Fr. Seraphim Rose - Prayer and Orthodox Spirituality
Kevin Allen · September 2, 2007
In the conclusion of our 3 part series commemorating the 25TH anniversary of the repose of Fr Seraphim (Rose), Kevin Allen is seated on a wooden bench overlooking a panoranmic view of Mt. Yolla Bolly with the Abbot of St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, Fr. Gerasim. Listen for valuable lessons (as well as birds chirping!) on the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting from a spiritual child of this venerated American monk and writer.
Today, we bring you Part 3 of a three-part series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the repose of seeker, struggler, writer, monk and priest, Fr. Seraphim Rose. This final interview was conducted by Illumined Heart co-host, Kevin Allen, with Fr. Gerasim, the Abbot of St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, and Fr. Seraphim’s spiritual child. In this interview, Abbot Gerasim speaks about Fr. Seraphim Rose, about prayer, and about Orthodox spirituality. They spoke outdoors, sitting on a wooden bench in front of a six-foot tall Orthodox cross overlooking the spectacular panorama of Mt. Yolla Bolly. Since the interview was conducted outdoors, you’ll hear the wind, the rustling of leaves and even birds chirping in the background as day’s end approaches. Here’s Kevin Allen.
Kevin: Fr. Abbott Gerasim from St. Herman Monastery, first of all, thank you very much for allowing me to come and visit your monastery.
Fr. Garasim: You’re very welcome.
Kevin: I appreciate it very, very much. Thank you for taking me to this beautiful spot outdoors in Platina, California for this interview. You knew and worked with Fr. Seraphim Rose?
Fr. Garasim: It’s a great blessing in my life to have been able to know him the last two years of his life and to have entered the monastery a little over a year before his repose.
Kevin: So you knew him for about a year?
Fr. Garasim: I knew him solidly for a year, but, of course, we had met the year before when a fellow college student and I came and made a pilgrimage to the monastery. Back then we were extremely naïve, and we were full of all sorts of ideas and opinions about ourselves and about spirituality. During that next year, I thought, almost every single day, about that visit to the monastery. So when I finally came back to the monastery and actually settled here in August of 1981, I had a clear idea of who he was and of what I wanted in my life.
Kevin: You were Orthodox formally at that time?
Fr. Garasim: Yes. The first time I visited was not too long after I had become an Orthodox Christian. It was the first, real Orthodox pilgrimage I had made. I already had an interest in the monastic life, but my visit here and especially our talk with Fr. Seraphim caused this interest to grow and grow. This eventually led me to return to the monastery for good.
Kevin: Are you from an Orthodox family?
Fr. Garasim: No, actually my family background is primarily Episcopalian. At a certain point in time, in high school, I became more involved with some of the evangelical groups. Then in college, I was attending both the Episcopalian church and also a Baptist church.
Kevin: Was Fr. Seraphim your spiritual confessor when you actually came and became a novice?
Fr. Garasim: Yes. I had had another confessor before that—Archimandrite Anastasi who reposed about two years ago. When I came to the monastery and Fr. Seraphim was here on a daily basis, he was involved with the monks’ lives from the first bell in the morning all throughout until the end of evening prayers at the end of every evening. He was the one closest to us, the one to whom we could turn with our problems or what was taking place inside our hearts. In fact, at that time we were very fortunate, during that last year of his life, because he was present at the monastery basically all the time, we had the opportunity after evening prayers to approach him in the church for a brief, informal revelation of thoughts. So it was actually very interesting for a young novice to be able to begin to take part in that monastic discipline.
Kevin: What was he like as a spiritual father and a pastor? Was he strict, warm-hearted, or discerning? What can you tell us about him that we may not have been able to pick up in the books?
Fr. Garasim: First of all, he was strict in one sense. That is, if there was some sort of nonsense, he would say something. But on a personal level, he was actually very compassionate. I remember one time that I was telling him something about my comparing myself to other people in general or talking about some other problem. He said very clearly, “We need to be paying attention to ourselves. You need to look at what’s in your own heart.” Now, when he said that, he was being very direct, and perhaps at that moment his voice was strict. But I think, really, he had great concern for the direction at that moment for my spiritual life. I think he was like this with many people. He kept reminding them that they needed to pay attention to their own spiritual life and not anyone else’s problems, or what they might have heard, or what somebody else did or said. They needed to listen to what was on their heart and soul and give an account of what was on their conscience.
