What follows is the text of a class from a series on Living the Christian Life in the World Today. This class was given on October 25, 2006 at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in McComb, MS.
This evening’s talk is on prayer. At first I was thinking of a systematic approach—ask some questions, lay some groundwork, discuss prayer as something we do, what it does to us. But it’s really more accurate to talk about prayer as something we are, something we become. Prayer is activity which is all encompassing—the Fathers teach that all of our life can become prayer. So, in that perspective, we’ll start with Scripture and then some quotes from Fathers and Elders of the Church. We’ll hear about prayer from the teachers of prayer, from those who lives were dedicated to prayer, and were lives of prayer. And we’ll be looking at modern elders, who have lived even during our lifetimes, to show that the teaching passed on can be followed even today.

“Pray without ceasing.” I Thessalonians 5:17
In the Orthodox Church, this is the foundational teaching about prayer. People talk about how to pray, when to pray, what to pray…but in the Christian life we’re all called to ceaseless prayer. This makes prayer one of the foundational elements in the life according to Christ. It’s something we’re supposed to do all the time. What else does the Scripture demand that we be concerned with doing literally all the time? Just prayer.

Why? Prayer, St. John of Damascus writes, is “raising up the heart and mind to God.” Prayer is communion and union with God. The Fathers use very Sacramental language to talk about prayer. Prayer is a Sacrament, a Mystery, of human relationship with God. We place ourselves constantly, ceaselessly, in the presence of God, and open our lives to communion with Him. And in this prayer God reveals Himself to us, He teaches us, He makes known to us His presence. This is why we “be still and know that I am God.” Prayer is not just about what we say, it’s our constant stance before Christ. Waiting to be healed, waiting to see God. But the stillness is not of absence. The Fathers tell us it’s an active stillness—what could be going on more important than communion with God? The Fathers call prayer supremely active stillness.

And what’s happening in the stillness of active prayer? In communion with God, we’re sharing in His life. We’re being taught by Him. Elder Joseph the Hesychast writes “When grace is operative in the soul of someone who is praying [as a side note—the grace of God operates when and how God wants it to, we follow in doing what Christ taught us to do, and it’s up to God when and if and how to bestow His grace], then he is flooded with the love of God, so that he can no longer bear what he experiences. Afterwards, this love turns toward the world and man, whom he comes to love so much that he seeks to take upon himself the whole of human pain and misfortune so that everyone else might be free from it…those who are advanced in prayer do not cease to pray for the world.” Obviously, he’s not just talking about 5 or 10 minutes in the morning and in the evening. He’s talking about a life of prayer. And when God comes to the person in prayer and reveals Himself, when we come to know and experience God, then we begin to share in His love for all mankind.

Now, this is a high calling for man in prayer. When we talk about prayer usually, we think about fulfilling our “prayer rule.” Saying a certain number of prayers a certain number of times each day, and in doing that we think we’re praying. And we are. We’re beginning to pray. If we stop with that, we miss out on so much of what God has to offer us. The prayer has to go beyond the routine practice of morning and evening prayer (even though that is important, its vital to set aside specific time to come to God in prayer)—but our prayer has to reach out to God day and night. And the only way we can maintain this intensity of prayer is by the grace of God—and what we offer is our own struggle, and our love for God. When we read the teachers of prayer, we notice immediately the way they express their love for God. And when we’re struggling in the spiritual life, reading some of these words can inspire us and help us return or begin pouring our souls out to God day and night. So I wanted to read a few quotes that give an idea of what the Saints mean when they say that our prayer comes from our intense love for God.

Elder Porphyrios writes on the Love we have for God—“Christ is the summit of desire; there is nothing higher. All sensible things lead to satiety, but with God there is no satiation. He is everything. God is the summit of desire. No other joy, no other beauty, nothing else can rival Him…Love for Christ…is without end…It gives live; it gives strength; it gives health; it gives and gives and gives. And the more it gives, the more the person wishes to fall in love…When we love Christ, all other love abates…Divine love raises us up to the sphere of God…Love Christ and He will love you, then everything becomes Christ, Paradise.”

