Prayer: Standing in God’s Presence

The Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, Mark 9:17-31, should be a message of hope for many of us.

Often, in the face of tragedy or problems, we feel hopeless, wringing our hands and worriedly asking, “what went wrong?”  and “What should I do?” or “why me?”

We see the disciples in this condition in the Gospel lesson.  A man brought his sick child to the disciples and asked them to heal his son.  But try as they might, the disciples were not able to heal the boy.  Jesus had given the disciples the power to exorcise demons (Mark 3:15), and they had had some success (Mark 6:7-13), but in this case they failed.   Later, away from the prying ears of the crowd, they privately ask Jesus to explain to them why they couldn’t heal the boy but Jesus was able.

Jesus tells them fasting and prayer are the activities needed to remedy the situation.   But note Jesus does not tell them it was their lack of faith that led to their failure.    Rather Jesus reminds them how to consciously stand in God’s presence – through prayer and fasting.

The disciples had in fact on another occasion requested that Jesus teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4).  Jesus complied to their request and taught them the Lord’s prayer.

The disciples didn’t ever ask – “teach us to do miracles” – nor did they ask “teach us how to pray so that we get everything we want”  NOR even “teach us how to pray so prayer works for us.”

Prayer always puts us in God’s presence.   And being in God’s presence it turns out is the goal of the spiritual life.  The goal is not getting all our prayers answered – we are not trying to turn God into our personal so that He delivers to our doorstep everything we request.

Prayer puts us into God’s presence, and makes God present to us, which makes union with God possible.   We are not just asking for gifts, we are asking to be with the giver of life.   St. Paul says:   “I seek not what is yours but you”  (2 Corinthians 12:14).  That precisely should be our attitude toward God – don’t seek what He can give you, seek God the giver of every good and perfect gift.

There are plenty of things in our lives that come between us and God – our worries, our problems, our temptations, our disbeliefs, our selfishness, our lusts – all of these personal demons.

Prayer and fasting cut through all of those things and put us back in the presence of God.  The goal is to be not only mindful of God but united to God.  We can only begin that journey by prayer and fasting.   We have to lay aside all earthly cares and truly believe that the most important thing is to be in God’s presence.  And that is true whether things are going good or bad, whether we are in a time of prosperity or poverty, whether experiencing a blessing or a curse.   Being in God’s presence is the goal no matter what else is going on around us.  Even if it is the moment of  our death, if we are in God’s presence, we are where we need to be.

Remember Satan does not tremble because the church has wonderful fellowship hours, or at church dinners, nor at church fund raisers, nor at church schedules.

But Satan is crushed by humble, heart felt prayer – by our standing in God’s presence, by our submitting our lives to God’s will.

As we move into these last two weeks of Great Lent, make Christ Jesus the center of your life so that you always follow Him and you keep Him near you.

One last thing to remember, in ancient Israel, King Hezekiah when he launched his reforms to restore proper religion told the Levites:  “My sons, do not now be negligent, for the LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to be his ministers and burn incense to him.”   (2 Chronicles 29:11)

The task the priests of Israel were chosen for was to stand in God’s presence!  Now we come to the New Testament where the priesthood has been expanded to all believers.  The Apostle Peter tells us:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Now it is the task of each of us and all of us – not just the priests – to stand in God’s presence and to offer spiritual sacrifices.   We all are to “liturgize” together to the glory of God.  We are to make God present in every moment of our lives.


For the Peace from Above

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls . . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord. (Petitions from the Divine Liturgy)

St. Tikhon, the Enlightener of North America comments:

Therefore the angels at His very birth already sing “on earth peace, good will toward men.” But perhaps you might ask — where is peace on earth, since from the coming of Christ until this day we see conflicts and wars; when at the present time one nation rises against another and one kingdom against another; when even now discord, hostility, and animosity are seen so often among people?

Where are we to look for peace, which was brought and left by Christ (cf. John 14:27)? “It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains”; “all nations will stream toward it” “and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” “and they will not train for war again” (Is. 2:2, 4); “every man shall sit under his own vine undisturbed” (Mic. 4:4). This kingdom of peace on earth, which was foretold by the Prophets of the Old Testament, is indeed the Church of Christ; and it is in it [the Church] that peace should be sought. Here man is given peace with God, since in the mysteries he is purified from sin and becomes a child of the Lord, pleasant to Him. Here also in the services offered to God, in the mysteries, in the order and life of the Church, a Christian draws peace and delight and calmness for his heart.

