What is Prayer? (V)

This is the 9th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is  What is Prayer? (IV).

One aspect of prayer that does come up frequently in the Orthodox spiritual literature is the effects of sin and the Fall on us all.

“According to the Fathers, the fall impaired the capacity of creatures to see the divine light, but did not destroy it.  The universal aspiration towards God has, it is true, become a ‘groaning’, a ‘sigh of creation’, but it is still prayer, which is the essential activity of all created things.  ‘Everything that exists prays to thee’.”  (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 27)

All of creation was designed to give praise to God the Creator, and humans were to be the ones to serve as the conductors of this chorus of praise.  But through our sin, we lost our role as the conductors guiding creation in praise of the Creator.  Instead of songs of praise, there are now only groans of pain from creation because of us.  We’ve already encountered this idea:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  (Romans 8:18-24)

Truly we were created each to be priests of God celebrating a daily liturgy and offering praise in the created world which was intended to be God’s real temple (Many ancient writers and modern scholars believe Genesis 1 is really about God creating His temple in which we were to worship Him).

Prophet Moses

But our sins have led God in His Holiness to distance Himself from the temple He created.  Yet He has not abandoned us but has continued to speak to us through the prophets, the scriptures and through His Son, the incarnate Word.  And He has continued to listen to our groans, lamentations and prayers.

So prayer, instead of being our natural and normal way of being, becomes something we must consciously choose to do.  We have to will to pray.  We have to choose to conform our will to God’s.

“Without inner spiritual prayer there is no prayer at all, for this alone is real prayer, pleasing to God.  It is the soul within the words of prayer that matters, whether the prayer is at home or in church, and if inner prayer is absent, then the words have only the appearance and not the reality of prayer.

Prophet & Psalmist David

What then is prayer?  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.   The essence of prayer is therefore the spiritual lifting of the heart towards God.  The mind in the heart stands consciously before the face of God, filled with due reverence, and begins to pour itself out before Him.  This is spiritual prayer, and all prayer should be of this nature.  External prayer, whether at home or in church, is only prayer’s verbal expression and shape; the essence or the soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”   (St. Theophan – d. 1894AD – in THE ART OF PRAYER, p 53)

Prayer is a conscious activity of fallen humans, but it is not merely a technique.

“The mystery of prayer is not consummated at a certain specific time or place.  For if you restrict prayer to particular times or places, you will waste the rest of the time in vain pursuits.  Prayer may be defined as the intellect’s unceasing intercourse with God.  Its task is to engage the soul totally in things divine, its fulfillment – to adapt the words of St. Paul (cf 1 Cor 6:17) – lies in so wedding the mind to God that it becomes one spirit with Him.”     (Nikitas Stithatos – d. 1090AD, THE PHILOKALIA  Vol 4, pp 128-129)

We can note in the quotes above, some difference in understanding of what prayer is.  But whether a church father or mother places more or less emphasis on technique, they do agree that ultimately prayer has everything to do with being in God’s presence.

Next:  What is Prayer?  (VI)

Holy Paul, Apostle to the Nations

On June 29 each year the Church celebrates the memory of the Holy Leaders of the Apostles Peter and Paul.  It is also our Patronal Feast Day for St. Paul the Apostle Church in Dayton, OH.

“Paul’s experience, however, was more than a conversion; it was also a prophetic call and a commission. Paul deliberately recounts the event with echoes of the call narratives of the prophets, especially Jeremiah (Gal. 1:15, see Jer. 1:5, cf. Isa. 49:5). Like the prophets, Paul believed that God had called him to a specific task. His was to preach the good news of Jesus especially among the Gentiles – the very ones whose inclusion had stirred him to violence.

