Prayer: The Journey to the Kingdom

Prayer is the journey to the kingdom: the arrival is union with God. The kingdom is not far from us, but is within us. The union with God that the saintly fathers experienced is the end of all endeavours: corporal acts of mercy, the labor of the soul, or perseverance in spiritual contemplation. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid for me a crown of righteousness” (2 Tim 4.7).   

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, p. 113)

Neither a Cross Nor Consolation

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.”

But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the Paralytic — “rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.  (Matthew 9:1-8)

A most interesting Gospel lesson.  This is another miracle in which Jesus is able to see the faith of the people who bring a paralyzed man to Him.  He is not just looking at their behavior, but really into their hearts.  Faith is something that is visible to those who have the eyes to see.  Our behavior should allow people to see our faith, to reveal what is in our hearts and souls.  The opposite of this is Judas who greets Jesus with the kiss of peace in order to conceal the treachery in his heart.

Note also, it is not the paralyzed man’s faith that Jesus notices, but the faith of those who brought the paralyzed man to Christ.  Here we see the nature of intercessory prayer – when we ask God for help for others, our faith becomes visible through our love.  God takes notice.

And yet in the Gospel text, this crowds asks nothing from Christ they are completely silent.  They lay the paralytic before Christ hoping that He sees the need and knows what to do.  They are not asking for a particular outcome but trusting that Christ will give love to the paralytic.  Their motivation is not mentioned, no details are given about whether the man is worthy of Christ’s attention.

One can imagine that these people with faith are bringing their friend to Christ in love hoping Christ can help.  A good story of faith and love.  But the Gospel doesn’t tell us this, so one can also easily imagine these people are bringing someone to Christ who neglected Torah,  destroyed his life through sin, ended up paralyzed because of his own bad behavior and then complained bitterly about his fate.  They are bringing the paralyzed man to Jesus the Prophet for Jesus to pronounce judgment on the man to get him to shut about his bitterness and to force him to face his predicament is the result of his own sinfulness.  The faith Jesus sees in them is their belief in their own righteousness as keepers of Torah.   Jesus astounds them by forgiving the man and then healing  him.  That would better explain the reaction of the scribes in thinking Jesus blasphemes and the reaction of the crowd – fear.  Why were they suddenly terrified at the healing when they are the very ones who brought the man to Jesus?  Possibly because they suddenly saw themselves – not the paralytic – as condemned for their behavior.  But then marveling at the amazing love of God as they begin to hear the Gospel instead of Torah.

This interpretation sees this lesson as being like John 8:1-11, the woman caught in adultery who the crowd wants to stone but they bring to Christ for Him to pronounce judgment on her, but instead He says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  One by one the shamed people drop their stones and walk away until Christ is left alone with the adulteress.  The woman sees their is no one left to judge her, and Christ says to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

Christ forgives the sin of the paralytic and tells  him to take heart.  The paralytic has not asked for forgiveness nor has he offered repentance.   Jesus, however,  offers comfort, encouragement and hope to the man.  Christ offers what He knows the man needs.  As one of the prayers in our tradition says:

I know not what to ask of You: I ask for neither a cross nor consolation for You alone know what my true needs are.

This crowd brings the paralyzed man to Jesus to see what Jesus will do, not to ask for what they want or hope.  Their prayer is complete trust in God’s will.  Lord do you see what we see in this suffering man?   What is Your will Lord?

It is a holy way to pray for God.  We intercede for others by offering up their names and needs in our daily prayer but then trusting God to respond as God wills even if God’s response astounds us, terrifies us or disappoints us.

Your will be done.

Many people wonder how to pray and for what they should pray.  This Gospel lesson teaches us one aspect of prayer – just present the names of those you care about to God.  Let God decide what they need.  You don’t have to ask for anything, just care about others and offer them up to God in prayer.  Prayer isn’t necessarily about you knowing everything you need to say and knowing how to say it perfectly.  It is you placing before God those you care about, asking God to consider them.  In as much as God is love, let God decide what to do with those for whom we pray.  Don’t tell God what to do, ask God to note those you are concerned about.  In this way we can pray for everyone whether we think they deserve mercy or judgment – place them all in God’s hands and then let God do God’s own will!

