practice.
Listen to the words of Blessed Augustine:
"God does not ask us to tell Him our needs that He may learn about them, but in order that we may be capable of receiving what He is prepared to give."
Former Senator Hughes of Iowa was an alcoholic. His family left him. He lost all his money, his home, his friends, everything. In great desperation he decided one night to commit suicide. He took one last drink and went up to the bedroom to get the gun. Because he had seen other suicides with brains splattered all over the walls and floor, he was concerned that he not leave a mess. He wanted to make a clean job of it. So he got into the bathtub. Before pulling the trigger, he decided to pray for God to forgive him for what he had done to his family and friends. He had not prayed for years. While praying – he said – something happened to him. He suddenly came to his senses. He had a conversion experience right then and there in the bathtub. God spoke to him and the whole direction of his life changed. As a result he gave his life completely to Jesus and entered full-time Christian service leading others to the source of renewal and power: Christ.
The miracle began when Hughes opened the door slightly through prayer to let God come into his life to forgive him. He came not just to forgive him but to renew and change him completely.
God asks us to come to Him in prayer because he has tremendous resources that He is prepared to give us. So when we come to Him let us think big, pray big, expect big, because God is big – bigger than we can ever imagine.
"Call upon me and I will answer you and I will show great and mighty things that you know not of" (Jer. 33:3).
THE KINGDOM OF GOD WITHIN YOU
Theophan the Recluse states that the first stage of prayer is bodily prayer consisting of reading, standing, making prostrations, etc. After this comes the prayer of inner attention when the mind prays by centering its full attention on the words of the prayer. Then comes the prayer of the heart when the mind descends into the heart and the thoughts of the mind are combined with the feelings of the heart to produce the warm feeling of God's presence within. To find God we embark on a journey from without to within; from the outer to the inner man.
THE INNER CLOSET
Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is within you." The Church Fathers sized upon these words to remind us that God is to be found in the '' inner closet'' of the heart. Even though we may be unaware of it, the Spirit of God dwells within us from the moment of baptism. The whole purpose of the spiritual life is to rediscover the grace of baptism or the Holy Spirit within us. This is done through inner prayer as man descends into the heart with his mind and discovers there the kingdom of God.
ST. MAKARIOS OF EGYPT
St. Makarios of Egypt writes, "The heart is a small vessel, but all things are contained in it; God is there, the angels are there, and there also is life and kingdom, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace."
"The kingdom of God is within you."
ST. DMITRI OF ROSTOV
Commenting on these words, St. Dimitri of Rostov says, "Man needs to enclose himself in the inner closet of his heart more often than he need go to church: and collecting all his thoughts there, he must place his mind before God, praying to Him in secret with all warmth of spirit and with living faith."
The heart is the bridal chamber where we are to meet our Lord and Savior, the Bridegroom of our soul.
Where else but in our heart shall we find the Garden of Eden where Adam walked with God?
Man's heart is a chapel where continuous prayer can be offered to God. This is part of the image of God in us. This is why St. Paul calls us "temples of the Holy Spirit."
THE LORD'S RECEPTION ROOM
Theophan the Recluse says,
"You seek the Lord? Seek, but only within yourself. He is not far from anyone. The Lord is near all those who truly call on Him. Find a place in your heart and speak there with the Lord. It (the heart) is the Lord's reception room. Everyone who meets the Lord, meets Him there. He has fixed no other place for meeting souls".
"Strive to enter within your inner chamber and you will see the chamber of heaven. For the two are the same and one entrance leads to both" (Philokalia).
In Orthodox spirituality the monk is asked to become conscious of the actual presence of Jesus in the interior of his being without any images. The Presence is there fully and existentially through the Life of God received in the Sacraments.
Nicephoras says, "The kingdom of God is within us, and for a man who has seen it within, and having found it through true prayer . . . everything outside loses its attraction" (Philokalia).
Fr. John Meyendorff writes:
"Since the Incarnation, our bodies have become 'temples of the Holy Spirit within us' (I Cor. 6:19); it is there, within our own bodies, that we must seek the Spirit, within our bodies sanctified by the sacraments and engrafted by the eucharist into the Body of Christ. God is now to be found within. He is no longer exterior to us. Therefore, we find the light of Mount Tabor within ourselves."