The nature of man is transformed and renewed, and into his meek, gentle, truly humble, merciful, and loving soul comes the God of peace and love. And a Christian then experiences the heavenly bliss of which there is nothing higher on earth. No troubles or sufferings of any kind can overshadow this blissful peace in a Christian. On the contrary, we know from the history of the Church of Christ that holy men even rejoiced in suffering and boasted in sorrows, captivity and prisons, deserts and dens of the wicked. Amidst all deprivations they were placid and calm, perhaps more so than people who live with all the comforts and prosperity ever feel. They are not afraid of death itself; they calmly expect its approach and depart to the Lord in peace. Peace is dispersed everywhere in the Church of Christ.

Here people pray for peace in the whole world, for the unity of all; here all call one another brethren, and help one another; here everybody is loved, and even enemies are forgiven and cared for. And when Christians listen to the voice of the Church and live according to its commands, then they truly have peace and love.  (St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 453-471)

The Divine Liturgy and Personal Prayers

While one’s personal prayer life and joining in the prayer at the Liturgy are integrally linked and inseparable  in the spiritual life of Orthodox Christians, they are also  two distinct types of prayer.  When one joins the community at the Liturgy, we are joining to pray communal prayers, to join our heart and mind to those of all the other believers assembled together.  It is both how we compose the Body of Christ and experience the Body of Christ in our own person.

 Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:

“Liturgical prayer is not simply the prayers of individual Christians joined into one. It is not a corporate ‘prayer service’ of many persons together. It is rather the official prayer of the Church formally assembled; the prayer of Christ in the Church, offering His ‘body’ and ‘bride’ to the Father in the Spirit. It is the Church’s participation in Christ’s perpetual prayer in the presence of God in the Kingdom of heaven (cf. Heb 7.24–25, 9.24).  . . .  In the Orthodox Church there is no tradition of corporate prayer which is not liturgical. Some consider this a lack, but most likely it is based on Christ’s teaching that the prayer of individuals should be done ‘in secret’ (Mt 6.5–6). This guards against vain repetition and the expression of personal petitions which are meaningless to others. It also protects persons from being subjected to the superficialities and shallowness of those, who instead of praying, merely express the opinions and desires of their own minds and hearts. . . .

When one participates in the liturgical prayer of the Church, he should make every effort to join himself fully with all the members of the body. He should not ‘say his own prayers’ in church, but should pray ‘with the Church.’ This does not mean that he forgets his own needs and desires, depersonalizing himself and becoming but one more voice in the crowd. It means rather that he should unite his own person, his own needs and desires, all of his life with those who are present, with the church throughout the world, with the angels and saints, indeed with Christ Himself in the one great ‘divine’ and ‘heavenly liturgy’ of all creation before God.   Practically this means that one who participates in liturgical prayer should put his whole being, his whole mind and heart, into each prayer and petition and liturgical action, making it come alive in himself. If each person does this, then the liturgical exclamations become genuine and true, and the whole assembly as one body will glorify God with ‘one mouth, one mind and one heart’…”   (SPIRITUALITY, pp 127-128)

We come to the church at liturgy to join and become part of the community (common-unity), to share in the life in the Body of Christ.  Communion and community are related words and concepts.

In this sense, we don’t come to the Liturgy to say our private prayers.  Christ taught us to do that at home, hidden from the eyes of others – to do such private praying in the privacy of our own room (Matthew 6:6).  The liturgy is a time to set aside our private prayer books and to pray the liturgy with everyone assembled.  If we pray with the community, and “go to church” exactly for that purpose, then perhaps we can also learn tolerance for others.  They are not there to annoy us, but are there exactly so that we can pray with them, sharing space and time in community.  The people who aren’t dressed appropriately, or the crying babies, over-active children, the people coming late, those walking in and out of liturgy – these are the people we are coming to church to pray with and for.  So they aren’t disrupting our liturgical prayer life, they aren’t distracting us, but are there for us to note them and pray with and for them.  We come to the Liturgy to be fully aware of those with whom we belong in the Body of Christ.  This is part of the love for one another of which Jesus spoke (John 15:11-17 – note that Christ taught that loving one another would increase our joy, not detract from it!).

