This year’s conference offered courses on acquiring the proper tools to achieve our greatest potential as Christians: communion with God. Keynote speakers included Dan Christopulos and Dr. Kyriacos Markides. Held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, from October 30 through November 2.
Introducer: I can’t say enough about him, as you all know. Dr. Harry Boosalis is going to be speaking at this session. What is it? “Love and honor”?
Dr. Harry Boosalis: Love and prayer.
Introducer: Prayer, okay.
Dr. Harry Boosalis received his doctorate of theology at the University of Thessalonica. His doctoral thesis was “Orthodox Spiritual Life According to St. Silouan of Mount Athos.” He was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of Greek-American parents. Dr. Boosalis grew up at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church. Upon graduation from seminary, he served his home parish as a lay assistant and youth director, under the tutelage of his lifelong parish priest, Fr. Anthony Coniaris.
He is the author of five books: Holy Tradition, Taught by God, Knowledge of God, Orthodox Spiritual Life according to St. Silouan of Mount Athos, The Joy of the Holy: Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Orthodox Spiritual Life. All were published by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press. Two have been translated into [Greek] and published in Greece. He is presently working on his forthcoming book, titled Person to Person: The Orthodox Understanding of Man, which will be used as a main textbook in his course on Orthodox anthropology. He’s a professor at St. Tikhon’s Seminary.
Dr. Boosalis has also participated in two teaching missions to East Africa, conducted under the auspices of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, including going to Tanzania in 2009 and Kenya in 2011. So since the summer of 2002, Dr. Boosalis has been leading a group [of] St. Tikhon’s seminarians on an annual pilgrimage to Iveron Monastery on Mt. Athos, Greece. Here he is, once again: Dr. Harry Boosalis. [Applause]
Dr. Boosalis: This is the last one, right? No more after this?
Do we all have those handouts with the quotes that we’ll be referring to? We do not? [No.] Okay, they must be right in here. Oh, they’re not in here. They’re back there?
C1: There’s not enough.
Dr. Boosalis: Oh. That’s too bad. Does anybody have any handouts with “love and prayer”? Any of the quotes? No one? Someone has a few? Okay, well, we’ll be all right without them.
Our topic for this session is “Love and Prayer.” In this first part we’re going to be talking about the virtue of love as our path to theosis. I’ll talk about 40 minutes, then we’ll maybe have 10-15 minutes… You have an extra [handout]. Does anybody want an extra one? Maybe people can sit together and share if you like. I’ll talk…
C1: It would be loving if we sit together and share.
Dr. Boosalis: It would mean more loving.
C2: I’ve got one.
Dr. Boosalis: You’ve got an extra one? Pass it around. Does anybody need one?
C1: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Dr. Boosalis: Okay. I’m going to talk for about 40 minutes, we’ll have 10-15 minutes Q&A, I’ll talk another 40 minutes about prayer, then another Q&A if there’s enough time. Sometimes the Q&A goes longer.
As we mentioned in some other sessions, we talked about how, for the Orthodox Church, salvation is more than the pardon of sins and transgressions. Salvation is more than being justified and acquitted for offenses committed against God. According to Orthodox teaching, the fullness of salvation entails man’s sanctification or theosis in Christ. For the Orthodox Church, the true goal of our life in Christ, indeed, the goal of our lives on earth, is nothing less than the acquisition of the divine grace of the Holy Spirit.
The saints remind us that forgiveness is not the end of salvation; it’s only the beginning. The saints help us to realize that to be saved is to be sanctified and to participate in the divine life of God. Or, as the Apostle Peter writes, “to become partakers of divine nature.” Through the example of their lives and the testimony of their teachings, the saints embody man’s true spiritual potential. They exemplify the words of holy Scripture: “But as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct, since it is written: You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
The process of sanctification can also be referred to as deification or divinization or, as we refer to it, theosis. All these terms are synonymous, and they can be used interchangeably. The term “theosis” can be defined basically as a process, a spiritual process whereby, through participation in divine grace, man is deified or sanctified. In this way, through divine grace, man becomes holy, that is to say, he becomes Christlike. Man is called to become like God.