SIR ISAAC NEWTON
The brilliant scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, said that he could take his telescope and look millions and millions of miles into space. Then he added, "But when I lay it aside, go into my room, shut the door, and get down on my knees in earnest prayer, I see more of heaven and feel closer to the Lord than if I were assisted by all the telescopes on earth."
St. Isaac the Syrian wrote,
"Enter eagerly into the treasure-house (the heart) that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure-house of heaven. For the two are the same, and there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is HIDDEN WITHIN YOU, AND IS FOUND IN YOUR SOUL. DIVE INTO YOURSELF, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend."
In view of these thoughts the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson have special meaning:
"What lies behind us and
what lies before us are
tiny matters compared to
what lies within us".
"Greater is He who is within you than he who is in the world," says the Bible.
Who is within us? Listen to St. Paul in Col. 1:26,27". . .the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest . . . Christ in you, the hope of glory".
"Where can we find Him?" asks Augustine. "Not on earth, for he is not here. And not in heaven, for we are not there. But in our own hearts we can find him. He ascended to heaven openly so that He could come back to us inwardly, and never leave us again."
Listen to St. Ephraim the Syrian,
"The kingdom of God is within you. In so far as the Son of God dwells in you, the Kingdom of Heaven lies within you, also. Here within are the riches of heaven, if you desire them. Here, O sinner, is the Kingdom of God within you. Enter into yourself, seek more eagerly and you will find without great travail.
Outside you is death, and the door to death is sin. ENTER WITHIN YOURSELF AND REMAIN IN YOUR HEART, FOR THERE IS GOD."
St. Makarios of Egypt:
"Within the heart are unfathomable depths. There are reception rooms and bedchambers in it, doors and porches, and many offices and passages. In it is the workshop of righteousness and of wickedness. In it is death; in it is life. . . The heart is Christ's palace: there Christ the King comes to take His rest, with the angels and the spirits of the saints, and He dwells there, walking within it and placing His kingdom there."
There is a beautiful story of a little girl who went to see the pediatrician for her first-grade physical exam. He took out his stethoscope to listen to her heartbeat. With all the seriousness of a six-year-old, she touched her chest and chided him, "Don't mess around with that. Jesus lives in there!"
She was right. "The kingdom of God is within you."
"The Sayings of the Fathers" tell of a young woman who had many lovers. One of the governors approached her and said, "Promise me you will be good, and I will marry you". She promised this and he took her in marriage and brought her to his house. Her former lovers, seeking her again, said to one another, "That lord has taken her with him to his house, so if we go to his house and he learns of it, he will condemn us. But let us go to the back, and whistle to her. Then, when she recognizes the sound of the whistle she will come down to us; as for us, we shall be protected." When she heard the whistle, the young woman stopped her ears, withdrew to the inner chamber, and shut the doors.
The young lady of this story is our soul. Her former lovers are the passions and sins. The Lord who married her is Christ. The inner chamber is the presence of God within the heart. Those who whistle are the demons. But the soul through prayer always takes refuge in the Lord Who is present within.
"The Kingdom of God" said Jesus, "is not above you or beneath you, or outside you, or beyond you, but – within you".
When we pray we are not trying to make contact with a God Who is far away. We are not calling God down from the clouds. He is present within us through His Holy Spirit; we are simply calling ourselves to wake up to His presence.
THE JESUS PRAYER
The prayer in which the spiritual tradition of the Eastern Church finds its deepest expression is the Jesus Prayer consisting of the simple words: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
In the book "The Way of A Pilgrim" a Russian peasant tells how he travelled from village to village, and monastery to monastery trying to find someone (o teach him how to pray unceasingly (I Thess. 5:17). Finally he finds a monk who leaches him the Jesus Prayer by reading to him the following words of St. Symeon the New Theologian:
"Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, i.e., your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out say: 'Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.' Say it moving your lips gently, or say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient and repeat the process very frequently".
