Why Do We Pray to God?

“But, if God is so merciful, why must we earnestly knock at his door in distress and pray, to have Him turn away from our petition? Scripture says: ‘Behold the hand of the Lord is not too short to save; nor his ear hard of hearing. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and God and your sins have turned his face from you, so that he does not hear…‘ (Isaiah 59:1-2)

God has wisely ordained these things of yours in this way for your own profit that you may continually knock at his door, and through the fear of sorrowful events his memory may constantly come to your mind. Then you will be near to God in constant petition and you will be sanctified by the continual memory of Him in your heart.

When you invoke Him and He answers you, you will know that your savior is God. And you will be aware of your God as the One who created you, your provider and keeper, because He has made two worlds for your sake: one as it were for your instruction as a school of brief duration, and the other as the house of your Father and your home forever and ever.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life, pp. 89-90)

St. Nicholas: An Icon of Mercy

On December 6 we honor the memory of St Nicholas the 4th Century Archbishop of Myra who has become so popular in Christian and Western European Cultures.  Most of what we know about his life comes from legend and lore.  He was being honored as a saint 200 years after his death,  but his popularity grew exponentially in later Centuries.  When St. Methodius wrote a life of St. Nicholas in the Mid-9th Century, he notes that hardly anyone had heard of him. Be that as it may, he became one of the most beloved saints in both Western and Eastern Europe.  Even the secular world continued to evolve stories about him which became an icon of the American secular Christmas celebration.

The legends of his life include descriptions of him as being especially merciful to the unfortunate poor.  As such, it is appropriate to consider the virtue of mercy.

“Mercy is therefore a twofold virtue.

On the one hand, it means giving shelter, protection, food, and necessary aid to those in want.

On the the other, it is patience, forgiveness of wrong, and compassion towards those who offend.”

(St Gregory Palamas, THE HOMILIES, p 283)

St Nicholas is for us an icon of mercy.  We can think about what Jesus taught us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:36-37 –

Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.”

And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Faith of a Physicist: The Incarnation

Christ the Divine Wisdom

“Yet the redeemer is not a gnostic Christ imparting the secrets of divine wisdom, who could indeed be a heavenly figure in human disguise.  The mystery of our redemption is something altogether deeper than that.  It proceeds, not from the outside by illumination, but from the inside by participation.  We need transformation, not information.  That is why docetisim is so totally unacceptable to Christian thought.  The Saviour must be truly and fully human.  In Gregory of Nazianzus‘ famous words, ‘what is not assumed is not redeemed.’  A heavenly figure could be of no redemptive  significance for us.  We should have no share in him.”   (John Polkinghorne, THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST, p 136)

Let Us Lift Up Our Hearts

“But let us return to Psalm 24. ‘To you, oh Lord,’ it says, ‘I lift up my soul; in you, my God, I put my trust.’ Truly, the rest of this psalm, concerned entirely with prayerful trust, may be read simply as commentary on the first verse.

At each service of the Divine Liturgy, going back at least the Apostolic tradition of Saint Hippolytus near the beginning of the third century, when the priest commences the central Eucharistic benediction (corresponding to the Hebrew berakah), he turns to the congregation to exhort them to intensify their prayer: ‘Let let us lift up our hearts!’ (Ano skomen tas kardias is the lovely Greek original.) In the ancient Latin version, this exhortation becomes more succinct: Sursum corda, Hearts up!” A congregation of elevated hearts is the proper context for that great act known simply as ‘The Thanksgiving,’ Eucharistia (the priest’s next line being ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!’).”

(Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, p. 47)

The lifting up of the hearts is reminiscent of Christ’s words in John 3:3 in which He says we must be “born from above” to see the Kingdom of God.  Although in English this text is often translated “born again“, the Greek uses a root word that is the same in John 3:3 as in the hearts being up.  Literally the Greek text in the Liturgy does not have the word “lift” in it at all, but more simply says:  “let us have the hearts on high.”  In other words, let our hearts be born with this heavenly birth which Christ taught.  The English Bibles, probably under the influence of Protestantism, change the text to speak more about a one time “conversion” (born again) by the Holy Spirit whereas in Orthodoxy it is a constantly renewed life, living not just for this world, but embracing the heavenly/spiritual life in this world in the Church as the hoped for pattern throughout our daily lives.  Our hearts are being transfigured and transformed by the Holy Spirit into being one in and with the Body of Christ.  This transformation in Christ by the Holy Spirit of our hearts is also the ongoing work of the spiritual life outside of the Liturgy.