Kevin: Fr. Seraphim is considered in the literature as have been a very strict ascetic himself. Would you characterize his spiritual praxis that way?
Fr. Garasim: Yes, we can say that he was a strict ascetic, especially in relation to the world in which we live. In relation to the contemporary American lifestyle, he was very strict. For example, it is well known that he didn’t wash himself. He wore the same robes day after day, even sometimes in the summer one robe on top of another. He had a disregard for all such concerns. So, in this sense, he was very strict. In other regards, compared to, for example, St. Simeon the Stylite, St. Anthony the Great, the Holy Fathers of Mt. Athos, he would not have considered himself strict at all. He would have said that we are unprofitable servants. We are doing that which is merely our duty to do. He would always emphasize that we should not think highly about ourselves, we should not be puffed up or give some sort of value to our own labors. He constantly stressed that. So, I think by our contemporary American standards, yes, he lived a strict monastic life. But by his own standards, he felt that he was simply striving to live a humble, monastic life. I don’t think he was trying to compare himself to how somebody else may be living or how other people should be living or how monastics are supposed to live according to some non-existent textbook.
Kevin: He was called by one person a hesychast. Would you consider him to be what I would call a classical hesychast on the Athonite traditional scale?
Fr. Garasim: I think Fr. Seraphim himself would say that we’re poor monastics. I think he had great reverence for the classical monastic life lived on Mt. Athos, lived there today and in ancient times, and lived during the times he knew about. I don’t think he would be very quick to use that word hesychast about himself. But I think he is definitely in a whole lineage of the tradition of the hesychast movement. One of the hallmarks of the hesychast tradition is that the monks talk little about themselves. He would always try to point out examples of others, such as Paisios Velikovsky, or the Russian Fathers of Karelia from the beginning of the century, or St. Seraphim of Sarov, his own patron saint, as an example of a true monastic, one who embodied the whole hesychast tradition. Yet, at the same time, he treasured silence and stillness. He loved his isolation in the forest. For example, when you would ask him a question, there would be this pause in which he would be silently saying the Jesus Prayer one time, and then he would reply to the question. When some kind of difficulty came up, he said, “Did you pray first? Did you pray about it? Did you ask for the intercession of Archbishop John?” In that regard, he was praying. He had, as St. John of the Ladder said, “one foot in obedience and the other stretched out in prayer.”
Kevin: He also did a lot of writing and research, and he managed to incorporate that in his life. This might be a dumb question, but how does one practice interior prayer and also use the discursive part of the brain that produces the kind of materials that he did?
Fr. Garasim: Well, that’s an excellent question, because the Holy Fathers, in fact, do counsel us to have tasks or handicrafts that are simple that do not distract us from prayer. In the writings of St. Nilus of Sora, he counsels his monks to have such handicrafts or obediences there in the monastery which will not require one to be absent in mind elsewhere, but to be able to continually pray. Fr. Seraphim had a very intense mind and intense intellectual training. Because of his philosophical training, he was able to think very clearly, almost piercingly. This, combined with his pastoral outlook—the way he regarded other people, the kindness he showed toward them—allowed him to have a strict, analytical view of the subject matter as well as a compassionate regard for those for whom he was writing—for the brothers in the monastery or for people for whom he was asked to pray. When someone is thinking about others and has their needs, their sorrows, their sufferings, on his heart, he’ll be constantly turning to prayer. And I’m sure that while he was writing one of the many books that he wrote or that were put together after he reposed, there were times when he wasn’t consciously praying in a definable way. But his disposition was directed to God, and I believe he worked in a very peaceful manner. Later, you will go and see his cell. You’ll see where he wrote and typed. Of course, that was in the days when you were writing something and you typed it on a typewriter. If there was a mistake, you’d have to correct it and retype it later. You couldn’t just push a backspace key and correct your mistakes on the spot.
Kevin: His life and his attitude was one of prayer, and he was able to even incorporate his writing and his research in that general disposition?