We also come to pray with and for the needs of the community.  In some places  it has become common practice to turn in long lists of names of the people for whom we privately are praying.  We somehow seem to think this makes the Liturgy personal.  But truthfully turning in such long lists of names does exactly what Fr. Hopko says shouldn’t happen at the liturgy: It turns the Liturgy, the common prayer of the people, into “the expression of personal petitions which are meaningless to others.”   You are supposed to pray personally and privately for all the people on your prayer list, but all those names aren’t meant to be expressed in the Liturgy.  The liturgy prays for virtually every one on earth in its various petitions.  Turning in long lists of names may seem pious and prayerful, but we are already praying for virtually everyone at the liturgy in the many categories of people we pray for in the various petitions.  Naming people at the Liturgy changes the nature of prayer at the Liturgy into private petitions.  It is appropriate for the local community to pray by name for people of special interest to the community that have special needs, but these should be names known by virtually everyone in the community and whose needs are well known too.

A friend tells me that turning in long lists of names to be read at the Liturgy is common in places where Communion is infrequent.  He thinks it is just another practice that has emerged in churches in which actual communion has disappeared.  Like the proskomedia, names are being offered because frequent Communion has disappeared.  It is the substitute for the reality of the sacrament.  If people are living the Christian life and joining in the community’s Eucharist, they are “in Christ” in reality, not just in name.

We “go to Church” in order to fully experience the sacramental reality of the Community’s Eucharist.  That is something we cannot experience at  home in our private prayer life.  Our private prayer life is in fact nourished by our liturgical prayer life in community.  But we should not be reducing Liturgical prayer to being just our private prayer.  Individualism is meant to be overcome in Christ in whom we become part of His body, members one of another (Romans 12:5).


The Divine Liturgy is the Kingdom of God

“The Divine Liturgy is the Kingdom of God, and the food at the Supper of the Kingdom is love. Through repentance and fear of God, we traverse the sea of this life and arrive at love.

‘Repentance is the ship,

fear is its helmsman and

love is the divine harbor.

So fear places us in the ship of repentance, conveys us across the sullied sea of life and brings us to the divine harbor which is love, to which all those who are weary and heavy laden attain through repentance [cf. Matt. 11:28]. Once we arrive at love, we have arrived at God.’”

(St. Isaac the Syrian in The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers  by Hieromonk Gregorios, p 294)

The Unworthy Impediment

While piety sometimes can make us believe we are  not worthy to receive Holy Communion on a particular day when the Eucharistic Liturgy is being offered, the reality is Christ came to call the sinner to repentance, to heal the wounds caused by sin and to end the separation of humanity from their Creator.  Christ came precisely because we are unworthy to approach God, in order to make it possible for us to be restored to unity with God again.    The incarnation is about God taking on sinful flesh to heal us and restore us to union with God. Christ did not become incarnate because we all were so holy that He was drawn to us.  He came because we are sinners and unworthy.   The God who is love sees our unworthiness and in His loving compassion reaches out to us, cutting through all bonds and barriers in order to save us from the consequence of our own sins.  Christ comes to save us from our unworthiness.   Before ever cutting yourself off from Holy Communion, speak with your father confessor or parish priest.  Do not disobey Christ’s commands to “Take, eat” and “Drink of it, all of you.”   Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev writes:

“If personal unworthiness was indeed an impediment against receiving communion, then practically no one could ever be admitted to the Eucharist…. The Eucharistic gathering is the manifestation of the Church in all her fullness and all her oneness. Eucharistic communion is the very expression of life in the Church. If we eliminate Eucharistic communions, then what is left of our life in the Church? Is prayer even temporarily able to replace communion? The prayer of the Church is prayer ‘in Christ’, but it is impossible to be ‘in Christ’ apart from Eucharistic communion with Him.”  (Living Icons by Michael Plekon, p 169)

If we have a sense of our unworthiness, our own sinfulness, then we are in the proper frame of mind to approach the Chalice in humility and repentance.  We always are unworthy of Christ dying on the cross for us.  We are always unworthy of having our sins forgiven or entering into God’s Kingdom.   It is that knowledge which makes us humble ourselves before God and beg His mercy.