The primary title associated with this commission is ‘apostle,’ someone sent with the authority of the sender, a kind of ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20). The apostolic title appears in the first verse of nine of the thirteen Pauline letters. When Paul speaks or writes, people listen – or at least he expects them to do so. But Paul had to struggle to prove his apostolic office. He had been a persecutor, so he was suspect for years. Furthermore, he refused financial support from those he evangelized, which was probably seen as disobedience to Jesus (Luke 10:7) and contrary to normal apostolic practice (1 Cor. 9:3-14). So too, perhaps, was his singleness (1 Cor. 7:7; 9:5). Beyond that, he was not a very ‘charismatic’ speaker (2 Cor. 10:10). When he exerted his apostolic authority in absentia (1 Cor. 5:3-5), or threatened to come as a disciplining father (1 Cor. 4:14-21), he may not have appreciated as God’s envoy. But ‘apostle’ did not mean ‘bully’ or even primarily ‘authority figure.’ It meant ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘pastor’, ‘example’, and especially ‘Christ-bearer.’” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pgs. 16-17)

What is Prayer? (IV)

This is the 8th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is What is prayer?  (III).

In the long history of Orthodox Christianity, as we have already seen, there has developed a rich treasury of images, metaphors and definitions regarding what prayer is.  Evagrios the Solitary (d. 399AD) writes:

“Prayer is the flower of gentleness and of freedom from anger.

Prayer is the fruit of joy and thankfulness.

Prayer is the remedy for gloom and despondency.”  (THE PHILOKALIA   Vol 1, p 58)

St. Isaac the Syrian  (7th Century) wrote:

“Again he was asked, ‘What is prayer?’  And he replied: ‘The mind’s freedom and rest from everything of this world and a heart that has completely turned its gaze toward the fervent desire belonging to the hope of future things.”  (THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES, p 345)

Bishop Kallistos Ware offers this explanation of what prayer is, based upon the writings of several Orthodox Saints from later centuries:

Patriarch Abraham stands before God

“Prayer is essentially a state of standing before God. In the words of St. Dimitri of Rostov (17th cent): ‘Prayer is turning the mind and thoughts towards God.  To pray means to stand before God with mind, mentally to gaze unswervingly at Him and to converse with Him in reverent fear and hope.’ This notion of ‘standing before God’ recurs again and again in St. Theophan (19th Cent) : ‘The principle thing 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.’  . . .  This state of standing before God may be accompanied by words, or it may be ‘soundless’: sometimes we speak to God, sometimes we simply remain in His presence, saying nothing, but conscious that He is near us, ‘closer to us than our own soul’ (St. Nicholas Cabasilas – 14th Cent).  As Theophan puts it: ‘Inner prayer means standing with the mind in the heart before God, either simply living in His presence, or expressing supplication, thanksgiving, and glorification.’” (THE ART OF PRAYER, p 17)

St. John the Theologian

Prayer can involve thinking or saying words, assuming pious postures and/or specific times.  It also can be in the words of St. Theophan, simply living in God’s presence.  As our faith in God becomes more who we are and what we think, our life becomes prayer.  As we grow in faith, we decreasingly compartmentalize our life.  We eventually don’t have a “church face.”  We cease to have a religious self/life, as versus our work life, home life, family life, recreational self.  We become one person, always aware of the presence of God and thus always standing in His presence.  This integration of all the aspects of our daily life and personality is part of the healing that comes in Christ.  Christianity restores both wholeness and holiness to us.  As one person comments, sin is always complex and complicated, holiness is simple.  In holiness we don’t have to pretend anything, we simply are who we are.   As God spoke to Moses, “I am who I am.”   This is the voice of holiness and wholeness.

“Only God is good by nature, but with God’s help man can become good through careful attention to his way of life. He transforms himself into what he is not when his soul, by devoting its attention to true delight, unites itself to God, in so far as its energized power desires this. For it is written: ‘Be good and merciful as is your Father in heaven’ (cf. Luke 6:36; Matt. 5:48).”  (St. Diadokos of Photiki, THE PHILOKALIA,  kindle 7544-49)

Next:  What is Prayer?  (V)

The Mystery which binds Science and Religion

Pure atheistic materialists would claim that nothing exists beyond the empirical reality we encounter through our senses.  They endeavor to explain everything in the universe by causal relations with the rest of the empirical universe.  It is a self-contained system.  Sometimes discoveries emerge which cause the materialists to admit that there may be more to the empirical universe than previously acknowledged.  So their sense of the material universe does grow to include dark matter, dark energy, parallel universes, bubble universes and the like.   Theory or experience may lead to the conjecture about these unobservable aspects of the universe which remain beyond our direct observation but are suggested because current theory and knowledge cannot fully account for the known universe (as it turns out 70% of the universe is dark energy and 25% is dark matter while the to us observable universe is only about 5% of all that exists).

