Turning Our Heart to God

Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
(Psalms 146:3-7)

That which a man loves, to which he turns, that he will find. If he loves earthly things, he will find earthly things, and these earthly things will abide in his heart, will communicate their earthliness to him and will find him; if he loves heavenly things, he will find heavenly things, and they will abide in his heart and give him life. We must not set our hearts upon anything earthly, for the spirit of evil is incorporated in all earthly things when we use them immoderately and in excess, this spirit having become earthly by excessive opposition to God.

When God is present in all a man’s thoughts, desires, intentions, words, and works, then it means that the kingdom of God has come to him; then he sees God in everything—in the world of thought, in the world of action, and in the material world; then the omnipresence of God is most clearly revealed to him, and a genuine fear of God dwells in his heart: he seeks every moment to please God, and fears every moment lest he may sin against God, present at his right hand. “Thy kingdom come!

Examine yourself oftener; where the eyes of your heart are looking. Are they turned towards God and the life to come, towards the most peaceful, blessed, resplendent, heavenly, holy powers dwelling in heaven? Or are they turned towards the world, towards earthly blessings; to food, drink, dress, abode, to sinful vain men and their occupations? O that the eyes of our heart were always fixed upon God! But it is only in need or misfortune that we turn our eyes to the Lord, whilst in the time of prosperity our eyes are turned towards the world and its vain works. But what, you would ask, will this looking to God bring me? It will bring the deepest peace and tranquillity to your heart, light to your mind, holy zeal to your will, and deliverance from the snares of the enemy.

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp. 76-77)

 Then Jesus said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.  (Matthew 22:21-22)

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Speaking the Truth in Prayer

“The Christian must make use of every means in order to eradicate every falsehood from his heart, and to implant pure truth within it. We must begin with prayer, as with a matter in which truth is indispensable before everything, in accordance with the Lord’s own words: ‘Worship Him in spirit and in truth.’ Speak the truth from your heart. When we have learnt to speak the truth from our heart during prayer we shall not allow ourselves to lie in our everyday life: sincere, true prayer, having cleansed our heart through from falsehood, will protect it against falsehood in our relations with other men in worldly matters. How can we teach ourselves to speak the truth from our heart during prayer? We must bring every word of the prayer down to our heart, lay it to heart, feel its truth in our heart, be convinced of all our need of that for which we ask God in prayer, or of the need of hearty gratitude for His great and innumerable benefits to us, and of most heartfelt praise for His great, most wise works in His creation.” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp. 178-179)

Image of Salvation (XVI)

This is the Sixteenth blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog Images of Salvation (XV).

“How insignificant is the earth and earthly life in comparison with heaven, with Christ’s eternal kingdom!  And yet we attach ourselves so much to the earthly things, and are so careless of the salvation of the soul, of eternal life!”  (St. John of Kronstadt – d. 1908AD,  MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 245)

Salvation in the Christian sense has to do with eternal life beyond the fallen world that we live in and know.  This world is understood to be a stage on the way to that eternity.  This world is temporary and limited, whereas that next life is unlimited and eternal.  So, of course, many saints and martyrs express surprise that we are so attached to this world that we will give up our salvation just to gain a little bit more of this world which is passing away.   We will refuse to love and forgive, to share and practice self-denial, because we want to get all we can from this earth which we know, and then hope we can get everything in all of eternity as well.

“From a Christian point of view there is one word which expresses all that is desirable: salvation.  Nothing but what endangers salvation, then, should make us sad.  Here is the place to reread … the saying of Saint Barsanuphius …: ‘One must absolutely not be saddened by anything in this world, but only by sin’.  Saint John Chrysostom had already taught that, in beings destined for eternity, the only justifiable sorrow is for the loss of eternal happiness through sin.  Here then is the first concept of penthos: mourning for lost salvation, whether one’s own or that of others.”   (Irenee Hausherr, PENTHOS: THE DOCTRINE OF COMPUNCTION IN THE CHRISTIAN EAST, p 18)

Bro KaramzovSorrow over the loss of salvation – our own or of others! Concern for the salvation of others is a mark of true Christian love.  I think especially about a character like Sonia in Dostoyevski’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, who becomes a prostitute really to save her younger step brothers and sisters from poverty and degradation.   She gives up her salvation, lays down her life for their good.  She is the true Christ figure in the novel.  She is unlike the Christians who place all the emphasis in their spiritual lives on their own salvation, but who become slaves to self rather than children of God’s love for the world.