So in Orthodoxy, a starets, one whose life is visibly transformed by Christ becomes the spiritual father to his disciples.  “In the words of Igor Smolitsch, the great warm heart of a starets revives the shrunken, frozen hearts of those who flock to him; his perfected will reforms and sustains the imperfect wills of those who place themselves under his guidance”  (Iulia De Beausobre, from Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 7).  The upward call to our hearts is an ongoing transformation that we experience throughout our lives.  In the Liturgy we are reminded that this is to be our daily experience of life itself.

Choosing the Good Portion

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”  (Luke 18:18-27)

To succeed in the world, we need many “good” things.  Good grades, good job, good income, good work habits, good credit scores, good schools, good neighborhoods, good opportunities, good family, and maybe some good luck too.

But for all those goods, our Lord Jesus might say, “why do you ask me about what is good?”

For Christ speaks to us about and calls us to a goodness which belongs to God alone.  It is not that those goods don’t matter as they do affect our lives.  And God knows we need such good things (Matthew 6:32).   But they all matter on a relative scale, for Christ tells us there is something greater to strive for, something which benefits us not only for the short time we live on earth, but which is eternally permanent.  We don’t have to have all those worldly goods to be good.   And even without all those worldly goods, we humans are still offered an even greater good, namely eternal life – a good portion which cannot be taken away from us.   As the Lord told Martha in Luke 10:41-42 :

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

We don’t come to Christ in order to have our beliefs reaffirmed or are thoughts validated or to learn what we can learn anywhere else in the world.  We come to Christ to discover what we don’t know – about life and eternal life.  We come to Him to seek what is missing from our lives, what we hope for but don’t have [“For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24)] The person in today’s Gospel knew the Law and how to keep the Law and how to accumulate wealth.  But he didn’t know the way to eternal life.  This is why he came to Jesus in the first place.  It is why we come to Christ, and come to the Liturgy, not just to be told what we already believe and know, but to learn what is missing from our lives.  How do we find our way to eternal life?   What do I lack?  What do I need?  What do I have to change to find eternal life?

Jesus says we are to follow Him.  Not to just do the things that everyone in the world does, but to learn what is missing in our life.   How do I get Christ to come and live in me?  How do I become like God in what I do?   In the Liturgy, we come to behold Christ so that we can see what we need to change in our thinking, in our habits, in our attitudes, in our behavior, in our faith, in what we do daily so that we can find what this person in the Gospel was seeking.

Are we ready for that next level?   We might honestly say to Christ, I do keep the Ten Commandments – I haven’t murdered anyone, nor stolen anything, nor committed adultery or told any lies.  What else do I need to do?

And then we have to be prepared to hear Christ’s answer and to live it.  We have to be far more ready to deal with the shock wave which is the Gospel commandments than this person who came to talk to Christ in the Gospel lesson.   The way to the kingdom is not in the things we love so much and value so much and strive to get so much.  We have to seek first the kingdom of God, and that is as big a challenge to us as it was to this rich person who came to talk to Christ.  The little things we are asked to do as Orthodox Christians – to fast, deny the self, to practice self control, to resist our temptations – are the baby steps we take to move beyond this world into that eternal life.

This person in today’s Gospel, was very obedient to God’s commandments, yet still lacked something.  The man had a heart condition but not one that could be corrected by diet or exercise.  This person saw religious perfection only in terms of rigorously following the commandments of God.  Jesus tried to get this person to see that religion is more a matter of the heart.  It is not pure obedience that God willed for His creatures.  God wants us to be like God.  To care about something beyond our self and beyond our immediate gratification.  This person in the Gospel was quite willing to obey God as long as he was richly rewarded for doing so.   But to give up his riches, this was beyond what he was prepared to do because it was only to get more riches that he obeyed God at all.  He had turned God into his servant.

The Prophet Habakkuk said:

Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.   (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Unlike the rich person in today’s Gospel, Habakkuk says even if he is not wealthy, even if he is in miserable poverty and hungry, yet he will rejoice in the Lord.  It is a stark contrast to the rich man who was only willing to rejoice in his wealth and prosperity.

Do we each have such faith that no matter how good or bad things are going, we still rejoice in the Lord?  Do we have such love for God that even when things are going badly, we still rejoice in the Lord?

What Jesus asks is “what do you really treasure in your heart?”  We have to think whether we want God to be our servant giving us all we want, or whether we want to be His servant, no matter what condition we find ourselves in.  How can we seek God rather than just seek the things God might give us?