After following these instructions and reaching the point where he could repeat this prayer thousands of times a day, the pilgrim says:
"Under this guidance I spent the whole summer in ceaseless oral prayer to Jesus Christ, and I felt absolute peace in my soul. During sleep I often dreamed I was saying the Prayer. And during the day, if I happened to meet anyone, all men without exception were as dear to me as if they had been my nearest relations . . . I thought of nothing whatever but my Prayer, my mind tended to listen to it, and my heart began of itself to feel at times a certain warmth and pleasure".
The Jesus Prayer transforms the pilgrim's relationship with the material creation about him, changing all things into icons or sacraments of God's presence. He writes:
"When I prayed with my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvelous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the earth, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man's sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that everything proved the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang His praise. Thus it was that I came to understand what 'The Philokalia' calls 'the knowledge of the speech of all creatures' ... I felt a burning love for Jesus Christ and for all God's creatures".
The Jesus Prayer transfigured the pilgrim's relation not only with the material world but also with other people. He writes:
"Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk alone as before, filled with care. The Invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me, it was as though everyone loved me. . .If anyone harms me I have only to think, 'How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!' and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all." 9
From these words we see that the Jesus Prayer is not world-denying but world-changing. It helps us see Christ in all men, and all men in Christ.
THREE BOOKS TO READ
Where does one go to learn how to master the Jesus Prayer? First, to the book "The Way of A Pilgrim". Then "The Way of A Pilgrim" itself sends us to another book "The Philokalia": "You will learn how to master it (the Jesus Prayer) by reading this book, which is called The 'Philokalia': it comprises the complete and minute knowledge of incessant inner prayer, as stated by twenty-five Holy Fathers. It is full of great wisdom and is so useful that it is regarded as the first and best guide by all those who seek the contemplative, spiritual life."
"The Philokalia" has been called by Fr. George Florovsky, "That famous encyclopedia of Eastern piety and asceticism which ... is increasingly becoming the manual of guidance for all those who are eager to practice Orthodoxy in our time".
Besides "The Way of A Pilgrim" and "The Philokalia" another book I wish to commend to your reading is "The Art of Prayer", an Orthodox anthology on the prayer of the heart. Compiled by Chariton of Valamo, it contains gems from the spiritual writings of 19th century Russian spiritual writers, especially of Theophan the Recluse. Let me share with you two brief gems from "The Art of Prayer'' on the Jesus Prayer, both by Theophan the Recluse:
"I will remind you of only one thing: one must descend with the mind into the heart, and there stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing within you. The (Jesus) prayer takes a firm and steadfast hold, when a small fire begins to burn in the heart. Try not to quench this fire, and it will become established in such a way that the prayer repeats itself: and then you will have within you a small murmuring stream".
Again by Theophan:
"One of the early Fathers said, 'When thieves approach a house in order to creep up to it and steal, and hear someone inside talking, they do not dare to climb in; in the same way, when our enemies try to steal into our soul and take possession of it they creep all around but fear to enter when they hear that . . . prayer welling out".
The Jesus Prayer became the center of Orthodox spirituality because of its utmost simplicity and its emphasis on the Invocation of the Divine Name.
First, its simplicity. John Climacus writes:
"Let there be no studied eloquence in the words of your prayer. . . Do not launch into long discourses that fritter away your mind in efforts for eloquence. One word alone spoken by the Publican touched God's mercy; a single word full of faith saved the Good Thief. Many words in prayer often fill the mind with images and distract it, while often one single word draws it into recollection" (Step 28).
Secondly, the greatness of the Jesus Prayer is to be found not only in its simplicity but also in its constant invocation of the all-powerful Name of Jesus, out" Lord and Savior. See for a moment what the Holy Scriptures say about the Name of Jesus:
"There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 10,12).
"Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a Name which is above every name: that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth" (Phil. 2:9-10).
"Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name . . . whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you" (John 26:24,27).
"No man can say, Lord Jesus, except by the Holy Ghost" (I Cor. 12:3).