Christian wisdom is that our life in this world has some effect on our life in the world to come.   The worlds are connected and what we experience in the next world is related to how we lived in this world.  If we live and love others as Christ loved and loves us, then we will share in the eternal love which God offers in His Kingdom.  If we eschew love and self-denial in this world, we will not find life in God’s eternal Kingdom to be to our liking either.  For their we will find ourselves eternally in the presence of God’s love, which will be painful to us if we have hated that self-emptying, self-sacrificing, co-suffering love which Christ modeled for us and commanded us to live in this world.  St. Mark the Ascetic (5th Century) says:

“When we were in this harsh captivity, ruled by invisible and bitter death, the Master of all visible and invisible creation was not ashamed to humble Himself and to take upon Himself our human nature, subject as it was to the passions of shame and desire and condemned by divine judgment; and He became like us in all things except that He was without sin (cf. Heb 4:15)…He took upon Himself, becoming what we are, so that we might become what He is. The Logos became man, so that man might become Logos. Being rich, He became poor for our sakes, so that through His poverty we might become rich (cf. Cor 8:9). In His great love for man He became like us, that through every virtue we might become like Him. From the time that Christ came to dwell with us, man created according to God’s image and likeness is truly renewed through the grace and power of the Spirit, attaining to the perfect love which ‘casts out fear’ ( 1 John 4:18) – the love which is no longer able to fail, for ‘love never fails’ (1 Cor 13:8).”    (Philokalia – The Complete Text: Volume One, pg.155)

Following Christ, practicing self-denial, laying down one’s life for the good of others,  practicing love for others rather than self-love, are the signs that one has understood Christ’s command and teaching to wash the feet of others.  This comes about as we become less concerned with earning our own salvation, and begin to live Christ’s love for the salvation of others and of the world.

“If the essential experience of the Church is that of the new creation, of a new life in a renewed world, that experience implies and posits a certain fundamental experience of the world ….  the eschatological experience of the Church reveals the world as the fallen world, dominated by sin, corruption and death, enslaved to the prince of this world.  The fall, although it cannot destroy and annihilate the essential goodness of God’s creation, has nevertheless alienated it from God, made it into this world which, because it is flesh and blood, pride and selfishness, is not only distinct from the Kingdom of God but actively opposed to it.  Hence the essentially tragic Christian view of history, the rejection by the Christian faith of any historical optimism that would equate the world with progress.  And finally, the ultimate experience: that of redemption, which God accomplished in the midst of His creation, within time and history, and which by redeeming man, by making him capax Dei, capable of the new life, is the salvation of the world.  For as the world rejects, in and through man, its self-sufficiency, as it ceases to be an end in itself and thus truly dies as this world, it becomes that which it was created to be and has truly become in Christ: the object and means of sanctification, of man’s communion with and passage to God’s eternal kingdom.”  (Alexander Schmemann, CHURCH, WORLD, MISSION,  pp 76-77)

Next:  Images of Salvation (XVII)

The Temple Realized

This is the 5th blog in the series.  The previous blog is The Temple Envisioned Anew  and the 1st blog in the series Is Envisioning the Temple (I).