The love we have for Christ fills our entire person, and the Fathers go on to say that this love makes all we have to bear in this life seem easy. Think of Jacob in the Old Testament, laboring for Rebecca. The years he works for her hand seem like nothing to him, because he’s working for the one he loves. Then multiply this by the love of God.

And if we have a hard time having this intense love for God, the advice is “live as though you have this love for God and for all people, and the Holy Spirit will fill you with the grace of possessing this love.”

[As a note on the experience of faith or love…we often have the idea that we only have faith or love when we feel something. But true faith, true love, is not an emotion. Often emotions will rise up during moments of great faith or love, but the emotions are not what we’re after. Faith, love, are not emotional feelings, but decisions we make aided by the grace of God. We choose to have faith in God, and He fills us with His presence. We choose to love God, and He fills us with His life. So if we struggle for faith or love, the advice again is to live a life of love, and in choosing this love you’re filled with the love that you’re seeking. The choice is ours, and the filling with the life and presence of God comes in His time, by His grace.]

Inspired and driven by our love for God, we enter the arena to offer our struggle. “The Kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” ( ). We enter the arena to do violence to our own passions and laziness, in order to love God back, and offer ourselves to Him ceaselessly in prayer. And our strength for this ascetic life comes from our constant prayer and communion with God. One of the most wonderful definitions of this ceaseless prayer is the offering of ourselves as living sacrifices to God. Bringing Him with us into every moment. This is such a healthy way to talk about the ascetic life—we choose to bring Christ with us everywhere. Now, of course, God is present everywhere, as we say in the Trisagion. “Everywhere present and filling all things.” But then we continue, “come and abide in us.” Make Your face known to me even now. This will change our actions if anything will—constantly remembering that Christ is with us even now. This is the life of ceaseless prayer.

About this struggle to be constantly in the presence of God, the Elder Porphyrios taught “There is one thing we must do, and that is turn to [Christ] and love Him with all of our soul…All things are possible with Christ. Where is the pain and effort for you to become good? Things are simple. You will invoke God and He will transform things into good. If you give your heart to Him, there will be no room for other things. When you ‘put on’ Christ, you will not need any effort to attain virtue. He will give it to you.”

Obviously, these words are not a rejection of the ascetic tradition of the Church. It’s putting everything in proper perspective. Give yourself to Christ—this is the ultimate struggle against our passion, to give ourselves to something else, to no longer be in control—give yourself to Christ, and He will accomplish all things in you.

So to the obvious question, how do we practically try to do this? To pray with love and with yearning and with power and without ceasing. There’s not a recipe. But I’ll offer a few final quotes that I pray will be inspiring us to pray, and explaining in a sense how we go about offering ourselves to God in prayer.

“There is no difference between the commandments of Christ and the life of God Himself. By abiding in Christ’s commandments, we organically become like Him. Remain in prayer, persevere, go through the day without sin. All the rest will be given by God. This is why the saints do not spend one second without prayer, to be always prepared to take the path well-pleasing to God.” (Elder Sophrony) Something we’ve mentioned already, prayer as necessary to persevere in the keeping the commandments, which is the putting on of Christ and taking off the old man.

“The aim that we give to our life permeates all our activities. If, for example, we are seeking first of all to gain money, everything that we do will be determined by that aim. If salvation in Christ is the unique aim of our life, everything we do becomes liturgical, an act of prayer.” (Elder Sophrony) If we desire Christ alone with all of our being, with every fiber of what we are, then He becomes that aim that permeates every aspect of our daily life. Again, living a life of prayer.

And how, living in the world, can we possibly hope to attain constant remembrance of the grace of Christ in our lives? Elder Sophrony writes “there is no other way but to pray continuously during your work. Transform all that you have to do into prayer. You are opening a door; ask the Lord to open unto you the door of repentance. You are laying bricks; remind yourself that unless God Himself builds the house you are laboring in vain, nothing will stand…[one general, when preparing for battle, prayed] ‘O Lord, I will be too busy; I may forget Thee, but do not Thou forget me.’”

The path to giving ourselves fully to Christ, to truly beginning to live a Christian life, is a path that necessarily guided by prayer. By offering ourselves to God in every moment of every day, we open ourselves to the operation of His grace in our lives, and most necessary, we open ourselves to commune with He Who Truly Is.

Advertisements