Based also on the prayer of the blind man, "Jesus, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me," and that of the Publican, "God, be merciful to me a sinner," we can see that in addition to its utter simplicity and invocation of the Name of Jesus, the Jesus Prayer is entirely scriptural. If the Jesus Prayer is stronger than other prayers, it is so only by virtue of the all-powerful Name of Jesus.
NOT SUFFICIENT UNTO ITSELF
The Jesus Prayer is not sufficient unto itself. It hangs on the Church and the sacraments. As Fr. John Meyendorff has stated, "For the Christ Whom this prayer seeks in a man's own heart, the Divine Name that it invokes, can be found within his heart only in the measure in which he is ingrafted into the Body of the Church by baptism and the eucharist. The Prayer of Jesus, as the Fathers understood it, never replaces the redemptive grace of the sacraments but rather is its fullest realization".
The surest way to union with God," writes Bishop Justin, "next to Communion of His flesh and blood, is the inner Jesus Prayer." Prayer is anchored in the Eucharist and nourished by it. It is not a substitute for the Eucharist but an added enrichment.
THE JESUS PRAYER AND OUR SALVATION
St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite writes on the function of the Jesus Prayer in our salvation:
"Because, brethren, we have fallen into sins after baptism and consequently have buried the grace of the Holy Spirit which was given to us at our Baptism, it is necessary that we make every effort to recover that original grace which is found deeply buried underneath our passions, like an ember in the ashes. This ember of grace we must fan into a new flame in our hearts. In order to do that, we must remove the passions from our hearts as ashes from a fireplace, and replace them with the firewood of obedience in the life-giving commandments of the Lord. We can blow upon the spark with heartfelt repentance of the mind and with the repetition of this prayer: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son and Word of God, have mercy on me.' When this prayer remains permanently in our heart, it cleanses us from the ashes of the passions, and finding the ember of grace within, it strikes up a wondrous and strange fire. This fire, on the one hand, burns away the temptation of evil thoughts, and on the other, it sweetens the whole inner person and enlightens the mind."
The division of prayer into three parts – of the body (lips), of the mind, and of the heart – applies also the Jesus Prayer. It begins as a prayer of the lips and the tongue that is prayed orally. Gradually it becomes more inward and is prayed silently with the mind. It becomes "a small murmuring stream" within. Finally, it enters the heart and dominates the entire personality. Then we have received the gift of unceasing prayer. The Jesus Prayer continues uninterrupted within us even when we are engaged in other activities. To use the expression of Theophan, "The hands at work, the mind and heart with God."
"Some godly thoughts come nearer the heart than others," says Theophan. "Should this be so, after you have finished your prayers, continue to dwell on such a thought and remain feeding on it. This is the way to unceasing prayer."
"... every Christian should be united with the Lord in his heart, and the best way to achieve such a union is precisely the Jesus Prayer" said Bishop Justins.
And so we pray:
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."
1. The importance of prayer is to be seen in the life of Jesus where almost every great event was preceded by prayer, i.e., the Baptism, the Transfiguration, the call of the Disciples, etc.
2. The two great movements in the life of Jesus were: the withdrawal into God's presence for prayer and the return into the world strengthened to do God's will.
3. Our whole life can become a prayer, a hymn of adoration to God.
4. Prayer is the abiding of the Most Holy Trinity in the soul in accordance with the words of Jesus, "We will come to him and make our home in him".
5. Prayer is not merely speaking to God with the mind (knowing about God). It is descending with the mind into the heart where we can love God, feel His presence and yield our will to Him.
6. The fruit of prayer is inner peace, healing power, the Holy Spirit, union with God and love. All the sacraments and all the theology of the Church flow from prayer. In the words of St. Isaac the Syrian, "Capture the mother (prayer) and you will have the daughters". The daughters are many.
7. The whole purpose of the spiritual life is to descend with the mind into the heart through inner prayer and to discover there the kingdom of God (the grace of baptism and the Holy Spirit). The heart is the Lord's reception room. Meet Him there. "The kingdom of God is within you," said Jesus.
8. One of the most famous prayers of the Orthodox Church is the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." As this prayer takes hold in the heart, one begins to pray without ceasing. A small fire begins to burn in the heart for the Lord.
In View Of All This, What Therefore Is Expected Of Us?