A Prayer for Those Who are Suffering or in Anguish

Going through old papers which I saved over the last 40 years,  I rediscovered this prayer attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian in a folder.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember where the prayer came from, but share it for all who may be in need of just such a prayer – those being crushed by their own failures, mistakes, sins and sense of sinfulness.    The prayer makes several references to the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son  from Luke 15:11-32, the text of which I have included at the bottom of this post just for reference.

I find this prayer a good balance or alternative to those prayers and piety which make us into nothing but a dung worm deserving being squashed by God before being tossed into hell.  It is a prayer intending to comfort and give hope like we find in the Akathist: Glory to God for All Things:   “No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but You, Lord, can restore a conscience turned to ashes. You can restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With You, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. You are love; You are Creator and Redeemer. We praise You, singing: Alleluia!”

St Ephrem’s Prayer for Those Who are Suffering or in Anguish

Do not lose heart, O soul, do not grieve.  Pronounce not over yourself a final judgement for the multitude of your sins.  Do not commit yourself to fire.  Do not say the Lord has cast me from His face.  Such words are not pleasing to God.  Can it be that one who is fallen cannot get up?  Can it be that he who is turned away cannot turn back again?  Do you not hear how kind the father is to a prodigal?  Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly, “I will arise and go to my father.”  Arise, and go!   He will accept you and not reproach you but rather rejoice at your return.  He awaits you, just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as Adam did. 

It was for your sake that Christ was crucified.  So will he cast you aside?  He knows who oppresses us.  He knows that we have no other help but him alone.  Christ knows that man is miserable.  Do not give yourself up in despair and apathy assuming that you have been prepared for the fire.  Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire.  He gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.  Imitate the prodigal son – leave the city that starves you.  Come and beseech Him and you shall behold the glory of God.  Your face shall be enlightened and you will rejoice in the sweetness of Paradise.  Glory to the Lord and lover of mankind who saves us!   Amen.

Then the Lord told this parable:

A certain man had two sons.  And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.  And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.  But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.  Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me like one of your hired servants.’  And he arose and came to his father.  But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 

But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.  And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.  Now his older son was in the field.  And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.  And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’  But he was angry and would not go in.

Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.  So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.  ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’  And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.  It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ “   (Luke 15:11-32)

Sell All You Own and Follow Christ

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.

And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”   (Luke 18:18-27)

It is often debated as to  how literally we are to obey some of the Gospel commandments of Christ.  If everyone tried to sell all their belongings and give them away, what would happen?  Well for one thing there would be no one to buy anything since everyone else was also trying to sell everything.  And if everyone gave up everything, all of civil society would soon come to an end as no one would ‘have’ anything.  It wouldn’t take long before poverty set in and then famine and disease as no one was able to do anything because they couldn’t claim ownership of anything.  So it is not too hard to see that Christ’s teachings were not always universal laws that all must obey.  Rather, He was a wisdom teacher and gives to individuals the medicine they need for their own healing and to become fully human.  The teaching to give everything away was aimed at a particular man who seemed to trust that his riches were the sign that God favored him.  In effect Christ tells the man, since God seems to favor you and has given you all these blessings, give them all away – let’s see if you love and trust God the giver of every good and perfect gift or if you really only love your blessings.  Obviously the man loved the blessings more than He loved God and he certainly wasn’t willing to trust God to provide for him if he gave his blessings away.

In the desert fathers, we find a story of one monk who decided to take the teachings of Christ literally:

One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give to the poor. (From Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 37)

Anyone person is capable to literally following this teaching of Christ – even to give away the Scriptures to fully keep the commandment.  The monk had already abandoned civil society and moved to the desert to live the harsh life there.  He had given up the comforts of society, but decides to take the teaching to the next level and even give away the scriptures which had taught him how to live.   We do not know what became of this monk, but we do learn that it is possible to follow Christ’s teachings to the limit.  It is not necessary to have an abundance of possessions in order to be a Christian.  The blessings of God are not something to be accumulated, but to be shared with others.

Through Mary All Women Are Blessed

Through Mary, a special blessing descended upon all women, and Proclus sets out to determine this by using biblical characters as examples:

‘Thanks to her, all women are blessed. It is not possible that woman should remain under her curse; to the contrary, she now has a reason to surpass even the glory of the angels. Eve has been healed; the Egyptian woman [Hagar] has been silenced; Delilah has been buried; Jezebel has fallen into oblivion; even Herodias has been forgotten.

