Prayer as Relationship with God (VI)

This is the 41st blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Prayer as Prayer as Relationship with God (V).

“Prayer is turning the mind and thoughts towards God.  To pray means 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 – d. 1709AD, THE ART OF PRAYER, p 50)

All along we have read in this blog series that praying is not purely a matter of exactly following some technique.  Prayer rather is relationship to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.  As such, prayer has many wonderful spiritual effects on the person praying.

“Prayer that rises up in someone’s heart serves to open up for us the door of heaven: that person stands in converse with the Divinity and gives pleasure to the Son of God.”  (St. Ephrem the Syrian – d. 379AD, THE SYRIAC FATHERS ON PRAYER AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE,  p. 36)

We can converse with God for prayer establishes a relationship between us and the Persons of the Holy Trinity.  For our part, we need to learn to listen to God speaking to us:  listen to His words, His voice, his speech, His language, but also to listen to and for God’s silence and that voice which speaks through creation itself.  In listening, we also learn to speak His language, which for us means learning to stand in His presence and to act in accordance with His will.  This is how we learn to converse with God: watchfulness, vigilance, attentiveness, and awareness.  All of creation is speaking to God without the use of words.  We can learn to listen for that as well.

“Yet for there to be prayer in the Christian sense of the word a specifically personal relationship has to be established with the living God, a ‘conversation’ as Evagrius puts it.  The word should be taken in a broad sense.  It may be silent listening, a cry of distress, a celebration; it may also be Job’s plaintive challenge.  The disposition we need to cultivate, even when care weighs heaviest, is that of remembering that God exists and loves us; that we are not alone, lost, ridiculous in the presence of nothingness or horror; that there is another who we may approach in union with Christ, in him, in the depths of our being.  .  .  . Prayer does not seek to draw God towards us since, as St. Augustine says, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves.  Its purpose is to bring us close enough to him for dialogue, and to make us aware of his nearness.

‘It may be true that the divine principle is present in every being, but not every being is present in him.  We ourselves will come to dwell with him if we call on him with very holy prayers and a tranquil mind.  For his indwelling is not local, as if he could change position . . .  If we were on a ship, and to rescue us ropes attached to a rock were thrown to us, obviously we should not draw the rock any nearer to ourselves, but we would pull ourselves and our ship nearer to the rock . . .   And that is why . . .  in prayer we need to begin, not by drawing to ourselves that Power that is everywhere and nowhere, but by putting ourselves in his hands and uniting ourselves to him.  (Dionysius the Areopagite –  ca 5th Century …)’”    (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, pp 181-182)

Ultimately we who desire God’s presence must remove from ourselves all that prevents us from being in His presence or which blocks us from being aware of His presence.  We have to rid ourselves of selfishness and self-centeredness, of sin and all that prevents us from loving Him and our neighbor.  As a friend told me, medical science removes all that prevents healing from taking place – that is what allows God to heal.  So too confession of sins and repentance removes from us all that prevents us from being in God’s presence, from enjoying communion with Him.  The Christian life takes away all that prevents us from listening to God and attending to His will.   True prayer occurs when all of the self-centered and sinful obstacles to relating to God have been emptied from our hearts and minds, so that we allow God to enter into our lives.

“So he who loves God cultivates pure prayer, driving out every passion that keeps him from it.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor – d. 662AD, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 12397-98)

Next:  Prayer That Never Ends

Seeing the Cross of Christ Today

St. Theophylact of Ohrid (d. 1108AD) in his commentary on Galatians asks a rhetorical question about St. Paul’s line in 3:1.  St. Paul tells the Galatians that the crucified Christ was placed right before their eyes.

St. Paul preaching Christ crucified.

Theophylact uses this line to explore what Paul the Apostle to the Nations could possibly mean.  Jesus was crucified years before the Galatians heard about Him, and was crucified in a land far away from where the Galatians lived, so in how would it be possible for the Galatians to see Christ crucified?  St. Theophylact starts by quoting St. Paul:

“’Before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you.

‘But Christ was crucified in Jerusalem,’ one might object. ‘How then can Paul say, ‘before whose eyes and among you?’  He can do so because, with the eyes of faith, the Galatians see the Cross more vividly than those who were present at Golgotha and witnessed the event. Many of the bystanders who saw the crucifixion in the flesh derived no benefit from it, but the Galatians can perceive the Cross more clearly by faith, though not with the eyes of the flesh. Therefore, Christ was set forth, that is, He was depicted in the proclamation of the Gospel. ‘When you believed in my preaching, you saw Him visibly present.’ ” (St. Theophylact, The Explanation of the Epistle of St Paul to the Galatians, pg. 47)

We encounter in this explanation of St. Paul’s Epistle an interesting fact that we will see in the Gospels as well.  Being present at the time of Christ, being in Christ’s presence is no absolute guarantee that one will benefit from the experience.  Most of those who witnessed the crucifixion, “derived no benefit from it” in the words of St. Theophylact.  They had no advantage over us.  But when we hear the entire Gospel and understand that Jesus is being portrayed as the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of God, Lord, the Suffering Servant of God, the incarnate God, then we can come to understand the significance of the crucifixion.  We can hear and understand the story with eyes of faith.  So hearing the entire Gospel proclaimed gives us an advantage over those who may have just had a momentary encounter with Christ 2000 years ago.  We are being given the whole picture including the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ.   When we hear the entire Gospel proclaimed within a community of faith and can see that others actually believe and live according to the teachings of Christ, the story, the Gospel takes on a power which it couldn’t have for those who actually were present at one of the events listed in the Gospel.

Thus we see “more vividly” the life of Christ than some who were actually present for it, because we have the advantage of knowing the entire story and all the things that God did through and in Jesus Christ including raising Him from the dead.  We hear a Gospel lesson but understand it only in the light of  all of the Gospel stories,  of the entire New Testament or the Bible itself.  Every passage we read today we read within the context of the entirety of Scripture and within the community of those who have accepted this Tradition, believed it and attempt to live according to its precepts.