Before proceeding to a discussion on the Orthodox teaching on man’s participation on divine grace, it will be helpful to discuss some preliminary points. First of all, the patristic understanding of human nature teaches that man is created to participate in divine life. This is the essential meaning of that scriptural account of creation: “Then God said let us make man in our image after our likeness.” This passage from the book of Genesis conveys the fundamental truth: man is a spiritual being, and that the true meaning of human existence is only understood in this proper theological perspective. The ultimate meaning of life is seen only in light of man’s relationship with God.
According to the Orthodox view, God grants man the potential to participate, through grace, in his holy and divine life. This is why we were created. We were created to be vessels of divine grace. Apart from this life and divine grace, we become something that we were not originally intended to be. When we declare our independence from our Creator, we restrict ourselves to a secular life, separated from God, and we not only forfeit our theosis or our sanctification, but we also fail to comprehend the fundamental purpose of our existence.
Communion with God and participation in divine grace constitute man’s natural environment. This is our natural way of life, and it’s precisely the divine image and the presence of divine grace that distinguish man from the animal kingdom. St. Silouan writes, “How infirm is the soul! Without God’s grace we are like cattle, but, with grace, great is man in the sight of God.” St. Gregory of Mt. Sinai, he also adds, “Through trespasses we have become akin to beasts and have lost the natural blessings given us by God, becoming as beasts instead of reasoning beings, and animals instead of divine.”
We are created, therefore, and we’re called to grow into the fullness of divine likeness. However, although we have fallen from our original splendor, and in spite of the fact that we’re now born into a state of sinful inclination, we still retain the image of God in which we were originally created. The goal of Orthodox spiritual life, therefore, is not only to restore the image of God but also to attain to theosis, or divine likeness, or, in other words, to become like God in Christ.
Man was not originally created in a state of completed perfection. He was, however, endowed with the unique freedom to choose, to choose to either live in pursuit of achieving his full potential or else to digress toward the desecration and the defacement of his true dignity as man. Only through the proper use of our God-given freedom can we cooperate with divine grace in restoring the image of God within us and attain to likeness with God, or theosis, for which we were created. For the Orthodox Church, then, the ultimate goal of man is theosis or deification. We are called to become a partaker of divine nature.
This teaching on theosis, or the sanctification of man, it’s a decisive point of difference between the divergent views of salvation that distinguish the Eastern Orthodox Church from the non-Orthodox West. Only the Orthodox Church has this understanding of theosis. With all this talk of theosis and of man’s deification, it sounds interesting, but we have to ask the question: What does this all have to do with me? All of this abstract theological theory, it sounds good and everything, but how is someone like me supposed to apply this to my daily life? Most of us find it difficult enough as we struggle with our own day-to-day problems and circumstances. Can we, too, really expect and hope to participate in divine life and actually become like Christ? If so, then just how is someone like you and me, living and working in contemporary American society, supposed to go about this? Does the Lord really expect average believers like you and me to attain to such a lofty goal as participation in divine life, [to] actually become like God?
Obviously, the answer is yes. The Fathers of our Church offer much practical advice on how we are to conduct our lives as we struggle to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit and as we try to grow in theosis. Their guidance and advice is certainly relevant to the conditions in which we live today. We could go on about the length of the role of ascetic practice, about the importance of prayer and fasting; we could talk about the process of purification from our passions, the significance of participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church; we could talk about the virtue of keeping the commandments, the value of reading holy Scripture. We could go on and on. All of these are very important for our spiritual lives, and they open up the way toward theosis, and they lead to the fullness of our life in Christ.
However, there is one thing, there is one element, there is one virtue, which is so fundamental to our lives in Christ and to our hope for salvation and sanctification that without it everything else we may try to do will remain fruitless. It’s the mark of a true disciple of Christ. It’s that which sets Christianity apart from every other religion of the world. This one thing that’s so necessary, this foundation, this most important aspect of our lives as Christians, is, of course, nothing other than love. It’s this message of love that characterizes our Christian faith. Our Lord himself proclaims the crucial role of love within the lives of his followers: “By this, all will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.” St. John the Apostle, he also emphasizes, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”
This emphasis on love is of central significance to the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel itself is ultimately a message of love. The fundamental teaching of the New Testament and perhaps all of Orthodox theology can be summed up in those three simple words: “God is love.” The God of the Christians, that is, the Holy Trinity, is referred to as the God of love. Indeed, love is the basic characteristic of the life of the Holy Trinity. The three divine Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they are one, they’re of the same essence or they’re of the same nature, and they’re united in their perfect love for one another. This is the fundamental truth of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God is a unity of Persons living in perfect love. God is love, and love presupposes another person.