The Holy Spirit: Uniting Eucharist and Communicants

“The Eucharist requires the memorial (or anamnesis) of the whole history of salvation. This is epitomized in its central point, the life-giving cross, the cross of Easter. These events which are written in the ‘memory’ of God are made present, actual and active by the ‘memory’ of the Church.

In this living ‘memorial’ the priest is the image of Christ, an ‘other Christ’, as St John Chrysostom says. He bears witness to Christ’s unshakeable fidelity to his Church. Through the one who sums up the people’s prayer and constitutes for them the sign of Christ, Christ our one high priest accomplishes the Eucharist. And everything is done in the Holy Spirit.

It is in the Holy Spirit that the Church is the ‘mystery’ of the Risen Christ, the world in process of transfiguration. The Spirit ‘broods’ on the waters at the beginning and ‘hovers’ over them like a great bird. In order to make the human being live, God breathes his Spirit into the clay. The Spirit comes down on the Blessed Virgin in order that the Word may take flesh in her.

He rests on Jesus as his Messianic anointing and it is in him that Jesus thrills with joy and multiples the ‘signs’ of the Kingdom. It is by the life-giving power of the Spirit that God raises Jesus (Romans 1:4). Likewise when the people are assembled to offer themselves in the offertory of the bread and wine, the Spirit comes upon them to ‘manifest’ the body and blood of Christ through the bread and wine (the word ‘manifest’ is found in the Eucharistic liturgy of St Basil). The Spirit thereby integrates the people in the glorified humanity of the Lord. So the memorial is effected by the coming of the Spirit in response to the Church’s epiclesis (a word that means ‘invocation’).

All the faithful ratify this invocation by their amens. In this respect they are concelebrants of the liturgy. But only the apostolic witness of the bishop (or of the priest representing him) can testify to the epiclesis being heard, to the fullness of God’s faithfulness.”  (Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp 111-112)

Let Us Depart In Peace

The dismissal of many Orthodox service seems to be a series of faux-endings strung together as if they didn’t quite know how to bring it to a conclusion.  According to one humorous anecdote, one can know that one is Orthodox if in a liturgical service one is still standing and continuing in prayer 15 minutes after hearing the celebrant say, “Let us depart in peace.

Hieromonk Gregorios in his book, The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, comments on the Liturgy’s dismissal – we have sojourned to join the angels in heaven, and then prepare to disembark once again into God’s earth.

“The Divine Liturgy is a journey whose purpose is man’s encounter and union with God. This goal has now been realized: we have reached the end of our journey, we have seen the true Light, we have seen the Lord transfigured on the Mount Tabor of the Liturgy, we have partaken of His holy Body and most pure Blood. And as we venture to utter to our exalted Visitor, Lord, it is good for us to be here (Matt. 17:4), our Mother Church reminds us that the end of the liturgical journey must become the starting-point for our spiritual journey: Let us go forth in peace.

We have to leave the Mountain of the Transfiguration in order to return to the world and tread the way of martyrdom of our lives. This journey becomes our martyria, our witness to Christ – the Way and the Life – who has become our guest. During the Divine Liturgy, we received Christ within us. Now we are invited to pass Him on to the world, to become witness to the life of Christ. ‘We should come out of the sacred assembly…as if we had descended from heaven itself’, so that when our family, our friends or our enemies see us, they will all understand the benefit we have received from the Church.

After Holy Communion, we go out into the world as Christ-bearers and Spirit-bearers. Thereafter, we strive to preserve the Light we have received ever-burning, and to keep undefiled the gifts of grace which we have received. Then, even without words, our presence will transmit the Grace we have received to the souls of our brethren who were not present at the Liturgy. For the Christ-bearing believer is earth that brings forth fruit of itself (Mark 4:28).” (p 309)

Preparing to Raise Lazarus

A number of the Triodion Hymns during this last week of Great Lent (“the Week of Palms”) focus on Christ raising His friend Lazarus from the dead.  The hymns are very consistent with other Orthodox hymns in how they conflate eternity with time, leading us to approach the event as if it is happening before our very eyes, while simultaneously reminding us that we know how these events play out, and they have an eternal or timeless meaning.    We approach the event in the hymns as if we are seeing it as it occurs (which is the liturgical way in which we “remember”events) but not as if we don’t know its outcome.  Our “remembering” allows us to know the conclusion of the event from its onset.  We are not pretending to re-enact the events as if we don’t know the outcome.  We are entering into the events to experience them for the full revelation which God has made through them.  So as we liturgically “remember” theological events we are always fully cognizant of their ultimate significance while they are unfolding.  This is part of liturgical anticipation: we know and experience the eschaton now in the theological events we celebrate liturgically.