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus does not ask the man to repent, He does not expose the man’s sins or denounce his misdeeds.  Instead, Christ simply forgives the man without asking anything in return.  No moral injunction is given  to the man  and no moral change is demanded from the man.  Jesus does not call the healed man to become a disciple.  Rather Jesus sends him home.  The man obeys and goes home, he doesn’t even thank Jesus or ask to become his follower.  Christ gives expecting nothing in return.

Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And 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, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:30-36)

Christ’s miracles in the NT are often done for the poor, for sinners, for outcasts – we should look for such opportunities among all types of people to minister to them – freely give to them, expecting nothing in return.

Who can we bring to Christ – either to the Church or in our prayers?  Those in need of spiritual, physical, moral or emotional healing.

The crowds will not be praising God because we get a new convert, a new member for the parish.  They will praise God when they see lives which are changed or different, when they see something different in us.

The entire Gospel lesson calls to mind the Psalm we regularly sing as an antiphon at most  Liturgies:

Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. … The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.   (Psalm 103:1-14)

Prayer: Stand in God’s Presence

The various methods described by the Fathers (sitting down, making prostrations, and the other techniques used when performing this prayer) are not suitable for everyone: indeed without a personal director they are actually dangerous. It is better not to try them. There is just one method which is obligatory for all: to stand with attention in the heart. All other things are beside the point, and do not lead to the crux of the matter.

It is said of the fruit of this prayer, that there is nothing higher in the world. This is wrong. As if it were some talisman! Nothing in the words of the prayer and their uttering can alone bring forth its fruit. All fruit can be received without this prayer, and even without any oral prayer, but merely by directing the mind and heart towards God.

The essence of the whole thing is to be established in the remembrance of God, and to walk in His presence. You can say to anyone: ‘Follow whatever methods you like – recite the Jesus Prayer, perform bows and prostrations, go to Church: do what you wish, only strive to be always in constant remembrance of God.’ I remember meeting a man in Kiev who said: ‘I did not use any methods at all, I did not know the Jesus Prayer, yet by God’s mercy I walk always in His presence. But how this has come to pass, I myself do not know. God gave!’”

(St Theophan the Recluse, from The Art of Prayer, p. 98)

Our Prayers to the Crucified Christ

Sometimes we find in our lives a need to cry out with Jesus in desperation: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) and then we know with Jesus that despite human appearances, God is with us, even in tragedy, suffering and death.

At other times, meaning in tragedy can only be found in saying with Jesus: “Father, forgive them for the know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)  and then we trust God that His forgiveness, mercy and love will somehow and miraculously make right and whole that which had been destroyed or at least that God will forgive us for our willingness to destroy the Good.

Still there are other times when we come to understand the suffering and evil have no power over Jesus Christ our Lord, nor do they have ultimate power over any of us who are united in Christ.  We may suffer, but we realize the suffering is only in this world and is temporary for Christ has overcome the world.

We have been on a long spiritual sojourn together have followed God into the desert of Great Lent, and walked with Christ into Jerusalem to the cross.   We who have been baptized into Christ began a walk with Christ, that began right at the tomb of Christ.   We died with Christ in baptism – we came to his tomb, as St. Paul says:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  (Romans 6:3-5)

Baptism brings us to the tomb of Christ, where we die with Him in order to be raised with Him.   It is no accident that we are here, but is God’s own plan for us.  And we are here by our own choice – by accepting Christ’s call to discipleship.  And all of us who have chosen to follow Christ have received His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.   And what are we told about the Eucharist?