“The temples of the New Testament are places where Christians are initiated into the grace of the Holy Spirit through Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion. They build up the Christian people who form Christ’s holy and mystical Body in which they work out their common salvation. At the same time, the Holy Spirit makes every Christian a temple of God not made by hands.”  (Archimandrite Zacharias, REMEMBER THY FIRST LOVE, p 213)

The notion of the Temple as we have seen in the past blogs is complex for it is both a divine and human reality.  The Temple is the place where God dwells with His people and yet it does not contain Him.  The Temple is a reality of place and yet from its earliest conception in the Tent of the Meeting, it exists wherever God is with His people, wherever His people may move.  By the time of Christ these complex ideas of the Temple were incarnate in unexpected ways in Christ Himself.  Christ was seen as making the Temple fulfill all of its intended purposes, as revealing the nature of the true Temple, and as even superseding the Temple.  St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107AD) writes:

“As stones of the Father’s temple you have been prepared to be God the Father’s building, lifted up to the heights through the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, as you use the Holy Spirit for a rope. Your faith is your guide;  love is the way that carries you up to God.  You are all fellow travelers, God-bearers, temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holiness, ordered well in every way in the commands of Jesus Christ.”  (Ignatius Of Antioch & Polycarp Of Smyrna: A New Translation and Theological Commentary, Kenneth J. Howell, Kindle Loc. 1452-55)

The New Testament, as we have seen in the previous blogs, conceives of Christ as Temple, the Church (the people of God) as Temple as well as each person being a Temple of the Holy Spirit.  The “Temple” thus continues to be a rich theological concept in the New Testament: reality and symbol, sign of God and transforming people individually and collectively.  The author of Hebrews draws together those texts of the Old Testament related to the Temple with Christ who enters not the earthly copy of the Temple, but enters the true archetypal Temple (emphases in the text is mine and not in the original):

“Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord. . . . They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’  But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. . . . Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these.  For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”  (Hebrews 8:1-2,5-6 and 9:23-24)

Hebrews tells us the Jerusalem Temple is not the real Temple but merely a copy of the real thing.  The Temple in Jerusalem is a Temple made by human hands, like any idol.  It is a sign and symbol of the reality and thus participates in the reality, yet it is not the full reality of the true Temple made by God and not by human hands.  It is Christ through His death, resurrection and ascension who enters THE Temple of God and unites earth to earth to heaven, humanity to divinity.  When Christ entered the true Temple of God He also revealed the Jerusalem Temple to be a mere copy of the original, a shadow and type of the real thing.   When we have access to the real Temple, we no longer need the model of it.  This same thinking is how the Patristic Writers often thought of the scriptures: the scriptures as prototypes of the reality are no longer needed once we have the type, the reality.  The scriptures point to Christ, and so are essential to us, but once we have Christ, we are no longer need the sketches and models which helped us to recognize Christ.  But once we have the reality, the sketches and plans which were drawn up are no longer as valuable to us.

St. John of Kronstadt (d. 1908AD) writes about the temple in Christian thinking:

“Lord!  Grant that Thy temple may communicate to all who enter into it with faith, piety and fear of God, the enlightenment of their souls, the cleansing from their sins, sanctification, peace health, tranquility of soul – that it may strengthen their faith, hope and love; that it may further the amendment of their lives, success in all their good beginnings and works, mutual love, pure Christian life, the softening of their hearts, and the cessation of self-love, hard-heartedness, covetousness, greediness, envy, malice, gluttony, drunkenness, dissoluteness – of these vices, which are so prejudicial to social life, sapping its very foundation.  Grant this, grant it, Lord, to all those who love to frequent Thy Temple, and incline those also who do not love it, to love it, and to amend their lives and works: for the time is near and the judgment is at the door for all, of every calling and position, of either sex and every age, and a work of infinite importance stands before all – to give an answer at the terrible Judgment of Christ.”  (MY LIFE IN CHRIST  V 2, pp 161-162)

Because the Body of Christ is identified with the Temple, the Temple in all its new manifestations becomes identified with both the Incarnation of God and the deification of humanity.  St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD)   expresses the thought in his own mystical language:

“The way of truth is love. The Logos of God called Himself the way (cf. John 14:6, 1 John 4:8); and those who travel on this way He presents, purified from every stain, to God the Father. This is the door through which a man enters into the Holy of Holies and is brought to the vision of the unapproachable beauty of the Holy and Royal Trinity.”  (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 16076-80)

Christ is the door to the true Temple, the way into the Holy of Holies.  This is yet another of the many images and metaphors of the Temple.  And as we already saw in Revelation God the Father and the Lamb of God are the Temple of the New Jerusalem.