Fr. Garasim: Yes. For example, in the early days of our monastery, it was very isolated and guests were very rare. Very few people came to, as they would say, interrupt their silence. When they worked, one would be working in one room and another in another room. Or, at times if they were really busy with the magazine, one of the monks would be in church while the other might still be finishing the print run for that day. They had cells at a stone’s throw apart in the forest, so that you couldn’t hear the sound of a door closing in another cell from the cell in which you were staying. We even have a little system set up, which you will see, that when you approach a cell, there’s a bell about 100 feet away from the cell. When we would approach his cell, we would stop where that bell is (and it’s still hanging there to this day), we’d ring the small bell, and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” And he would answer with a cough (clearing of the throat) and then an “Amen.” Then we would approach his cell, we’d get a blessing, we’d ask our question, he’d give a little reply, and we’d leave and he would go back to his work. Right there, isolated in the forest, sometimes with the deer sleeping around cell or walking nearby. There was very little distraction. We don’t hear sirens or brakes screeching outside our cells. We don’t have people turning on televisions or screaming. So, when the external circumstances of your life are actually selected so that your life will be full of peace, so that your heart will be undisturbed, then it is easier to go from prayer to prayer.
Kevin: Father Abbot, are the monks at Platina at St. Herman’s still trained in the hesychast tradition of silence and audible prayer?
Fr. Garasim: Yes. Each brother performs his cell rule by himself. Each brother is given a rule of prayer by the abbot or, in my absence, by Hierarch Damascene, and they come to us and tell us how they are praying. At confession, for example, they will say whether they have completed their cell rule or not, whether they did it hurriedly or at peace, whether they collapsed in the middle of it, whether they had to get up the next morning and do it. Or someone will come to me during the church services and say, “I didn’t finish my cell rule. Will you bless me to go and make some prostrations?” Each of the brothers in his own way is striving to cultivate a life of prayer. Now, by the standards of some well-ordered monasteries—Mt. Athos, perhaps in Russia or Romania today—we are on a very low level. But we strive to conduct a life of prayer, to say the Jesus Prayer. Some brothers, while they are working, will be saying it semi-audibly. This has the benefit that that prayer will continue during the time that they are working. In fact, I know quite clearly that, when one of the brothers is saying the Jesus Prayer semi-audibly at his task, I’m reluctant to go and interrupt him or to make a comment, because there’s something mystical, something spiritual that is taking place that is perhaps beyond that concern that I might have at that moment. In a way, it would be counterproductive to our life to interrupt that. We don’t have high thoughts or great imagination about our own way of life. We reverence the contemporary Fathers around the world and the recent Fathers who have passed on before us, and we hope that by their prayers we will grow and continue in the monastic life.
Kevin: Father, is the sort of prayer that we are talking about that the monks and the nuns do here at their respective monasteries suited for Orthodox living in the world, in parish life, obviously in a modified form?
Fr. Garasim: Yes. This is often a source of controversy. The Apostle Paul, as we know, says, “Pray unceasingly.” If the Apostle has said this and we are to be like watchmen, waiting for our Lord’s return, then there is nothing wrong with praying constantly. Every person has their responsibilities. A father has to take care of his children and his wife and the well-being of his family. Somebody who is in the position of authority has to take that authority very seriously. Children are enjoined to learn and acquire skills so that they can use them in life and to rejoice in the work of their hands all the days of their life. However, an Orthodox Christian with the counsel of his parish priest, his spiritual father, can benefit by withdrawing his mind from gossip, idle talk, the news, everything that appears to be most important in this world and to retreat a little into the refuge of prayer. There in the refuge of prayer, we are comforted by God. Our Lord says that he stands at the door and knocks, and his will is that he would come and take up his abode within us. Ultimately, for a Christian, whether he is a monastic or a lay person, to have the Lord Jesus Christ enthroned in his heart is a beautiful goal.
Kevin: Is that the goal of prayer? The ultimate goal of prayer is to have Christ abiding in our hearts?
Fr. Garasim: Yes. When we say the prayer to the Holy Spirit, “Come and abide in us and cleanse us of all impurity and save our souls, O Good One,” we pray just for that. We pray that God would be enthroned by his grace in our hearts. Then we can be called Christians—those who bear the name of Christ. That’s why monastics have always held in great reverence St. Ignatius of Antioch who is considered the inspirer of Christian prayer, the Jesus Prayer. It is said that when he died in the arena in Rome that all that was left after he was devoured by the lions was his heart with the name of Jesus inscribed on it. Now, there was no one with a video camera there watching that. There is no concrete proof that this exactly took place and that it wasn’t in some way some sort of metaphor. We know St. Ignatius of Antioch as the one who writes so clearly about Christian life, the Church, about worship, the Holy Scriptures, and about offering himself to the wild beasts. We also know him as a patron of the Jesus Prayer. If the Apostle Paul enjoins Christians to pray unceasingly, if our Lord Jesus Christ has enjoined us to watch at midnight for the coming of the bridegroom, then there is something very dear to every Christian to be watchful, sober, and looking for the coming again of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are these words of the Apostle Paul, “Yea, Lord, come quickly,” maranatha, which are often thrown around as a cliché, but for an Orthodox Christian they are very real, very healthy, and we should approach prayer in this way. Prayer is not something like an exercise, such as pushups, weightlifting or aerobics. It is something that is real, critical and points to an imminent event as we say in the creed, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.”