For example, physicists puzzle over why gravity is such a feeble force.  As noted in the July 2012 issue of DISCOVER MAGAZINE, it is not easy to explain how a small “magnet can pick up a paper clip even though the gravitational force of the entire earth is pulling the clip down.”   This led to speculation that perhaps there are other spatial dimensions, so far unknown to us, that affect the force of gravity.  Dr. Eric Adelberger of the University of Washington and colleagues have invented a pendulum, a torsion balance, which would be able to detect whether on some micro scale gravity breaks down.  So far they have not detected any unusual results in how gravity works.

Another scientist who acknowledged that there are things science cannot explain is Sir Andrew Huxley   who died in May of this year.  Huxley was a   neurophysiologist who was responsible for discovering how a nerve impulses work which opened the door for much of modern neuroscience.  Sir Andrew considered himself an agnostic and admitted “that there is no scientific explanation for the fact that we are conscious.”   That fact plays a significant role in Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.  Tallis, though an atheist himself, is not shaken by the fact that there are some things in the universe which science cannot yet explain.  He is willing to acknowledge that there are some things we do not know, and may never know.  His book is  a rebuttal to the claims that some atheists make about neuroscience proving there is no free will.  His take on the world is that realism demands even materialists to acknowledge that currently our state of understanding certain realities is incomplete and we in fact cannot explain everything purely from materialism.  It is dishonest to contrive theories denying for example, free will, just to maintain an atheistic belief.

As I was thinking about the above two points, I read with great interest an article by Fr. John Breck in the Number 4, 2011 issue of ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, entitled “God in a Quantum World.”  Fr. Breck explores some of the new science that is emerging which challenges long held beliefs by scientists; some of these beliefs were thought to be certain and non-negotiable.  The marvel of science is of course that new evidence requires new theories, and so “scientific truth” is something that becomes modified over time as new evidence demands new theories.  Breck says that especially in France new questions are being asked by scientists which challenge the established order of things in physics, evolution and the neuroscience of consciousness.  He offers a list of ideas that are being challenged in science today, but I’ll jump to his concluding comments for the sake of brevity.

“If a person cannot accept an ‘apophatic” approach to reality, declaring what it is not before seeking to affirm what it is, then there is little way of dealing with the givens of quantum mechanics and general relativity.”

Some of what the new scientific discoveries are showing is that there is built in the physics of the universe some indeterminacy or uncertainty.  There actually are things we cannot know – not because we lack the instruments but because of the very way things are.

One of the mysteries at the quantum level of the universe is that the conscious observer is needed for certain events to take place – they remain in an indeterminate state until observed.  Breck writes:

“On the quantum level, consciousness is also required  to ‘bring into existence’ elementary particles and, variously, to determine their mass, location and velocity.  This is scientific fact, demonstrated experimentally and repeatedly over the course of the last century.”

Here we enter into a most marvelous mystery of the universe: if a conscious observer is needed for certain things to exist on the quantum level, then in fact we humans as observers also are creating or bringing into existence things which before were not.   This means two important things: 1) we actually are co-creators with God in the world, and  2) absolute determinacy, which so many atheists materialist rely on as the basis of their own epistemology, is simply false.  At the quantum level at least determinacy makes no sense.  There is mystery in the universe, and free will is quite possible.  Strangely, even before we understood the laws of quantum mechanics, we were observing the quantum universe and thus bringing things into existence, even though we were unaware that it was our conscious observation that was making certain things exist.

“If we have the capacity to bring elementary particles into physical existence by the sheer act of observation, then perhaps something analogous occurs in the realm of God’s own being and activity . . . God, who creates not by modeling clay from a riverbed or from some pre-existing, unformed matter, but rather by an act of conscious perception that looks upon the world and ‘sees that it is good’ (cf. Genesis 1).