Today, a list of women is admired: Sarah is acclaimed as the fertile field of the peoples; Rebekah is honored as the able conciliator of blessings; Leah, too, is admired as mother of the ancestor [Judah] according to the flesh; Deborah is praised for having struggled beyond the powers of her womanly nature; Elizabeth is called blessed for having carried the Forerunner, who leapt for joy in her womb, and for having giving witness to grace; Mary is venerated, because she became the Mother, the cloud, the bridal chamber, and the ark of the Lord.'”

(Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 256)

A Face Like Everyone’s Face

Mary Magdalene turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  (John 20:14-15)

“In his prose poem Kristos (1878), Turgenev dreams that he is in a village church together with the peasant congregation. A man comes to stand beside him: ‘I did not turn towards him, but immediately I felt that this man was Christ.’ However, when eventually he turns towards him and he perceives ‘a face like everyone’s face. A face like all men’s faces…And the clothes on him like everyone else’s.’ Turgenev is astonished: ‘What sort of a Christ is this then?…Such an ordinary, ordinary man.; But he concludes: ‘Suddenly I was afraid  and came to my senses. Only then did I realize that it is just such a face – a face like all men’s faces – that is the face of Christ.’”   (Father Sergei Hackel, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 77)

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. . . .  And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.  (Luke 24:13-16, 31)

God Conceived of Mary Before the World was Made

It is obvious that the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is a very theological feast in Orthodoxy.  Few historians would give it any factual credibility and recently even some Orthodox scholars acknowledge its importance is far more theological than historical.  It is a theological meditation on the incarnation of God, and all of the events which led to the incarnation.  Many Orthodox writers and saints through the centuries have treated it as a historical event, but that isn’t what makes the Feast significant.

So consider somethings we can glean from this Feast as well as from other Feasts of the Theotokos and the Lord:

Long before Mary was conceived on earth, God had conceived of her – for God’s plan for all humanity involved the incarnation,  which means it required a woman to be mother to the God who entered into the world.  God conceived of a Mary,  chose motherhood and willed her existence before the world was made.  Before God created anything, God knew the need for a mother, Mary, to fulfill His plan for humanity.  From all eternity God knew what was needed for our salvation.  The incarnation is not an after thought, a reaction to sin, but rather the plan hidden from all eternity revealed in Jesus Christ(Ephesians 3:9-13, Colossians 1:25-27).  If there was to be an incarnation in which God became fully human, there had to be a mother in which the incarnation would occur.

God knew His plan of salvation, knew He needed a mother to make the incarnation possible, and God planned this salvation before Mary was ever born.

Mary, for her part, carried the Word of God in herself long before she conceived God in her womb.  She heard God’s Word growing up in a pious Jewish family, and so was prepared to recognize God’s voice and to obey God’s Word.

Mary longed for God’s Word with all her heart, which is why she found favor in the eyes of God and why she was chosen to be the mother of God’s son.  God saw His plan for the salvation of humanity realized in a woman who was capable of being the Mother of God.  Mary is, after all, the one conceived of by God to bring His plan of salvation to fruition.  She is the one God needed to carry God’s Word on earth.  She is the temple God wished for Himself to dwell on earth from the beginning.

As it turns out, the temple in Jerusalem was a mere foreshadowing of Mary who became the temple of God on earth, the one in whom heaven was united with earth to become the dwelling place of God.  The feast of the Entry is thus much more a celebration of what happened theologically, than what happened historically.  The temple was real and historical, and Mary is real and historical.  Their relationship is a theological truth to which the Feast draws our attention.

And for those who believe in  God and God’s plan for our salvation – we are God’s people, God’s vineyard.  God plants His vineyard, cultivates and nurtures it, so that it would bear fruit for Him.  God chose His people and for centuries prepared them to be the location for His dwelling on earth.  Mary is the choice fruit of God’s vineyard.  She is the best product of God’s people, for in her God’s plan is fulfilled, and brought to fruition.  God comes to dwell in His people, and begins that in the Virgin’s womb.  The Feast of the Entry is simply making for us the connection between God, the temple and our salvation.

We fulfill our task by completing the words of our Lord Jesus:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.   (John 15:4-7)

We should ask ourselves, on his Feast Day, what am I going to do today that is distinctively Christian?  What am I going to do today that non-believers aren’t going to do or can’t do or won’t do?

As Christians we need to think in those terms.

Like the Virgin Mary, we too have a distinct vocation in the world.  We are God’s chosen people.  It is up to us to hear God’s Word and incarnate that Word in our hearts and minds, in our lives, in our homes and families and in our parish community, so that the rest of the world has a chance to hear God’s Word and see God’s light.

We are the living temple of God and when we live our faith, others in the world are given opportunity to find God as well.