Kevin: Father, why do so many books about prayer caution us about pursuing the Jesus Prayer without an experienced spiritual father or director? If prayer is enjoined by the Apostle and so on, why is this particular discipline spoken of in terms of being under obedience or under directorship?
Fr. Garasim: I think the ancient Greeks understood this well. They wrote in their myths about those who in their own power, under their own steam, tried to raise themselves up to the heavens, like Icarus. If mankind primordially has a predilection toward becoming too lofty-minded, then the Holy Fathers have seen that this is the case also—people lift themselves up and become a rule unto themselves. We see this in the Church, in government, and in family life. People want to become a rule unto themselves. In the Christian spiritual life, we become accountable to someone else. As the Apostle Paul says, “Be ye followers of me.” So we trust, for example, the guidance of the Apostle Paul and of those Christians who were placed by the early Apostles as the head of the early Christian communities throughout the world, and we believe that this has continued to this very day. We believe that God has not abandoned us, that he has provided pastors and shepherds in each of our parishes, our ruling bishops in some of the local monasteries and also in some of the more well known monasteries throughout the world, to be guides. So that people, instead of lifting themselves up only to have the wax that holds their feathers on melt and then falling down to the earth, would gradually rise up to the fullness and stature of a child of God.
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, in his book The Arena, has a good explanation of this. There was a man who came to him and asked for counsel. St. Ignatius said, “Whatever you do, don’t have a room on the second floor.” The young man was perplexed and asked, “Why?” St. Ignatius responded, “Because you will have a vision of angels taking you off to Mt. Athos.” The young man said, “Father, I’ve often thought about that.” So this man’s soul was predisposed to being raised up by the demons just far enough so that they could dash him down senseless to the earth. They do this out of their malice and jealousy toward mankind, because God became incarnate, he took human nature upon himself, he united mankind to himself in his own person, so that mankind could inherit and enter into the Kingdom of God. The demons were cast out and had infinite malice and jealousy toward mankind, because of that great gift of grace that we have received through the incarnation. So they look for every step to trip someone up. If they are ready to trip people up, how much more ready are they to see someone raised up far above where they should be and fall senseless to the earth?
Kevin: So a spiritual director is first and foremost to keep us from pride.
Fr. Garasim: Pride …
Fr. Garasim: Delusion and hard heartedness. For example, people often come and they complain that so-and-so did this and this. When we ask, “Well, did you go and ask for forgiveness?” they say, “Why? I didn’t do anything wrong.” The first person to go ask forgiveness is the one who gets the crown. Maybe you could start it. Maybe you could go and say, “Forgive me for having done that.” What do they get back? Well, they immediately get a reply, “Well, will you also forgive me for what I said to you?” It’s important that we are accountable. We know that in our government, in the history of recent Church affairs—whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant—or in various sects, what happens when there is no accountability. Things go from bad to worse. When a person humbles himself and relies on the prayers of his neighbor more than his own prayers, he becomes open to the movement of the grace of God in his life. In our society where we are often very self-assured, where we have learned how well we can use our skills, how efficient we can become, we often forget little things like this. It’s like a husband who knows that his wife is praying for him. He asks God to have mercy on him through his wife’s prayers. Or he remembers how important it is to pray for his children, because they are walking to school at that hour or returning home, and he turns in prayer to God for them. This is what draws the love and grace and mercy of God toward our lives. In this state, it’s a lot easier to pray. For a person who is humble, his prayer ascends straight to heaven. For somebody whose prayer is proud, his prayer becomes in a way an abomination to God. There are people who won’t want to hear such things, but really God inclines toward the humble of heart. This is what the Holy Scriptures say—God turns away from the proud.
Kevin: “A contrite and humble heart God will not despise.” As Orthodox, we often pick up ideas, especially about the Jesus Prayer, from books—reading the Philokalia, The Way of a Pilgrim, The Arena—and other Orthodox books. Is this a good idea?