It might well be, then, that God creates ex nihilo and sustains the creation by employing the very quantum laws that he himself devised.”

For believers all of this means that we do not have to choose between science and religion, or between faith and reason.  For what may be emerging is that science is recognizing that mystery is part of the universe, and that there may be more to the universe than we can measure or observe or test in experimentation.

The Limits of Dealing with Sexual Abuse in the Church

My blog is where I write my reflections on things I’ve read that have seemed important to me.  Sometimes I simply quote what I read without saying what the significance is to me.

Having done some work on my church’s policies and procedures related to sexual misconduct in the church, I did find a couple of questions and answers posted by Rachel Zoll of The Associated Press dated June 24, 2012, to be pertinent.

She wrote about the Philadelphia Roman Catholic monsignor who was convicted of child endangering for failing to do enough to prevent child abuse in Priest’s conviction is a first, will more follow?

The existence of sexual abuse within the church raises many questions for which the church needs to respond.  Two questions which Zoll addressed seemed particularly interesting to me:

Q: Why is it so difficult to successfully prosecute bishops and other church leaders who mishandled abuse claims?

A: Most of the abuse cases that have come to light in recent years involve allegations of wrongdoing from decades ago — far beyond the statutes of limitation for criminal charges and often for civil lawsuits. Since 2002, when the scandal broke wide open with one case in the Archdiocese of Boston, a few prosecutors have struck deals with local dioceses to avoid indictment, and eight grand juries have investigated how local dioceses responded to abuse claims. All the grand jury reports found evidence that church officials consistently protected accused clergy more than children. However, only one such report found enough evidence within time limits to prosecute a diocesan official: the Philadelphia grand jury investigation last year that led to Lynn’s conviction.

Q: If government authorities can’t prosecute the diocesan officials, can’t the church at least hold them responsible?

A: The toughened child safety policy the bishops enacted in 2002 contains a discipline plan for abusive priests, but not for the bishops who failed to report them to police. Only the pope has authority over bishops, and none has been forced out for mishandling abuse cases from decades ago.

A list of other blogs I’ve posted on church sexual misconduct with links to them can be found at Blogs on Church Sexual Misconduct.

What is prayer? (III)

This is the 7th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is What is prayer?  (II).

“Prayer is by nature a dialogue and a union of man with God.  Its effect is to hold the world together.”  (St. John Climacus – d. 649AD-  quoted in THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE, p 48)

In the Orthodox Tradition, prayer obviously is not merely an activity in which Christians occasionally engage.  Prayer, as St. John Climacus says is “a union of man with God” (theosis) whose “effect is to hold the world together.”

Think about that.

Think about what it means for your prayer life.  If we conceive of prayer as presenting a wish list to God, or a shopping list, or a set of demands, then we will never enter into that prayer which is a union between God and humanity.  If we treat God like our personal servant, valet, Genie or Santa Claus whose job it is to answer our prayers (meaning “accede to our demands”), then we never approach union with God.  The reality is God is Lord, and we are supposed to be His servants, not He ours.  We do pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” not “My will be done on earth and in heaven.” 

As noted in the previous blogs,  prayer as a way of life, as the life to which we Christians are invited, is more than just an activity that we occasionally consciously engage in.  If our life is oriented toward our Savior, then all we do becomes prayer, and our lives become part of the transfiguration which creation so eagerly awaits.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  (Romans 8:18-24)

“The Kingdom of heaven is within each of us.  To pray is, quite simply, to enter into this inner Kingdom of our heart, and there to stand before God, conscious of His indwelling presence; to ‘pray without ceasing’ is to do this constantly.  Although the full glory of this Kingdom is revealed to but few in this present age, we can all discover at any rate some part of its riches.  The door is before us and the key in in our hands.”  (Bishop Kallistos Ware in ABBA: THE TRADITION OF ORTHODOXY IN THE WEST, p 32-33)

Prayer forms us, informs us, reforms us and transforms us for it is uniting ourselves – heart, mind, soul, body and strength – to the Holy Trinity.  We cooperate with God.  Prayer is synergy in which we become doers of God’s will: “on earth as it is in heaven.”