“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”  (Revelation 21:22)

The Temple whose plan was revealed to Moses and David turns out to be God Himself.  The relationship between God, Temple, humanity and creation is indeed a mystical unity: an image of the incarnation of the Word.  The Temple was to make God present on earth in a most unexpected way which is fulfilled in Christ.  The Temple on earth was to be an image of God Himself to help us recognize the Christ who in turn is the Temple.  And then there is the miracle that the Temple is Christ’s Body which we turn out to be.  The Temple turns out to be the place where God and humanity are united.  Salvation as theosis is Temple theology.

Next:   Christ, the Theotokos and the Temple

Intercessory Prayer (IV)

This is the 33rd blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Intercessory Prayer (III).

St. John of Kronstadt  – d. 1908AD – offers us the following instruction on praying for others:

Frieze of Vice

“When you see faults and passions in your neighbor, pray for him; pray for everybody, even for your enemy.  If you see that your brother is proud and stubborn, and behaves proudly either to you or others, pray for him, that God may enlighten his mind and warm his heart with the fire of His grace, and say: ‘Lord, teach meekness and humility to Your servant, who has fallen into Satan’s pride, and drive from his heart the darkness and burden of the evil one’s pride.’  If you see a wrathful brother, pray thus: “Lord, make this servant of Yours good through Your grace.’  If a mercenary and greedy one, pray thus: “Lord, You Who are our incorruptible Treasury and inexhaustible riches, grant that this servant of Yours, created according to Your image, may recognize the deceitfulness of riches, and that, like all earthly things, they are vain, fleeting, delusive. For the days of men are like grass, or like the spider’s web, and You alone are our riches, peace, and joy.’ 

Frieze of Slander

If you see an envious man, pray thus: ‘Lord, enlighten the mind and the heart of this Your servant, that he may recognize the great innumerable, and unsearchable gifts which he has received through Your boundless generosity; for in the blindness of his passion he has forgotten You and Your rich gifts, and although enriched with Your benefits, yet reckons himself poor, and looks enviously upon the blessing which You, O our unspeakable Benefactor, has bestowed  upon each one of your servants, even against their own will, but in accordance with Your purpose.  Take way, Most Gracious Master, the Devils’ veil from the eyes of the heart of Your servant; grant him contrition of heart, tears of repentance and gratitude, so that the enemy who has ensnared him alive in his toils may not rejoice over him and any not wrest him from your hands.’ 

If you see a drunken man, say in your heart: ‘Lord, look mercifully upon Your servant, allured by the flattery of the belly and carnal merriment; make him understand the sweetness of temperance and fasting, and of the fruit of the spirit arising therefrom.’  When you see a man passionately fond of eating, and finding all his happiness in this, say, ‘Lord, You are our sweetest Food,  that never perishes, but leads us into life eternal!  Purify Your servant from the filthiness of gluttony, so carnal and so far from Your spirit, and grant that he may know the sweetness of your life-giving , spiritual food, which is Your Flesh and Blood, and your holy, living, and acting word.’  In this or in a similar manner pray for all who sin, and do not dare to despise anyone for his sin, nor be vindictive, as through this you would only aggravate the wounds of those who sin; but rather correct them by means of such advice, threats, and punishments as may tend to stop or restrain the evil within the limits of moderation.”   (MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 64-65)

Next:  Prayer: Conversing with God

Intercessory Prayer

This is the 30th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is For What Should we Pray? (IV).

In Orthodox spirituality the opposite of love is not really anger or hatred, but self-love.  True love is relational and directed toward the good of another.  “God is love” (1 John 4:8) we are taught.  God’s goodness is other directed.  First, within the Holy Trinity each of the Divine Persons, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, are eternally loving toward each other.  They are not narcissistic or solipsistic.  God eternally is love, which means each person of the Trinity always existed in relationship to each other and forever are directed in love toward each other.  Theology would say if God is love, God could never be a monad as there then would be nothing to love but Himself.  The Trinity reveals to us the manner in which God eternally is love: there always were other persons within the Godhead to love.

