The man who wrestles with wrong thoughts loves God according to his measure. He who struggles against sin, and asks God to give him strength not to sin, but yet falls into sin again because of his infirmity, and sorrows and repents – he possesses grace in the depths of his soul and mind, but his passions are not yet overcome.
But the man who has conquered his passions now knows no conflict: all his concern is to watch himself in all things lest he fall into sin. Grace, great and perceptible, is his. But he who feels grace in both soul and body is a perfect man, and if he preserves this grace, his body is sanctified and his bones will make holy relics.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 438-439)
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37-38)
“If you worship Christ in your heart, you can save your kinsfolk as well as yourself; if your heart worships father and mother, son and daughter, you will certainly lose both yourself and them. For whoever denies Christ before the world, him will Christ deny at the Last Judgement before His heavenly Father and all the hosts of angels and saints.
(Saint Isidore of Pelusium wrote to Philetus the Mayor, who was downcast at not having got into the eminent society that he craved:
‘Glory in this life is of less significance than a spider’s web, and more insubstantial than dreams; therefore lift up your mind to what is of first importance, and you will easily calm your saddened soul. He who seeks the one glory and the other cannot attain them both. It is possible to achieve both only when we seek, not both but one: heavenly , glory. Therefore, if you desire glory, seek divine, heavenly glory, and earthly glory will often follow on from it.’ (Letter 5, p. 152)
The Lord made it clear to the apostles that this moment of decision is difficult saying, “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” – that is, his family, that will hold him back from following Christ more than anyone else in the world, and who will condemn him the most strongly if he does so. For indeed, it is not our enemies who bind us to this world, but our friends; not strangers but our kinsfolk.” (St Nikolai Velimirovic,Homilies, pp. 4-5).
Blessed is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1)
St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) reflects on what it takes to just keep the first of the Ten Commandments: fear the Lord. Perhaps surprisingly, Peter doesn’t call to mind threats from God about punishment for sin. Rather, he feels we need to call to mind all of the blessings which God bestows upon us, including God’s willlingness to suffer for us and for our salvation on the cross. For Peter of Damascus what we should fear the most regarding God is sinning against the One who created us and who continually nurtures us and endeavors to save us.
“If, then, we wish to keep the first commandment – that is, to possess fear of the Lord – we should meditate deeply upon the contingencies of life already described and upon God’s measureless and unfathomable blessings. We should consider how much He has done and continues to do for our sake through things visible and invisible, through commandments and dogmas, threats and promises; how He guards, nourishes and provides for us, giving us life and saving us from enemies seen and unseen; how through the prayers and intercessions of His saints He cures the diseases caused by our own disarray; how He is always long-suffering over our sins, our irreverence, our delinquency-over all those things that we have done, are doing, and will do, from which His grace has saved us; how He is patient over our actions, words and thoughts that have provoked His anger, and how He not only suffers us, but even bestows greater blessings on us, acting directly, or through the angels, the Scriptures, through righteous men and prophets, apostles and martyrs, teachers and holy fathers.
Moreover, we should not only recall the sufferings and struggles of the saints and martyrs, but should also reflect with wonder on the self-abasement of our Lord Jesus Christ, the way He lived in the world, His pure Passion, the Cross, His death, burial, resurrection and ascension, the advent of the Holy Spirit, the indescribable miracles that are always occurring every day, paradise, the crowns of glory, the adoption to sonship that He has accorded us, and all the things contained in Holy Scripture and so much else.
If we bring all this to mind, we will be amazed at God’s compassion, and with trembling will marvel at His forbearance and patience. We will grieve because of what our nature has lost – angel-like dispassion, paradise and all the blessings which we have forfeited – and because of the evils into which we have fallen: demons, passions and sins. In this way our soul will be filled with contrition, thinking of all the ills that have been caused by our wickedness and the trickery of the demons.”
“Once the Elder (St. Herman) was invited aboard a frigate which came from St Petersburg. The Captain of the frigate was a highly educated man, who had been sent to America by order of the Emperor to make an inspection of all the colonies. There were more than twenty-five officers with the Captain, and they also were educated men. … Father Herman gave them all one general question: ‘Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various answers were offered … Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. ‘It is not true,’ Father Herman said to them concerning this, ‘that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion—that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?’ They all answered, ‘Yes, that is so!’ He then continued, ‘Would you not say, is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men? Should we not then love God above every thing, desire Him more than anything, and search Him out?’ ”
All said, “Why, yes! That’s self-evident!” Then the Elder asked, “But do you love God?” They all answered, “Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?” Father. Herman replied, “And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,” Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. “if we love someone,” he said, “we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?” They had to admit that they had not! “For our own good, and for our own fortune,” concluded the Elder, “let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!” Without any doubt this conversation was imprinted in the hearts of the listeners for the rest of their lives.”
“We must all be humble: in thought, in word, and in behavior. We will never go before God and say, ‘I have virtues.’ God does not want our virtues.