The final chapter of this book must deal with the question: in view of all that God has done for us (as we have seen in the preceding chapters), what therefore is required of us?
In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes eleven long, difficult "theological" chapters, explaining to the Romans what Christian faith is, who Jesus Christ is, what He has done for us and so on. Straight theology! Then what? Chapter 12 begins, "I appeal to you therefore brethren," and Paul gives a long list of specific things Christians are to do – things like:
Let love be genuine.
Hate what is evil.
Hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with brotherly affection.
Bless those who persecute you.
Live in harmony with one another.
Repay no one evil for evil.
In other words, Paul is saying, because God has done all these things for you, therefore this is the way you must act.
The same thing happens in the letter to the Ephesians. The first three chapters expound the work of Christ upon the Cross. And the fourth chapter begins,
"I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the filling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forebearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit the bond of pence" (Eph. 4:1-3).
Because this is what God in Christ has done for you, says Paul, therefore this is the way you must live.
In Philippians Paul tells us that Christ, who was in the form of God, emptied Himself, took the form of a servant and became obedient unto death, even death on I cross (Phil. 2:3-8). Because God in Christ did all this for us: humbling Himself, becoming a servant for us, dying the death of a slave in our behalf, therefore we arc to humble ourselves and become servants to our fellow men, serving one another in love.
Whatever we do as Christians, we do not to buy the love of God, not to purchase our way into heaven with our good works, not to pride ourselves on being than the next man. Whatever we do as Christians, we do as a grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ.
Because God has forgiven us, therefore we are obligated to forgive those who have hurl us. "You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt . . . should not you have mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?"
Because God humbled Himself and became a slave for us on the cross, therefore we must be first in our willingness to serve. "If I then your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet" (John 13:14). Every Christian is engaged in diakonia, servanthood for Christ in the world, serving Christ in the least of His brethren.
Because God comforts us, therefore we must comfort others. As St. Paul writes, "Blessed be . . . God . . . who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor. 1:3-5). The comfort that comes to us from God must pass through us to others. Let us examine a few more of the "therefore's" that are expected of every Orthodox Christian.
Keeping the commandments is not a slave morality that is imposed upon us by God. Before God gave the ten commandments He said to His people: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." It is only after this statement that God proceeds to give the ten commandments. Because God has redeemed His people from slavery, therefore, their grateful response will be to obey His commandments. The Israelites first experienced God's redemptive love in the exodus from Egypt; then they were called to return that love through obedience. We obey because we love. Our obedience is always a grateful response to God's grace and love.
So it is with the commandment to love. Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). The commandment to love is based on what God has already done for us in Christ: He loved us even unto death on the cross. Our love is to be a grateful response to His love for us. "In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God loved us, we also ought to love one another. . . We love, because He first loved us" (I John 4:10-11, 19). Before we can confess the Nicene Creed in the liturgy, we are called upon to "love one another." Love must precede even our confession of faith.
Another grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ is doxology and praise. In fact, the dominant theme of our Orthodox Christian faith is doxology. The Sunday liturgy in the Orthodox Church is preceded by the sinking of the great Doxology. This sets the tone for the entire liturgy which is one of complete eucharistia: gratitude and praise. "Glory be to the Father and In the Son and to the Holy Spirit. . ." "Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father and of the Sou and of the Holy Spirit. . ." This is the major theme of Orthodox worship in ll Wii* I lie* dominant motif of the early Christians. What do we find in the New Testament?
Tribulation, demons, suffering, crucifixion – yet always with a doxology because Christ has taken the worst of man and overcome it. "In the world you have tribulation," said Jesus, "but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world". Not crucifixion but resurrection has the last word! Not death but life! What can our response to this victory be but one of constant doxology and praise.
OUR WITNESS FOR CHRIST IN THE WORLD
Another one of the great responses to God's love is to share Christ with others, to confess Him before men. "So every one who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32-33).