“Prayer is a struggle for men, both in church and in solitude, even though prayer is a ladder that lifts man up from the dust and an animal existence to God.  But He who, in the flesh, stood with other men at the bottom of the ladder of life, and in spirit at its top, went joyfully to prayer in the synagogue, and spent whole nights in solitude at prayer.”  (St. Nikolai Velimirovic – d. 1956AD  HOMILIES  Vol 1, p 86)

Prayer is also work, It is not a passive enterprise but one which requires our energy, will, desire, and strength.  Prayer is not God alone, or Jesus alone.  It is the Holy Spirit praying in us, with us, and for us.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”   (Romans 8:26-28)

We are God’s fellow workers (1 Corinthians 3:9) who are to work out our salvation with God (Philippians 2:9).

Next:  What is Prayer? (IV)

Lessons from Sexual Abuse Convictions

Two prominent cases involving sexual abuse that went to trial were resolved in court this past Friday.  The first case does not involve the church.  Former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts of crimes which were committed over a fifteen year period.  The crimes include: involuntary deviate sexual intercourse; indecent assault; unlawful contact with minors; corruption of minors; endangering the welfare of children; and aggravated indecent assault.  The 23 June 2012 NEW YORK TIMES reported the story at Sandusky Guilty of Sexual Abuse of 10 Young Boys.

My interest in the story is that it does have implications for the Church as a whole, because predators are attracted to wherever children are present, even in churches.    Whereas we cannot stop every predator, we can take some measures in our parishes to encourage safety for all.  But we must always remain vigilant to what is happening in the lives of our children and fellow parish members.   As the NY TIMES reported regarding Sandusky:

“People expressed shock that a man they knew as a committed and selfless coach, a prominent fund-raiser for charity and a gregarious father figure to scores of aspiring football players and ordinary children alike could be capable of such crimes. Many, at least initially, refused to believe it.”

It is often just that disbelief that enables a predator to get away with his/her crimes.

The other story reported in the NY TIMES, Cardinal’s Aid is Found Guilty in Abuse Case, involves sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.  This case is important because Msgr. William J. Lynn was not charged directly with sexual abuse but was on trial for his role in supervising other priests, some of whom were accused of sexual misconduct.   The former cardinal’s aide was found guilty of endangering children basically for covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision.  The implication for our diocesan chanceries as well as the OCA’s chancery is notable.

“The trial sent a sobering message to church officials and others overseeing children around the country. ‘I think that bishops and chancery officials understand that they will no longer get a pass on these types of crimes,’ said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a professor of law at Duquesne University, a canon lawyer and frequent church adviser. ‘Priests who sexually abuse youngsters and the chancery officials who enabled it can expect criminal prosecution.’”

For example, the Roman Catholic bishop from Kansas City, Robert W. Finn,  awaits “trial on misdemeanor charges of violating the state’s mandatory reporting requirement by allegedly waiting six months to tell the police that a priest had taken lewd photographs of girls.”  It is another case in which the accused is not himself guilty of sexual abuse, but as a bishop is charged with failing to report such criminal behavior by one of his priests to the police in a timely fashion (he eventually did report the incidents but only 6 months after learning of them).

As is obvious in the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Church case, it is not just the abusers who are guilty of crimes, but the supervisors who failed to do due diligence and failed to report the criminal sexual misconduct to the civil authorities.  We all have a responsibility to protect all of the youth of our parishes as well as all the members of church.  It is an aspect of our practice as Church which falls under the rubric, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”   In America, “Caesar” has taken a special interest in removing sexual predators from wherever they may be trying to hide, including among the clergy.

The goal is not to make us paranoid of everyone but rather to teach us Christian vigilance.   “Dirty old men” have existed throughout history.  This is not something new.  What maybe is new is that our individualistic culture which values personal freedom and privacy happens also to be an environment in which predators can move about freely.