Fr. Garasim: Yes. Anything that helps lift us up or inspire us to prayer can be good. Of course, there can be too much of a good thing. As you mentioned earlier, and as I know from my own background, I read The Way of a Pilgrim toward the beginning of my Orthodox Christian life. I remember at my university walking out into the garden—in the dark, far from the dorm rooms, the quiet—to say the Jesus Prayer in the garden in the middle of the night. Of course, this was the prayer of an enthusiastic young person, maybe with a lot of passion and less contrition, maybe more opinionated about myself than the working of grace. But I was able to take a few words about prayer and to begin to reorient my life because of that.
One of the best examples is the life of St. Simeon the New Theologian. He read a few short passages from the book by St. Mark the Ascetic, some of whose writings are included in the Philokalia. And there in St. Simeon’s homilies he talks as if in the third person of the youth George, but what he is really talking about is himself. He talks about what great spiritual heights this young man attained because he followed the words of his instructor and he held to these passages in the writings of St. Mark the Ascetic. He became one of the greatest of the God-bearing Elders of all ages. So, yes, we should underline these passages, collect them and share them with our friends, append them to any messages that we send through our emails, perhaps put them on a post-it note for our desk for the day—to remind us that there is some other reality than Wal-Mart, Office Depot or Starbucks. There’s something to which we should be lifted up each day. If we are constantly reminding ourselves of God’s presence, that we actually are in the presence of the Kingdom of God, then something wonderful has been achieved. But, yes, we can read too much, get ideas into our head, start teaching everybody else…
Kevin: …and even overdo and burnout…
Fr. Garasim: …or start telling everyone in the parish that unless they are saying the Jesus Prayer around the clock they shouldn’t be receiving Holy Communion, that if the priest doesn’t agree with you, then there’s something wrong with the priest. This is all absurd. This is fanaticism. But if everything is received in balance and with a few words of instruction from a spiritual father, a parish priest, then one can grow in a very healthy, organic way in unity with his fellow believers and in communion with the whole Church.
Kevin: Father, if we could, I’d like to focus a little bit more on the Prayer and prayer itself. The Jesus Prayer has a variety of forms, and maybe you’ll be able to share some of that with us. But before we get into specifics, could you clarify that the Jesus Prayer isn’t something mechanistic or a technique. It’s not a form of Christian mantra meditation or anything like that.
Fr. Garasim: No. The best way to gain perspective on this is that the early Fathers called the Jesus Prayer “the prayer of the publican”. If we receive the Jesus Prayer as the prayer of the publican—“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner”—a cry from the depths of his heart of a man who saw his own sins, then we can see that really it has very little in common with the mechanistic systems that are developed, especially in the non-Christian East. However, throughout the ages, the Holy Fathers have handed down various forms or ways of instructing people in saying the Jesus Prayer, repeating the Jesus Prayer, and this has proved very beneficial. But at heart, essentially, it should be remembered that the Jesus Prayer is the prayer of the publican, this man who cried out—in a parable, it should be remembered, that our Lord Jesus Christ told and in that sense he taught us to pray in this way—“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner”.
Kevin: …which, of course, isn’t a mantra.
Fr. Garasim: No. It’s a cry—a cry from an afflicted heart. As you said, “A contrite and humble heart, God will not despise.”
Kevin: Would it be fair to say, Father, that one of the differences between a mantra prayer (because I know that there are some listeners who are thinking, “Perhaps this is some sort of a Christian yoga.”) and the Jesus Prayer is that it’s prayer, versus some sort of putting yourself in some zone?
Fr. Garasim: Yes, some phrase or state. There was this thing that was very popular when I was in college—people oming for world peace. Ultimately, prayer takes place in the heart. From the core of a person’s being, he is supposed to be offering forth this prayer. This is the prayer of repentance, of a man acknowledging the Lordship of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In a way, here a person is orienting himself properly. Man is falling at the feet of God—Creator of all—entreating for mercy, because he believes God has mercy and is merciful, generous and loving, and that’s what he desires in his life. He wants, with that mercy and that love, that everything ill will be driven out, that his being, having emptied it through repentance, would be filled with this mercy, love and grace. As the Apostle Paul says, “Whatever is beautiful, whatever is lovely, let us meditate on these things.”