Second, God is love in relationship to creation.  God has freely brought creation into existence in order to share the Trinitarian love with creatures beyond their mutually shared eternal and divine nature.

Christ and his disciples feeding the thousands

We are created in God’s image: we are created to be relational beings; we are created to love.

“An old man used to say, ‘If thou hast prayed for thy companion thou hast also  prayed for thyself, but if thou hast prayed for thyself only thou has impoverished they petition…”  (E. Wallis Budge, THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS  vol 2, p 229)

Praying for others enriches our prayer life, and generates love in us for our neighbor and even our enemies.  This is not to say that we cannot pray for ourselves as well.

“While you can and should ask for the intercession of others, you must also pray yourself.  This is how Chrysostom puts it:

‘Even if we be in sins, and unworthy of receiving, let us not despair; knowing, that by assiduity of soul we shall be able to become worthy of the request.  Even if we be unaided by advocate and destitute, let us not faint; knowing that it is a strong advocacy, the coming to God one’s self by one’s self with much eagerness.’”  (Stanley Harakas, OF LIFE AND SALVATION, p 126)

Praying for ourselves does serve to direct our thoughts and our hearts and minds to God.  Thus even prayer for ourselves is relational and puts us into God’s presence.  But our prayer if based in love will move beyond our self, to concern for those around us.  Prayer helps us to get beyond the limit of self and to become part of something greater than an isolated and alienated being, and puts us in communion with our fellow human beings, with all of creation and with our Creator.

“It pleases the Lord, the common Father of all, when we pray for each other willingly with faith and love, for He is Love, ready to forgive all for their mutual love.  The Holy Ghost said: ‘Pray one for another, that you may be healed.’ (James 5:16).  You see how pleasing to God, and how efficacious, is the prayer for one another.”  (St. John of Kronstadt  – d. 1908AD, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 2, p 134)

Intercessory prayer flows from the love which we have received from God.  Intercession is one way for us to fulfill Christ’s teaching that we are to love one another as He loved us (John 13:34-35).  In ancient Christianity, “one Christian was no Christian”  (Tertullian, d. ca 225AD) because to be a Christian meant to live in loving relationship with all other believers as to be a Christian by definition is to be baptized into Christ and to be a member of His Body, the Church.  To be a Christian is to imitate Christ, which means washing the feet of fellow disciples – being a servant to others -as we witness Christ doing on the night of His betrayal and arrest (John 13:1-20).

“Our care and concerns for other people, for our country, for our planet, are not all empty, nor are they all selfish or egotistical.  This is demonstrated in the very powerful experience of bringing concerns to God in prayer.  This is not the intercession that starts out by pointing out what mistakes God is making in the running of the world, followed by a list of things we would like Him to do about it.  That practice is simply another aspect of the ego’s desire to control, an empty soul-less activity which leads us further away from God, even while we think that because we are participating in something ‘religious’ we must be progressing in the other direction.

Intercession is not a matter of telling God what to do, even with the best of possible intentions.  Nor is it a question of trying to change God’s mind about something.  Intercession is simply a matter of bringing the concerns of our own lives – friends, relatives, but also enemies and competitors – to the throne of God and leaving them there.  Any person and any subject can be brought to God. … We do not pray for specific outcomes, and we do not demand particular results, since to do so would place our own desires as the point of the prayer, whereas in reality the sole and entire aim of prayer is to discover the will of God.  It may seem rather obvious to state that we do not discover the will of God by simply repeating our own demands over and over again.”   (Archimandrite Meletios Webber, BREAD & WATER, WINE AND OIL , p 57)

Next:  Intercessory Prayer (II)

For What Should we Pray? (IV)

This is the 29th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is For What Should we Pray (III).

Christ the High Priest

Prayer is an act of love: for God and His gracious blessings, for our neighbors as well as our enemies, and for all of creation.  We humans were created by God to be priests, to offer up ourselves, each other and all of creation to God in thanksgiving.  We were brought into existence to be mediators between creation and Creator: that is the very role we humans were to have in creation from the beginning.  That is what our dominion over creation was to be – before the Fall caused separation and enmity between ourselves and God, between male and female, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and the rest of creation.