Today we confess Christ before men publicly every time we recite the Nicene Creed in the liturgy. Our job is to keep confessing Him in the "liturgy after the liturgy" when we return to our places in the world. This is not a difficult task. Look at the blind man who was healed by Jesus. He confessed Christ among men simply by stating what Jesus did for him: "... one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see" (John 9:25). For example, you fall into a conversation with a neighbor, co-worker, or stranger. They, not you, bring up a problem or concern. As they talk, you remember how God helped you with one of your own problems. If you share your experience, you may fumble with words or even blush. You may come away certain that you have made a grievous mistake by sharing. But the outcome of your sharing is not up to you. It is the Lord's job to take your witness, however grand, or simple or weak, and use it to get to the heart of the one hearing you; to get him to connect to the Source of Power that will help him also, as it helped you. Who can tell what it might mean to others if we quietly testified what the Lord did for us in time of weakness or sorrow?
CONFESSING CHRIST STRENGTHENS FAITH
We are greatly strengthened when we make a public confession of faith in Jesus. Our faith is tremendously fortified by such an act. Try it! Say to a member of your family, "You know, one of the most precious persons in my life is the Lord Jesus. I simply cannot tell you what He has meant to me in my life – how He leads me, and guides me, and enriches my life every day." Just a simple confession, but how greatly it strengthens your faith when you say it with your lips. You will actually feel your faith growing stronger within you. Or take another example: you meet someone who does not come to church and you confess Christ by saying, "You know, I simply cannot tell you how much guidance and strength I receive in church every Sunday. Why, I can hardly wait for Sunday morning to come along. Mind if I pick you up next Sunday and we worship together?" Not only will your faith grow stronger when you confess Jesus this way, but you have His word for it that He will not forget it: one day He will "acknowledge" you before His Father in heaven.
John Berryman wrote a poem in which he recalls how boldly the martyrs of the early Church confessed their faith in Christ. He looks at his own life and thinks of the many things that can happen to him before the end comes. He prays that no matter what happens his lips may be ready to confess his Lord: "Cancer, senility, mania, I pray I may be ready with my witness."
THE STEWARDSHIP OF TIME, TALENTS AND POSSESSIONS
Another response to God for His gracious love is the stewardship of our time, talents and possessions. We are called to use our God-given talents to serve God and glorify Him.
The word steward is derived from the Greek word oikonomos, which means manager. Every Christian is a manager of the time, talents, and possessions God has loaned to him. He is responsible to God for the use of these gifts and will be called on by God one day to give an account of how he used them.
Much needs to be said about the importance of stewardship since the entire work of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world today depends on it. Our monetary gifts to the Church are translated into deeds of love. Consider what our gifts to the Church can do. They give legs to a word like love and send it off on urgent errands of mercy. They bring hope, health, sanity and salvation to people in the spirit of Christ. They put clothing on the naked, food in the stomachs of the starving. They preach God's words. They administer the sacraments. They educate young people in the faith. They gather workmen to build schools, hospitals, colleges, seminaries, churches. They bring new life to the handicapped.
TWO PLATES – NOT ONE
Someone said one Sunday during the offering, "Here we go again! There's always a plate". The person was right in one way and wrong in another. There is not one plate – but two! One is man's: the offering plate that is passed to us every Sunday. The other is God's. And that is the paten, the plate that carries the Precious Body of our Lord during the liturgy.
God gives first. He gives us our body, mind, life, health, talents. On the paten – the plate of God's mercy – He gives us Himself as the Bread of Life, the manna from heaven. He gives forgiveness, strength, courage. He gives victory over sin and death. He gives eternal life. "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which He lavished upon us" (Eph. 1:7-8). God gives! That is the meaning of the first plate – the paten.
THE SECOND PLATE
The second plate which is passed to us every Sunday is the offering plate. It represents our response to the first plate. We are invited to give in gratitude for God's generosity, for His limitless forgiveness and mercy. The emptiness of the offering plate represents the aching needs of the world – spiritual hunger, physical hunger, etc., which we are called to help remedy through our sharing. It represents the great spiritual hunger that exists in the world – the God-shaped vacuum in every heart – that only Christ can fill.
We give, but He gives first. However much we give, it will never be more than just a fraction of what we receive.
"There's always a plate." Indeed there is. Not one but two. First God's, then man's.
