Another way we learn from the Tradition that prayer was not viewed as merely technique or as a mechanical following of rules comes from monastic texts such as the following:
“It can happen that when we are at prayer some brothers come to see us. Then we have to choose, either to interrupt our prayer or to sadden our brother by refusing to answer him. But love is greater than prayer. Prayer is one virtue amongst others, whereas love contains them all. (John Climacus – d. 649AD…)” (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 279)
The Tradition teaches, “Love is greater than prayer.” We are never to use prayer as an excuse for not serving or loving or giving to another. Love is our normal activity as a Christian. Prayer is to be an act of love.
We should not lose sight of the fact that the notion that “love is greater than prayer” is coming from the monastic tradition – coming from men and women who completely devoted their lives to prayer.
Being a Christian, following Christ, cannot be reduced to simply following laws, rules and regulations. The main law of Christ, that of love for God and then love for neighbor, rules everything including our prayer life. Prayer is an outgrowth of the love that is to govern us all.
We need to remember that mastering a technique of prayer will never be sufficient for salvation if we have not love. If I become a master of prayer techniques but have not love, I have nothing (see 1 Corinthians 13).
“If while you are singing a song of prayer to God, one of your brethren knocks at the door of your cell, do not opt for the work of prayer rather than that of love and ignore your brother, for so to act would be alien to God. God desires love’s mercy, not the sacrifice of prayer (cf Hos 6:6). Rather, put aside the gift of prayer and speak with healing love to your brother. Then with tears and a contrite heart once more offer your gift of prayer to the Father of the spiritual powers, and a righteous spirit will be renewed within you (cf Matt 5:23-24; Ps 51:10,17).” (Nikitas Stithatos – d. 1090AD, THE PHILOKALIA Vol 4, pp 128-129)
While the desert tradition advocated monks engaging in prayer while they did the work necessary for their own survival, there was work in which the monks should not engage when they were dedicating themselves specifically to prayer.
“It is not proper for anyone to engage in any accessory work, or rather distraction, during the time of prayer. For the angel who attended Antony the Great taught him this clearly.” (St. John Climacus – , Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 3513-15)
The tension between following a prayer rule and fully loving others reminds me of some humorous wisdom I mention in a previous blog: The Right Time for Prayer. I’ll repeat the story here as it is apropos:
Igor and Ivan were doing landscape work around the church. Igor sits down to take a break and lights up a cigarette. Igor says to Ivan, “Do you think it is alright to smoke when praying?”
Ivan replies, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask the priest?”
So Igor finds the priest and asks, “Father, may I smoke while I pray?”
The priest replies, “Igor, how could you ask such a question! Of course not! That would be offensive to God; It is a sin to smoke while you are praying.”
Igor goes back to Ivan and tells him what the priest told him.
Ivan says, “I’m not surprised. You asked the wrong question. Let me try.”
And so Ivan goes up to the priest and asks, “Father, may I pray while I smoke?”
The priest looked with fondness on the thoughtfulness of Ivan and replied, “Of course! It is always the right time to pray – whatever you are doing, it is never the wrong time to say a prayer.”
Next: Praying (VII)