Prophet Daniel

We have only to think about the Septuagint’s story of Susanna found in the Greek translation of the Book of Daniel, the story of the men of Sodom (Genesis 19), or the story of the righteous Joseph in Egypt being sexually harassed by his master Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) to realize sexual abuse was not unknown in the biblical world.

Sin is not new, but is quite ancient.

The Nativity of St. John the Forerunner

June 24 is the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner.  He remains one of my favorite saints.  I am awed by his prophetic honesty and fearless speaking of the truth.  He suffered for truth joyously – that is a holiness which astounds me.

St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome, wrote about the Lord’s baptizer:

“Let us listen to what Christ said to the crowds about John. What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? He did not expect them to assent to this, but to deny it. As soon as a slight breeze touches a reed it bends. What then does the reed represent, if not a worldly soul? Touched by approval or malice it turns round in every direction. A slight breeze of approval comes from someone’s mouth and it is cheerful and proud, bending over completely, so to speak, in the direction of being pleasant; if the breeze of praise becomes a wind of malice the reed bends quickly in the opposite direction, toward fierce anger. John was no reed, shaken by the wind. No one’s pleasant attitude made him agreeable, and no one’s anger made him bitter. Prosperity could not lift him up nor adversity bring him down. He was no reed shaken by the wind! No change in events deflected him from his upright state. My friends let us learn not to be reeds shaken by the wind. We must keep our minds steady before the breezes of opinion, and our hearts unbent. Malice should never provoke us to anger, nor favor make us revel in foolish enjoyment. We should not let prosperity make us proud, nor adversity trouble us. We who are firmly established in faith should not be moved at all by the vicissitudes of passing events.”   (Be Friends of God, pg. 93)

Holy John the Forerunner pray to God for us!

What is prayer? (II)

This is the 6th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is “What is prayer?” 

The Book of Psalms has been a prayer book for Christians from the beginning of the Christian movement.  The Psalms are Jewish and Old Testamental, yet they speak of Christ, are prophetic and are called in Orthodoxy, “the mind of Christ.”   The Psalms teach us how to pray and from them we learn what our Lord Jesus Christ Himself prayed.

The Psalms like all prayer inform, form us, transform us and at times reform us!   They place us in the plan and process of salvation.

“Most likely, the Psalms in the Bible finally became part of the scriptural canon because they were the most universal and relevant, the most unreservedly expressive of their kind.

If we read them with open and attentive mind, their striking and colorful words can help us to understand the essence of Scripture, what loving God actually means.  Before all else, it means offering the whole of our experience to him: joy, sadness, anger, suffering, desires, frustrations – hiding nothing from him, even our deepest thoughts.  This is what prayer is.”   (Monks of New Skete, IN THE SPIRIT OF HAPPINESS, p 191)

In the Psalter we find the complete range of human emotions, and we learn from this that there is nothing we need to hide from God.  We offer our entire life to God, including our frustrations, failures, pains, disappointments.  God cares about the entirety of our lives, and is not absent from us in our worst moments.  This again is how it is possible to make our entire life a prayer to God.  We can pray at every moment, no matter what our emotional disposition.  We can offer up to God all of our emotions and thoughts, seeking His mercy and blessings no matter what we feel in our hearts.

But prayer is not merely offering to God our every  moment of our existence, but prayer also informs, forms and transforms us.   In prayer we come to realize the importance of doing God’s will and the need for repentance in our lives in order to help bring our self-will into conformity to God’s will.

“It is true, as St. Mark the Ascetic says, ‘Prayer is called a virtue but in reality it is the mother of virtues: for it give birth to them through union with Christ.’  … Thus, prayer for the Christian is not an externally imposed duty.  It is an essential aspect of true human life, required for its fulfillment and realization. …

Prayer is a necessity for the Christian life in that it brings us into personal communion with Him in whose image we were created and toward which we are growing.  Prayer is a protective measure, a weapon against temptation and sin.  Jesus’ instructions to His disciples are ever pertinent: ‘Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Matt 26:41)  The experience of the Fathers is equally instructive.  ‘If a man tries to overcome temptations without prayer and patient endurance he will become more entangled in them instead of driving them away.’ (St. Mark the Ascetic)” [my apologies but I lost the source for this quote]

Prayer is that which enables us to continue in the daily struggles of life to be a Christian and live a life which is oriented toward God.