Always appear before God as a sinner, not with despair, but ‘trusting in the mercy of His compassion.’ Suffice it that we find the secret. The secret is love for Christ and humility. Christ will give us the humility. We with our weaknesses are unable to love Him. Let Him love us. Let us entreat Him earnestly to love us and to give us the zeal for us to love Him too.”
Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
About the year 100AD, a Christian document, The Didache, brought forth the Gospel teaching to the next generation of Christians:
“There are two ways; the one is that of life and the other is that of death. There is a great difference between the two ways. The Way of Life is this: first, you shall love the God Who made you; second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Everything that you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to another! Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies. Fast for those who persecute you, for what grace would you receive if you love only those who love you back? Even the heathen do that. Love those who hate you, and you will have no enemies. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also, and you will be perfect.” ( What the Church Fathers Say About….Volume 2, pp. 137-138)
“For some are saved by fear, as for example, when we break off from sin because we have our eyes on the threatened punishment of Hell. There are others, too who live lives of virtue because of the rewards promised to the good; and these possess their goal not by charity but by hope of reward. But he who runs in spirit to reach perfection, casts out fear. For it is the attitude of a slave, who does not stay with his master out of love and simply does not run away for fear he will be beaten. The truly virtuous man even despises rewards, lest he give the impression that he esteems the gift more than the giver. He loves with his whole heart and soul and strength (Duet. 6:5) not the creatures that come from God but Him Who is the source of all good. And He Who calls us to share in Him commands that this disposition be in the souls of all who listen to Him.” (From Glory to Glory, pg. 153)
This is the 26th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.” The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Praying (XIII).
“The aim of prayer is so that we should acquire from it love of God, for in prayer are to be found all sorts of reasons for loving God.” (THE WISDOM OF ST ISAAC OF NINEVEH, p 22)
We are to love God with all our soul, heart, mind and strength, this is the first commandment in the teachings of Jesus Christ, and is also the heart of Torah. Therefore it is a worthy request in prayer to petition God and seek His help to teach us how to love Him. It is in asking God to help turn our hearts to Him in love that we come to realize love is not an emotional response to God but rather is something we must choose or will to happen. This is agape love which is not infatuation nor romantic but is steadfast and abiding, a love which we bring with us into every situation and which is not altered by time or place. It is neither fickle or fleeting as an emotion but is steadfast. It is not a reaction to things, but a chose way of acting toward God or others. Love is a commandment (John 13:34) from Christ we are to obey! It is in Christ commanding us to love that we again realize love is not merely an emotional reaction but rather something we must willfully choose.
This love of God which we seek is the corollary to standing in God’s presence. They are intertwined experiences. They help us to understand that prayer does not reduce God to a genie, maid, magician or change Him into Santa Claus. As retired Archbishop Lazar critically points out:
“This is how inane and degenerate the concept of prayer has become. If there is no economic or material benefit to it, why bother to pray? We pray for material things, we pray that we will not have to suffer and endure anything in this life, even though Christ directly promised us that His true followers would have to endure much. For many, prayer life has turned into a form of egotism, a self-satisfaction, a self-endorsement, a plea for instant gratification. … We do not have to pray in order to inform God, to let Him know something He does not know. We pray in order to draw ourselves closer to God, because we really cannot know someone that we do not talk to…” (Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, FREEDOM TO BELIEVE, pp 93-94)
Thus there is a right and wrong way to pray as well as appropriate and inappropriate things for which to ask in prayer. Prayer is not mostly about asking God for things or miracles or meeting our needs.
Prayer lifts us up to God, puts us in a relationship to the Holy Trinity. In as much as God created us to be relational beings and not alienated, autonomous singularities, prayer helps us to become true human beings created in God’s image and likeness, created to live in loving relationships. Prayer restores our awareness of our relationship to and dependence on our Creator as it goes against the effects of the ancestral sin. Prayer leads to true communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We become in the words of St. Peter, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Communion with God is thus what we are seeking foremost from prayer, but then in that context prayer can be fulfilled in many ways.
“The work of prayer is one and the same for all, but there are many kinds of prayer and many different prayers. Some converse with God as with a friend and master, interceding with praise and petition, not for themselves but for others. Some strive for greater (spiritual) riches and glory and for confidence in prayer. Others ask for complete deliverance from their adversary. Some beg to receive some kind of rank; others for complete forgiveness of debts. Some ask to be released from prison; others for remission from offences.” (St. John Climacus (d. 649AD), Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 2982-86)
Prayer is a supremely sublime activity of ultimate meaning.
“Do not be foolish in the requests you make to God, otherwise you will insult God through your ignorance. Act wisely in prayer, so that you may become worthy of glorious things. Ask for things that are honourable from him who will not hold back, so that you may receive honour from him as a result of the wise choice your free will had made. Solomon asked for wisdom – and along with it he also received the earthly kingdom, for he knew how to ask wisely of the heavenly King, that is, for things that are important.” (St. Isaac of Nineveh (7th C), Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 3572-77)
The things we ask of God also reflect our understanding of Him as Creator, Lord and Master of our lives and the entire universe.