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)

Contemplating the Cross

The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed; he has put on strength as his belt.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.

(Psalms 93:1-2)

Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.

(Psalms 104:1-2)

St Isaac of Nineveh writes:

For the Cross is Christ’s garment just as the humanity of Christ is the garment of the divinity. Thus (the Cross today) serves as a type, awaiting the time when the true prototype will be revealed: then those things will not be required (any longer). For the Divinity dwells inseparably in the Humanity, without any end, and forever; in other words, boundlessly. For this reason we look on the Cross as the place belonging to the Shekhina of the Most High, the Lord’s sanctuary, the ocean of the symbols (or, mysteries) of God’s economy.

  . . . Whenever we gaze on the Cross in a composed way, with our emotions steadied, the recollection of our Lord’s entire economy gathers together and he stands before our interior eyes.

(Isaac of Nineveh, The Second Part, p. 60)

The “Punishment” of Adam and Eve

 

It is quite common among Orthodox saints to view God’s activities in the world through the lens “God is love.”  They felt this was a non-negotiable truth.  If something reported in Scripture does not seem consistent with a loving God, then the issue is we don’t understand the story, how it was written and/or how it is to be interpreted.  The fault is not with God but with our limited understanding of the world.  There is mystery in the world, and much happens that we simply don’t understand because we don’t have the big picture – we can’t see how God sees the world, and so our interpretation of events and logic are very limited.

These saints were totally OK with moving away from a literal interpretation of a text if the literal interpretation seemed to show that God is not love.   Some Patristic writers and Orthodox saints for example interpreted God’s comment to Adam that if you eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge you will die as a loving warning to Adam rather than as a threat of punishment.  And they saw death not as punishment but God preventing a person from growing endlessly in evil – terminating life was to stop the negative growth of evil in a person.  God thus uses death to stop us from increasingly falling under Satan’s power.   As an example, St Isaac the Syrian writes:

“Just as He decreed death, under the appearance of a sentence, for Adam because of sin, and just as He showed that (the sin) existed by means of the punishment–even though this (punishment) was not His (real) aim: He showed it as though it was something which (Adam) would receive as repayment for his wrong, but He hid its true mystery, and under the guise of something to be feared, He concealed His eternal intention concerning death and what His wisdom was aiming at: even though this matter might be grievous, ignominious and hard at first, nevertheless in truth it would be the means of transporting us to that wonderful and glorious world.  Without it, there would be no way of crossing over from this world and being there.”

So though death appears to be a punishment, God was actually hiding his intention.  His intention was to give us eternal life, but the way to that end was through death – the death of the Son of God on the cross. 

Why can’t we enter heaven without dying? Because sin that clings to us cannot enter heaven – death purges us of sin, we resurrect to a new life free of sin.   This is the imagery of baptism as well – we die with Christ and are buried with Him, but then resurrected to the new life free of sin as our sins remain in the watery grave of the baptismal font.   St. Isaac continues:

“Again, when he expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise, He expelled them under the (outward aspect of anger: ‘Because you have transgressed the commandment, you have found yourselves outside (Paradise)–as though dwelling in Paradise had been taken away from them because they were unworthy. But inside all this stood (the divine) plan, fulfilling and guiding everything towards the Creator’s original intention from the beginning. It was not disobedience which introduced death to the house of Adam, nor did transgression remove them from Paradise, for it is clear that (God) did not create Adam and Eve to be in Paradise, (just) a small portion of the earth; rather, they were going to subjugate the entire earth. For this reason we do not even say that He removed them because of the commandment which had been transgressed; for it is not the case that, had they not transgressed the commandment, they would have been left in Paradise forever.”

(Isaac the Syrian ‘The Second Part,’ Chapters IV-XLI, p 164)

For St. Isaac, God was not responding to human behavior such as sin, but had a plan in place all along.  God knew what humans were going to do, and used human action as the very means for human salvation.  This is far from the angry vengeful God portrayed in some forms of Christianity.  It is a God who is infinitely loving and who works with us despite our penchant for sin and rebellion.  God has not interest in our death or punishment but forever works to bring us to salvation.

Trust God

 

“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?”

 

“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? . .  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-27,34)

 

“If you believe firmly that God cares for you, then you do not need to worry about the body, nor need you be concerned about discovering ways how to conduct your life. If, however, you doubt God’s care, and want to look after yourself without God, then you are the most miserable person imaginable.”  (The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, p. 6)

Faith and Reason

Though opposing faith against reason seems to be a modern issue resulting from a scientific mindset opposing faith, the difference between faith and reason has been long understood in the Church, centuries before the modern scientific age.   St. Isaac the Syrian for example sees faith as greater than reason/knowledge because knowledge really deals only with the things of this world while faith deals with things beyond this world.  Knowledge is thus limited to the study of nature, but then there exists the world beyond nature – divinity, spiritual beings, heaven, the soul.  The natural world has its edges and limits, and thus knowledge is bound and limited.  The life beyond nature is an existence which might be boundless, and thus is greater than nature itself.