In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  (1 Corinthians 11:25-26)

Every time we drink the cup of Christ’s Blood, we proclaim His death, we end up at the tomb of Christ which also happens to be the fountain of the resurrection.   Christ’s own death is a significant part of our salvation.  We need to proclaim His death, we need to be at His tomb, to remind ourselves that our union with God comes in and through the death of God’s only-begotten son, Jesus Christ.

Our long Lenten pilgrimage has brought us to the tomb of Christ.  And here we remember all that Christ has done for us, and how He was willing to suffer for us and die for us.  But the tomb is not meant to be a shrine that we stay at and adore.

Because at the tomb of Christ we also hear the angel tell us, what?

He is not here!  He is risen! (Matthew 28:6)

The death of Christ which we personally experience in baptism and proclaim at every Eucharist and which is essential to our salvation, is still not our destination – if we want to be with Christ He is not at His tomb.  For we know now that Christ is sending us out into the world to live the resurrection and to share this good news with everyone we might meet.  The tomb of Christ it turns out is another sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, just like all the miracles Christ performed.  The tomb of Christ is telling us to continue our spiritual sojourn, to go out and live in the world, but live in the light of the resurrection.

What to Do with Enemies and Evil People

Think about the word prayer. Prayer is the giant step of taking into your heart, the center of your life, your appeal to God for the well-being and healing of another person’s life. It is not a sentimental action but an act of will and an obedience to God, knowing that God seeks the well-being and salvation of each person. After all, each person, no matter how misguided or damaged, is nonetheless a bearer of the image of God. If it pains you to imagine the intentional destruction of an icon, how much more distress should we feel when an human being is harmed or killed?

I’m talking now about the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – not the Gospel according to Hollywood. The latter provides us with a never-ending parade of stories about evil people killed by good people. The basic story tempts us to prefer heroism to sanctity, or to confuse the two. A basic element of the Gospel According to Hollywood is that the evil people are so evil that there is no real solution short of hastening their death.

Confronted by such pure evil, what else can one do? But the teaching of Christ is not to kill enemies but to overcome enmity.  It’s like the transformation of water into wine that Christ performed at the wedding feast in Cana. We are commanded to convert our enmity into love, and it starts with prayer.”

(Jim Forest, “The Healing of Enmity,In Communion Fall 2006, p. 13)

Praying, “Lord, have mercy!”

In Orthodox liturgical services, we constantly pray, “Lord, have mercy!”  In the Gospel, Jesus Himself never refuses to grant a request made to Him seeking mercy.  Paul N. Harrilchak comments on this foundational prayer of the Christian people:

Not a sentimental plea or cry for pity; rather, an acknowledgement of the Father’s lordship – his sovereignty, power and faithfulness – and of our own sinfulness. We ask the Father of mercies, 2 Cor. 1.3, to remember his covenant with us and deal with the needs of all, not in accordance with our sins but in accordance with his mercy, Heb. 8.8-12. (Something of the scriptural meaning of mercy – hesed in Hebrew – can be gleaned from the RSV rendering, steadfast love.)

The Liturgy: OCA Texts Revised, Annotated and Set to the Melodies, p. 31)

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)

The Prayers of St. Parthenius

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, do not allow vanity, selfishness, sensuality, carelessness, or anger to have dominion over me and snatch me from Thy love.

O Lord, I pray Thee especially for those who in some way have wronged, offended, or saddened me, or have done me some evil. Do not punish them on my account, who am also a sinner, but pour upon them Thy goodness.

O Lord, I pray Thee for all whom I, sinful as I am, have grieved, offended or scandalized by word, deed or thought, consciously or unconsciously.

O Lord, forgive us our sins and mutual offences; expel from our hearts all indignation, scorn, anger, resentment, altercation, and all that can hinder charity and lessen brotherly love.