We will consider three hymns from this “Week of Palms.”  The first hymn from Wednesday Matins doesn’t so much take us back in time as it does to bring the event forward into our time.   Today Lazarus is buried says the hymn.  This is not a past tense event.  We are remembering the event and putting it into our lives today as well as acknowledging its eternal significance.








We are not like the actual characters who lived this event.  We are given a different perspective in which the full truth is known to us though it was not clear at that time to those who experienced it.  We have a better perspective than the actual eyewitnesses!  We have the mind of Christ!   We understand as the narrative enters into our life as Christian community that Christ knows what He is going to do:  He is going to raise Lazarus from the dead.  And we know that Christ is the Creator who created Lazarus and called him into being.  This was not yet fully known or understood by the disciples or by Jesus’ friends.  They were in the process of learning who Jesus is.  We already know, but we are able to experience these events with the eyes of faith.  And, in anticipation of what we will celebrate on Lazarus Saturday we can already rejoice today.

The next hymn from Thursday Matins continues laying before us the events as they unfolded.  Lazarus has been dead for a couple of days and his sisters are in grief.








Martha and Mary still do not know what is about to happen, be we who are remembering these events have full awareness.  We see Jesus, not merely as the human friend of Lazarus, but as The Creator.  Jesus Christ is the incarnate God.   Christ has come not just to grieve for the loss of his friend, He comes as God to save His creature.  Christ is here to destroy death and give life again to His creature who has died.  The hymns, like icons, do not try to give us a photograph of the events showing us what anyone would have seen that day.  Rather the hymns and icons are portraying to us the hidden spiritual dimensions of what is happening.  This is God appearing on earth, with His creatures whom He loves.  God incarnate is present to save humans from death and to raise them from the place of the dead.  Mary and Martha stand “gazing at the stone before Lazarus’ tomb.”  The stone blocks them from seeing any more.  They can’t see what is going to happen.  But we already know what Christ is going to do because we have the mind of Christ.  That stone does not block our vision – we know Christ raises Lazarus from the dead.

The last hymn follows a particularly Orthodox way of interpreting scriptural events.  It takes the events and applies them to our lives – to teach us how we might live this Gospel narrative today in our own lives.  We are called to follow the example of Martha and Mary, but how can we do that since we aren’t there and live in such a different time?










The hymn tells us that what we can learn from the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus is that when we perform charitable deeds or do other righteous acts, we are making an offering to God and He will bless us as He blessed Martha, Mary and Lazarus who were His friends and who lived godly lives.  But the dead to be raised is not just a friend, but is our own spiritual understanding within us.  When we fail to practice our faith, when we fail to imitate Christ, when we neglect our spiritual lives, our hearts and minds die spiritually.   The hymn turns the raising of Lazarus from a miracle of long ago to be remembered, concerning one man, into something we all can live and experience today.  Christ especially loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, no doubt because they lived the commandments of love which He was teaching.  The hymn tells us to imitate them, so that we too will be friends of Christ and that He will want to raise us up from the dead on that last day.

In this hymn the miracle of the raising of Lazarus is not something limited to that one man 2000 years ago.  We each can experience a resurrection – of our own spiritual lives.  The raising of Lazarus is to help us believe in Christ and to live the Gospel.  It is not only a past historical event that we can marvel at, it is something which can revive our own hearts and souls and resurrect us from spiritual death.

Rejoice in the Lord and Serve Him

“It seems that nobody around us is happy- happy with the happiness that should be flowing out of Liturgy, prayer, theology, etc. We all firmly proclaim that one cannot be happy without God. But then why is man so unhappy with God? It seems that religion amplifies all that is petty and low in man: pride, self-glorification, fear! For years I have been asking myself this question.

It seems that in the world there is no longer a peaceful, humble, joyful and free standing before God, walking to Him; no more: ‘Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice in Him with trembling…’ (Psalms 2:11).

So, I rejoice in every hour of solitude, of autumn sunshine on golden trees, of total calm and silence.” (The Journals of  Father Alexander Schmemann, pg. 134)