A woman traveling through Europe sent this cabje to her husband: "Found a bracelet. Price: $75,000. May I buy it?" He promptly wired back, "No, price too high." But the operator missed the comma, and the reply read, "No price too high." So the woman bought the bracelet. Later the husband sued the cable company.
When it comes to our giving to God, there is no minimum and no maximum. No price is too high for Him Who is the Pearl of Great Price. How should we give to God? Following are some guidelines.
The trouble with most of church giving is that it is out of proportion to what we have, to what we earn. The important thing in Christian giving is not "how much" we give, but "how much in comparison to our ability". A gift does not need to be large in order to be significant. It is great or small in proportion to the amount of other things we possess. One of the great examples of Christian stewardship is the poor widow who came into the Temple one day and gave "all that she had." It wasn't very much, just a fraction of a cent, but it caused the treasury bell to ring and Christ to give her a commendation that keeps ringing down through the centuries: "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all of those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living" (Mark 12:43, 44).
Give proportionately as God has blessed you. And then give lovingly. True Christian giving begins with my personal commitment to Christ, and it proceeds from there. It says, "If you don't love God, don't give. God does not need the token support of those who do not really care". And conversely, Christian giving says, "If you do love God, let your giving be some indication of the measure of that love."
Give proportionately, lovingly. Give generously. "He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly". When it comes to giving to God and His work, if you must err, err on the side of generosity, as you would if your loved one were in need and presented a request. Err on the side of going beyond what is practical and try what is spiritual. "He who sows bountifully, will also reap bountifully," writes Paul in the epistle lesson. Give abundantly and you will receive abundantly.
Give proportionately, lovingly, generously. Give wisely. Many of the ancient Greek coins have an owl on them. The owl was to remind people that they should be as wise as owls in the spending of money. How does a Christian spend money wisely? A wise Christian will sit down and make two columns. Column # 1 will be entitled, "WHAT ARE WE LIVING FOR?" And Column # 2 will be called "WHAT ARE WE SPENDING FOR?" We can never determine wisely what we shall spend for until we realize what we are living for. What we are living for will determine what we do with our possessions.
Give proportionately, lovingly, generously, wisely. Give gladly! "Everyone must give," St. Paul says, "as he has determined in his heart; not grudgingly, nor of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver." Give from your heart – cheerfully.
An example of cheerful giving is Alvin Dark, a former manager of the San Francisco Giants. He wrote,
"Tithing . . . Giving the first tenth of my income back to God was just as unquestioned in our home as putting on my socks before my shoes. And a nickel out of every 50 cents was quite a lot when I got up every day before dawn to pedal around my paper route. But as the years went by and my income increased, I found out I could never win in this game of giving to God. He always outgave me. He gave to me physically, financially and in a dozen other ways. He led me into a satisfying career in baseball. Actually, if I belong to Him, He owns me and my income too, all of it. I have learned that tithing is just a symbol of my trust in Him."
Give proportionately, lovingly, generously, wisely, gladly. And finally give humbly. Those who follow the Hindu religion must bring their thank offerings to the local priest in the following manner. They fall to their knees, close their eyes, and then place the offering in the open hand of the priest. When asked the reason for this they reply, "We close our eyes because we are ashamed to bring so little. We are ashamed because no matter how great our gift, it is tiny when compared to His love for us. So, as we present our gift, we fall to our knees in deep humility".
No matter how much we give to God, we ought to close our eyes and fall on our knees humbly because we bring so little when we think of how much He gave for us on the Cross and still gives.
BLESSED TO BLESS
Our response to God's gracious act of salvation, therefore, is a constant doxology of thanksgiving and praise. God said to Abraham, "I will bless thee . . . and thou shalt be a blessing" (Gen. 12:2). We are blessed to bless. We are forgiven to forgive. We are loved to love. We return that love through obedience. We are saved to help others find salvation. We are comforted to comfort. We are served to serve. Christ confesses us before His Father in heaven as his very own that we may confess Him among men in the world. He daily loads us with blessings that we may use them to glorify and serve Him proportionately, lovingly, generously, wisely, gladly and humbly.