(St. Parthenius, What the Church Fathers Say About…Vol.2, p. 130-131)

Achieving the Goal of Fasting

When one reads the spiritual lessons from the Fathers and Mothers of our Church, one realizes that they did not hold to a “one-size-fits-all” mentality when it came to spiritual discipline.  Often they set forth the ideal, but acknowledge that some cannot attain the ideal, but instead of despairing, these folk need to embrace what they can do.  All-or-nothing thinking is not necessarily the most spiritual way, but sometimes is the result of immature or distorted thinking.  St. John of Karpathos writes exactly this referring to fasting and some monks who could not keep the fast strictly due to health problems.  Even without fasting St. John tells them they can rid themselves of both demons and passions.

Once certain brethren, who were always ill and could not practice fasting, said to me: How is it possible for us without fasting to rid ourselves of the devil and the passions? To such people we should say: you can destroy and banish what is evil, and the demons that suggest this evil to you, not only by abstaining from food, but by calling with all your heart on God. For it is written: They cried to the Lord in their trouble and He delivered them (Ps. 107:6); and again: Out of the belly of hell I cried and Thou heardest my voice… Thou hast brought up my life from corruption (Jonah 2:2,6). Therefore until iniquity shall pass away that is, as long as sin still troubles me I will cry to God most high (Ps. 57:1-2 LXX), asking Him to bestow on me this great blessing: by His power to destroy within me the provocation to sin, blotting out the fantasies of my impassioned mind and rendering it image-free.

So, if you have not yet received the gift of self-control, know that the Lord is ready to hear you if you entreat Him with prayer and hope. Understanding the Lord’s will, then, do not be discouraged because of your inability to practice asceticism, but strive all the more to be delivered from the enemy through prayer and patient thanksgiving. If thoughts of weakness and distress force you to leave the city of fasting, take refuge in another city (cf. Matt. 10:23) that is, in prayer and thanksgiving. (The Philokalia, p. 314)

A Divine Reward Before Doing the Labor

By the inexpressible providence of God some people have obtained divine rewards for their labors before doing them; others during their toil; others after; and some only at the time of their departure.   (St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Kindle Location 2394-2395)

The above quote from St. John Climacus reminded me of an event that happened almost 50 years ago.  A friend of our family had an aging mother who was about 85.  She was having serious trouble walking, suffering a lot of pain in her legs.  Perhaps it was a circulatory problem, but I don’t remember that detail.   She kept telling her son, our family friend, that if she couldn’t walk anymore, she hoped God would take her.  She didn’t want to keep living if she couldn’t go to church and she was afraid that since she couldn’t walk they would put her in a nursing home and that would be the end of her church attendance. She had been several times doctors but they hadn’t so far found a solution to the problem.  Then, one day, the doctor called the man and told him they had a new medication for his mother which the doctor felt would help her be able to walk.  Our friend went to the pharmacy and picked up the prescription and drove it to his mother’s house.  To his surprise, she was not home.   She didn’t drive, so he couldn’t imagine where she went.  He searched the house and began looking around the neighborhood.  A neighbor told him that he had seen his mom walking away from the home earlier in the day.  He became very alarmed knowing she wasn’t able to walk very well.  He drove around the neighborhood but didn’t see her.  He felt somewhat panicked about what might have happened to her.  He called the doctor and the hospital, but could not locate her.  After a considerable time, he drove to the church because it was the one place he knew she liked to be.  And sure enough there was his mom sitting on the front steps of the church.   She had walked nearly 2 miles to get there.  When he got out of the car, he felt a bit angry and said to his mother, “What are you doing here?”   She calmly replied that she had come to church to pray to God to ask him to help her so she could walk and come to church, but if that God wasn’t going to help her, then she hoped He would allow her to die in peace.

The son told her that the doctor had called that very morning with a new prescription for her and he had gotten the medication for her.  She replied, “See, God answered my prayer.”    He said later he felt a little amused by her simple faith, imagining as she did that God had answered her prayer, when he knew that in fact that medication was in production for years before she ever made that prayer.   His problem of course was his good Western mind with its linear view of history – as if God needed to wait for a prayer to be offered before God could  begin to act upon the petition.  Or as St. John Climacus noted in the quote above, some obtain their divine rewards before doing the labor.