Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Subject of Prayer

Archpriest Nikolai Deputatov

Philosophizing is by far easier than praying. Satan is self — opinionated and encourages those who rely on their own wisdom. On self-willed theorizing and the grasping of "the great mysteries" he traps, confuses and destroys human souls. The greatest advantage of prayer is that it replaces all that we have. This is the most profound content that is hidden in prayer: faith, devotion, salvation. Whoever strives to pray with one’s whole heart is already saved. Prayer — is a half-way to God. Through prayer, a blessed power by way of a harmony of sacred words, pours into our hearts. Prayer brings divine joy.

If philosophers, rationalists and materialists do not believe and do not pray, this does not mean that they have advanced very far, or soared very high, "but it means they have stepped away from human nature, distorted and disfigured themselves, as though they have gouged their eyes out or cut off their noses" (Bishop Theophan). The Apostles regarded prayer, together with the teaching of the word of God, their main concern. "Prayer is the highest of virtues, the root and foundation of a life striving for salvation" (St. John Chrysostom).

Christians, in prayer, find solace and help in all difficulties of life, in every need and misfortune. And thus-perish self pity! Let us compel ourselves to prayer. If we continue to pray, even under duress, then idleness and our negative attitude to prayer will begin to dissipate and with God’s help, will completely disappear and could be replaced by a strong spiritual inspiration. "One monk was constantly overcome by the devil before prayer. He would feel hot and cold, begin to feel ill — he was ready to die. What did he do? Well, my soul, he said! The time has come to die. Let us pray for the last time, and shed our tears before God.’ Forcing himself, he stood to pray. His head was aching, but he continued… He finished reading the typica, and the pain disappeared… The next day, the same happened. Then he understood from where the temptation comes, and from then on he never left the reading of prayers — no matter what the distraction was" (Bishop Theophan).

The soul, just like the weather, experiences sunny days and dull days. It is within our power to attune our soul so that unceasingly, the sweetest heavenly melodies will be heard. Unconsciously the words of the poet come to mind: "The sounds of the heavens could not be replaced by the sorrowful songs of earth." True prayer cannot exist without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The impact of the Spirit, the Comforter on the heart — therein creates touching sighs, sacred strivings and desired prayer. This kind of birth process of prayer, heartfelt and sweet, is a unique, heavenly joy… If fervent intercessors cease to exist, then the world will perish through great disasters. "The world is upheld by the prayers of holy people," attests starets (spiritual elder) Siluan, "from the time I came to know God, my soul longs for Him, and nothing makes me more joyous on earth than this. There is only one joy for me — God. He — is my joy, my strength; He is my wisdom, my wealth... From the sweetness of God’s love, the soul forgets all earthly things, regarding these as debris and ash…"

The Jesus prayer holds a pre-eminent place... It is directed to place us into God’s presence without any thoughts, only the understanding of that miracle that we are here and God is present with us. With the Jesus prayer there is nothing and no-one, except God and us. It is a good companion, friendly, always close and totally personal, in spite of the seeming monotony when repeated. In joy or in sorrow, when it becomes habitual, the Jesus prayer becomes a strength, revitalizing the soul, always a ready answer to any call from God. Without prayers and hope, the world will suffocate in its own hatred and will become weary from suffering. In vain the voices cry out, the weeping eyes await the light. The night grows darker… And without Christ, the day will not come to replace the night…

One Athonite starets pleaded the Theotokos for two years to grant him a prayerful flame in his heart, and this was granted. Starets Ambrose of Optina was transfigured during noetic prayer. His face lit up and it gave out an unusual radiance. From the writings of St. Isaac Syrian, one starets was only conscious of himself at prayer, up to the first Glory (of the 3rd psalm), and then immersed himself in the contemplation of God, and very noetically, in silence, prayed to God at some length, standing motionless and not feeling any drudgery. This blessed gift the starets received after 30 years of feats, sorrows and deprivations. In this way the feats of martyrs, saints and the righteous with the help of the grace of God, are higher than exceed the natural powers of people.

A fellow countryman, visiting St. Seraphim asked if he wanted to send anything to his family. St. Seraphim answered, pointing to the icons of the Savior and the Virgin Mary: "This is my family." True prayer filled with humility and love of God and other people, together with the partaking of the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist, makes the communicant a dweller of the spiritual, heavenly world. True, heartfelt prayer banishes in us loneliness, despondency, hopelessness. It invigorates our spirit, arouses energy, makes us forget insults and disappointments, even in great misfortunes. It develops patience, endurance and consoles with hope in God. The devout are always full of vitality and are cheerful. There is no sorrow that prayer cannot allay. Prayer — is a key that opens the doors to God’s mercy, and is a proven means of obtaining temporary and eternal joy.

When God is in our hearts, then within us, we have the Kingdom of God and there is joy and peace. Prayer not only brings joy and serenity, but even changes misfortunes to good and brings salvation of our soul. "All who call upon the name of Jesus Christ will be saved" (Rom.10:13). God fulfills our requests, if they come from the heart. He bestows on us His blessed help.

A young boy wants to draw a picture and give it to his father on his Name Day, but he cannot draw it by himself, and the father with all his love helps him, putting his hand over his son’s and makes correct outlines. And when the picture is ready the son presents it to his father with great delight, who accepts it, even though, in reality, it was drawn by the father who was guiding the son’s hand. This is analogous to how our Heavenly Father helps us, who pray to Him. We are weak, but the Almighty Lord, not only helps, but gives strength to strive towards good. At certain times, the Lord gives the opportunity to experience the joy of being with Him and the enjoyment of life. "Wherever Christ the Lord may be, there you will find the Kingdom of God and His divine blessedness" (St. Tihon of Zadonsk). "O Jesus, joy and sweetness of angels and all the saints! Draw me to follow You! — By what means? By Your beautiful and salvific way which You have followed from birth to death, for my sake, an unworthy being. Where did You go? To Your eternal Kingdom. That is where we will hasten and here, on earth, and there, in Your Kingdom, we will live in Your likeness (St. Tihon of Zadonsk).

Choose a concise prayer with forceful words. Repeating it often and over a period of time, you will find in it a great strength. There is no need for wordiness, but with a short prayer pound out of the heart, as if out of flint, blessed sparks. This comes from personal experience. The Church also has lengthy services and prayers. They are all according to the Order (Typica). However, even lengthy services become short through heartfelt, concentrated prayer. The Kingdom of God is there, Paradise is there. There is no concept of time or measuring in Paradise. Our goal is to stand before God, to attend to His presence, to open up our heart and accept from Him, strength and power, so that His will can be effected in us. This is the purpose and object of prayer. When God is central, everything else pales in comparison. Everything that is outside God, has no value or meaning…

A priest was serving in the church. Before Him was a very old icon. Suddenly he felt as if the Virgin Mary on the icon was drawing him to prayer, acting upon his mind and heart. He experienced a real power emanating from the icon. This power filled the whole church with prayer; gathered scattered thoughts, as if the Virgin Mary was physical present. She stands with authority, demanding a response… Thus grows and invisibly comes to fruition, love and closeness to the living God and to the Queen of the Heavens. Therein lies our work of salvation. And in the work of salvation the content of prayer is formed.

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