“For knowledge is opposed to faith; but faith, in all that pertains to it, demolishes laws of knowledge—we do not, however, speak here of spiritual knowledge. For this is the  definition of knowledge: that without investigation and examination it has no authority to do anything, but must investigate whether that which it considers and desires is possible… but faith requires a mode of thinking that is single, limpidly pure, and simple, far removed from any deviousness. See how faith and knowledge are opposed to one another! The home of faith is a childlike thought and a simple heart… But knowledge conspires against and opposes both these qualities. Knowledge in all its paths keeps within the boundaries of nature. But faith makes its journey above nature.”  (The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, page 257)

Theosis: Creation and Creator Have Become One

Today, the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, in the Church we honor the memory of St. Gregory Palamas.  As a theologian, St. Gregory is famous for defending the Orthodox faith and explaining how we participate in the Divine Life.  He is noted for having helped explicate the theology of salvation as deification/theosis.  Many Orthodox saints helped to explain theosis, or reveal it through their own lives.  St. Isaac of Ninevah writes:

We give thanks to You, O God, for Your gift to the world, (a gift) whose richness created beings are not capable of describing; seeing that I too am part of that (world), may I not begrudge my portion of thanksgiving which I owe to You. For this reason I will praise You and confess Your name. You have given Your entire treasure to the world: if You gave the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and from the throne of Your Being for the benefit of all, what further do you have which You have not given to Your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!

Praise to You for Your inscrutable purpose: truly this mystery is vast. Glory to You for Your mysteries which are hidden from us. Make me worthy, Lord to taste of this great mystery which is hidden and concealed, (a mystery) of which the world is not yet worthy of perceiving. Maybe You indicated something of it to Your saints who live in the body above the world and who are at all times above the impulses of the flesh.

O Christ who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which You caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May Your divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with You.

(Isaac of Nineveh: The Second Part, pp. 13-15)

Love is Action, Not Reaction

St. Isaac of Ninevah (6th Century) makes a very astute theological observation about God.  St. Isaac’s basic premise is that God is love, and everything God does is an extension of the Divine love.  God’s actions toward human beings and God’s activities in creation cannot be inconsistent with God’s very nature.

God by definition of God’s nature is not altered by time or change, so God is forever acting toward creation, not reacting to it.  Human behavior, including sin or rebellion against the will of God, does not change God.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit continue to love their creation because that is their very nature.  The mystery of course is that we exist in time and God does interact with us.  God is not an impersonal force, but in a manner beyond our comprehension, takes into account what we do with the free will God has bestowed on us.  God has created the universe with quantum uncertainty.  These are factors God deals with in God’s eternal being – they all are part of creation as God intended it and as God loves it.  And the mystery deepens for God in Christ enters into creation in the incarnation, subjecting Himself to time and space.  None of this changes God’s nature or the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

St. Isaac ponders:

“But we know that everyone is agreed on this, that there is no change, or any earlier and later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser (place) in His love, no before or after in His knowledge. For if it is believed by everyone that the creation came into existence as a result of the Creator’s goodness and love, (then) we know that this (original) cause does not ever diminish or change in the Creator’s nature as a result of the disordered course of creation.”

(Isaac of Ninevah, The Second Part: Chapters IV-XLI, p 161)

Adam naming the animals

Because we exist in space and time and are temporal, mortal beings we experience God’s love within our human experience and interpret it as love or justice or anger or grace or judgment.   Our experience of the Divine is real, yet tempered by our created, mortal natures.  We may gain glimpses into the Divine Life, but our understanding of it is shaped and limited by our own limits, and by the limits language imposes on our ability to conceive and explain.

God’s love is not diminished by God’s interaction with us nor by God’s ability to condescend to our limited understanding.  We experience God within our capabilities of understanding and articulation.  This does not change the love of God or the God who is love.

God’s Love and Judgment

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev shares a theological truth, which he learned from St. Isaac the Syrian. He encountered the teaching while reading the works of Vladimir Lossky.  It was an idea that stood out in Metropolitan Hilarion’s heart and mind.

“I was particularly struck by some words of Isaac, quoted by Lossky, about the suffering of those in hell. According to Isaac those who endure torment in gehenna are chastised, not by divine anger, not by any desire on God’s part to exact retribution – for there is no cruelty or vindictiveness in God – but ‘with the scourge of love’. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart that has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God…But love acts in a double way, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed. Lossky comments:

‘The love of God will be intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.’

Once more, as with Isaac’s description of the compassionate heart, it was as if someone had suddenly opened a window in my mind and flooded my whole interior world with light. Here, I felt, is the only interpretation of judgment and hell that makes any sense. God is love, and his love is inexhaustible; and this inexhaustible love is present everywhere, even in hell. But ‘love acts in a double way.’” (The Spiritual Word of Isaac the Syrian, pp 9-10)

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)

God’s Eternal Mercy, Love and Compassion

“Just as an abundantly flowing fountain is not blocked by a handful of dust, so the Maker’s mercy is not overcome by the wickedness of those whom He has created.[…]

In love did God bring the world into existence;

in love does He guide it during its temporal existence;

in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and

in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things.

In love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally compromised.

Just because the terms ‘wrath’, ‘anger’, ‘hatred’ and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature. Among all God’s actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealings with us.” (St. Isaac in The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh  by Sebastian Brock, pp 18 & 38)