To pray for others is to return to our original God-given purpose as human beings.

“Let us therefore supplicate Him . . . let us assist the needy with prayers of intercession.  The community of the Church can do much, if with a repented soul and contrite spirit, we offer up our prayers!  It is unnecessary to cross the ocean, or to undertake a long journey.  Let every man and woman and child, whether meeting together in Church, or remaining at home, call upon God with much earnestness, and He will doubtless accede to our petitions.”  (St. John Chrysostom – d. 407AD – in THROUGH THE YEAR WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 179-180)

To pray for others, to intercede before God for them, is to reclaim our natural position as relational beings, rather than as alienated and autonomous ones.  Intercessory prayer is the restoration of love in our souls as we accept our God-given relationship to the Creator and to His creation.   The monastics who formed communities for the express purpose of prayer and who arose prominently in Christianity in the 4th Century took upon themselves the ministry of intercession for the world.  It was a way in which they tried to restore humanity and humaneness to all people, the fallen, in the world.

“In Christianity, from the 4th century onwards, this ministry of intercession tended to be concentrated in the prayers of the monks.  An Egyptian bishop of the time wrote to the hermits; ‘The universe is saved by your prayers; thanks to your supplications, the rain descends on the earth, the earth is covered in green, the trees are laden with fruit’ (Serapion of Thmuis – 4th C AD…).”     (Olivier Clement, ON HUMAN BEING, p 94)

Monasticism in this way is an effort to recapture what it meant to be human for our ancestors Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise.

“The Church has always taught that Christians, by their active presence and their intercession, safeguard cosmic order and human society, and raise them to the status of offerings.  The most ancient ‘apology’ for Christianity that we know, that of Aristides (2nd C. AD), composed at the time of the first persecutions, plainly states, ‘Of this there is no doubt, that it is because of the intercession of Christians that the world continues to exist’ (XVI.6).  This notion has its roots in the Old Testament, where Abraham, by prodigious bargaining, secured the preservation of Sodom, provided there should be found in it only ten righteous men.  Christians are called to supply the righteous who were lacking Sodom.”  (Olivier Clement, ON HUMAN BEING, p 93)

Praying for others, intercessory prayer, is an act of love and is a way to fulfill Christ’s command that we love one another as He loved us.

“If you make a habit of praying for the salvation of others, God will give you an abundance of spiritual gifts, the gift of the Holy Spirit, who loves the soul that cares for the salvation of others, because He Himself wishes to save us all by every possible means, if only we do not oppose Him and do not harden our hearts.

Prayer for others is very beneficial to the man himself who prays; it purifies the heart, strengthens faith and hope in God, and arouses love for God and our neighbor.”    ( St. John of Kronstadt – d. 1908AD – in THROUGH THE YEAR WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 178)

Next:  Intercessory Prayer

Praying (XII)

This is the 24th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Praying (XI).

The practice of remembering the acts of God is central to Orthodox communal worship.  At each Divine Liturgy we remember the saving acts of God, and give thanks for them.  Remembering the saving deeds which God has done to bring us up to heaven is not a search into the distant past history, but rather makes God in His saving deeds present in our lives here and now.  This is also accomplished on each Feast Day and in all of the sacraments of the Church.

Remembering God at every moment of our lives is a TASK for each of us who claim God as our Father.  It is a task – work, requires expending energy – because we do not readily keep God in our daily focus.  This has been a serious and sinful failure of the people of God through history:  for example meditate on Psalm 106 paying attention to the words “remember” and “forget”.  The task of remembering requires us to strive to drive out all extraneous thoughts and to focus on God.  Just remembering God daily is hard work!  It is taking up the cross daily, but it is also an act of love and therefore not a heavy burden but a task that uplifts us.