“…Christian prayer is the movement of the heart towards God, towards a God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.  Prayer is not simply the movement of the heart, but is the response of the heart to God’s love manifest in Jesus Christ.”  (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY, p 3)

Next:  What is prayer?  (III)

Reality: ‘I am for peace, but they are for war.’

I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war!

(Psalms 120:7)

As I’ve been convalescing from my spinal fusion surgery, I have a lot of down time, and am just beginning to feel well enough to feel the need to do things to occupy my time.  I listened in my first week home to THE HOBBIT on my Kindle text to voice reader.   It is not a human reading the text, but a mechanical reader, which takes some getting used to.  Nevertheless, I was thankful for having a device that could read to me while I lay flat listening.    I read THE HOBBIT 35 years or more ago, and although I remember liking the book, I found that I really didn’t remember the story at all.

As in the entire LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, I do remember having an emotional reaction to the role war plays in the writings of Tolkien.  He was not an idealist, like I am.  He did not envision a world without war or without evil or without a struggle between good and evil.  That struggle takes place not only on the macro level of all people on earth, but in the heart of each individual as well.

I remember being troubled when I first read his trilogy by Tolkien’s realism regarding war and the almost necessary role it has in history.  On this earth there is and will be struggle, and there are forces that are trying to prevail over the rest of inhabitants of earth.   Tolkien does accept the grand epic notion of  a cosmic struggle between good and evil, and yet in my reading of him, he is not blaming Satan for the existence of war, struggle or evil on earth.  Evil lurks in the hearts of earth’s inhabitants.  Satan is not much needed to cause war when the inhabitants of the earth are so ready to use violence to attain even unimportant goals.

There is always someone or some group which desires to have power over others and is willing to do anything to gain and maintain their position of power.  There always are some who are willing to enslave others to attain their goals.  Evil and wickedness are in this sense forces that can work upon our hearts and minds, and it happens at every level of human existence from the individual up to entire cultures and empires.

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.   And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”  (Genesis 6:5-6)

I appreciate that recognition of what lurks in the hearts of earth’s inhabitants in the writings of JRR Tolkien.  The struggle with evil that we each and always face is not just the fault of Satan, but it is a true spiritual warfare in each of us.  Sometimes it becomes a collective when an entire nation embraces evil design and decides it is OK to oppression or destroy their fellow inhabitants on earth.

I wish it weren’t so, and by nature am a pacifist, but I realize Tolkien is right about the nature of evil in the world’s population as he is correct about war as a means for people to achieve their goals or to oppose those who want to oppress.

Even after the Great Flood:   the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth…'”  (Genesis 8:21)

My pacifistic beliefs are not the result of personal holiness, but the result of wishful idealism.  Would that we on this planet could find it in our hearts not to hate others, not to be ready to kill those different from us, not to be willing to enslave those we think as lesser than ourselves, not to rely on violence to attain our wishes and goals.  But, alas, as in the world Tolkien created, violence and war seem to be part of the fabric which makes up our hearts.

Jesus said: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery,  coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.   All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”   (Mark 7:21-23)

So the quote of the little Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, stood out in my mind as I listened to the tale:

“You are a fool, Bilbo Baggins, and you made a great mess of that business with the stone; and there was a battle, in spite of all your efforts to buy peace and quiet, but I suppose you can hardly be blamed for that.”   (Kindle 4368-69)

Like Bilbo, I wish people could get along on planet earth, and I’m so often dismayed by as he was by the stubbornness and lack of good will even among some who are supposed to be allies.   How quickly we so often resort to violence and how willingly we go to war.  maybe it is Tolkien’s realism, or maybe it is the biblical notion of violence and evil which lurks in the hearts of every human being.

I know I have used these quotes several times in other blogs, to make the same point, but I came back to the same ideas while reading Tolkien.

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”    (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)