The Gospel we have just heard describes two aspects of the return of the prodigal son: his father’s forgiving love, and his brother’s irritation. We can imagine that family a year later: the father’s trust that the straying child would mend his ways may have been vindicated, and the elder brother would hopefully have been reconciled with the prodigal son. The Gospel seems to expect such a happy ending.
I would like to use the parable to speak about the two aspects of our prayer life: the embrace of our heavenly Father, and our struggle with the evil present within and around us.
Our prayer is a gift from God, the experience we have of being embraced by our heavenly Father. In today’s parable, there had been words of prayer before the embrace: ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men’ (Luke 15:19). Once the father has taken the lost child into his arms, there are no more words, only two burning hearts, and tears. This is true prayer, a gift of grace, which we cannot create, which we receive and need to hang on to for the rest of the day. It is a gift, but a gift to a willing recipient. The grace of prayer is not something forced on us: the heavenly Father opens his arms but we have to throw ourselves into those arms. There is work involved in our receptivity. It is best described by Saint Theophan the Recluse’s famous definition of prayer: ‘The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and go on standing before him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.’ This simple receptivity to God’s gift of prayer supposes that we actively organise our life with services, psalms, prayers, icons, etc.
The second aspect of prayer is the prodigal son’s effort to mend his ways. The Fathers of the church call that ‘the active life.’ In the Orthodox Church, what we call the active life is not going out and doing good things for other people, but working on ourselves, and learning to control our passions. It goes without saying that the Orthodox Church does not underrate good works. What the Church insists on, is that we see activity primarily as mending ourselves, because otherwise our passions will spoil our relationship with God and people.
This is where Saint Theophan’s other piece of advice is useful: ‘It seems to me that at every moment you are putting other as on trial and passing judgment on them in your soul. Look carefully: it brings considerable harm. High opinion of ourselves gives rise to two things: blowing our own trumpet and censuring others. These drive us full speed to perdition. It is a good thing when someone rebukes you: rejoice if this happens. It is a bad thing when people all round you are praising you and no one is telling you the truth.’
Why is this activity of learning to control our passions an integral, essential part of our prayer life? … because prayer is relating to God, doing the will of God. The whole Bible, but especially the Old Testament Prophets and the four Gospels, are full of sarcastic criticism of people who recite long prayers but indulge in idolatry and injustice.
Our prayer helps us in controlling our passions, by making us aware of what goes on inside our hearts: anger, resentment, self-righteous thoughts, hatred, greed, lust, despair, refusal to accept responsibilities. Prayer is struggling inside our heart with our spiritual enemies. The Psalms, the Bible, prayer in our own words, and some lives of Saints are very useful for that aspect of prayer. Saint John of Kronstadt used to recommend to his spiritual children to prepare their confessions with the help of the Old Testament prophetic books.
I find that the lives and teachings of three people are particularly inspiring to work with. They are those of Saint Seraphim (especially as presented in Zander’s book), and of two very recent, as yet uncanonised monks, Father Porphyrios (and the book about him ‘Wounded by Love) and Father Tadej, the Serbian disciple of the Optina Monastery (and the book ‘Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives’). They help us to pray so as to control our passions and control our passions so as to pray. Have a good Lent!