Man is created in the image and likeness of God, is created to share in and to live in—love. God is love. The more man loves, the more he participates in divine life. Love is innate in man. Love is basic to our very being. It’s through love that we attain to divine likeness and realize our true personhood. Love makes man truly human. Love makes man divine. In this light, we see that it is love that deifies man. It’s love that makes man Christlike. It’s love that makes man like God. St. Silouan writes, “The more perfect the love, the holier the life.” One of the writers from the Philokalia even uses the term “deifying love.”
On the other hand, without love, we distort the divine image in which we are created. The less we love, the more we alienate ourselves from divine life. The importance of love in the life of man is revealed in Christ’s double commandment of love. Our Lord was asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” He said to him:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment, and a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
The commandments of Christ, therefore, are commandments of love. However, in reality, it’s not a question of two separate commandments. They’re both directly interrelated and interdependent on one another. They form a single life. Without love for God it’s impossible to love one’s neighbor, and without love for one’s neighbor it’s impossible to truly love God. St. John the Theologian emphasizes this point, and he writes:
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he’s a liar, for he who does not love his brother, how can he love God? And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God must love his brother also.
We see, then, love for one’s neighbor is the criterion of one’s true love for God. The love of the Holy Trinity, that is to say, the love shared between the three Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it forms the foundation on which man’s love for his fellow man is modeled. The love that we share with each other and the love that we feel for each other here on earth is only a glimpse, it’s only a shadow, it’s only a foretaste of the true, genuine, and divine love which is our God, the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Man, as created in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity, thus has an innate need to live for and to love other people. Both in the context of family life, as well as in regard to our relationships with our friends, we all live for love, we all long for love, and we’re all looking for love. Indeed, love is essential to our lives as human beings. The problem is that we sometimes settle for the wrong kind of love, and we settle for the wrong kind of relationships to fill that void. The Lord commands his followers to love one another. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
However, the Lord’s commandments are not merely an ethical teaching that can help society operate or function more smoothly. Rather, they reveal the true inner nature of man. When the Lord proclaims, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” he reveals the truth that one’s neighbor is organically linked to one’s own being. One’s neighbor, that is to say, the other person, thus forms an integral component of our own human person. One’s neighbor—in the original Greek, the word is plēsion, which means literally “the one next to you”—thus plays a very fundamental role in our own personal life as a human being.
The Lord’s commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” means that if we really want to experience the fullness of human life, we’ve got to love the guy next to us just as much as we love ourselves, otherwise we’re not truly human, because we’re not living in the image and in the likeness of God. Through love for our neighbor, we fulfill the true purpose of our life, and the commandments of Christ manifest a truth that love is the way of God and, indeed, love is the way toward God. St. Maximus the Confessor writes, “Do not disdain the commandment to love, because by it you will be a son of God.”
At this point, as we look deeper into how our Orthodox Church considers love as the way toward theosis, and as we focus on the teaching of St. Silouan and together with him his disciple Elder Sophrony, we will see how their particular teaching seems to encapsulate the unique Orthodox perspective on this profound mystery of love. Both St. Silouan and Elder Sophrony taught that by following the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the believer is led toward likeness with Christ. For example, Elder Sophrony writes, “There is no difference between the commandments of Christ and the life of God himself.” No difference between Christ’s commandments of love and the life of God himself. By abiding in Christ’s commandments, we organically become like him.
On the other hand, St. Silouan teaches that if one hates his neighbor or if one hates his brother, it reveals that he’s made his heart a dwelling-place of an evil spirit. He stresses that without love for one’s fellow man, life loses its proper orientation, and it becomes oppressive and difficult to endure. To prove his point, St. Silouan says: Go ahead, try it once. Try living one day without love, and see how oppressive life can be. It’s in accordance with these sayings wherein love for one’s neighbor is seen as a basic feature of our lives as human beings that St. Silouan said so simply but so profoundly, “Our brother is our life.” Five simple words: “Our brother is our life.”