Kevin: Let’s follow up then on the point of repentance. I have written down here that St. Ignatius Brianchaninov wrote on the Jesus Prayer, “The beginning and end of prayer is repentance.” I know someone out there, Father, is listening perhaps from another Christian tradition and wondering, “Why do these Orthodox emphasize repenting and repentance so much? Don’t they have faith that God has already forgiven their sins and iniquities on the Cross?” How would you explain, Father, the emphasis on repentance in Orthodox spirituality? Clearly, we’re not denying the work that Christ did on the Cross.
Fr. Garasim: No. That’s what we want within us, not only as a historical fact, but as a living reality—the experience of God coming individually to each human person individually, deep within their being and letting that forgiveness flow throughout their entire being, not as some sort of merely legal contract that is being decided in a formal way, in some sort of court far away, but as a real experience. For repentance, first of all we need to go to the etymology of the word “repentance”—metanoeo—the transformation or change of the nous or the mind, the part of man’s being that apprehends and beholds all spiritual truths. The nous or mind is transformed through repentance. That’s the way to understand repentance—looking for the renewal of this direct apprehension of God. That’s what we want. It is not some morbid state that we want to stay in, because we somehow prefer it to depression. The Holy Fathers talk about this and give the example of somebody, as they say in words that sometimes may be hard to understand, becoming “holy light” or “holy aflame”, a man whose heart is burning at all times. As the Apostles said after they had returned from Emmaus, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he was with us at the breaking of the bread?” This is what we’re after in repentance. It’s not just to be somehow sunk in morbidity or chewing over our misery. Rather, turning away from all these things we turn to God. We know, he has promised, that he will fill us with all his blessings and all his fullness.
Kevin: Moving back to the prayer itself, would you recommend the Jesus Prayer to non-Orthodox Christians? I’ve heard two sides of that story, and I’m curious as to what your counsel would be.
Fr. Garasim: The name of Jesus will lead people to himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. The more a person prays to God, the more he cries out to our Lord Jesus Christ, the closer they will come to him. I think that that is the best way for them to approach God and to come closer and closer to him. As a person grows closer to God, I think he will feel very much at home in the Orthodox Church. In that respect, I don’t think that we should be somehow fearful that this person is going to be misusing some tool. Yes, perhaps, if you give some fire to someone, they will misuse it. But we have to be judicious, sober and wise. Maybe someone comes to us, and here we are—we’re Orthodox Christians and we’ve been given these remedies. We know what heals, and so we should be generous in helping other people come to the Physician, Christ.
Kevin: Personally speaking, I think it is the Prayer that led me to the Holy Orthodox Church. So I am appreciative of that answer and not a strict—“no, it’s only for Orthodox”—response.
I have written down in my notes, Father, that St. Isaac the Syrian wrote, “It is a great evil to teach some high doctrine to one who is still in the rank of beginners and in spiritual stature still an infant.” Acknowledging that most of us are beginners and infants, could you please give us a brief and basic primer on how you would counsel our listeners to pray the Jesus Prayer in a way that won’t get us into trouble and delusion and all these high and mighty things that you’ve counseled us not to get into? What form of the prayer would you recommend for us as a beginner and so on?
Fr. Garasim: Very simply, I would recommend to those beginning in the Christian life, the Orthodox Christian life, who are saying the Jesus Prayer to very simply say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” without rushing. Now, I know that there are some traditions where they are counseled to repeat the prayer rapidly, continuously, nonstop primarily to displace any other thoughts that would be there. I respect this. But for an Orthodox Christian living in the world amidst many cares, the more often that he can pray with peace of heart, having forgiven everyone, being especially at peace with their spouse and their children, at peace with their parish priest (and actually in a healthy relationship with their parish priest), and whenever their mind isn’t occupied with something necessary at that time or a thought or reflection in the faith, he should return to talk to God and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Of course, with each person it’s going to be different. We should pray without rushing, because we not only pray with our lips but we pray with our understanding and we pray with our whole being. If we are rushing, maybe our minds are going to be racing, our heart will be racing too, and our blood is going to pumping through our body. I think that at every one moment we can be offering one prayer.
Kevin: Say that I’m standing or sitting in front of my altar at home, and I’m alone and praying the prayer, would you counsel me to pray it aloud or would I whisper it audibly?