“This is the true foundation of prayer: keeping watch over your own thoughts and giving yourself to prayer in great tranquility, in great peace, in such a way as not to disturb others . . . You will then have to wage war on your own thoughts and cut back their rampant growth . . . push ahead towards God, refrain from doing as your thoughts would have you do, but on the contrary lead them back from their dispersion.”   (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, pp 169-170)

The task of remembering God is hard work, and not just because of evil or sin.  There are endless distractions in our modern entertainment-driven culture which are competing for our attention.  The desire for pleasure, for escape, for entertainment and for fulfilling one’s ‘wants’, all take our minds away from God.  Which is not to say that these things must turn our minds away from God, they could make us thankful to Him.  But often we pursue them for what they do for us with little regard for how we might serve God through the blessings He bestows on us. When we engage in self love rather than true love for the other, we are distracted from God.

Remembering God does not require us to go searching for Him in the heavens or in the future coming Kingdom.  We remember God in our own hearts right here and right now for the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21).  We can encounter God in the poor and needy, Christ’s least brothers and sisters.

“When you pray to the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost—to the one God in the Trinity – do not seek Him outside yourself, but contemplate Him within, as dwelling in you, entirely penetrating and knowing you.  ‘Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16).  ‘And I will walk among you, and will be your God’ (Lev 26:12).  ‘I will dwell in them, and walk in them, and I will be their God, and will be a Father unto you (2 Cor 6:16, 18).”  (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 2, p 195)

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss

Remembering God constantly means setting aside other things which are on our minds, including the ways in which others failed us or offended us.

“(St.) Makarios  (d. 392AD) teaches us another important lesson regarding the wrongs done to us by another. As noted above, he advocates in their place a constant remembrance of God: ‘If we keep remembering the wrongs which men have done to us, we destroy the power of the remembrance of God.’ To meditate on the wrongs of others is to create a major obstacle to prayer. Prayer should become the primary and constant activity of all that we do in life. Prayer is not something we say from time to time, but something we are to be all the time.”  (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle,  Loc. 803-6)

Next:  Praying (XIII)

Praying (IX)

This is the 21st blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Praying (VIII).

In the wisdom of Holy Tradition, we encounter an idea which St. John Chrysostom repeats in several of his writings [see for example What is Prayer?  (VI)].  Taking his cues from how the world  was experienced in his day, Chrysostom contrasts how we can approach God in prayer with how the people of his day would go about seeking assistance from people of power in their society.   For in the 4th Century those seeking help from people in power needed to find advocates to intercede for them before the person of power, or they needed to bribe enough people to get the ear of the powerful.   For Chrysostom, the merciful God does not put between Himself and us layers of hierarchies which we have to weave through or beg for help in order to get access to the Lord God.

Icon of the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Chrysostom states that  the loving God hears our cries for help despite the din of noise that might be raised from all of those who think they are closer to God than us and who think they have a self-determined task to protect the holiness of God and keep others away from Him.  God is not unfair in His mercy nor does He follow human notions of favoritism.  God listens for and hears our prayers.  As Jesus taught in the parable of the prodigal son, the father was looking for his son and saw his saw coming even when the son was still at a great distance away (Luke 15:20).

“When we entreat human beings for assistance, then we must meet with porters beforehand, entreat parasites and flatterers, and embark on a long journey.  However, where God is concerned, nothing of this sort is required; rather, you can beg him without the interventions of an intercessor and money, and He approves your supplication without expense.  It suffices for you simply to shout with the heart and offer tears, and he will immediately enter into your soul and assist you.”  (St. John Chrysostom, ON REPENTANCE AND ALMSGIVING, p 51)

Prayer is an act based in love – in God’s love for us His creatures, and His desire to hear our voice and bestow His love on us.  Prayer is an act of love on our parts for others and for all of God’s creation.  Christ taught us to love God and love neighbor, and to love others as He loved us.  This is the basis for our prayer.

“When you pray, endeavor to pray more for others than for yourself alone, and during prayer represent to yourself all men as forming one body with yourself, and each separately as a member of the Body of Christ and your own member, ‘for we are members one of another.’  Pray for all as you would pray for yourself, with the same sincerity and fervor; look upon their infirmities and sicknesses as your own; their spiritual ignorance, their sins and passions, as your own; their temptations, misfortunes, and manifold afflictions as your own.  Such prayer will be accepted with great favor by the heavenly Father, that most gracious, common Father of all, with Whom ‘there is no respect of persons,’ ‘no shadow of alteration,’ that boundless Love that embraces and preserve all creatures.”    (St. John of Kronstadt in TREASURY OF RUSSIAN SPIRITUALITY, p 361)

Prayer is a way for us to practice the love that Christ teaches us in the Gospel.  Prayer is an act of Christian love – or perhaps more accurately, prayer is an expression of who we are in Christ. If we follow St. Paul’s teaching, “let all you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14), we realize prayer is an expression of our love for God, for others and for all of creation.