Fr. Garasim: If there’s no one there, I would counsel you to pray it aloud, because then your lips and your ears are participating in the prayer as well. We want our whole being to be participating in our prayer to God. Now, for example, you may have guests at your house or someone studying. Obviously, it would be rude and insensitive for someone to ostentatiously be offering his prayer as the most immediate thing in the whole world that moment. When, really, our Lord Jesus Christ says to go into your closet and there in secret pray to your heavenly Father, and your Father who is in secret will reward you openly. We should pray in that way as well.
Kevin: Father, what role does spontaneous prayer, informal from the heart, and/or supplication play in prayer? Must we always stick to the rubrics? In the written prayer rule, is there a time for just crying out to God without those?
Fr. Garasim: The Church services are a school of prayer. They are the common prayer, the common work of the Church which takes our individual prayers, brings them together, joins them together and makes them like a loaf, an offering, to be placed on the altar of God. This is done through the offering of the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving, the common worship of the Church, a common confession of one faith, with the unity of all believers coming together and everyone having forgiven each other. This can only happen at certain fixed times of the day. Between those fixed times, we’re not to stop praying. And truly we should be crying out from the depths of our heart. For example, you have the wife married to an alcoholic husband. We know the Lord hears her prayers. We know how such a woman prays. We also know how a mother prays when her children go to school or when they become teenagers or they are gone or maybe they’re out a little later. These people are crying. In the Holy Gospel, there is a wonderful passage. My first year in the monastery, it struck me rather clearly. It is about the widow mentioned in Luke 17. There was this unjust judge. This widow came to him and asked to be avenged of her adversary. The judge would not hear her. But because she persisted, because of her importunity, he at last came and avenged her of her adversary. Otherwise, she would have never left him alone. Our Lord Jesus Christ uses this as a model of prayer. He says, “Will the Lord not hear them that cry out to him faithfully day and night?” This is another model given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Gospel on how to pray. He uses this image of an unjust judge. If an unjust judge will do this, how much more will our merciful, heavenly Father. We know what a father does. A father loves his children and he listens to them and hears them.
Kevin: This brings up a point. If we are praying the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—are we able to also use that to pray for others, let’s say for the child, the sick?
Fr. Garasim: Yes.
Kevin: You would just substitute that person’s name?
Fr. Garasim: Yes, but not say “a sinner”. In other words, “have mercy on my daughter” or “have mercy on my friend, John” or “have mercy on my friend, Marina”. We are the ones who are responsible to confess our own sins, so obviously you wouldn’t say that word about somebody else. That simply helps at times in placing ourselves before God in a humble manner. Yes, there is no reason we can’t continually ask the Lord to have mercy on someone close to us and to continue to pray and to keep our mind directed toward God in entreating God on their behalf. When someone asks us, “Will you pray for me?” We make a quick prayer and sometimes we forget about them. But what if we continue to pray for them throughout the day? We tell someone else or we see a beggar and we give them some money or some food and say, “Would you pray for a friend of mine whose name is so-and-so? I’m serious. I want you to do this.” The Lord hears us not on the basis of how many times we pray to him but on how sincere our prayer is. Prayer is to lead to deeper prayer, deeper prayer to true, sincere, heartfelt prayer, and eventually to what the Holy Fathers call pure prayer.
Kevin: Could you tell us what pure prayer is?
Fr. Garasim: We will talk about pure prayer simply as a beginner—“Lord, have mercy”. Pure prayer, which is talked about by the Holy Fathers, is prayer that is without distraction, without images, even without words. Words describe the reality that we know. Pure prayer is actually an ascent to God, a partaking in some way of the world to come, of being in God’s presence, of being wholly selfless in our prayer, of truly bearing our heart before him. So there are many things that we don’t know and can’t describe.
Also, there’s a beautiful prayer by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow—he says, “Thyself pray in me.” If God descends, if he abides within us as we ask him, then he himself will help us to pray—even with groanings that cannot be uttered, cannot be put into words, and cannot even be made into sounds. Pure prayer transcends sounds, words, and feelings. This is something that many people do not understand. True prayer is beyond feelings as we know them. It’s not passionate. So very often our prayer is passionate, because we want something. If we want something, in some way we truly haven’t accepted the will of God.
Kevin: Is praying for specific things, supplication prayer, not good prayer?
Fr. Garasim: No. By all means it is. The Apostle enjoins us to pray with intercessions, thanksgiving, and supplication. That’s one aspect of prayer. It can’t be the whole prayer, but it should be a major part. But through our intercessions, supplications, for all those we know or don’t know, for those who asked us to pray for them, ultimately our heart should be filled with thanksgiving. And through that thanksgiving (which is one of the names of the liturgy—Eucharist means thanksgiving) to an overflowing of prayer where words, feelings, and thoughts stop, images cease, we go beyond what we do know and in some way God reveals something to us.
Kevin: Father, as we’re coming to the end of the interview, I’d like to end with this question. I hear a lot of questions from people about ascetic disciplines and the monastic life versus the life in the world. Since we are lay people and not monastics primarily who are listening to this program, how much ascetic discipline in your opinion—fasting, prostrations, vigils, abstinence of sexual relations with a spouse, etc. —is good and appropriate for laity to do?
Fr. Garasim: It all has to be done in a psychological, spiritually healthy way. Before we go into very much about ascetism, a man has to be at peace with his wife and his children. If he’s not, then he’s left something undone. Therefore, according to the teaching of the Holy Gospel, he is supposed to leave his gift at the altar and go to be reconciled to those he has wronged or offended and then come and offer his gift on the altar. Then God can be praised. Ascetic disciplines—fasting, prostrations, etc. —all have their place. But often this can be an expression of the flesh of the earthly man. Maybe in a way it’s our way of offering our discipline, attention or devotion to God. But it has to be united to grace. Without grace a person can exhaust himself so that he is not able to give his best. Many of these things should be done with the counsel of—if he is married—one’s wife or with one’s priest. Also we have in the Church godparents or baptismal sponsors who maybe have more experience in the Christian life than we do. We can benefit from that. This is where it is also helpful to read spiritual literature and to see how everything can be in perspective. Our spiritual life should be balanced. Fasting should be balanced. Ascetism should be balanced. There are some people who need to be careful about certain things like alcohol, tobacco, and all sorts of things like entertainment. These are things they should work on first. Then they should observe the fasts of the Church in a very moderate way.
Kevin: What does moderate mean? I’ve had that specific question.
Fr. Garasim: That’s a good question. We abstain from meat and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays and also throughout the 40 days of Lent. For some people who are new to the Orthodox faith, this is very difficult or confusing. Well, they should make an attempt. They should begin in this practice without getting upset, without being legalistic, and without being a policeman where they are watching other people. All this activity is supposed to be healthy, and we deny ourselves what we want. When we don’t give our body, the flesh or our will what it wants, it screams. Like a dog, we have to train ourselves in the same way. We wouldn’t give our children everything they want. We give them a little something to tide them over—something nourishing. With ourselves too, we have to find what is healthy, spiritually nourishing, what could lead to a balanced way of life, stay away from anything fanatical, be careful about getting into reading labels and things like that which produces an unhealthy psychology. Ultimately, we should be able to make very simple, clear choices. We’ll find out that fasting is very easy and simple. Really, the fasting leads to simplicity. Ascetism leads to simplicity. This also leads us into the rhythm of the Church.
For example, there are some people that will start to fast the whole first week of Lent. Maybe because of their job or family obligations, they might not be able to do it without much focus until later in Lent. But at least they know what it’s about. They know what fasting entails. Gradually, they can work up and see this as a healthy discipline in the Church and that it is something to look forward to. They should accompany it with the readings from the Holy Scriptures each day and an awareness of the lives of the saints for that day and the feasts. In this way they are not just having a bodily fast, but they are taking part in the fast spiritually together with the whole Church. They are attending the presanctified liturgy and going to some of the memorial services on Saturdays. They begin to take part in the whole way of life of the Church throughout the whole year. Then they won’t be obsessed on certain little aspects such as “did something have oil?” or “did I eat something I shouldn’t have?” In the Gospel we see this. Our Lord Jesus Christ said [to the scribes and Pharisees], “You tithe mint, cummin and anise, but you omit the weightier matters of the law—justice (krisis), mercy and compassion. These are the things you ought to have done, but also not to have left the other undone.” So there are these things which we have to keep first and foremost or our fasting will be imbalanced, and we will lose our perspective and start judging people about what they are doing. We turn it back to ourselves. We see that we are a little like children. We are sinners, but we have a merciful God who’s waiting for us to come to him.
Kevin: Amen. Well, I’m afraid that this will be the end of the interview with Father Abbot Gerasim from St. Herman Monastery in Platina, California where so much good work and prayer has gone out over many, many years. On behalf of all of our listeners, I want to say thank you and perhaps you could close with a blessing.
Fr. Garasim: May God bless us and have mercy on us and cause his face to shine upon us.