“I have said that one of the problems which we must all face and solve is: where should I direct my prayer?  The answer I have suggested is that we should direct it at ourselves.  Unless the prayer which you intend to offer to God is important and meaningful to you first, you will not be able to present it to the Lord.  If you are inattentive to the words you pronounce, if your heart does not respond to them, of if your life is not turned in the same direction as your prayer, it will not reach out Godwards.  So the first thing is, as I said, to choose a prayer which you can say with all your mind, with all your heart and with all your will – a prayer which does not necessarily have to be a great example of liturgical art, but which must be true, something which should not fall short of what you want to express.”     (Anthony Bloom, BEGINNING TO PRAY, p 26)

Next:  Praying (X)

Why Pray? (III)

This is the 3rd blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is  “Why Pray? “ and the previous blog is Why Pray? (II).

When prayer is not merely one activity among many that we do, but becomes our way of living in which all we do is to acquire God’s love, then we can pray without ceasing.  When all we do is directed toward God, then all of life is prayer.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”   (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Notice how St. Paul does not separate out prayer as an activity unrelated to other aspects of the Christian life.  Things we are to never stop doing:

Rejoicing

Praying

Giving thanks.

Sometimes we find fellow believers quoting and focusing only on “pray without ceasing” while ignoring the context of St. Paul’s words and his complete message.  Too often there is this idea that prayer is the only activity worthy of Christians, but this is not the teaching of St. Paul.   Prayer is one continuous activity in our lives as believers, but so is rejoicing and giving thanks.  When we forgot all of these elements, we practice a reduction of the Christian faith and of St. Paul’s teaching.

“We must pray that we may be constantly and firmly assured in our hearts that everything we have – both of soul and body, in prosperity and adversity, and all our possessions as well as all the circumstances of our life – come from God, from His Power, and not from nature, or chance, or from ourselves.  If you cease praying to God, you will soon forget your Benefactor, Creator, and Lord, and in forgetting Him you will fall into every evil.  Therefore, you see that prayer always brings you real benefit.”   (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 128)

When we remember that all things come to us from God, then we learn to give thanks and rejoice in every circumstance.   Prayer is the means by which we can acquire the love of God, but also the way we remember God’s love in and through the world He created for us.  Rejoicing and giving thanks equally with prayer gives us proper orientation toward our God, the God of love.  Prayer restores in us the memory of God and of all of his deeds.

In so doing, by establishing our relationship with God, prayer is also a way to learn, think about and remember virtue – those things which those who know the love of God do in their daily lives.

“Virtues are formed by prayer.  Prayer preserves temperance, suppresses anger, restrains pride and envy, draws down the Holy Spirit into the soul and raises man to heaven.” (St. Ephraim the Syrian in Orthodox Prayer Life, pgs. 31-32)

Notice how in St. Ephraim’s teaching: prayer helps us in knowing how to live on this earth while simultaneously lifting us to heaven.  Prayer makes God present in our lives.

“With prayer I cleanse the vision of my faith, lest it lose sight of you in the mist, O Most Radiant Star.

“What use will your prayer be to God?” asks the swarthy workers of the earth.

You speak rightly, sons of earth.  What use is the mariner’s telescope to the North Star, when it sees the mariner even without a telescope?  But do not ask me, since you already know what use a telescope is to a mariner.

Prayer is necessary for me, lest I lose sight of the salvation-bearing Star, but the Star does not need it to keep from losing me.”     (Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, Prayers by the Lake, pg 70)

Prayer keeps us oriented toward and focused on the Triune God of love.

Next:  Why Pray?  (IV)