We have to ask ourselves, then, just what is this brotherly love? What exactly is required in order to share in it? It’s interesting to note how St. Silouan taught that to truly love one’s neighbor entails much pain and much suffering and much compassion. He refers to this clearly when he writes, “The greater the love, the greater the sufferings of the soul.” And Elder Sophrony also adds, “Indeed, it’s impossible to love without suffering.” Think of parents. Can you love without suffering for your children?
He describes love as the most painful, the most difficult, the most challenging spiritual endeavor the believer will ever undertake. He taught that true love is compassionate and it is perfected through suffering. The more man suffers on account of love, the more he becomes Christlike, by participating in Christ’s all-compassionate love for man. True Christlike love identifies personally with the suffering of one’s neighbor to the point where he who loves makes the pain of others his own. When one suffers out of love for one’s neighbor, it leads to participation in the suffering of all mankind. This in turn evolves into Christlike love for all mankind, wherein one comes to experience the inherent and natural unity of the entire human race.
We’re all one; we’re all members of the same family, the family of man. Your very own personal experience of pain or of grief and of suffering cannot be considered as somehow separate or cut off from the common tragedy of fallen human nature as a whole, because all human beings share in the same consequences of the fall of Adam. Just as all are called to share in the same sanctifying grace and the life in Christ, when one begins to see the daily drama of the pain and suffering of his neighbor through the eyes of Christ, he then comes to see the tragic consequences of fallen humanity in a new light. He agonizes over and experiences within himself the personal pain and suffering of every human being.
Elder Sophrony writes, “Where there is great love, the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature.” He teaches that by identifying with and sharing in the common suffering of mankind, we come to acquire a truly Christian consciousness. That’s how we come to participate in Christ’s undying and eternal love for each and every human person. That’s the standard to which we are called. You do that, you reach theosis; you become holy; you become a saint. Just as Christ loves all mankind, so, too, we are called to do the same.
Our neighbor is, in fact, every member of the human race. We’re all united by the fact that we all share in the same human nature, the same human nature that’s been united to God in the Person of the incarnate Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Our neighbor is indeed everyman. This is the neighbor whom Christ commands his followers to love “as thyself.” Such love is not restricted to one’s own family or friends or your fellow parishioners or other Orthodox Christians; Christ commands the believer to love every human being. This is the true Christian way.
St. Maximus the Confessor writes, “Be as eager as you can to love every man. The friends of Christ love everyone sincerely,” he says. This does not refer to something abstract or theoretical; rather, it’s on a personal level. In this way, the believer comes to comprehend and to appreciate the eternal value and the precious uniqueness of every human person. In the words of Elder Sophrony:
We see in others that which our own spiritual experience has shown us about ourselves. Whoever has experienced how deep and intense the suffering of the human spirit can be has no doubt that every human being is of permanent, eternal value. He is conscious of man’s worth, conscious that the least of these, my brethren, is dear in the sight of God.
For St. Silouan, this true compassionate, Christlike love for all mankind leads the believer to grieve for the salvation of every human person, just as he were grieving for his own salvation. St. Silouan’s fervent desire for the salvation of every human person can be summed up further in his words: “Love cannot suffer a single soul to perish.” Basically, what he’s saying here is that true love cannot bear to see any human being suffering in hell. Therefore, when he says, “Our brother is our life,” St. Silouan is actually implying that all mankind—indeed, every human person—is truly our neighbor, our brother, and our life. He stresses that it’s the Holy Spirit who teaches true Christlike love and compassion.
Such love and compassion lead ultimately to Christlike sorrow for those who are not being saved. St. Maximus offers an additional point. He states repeatedly that not only is the true disciple called to love everyone—that’s hard enough in itself, isn’t it?—he adds: you have to love each and every person equally. That’s how you become like God, in imitation of the perfect love of Christ for all mankind. Can you do it?
There’s one other aspect of St. Silouan’s teaching on love and how it leads to theosis [that] we have to talk about. Here’s where we come into play. This is relevant and practical and most applicable for all of us here, and this is the special emphasis that they place on love for enemies. We didn’t talk about love for enemies yet. This theme is fundamental to his entire teaching. Elder Sophrony refers to love for enemies as the cornerstone of our whole teaching. It’s the ultimate synthesis of all our theology: love for enemies. I wonder what he’s going to get at here.
To begin with, the commandment of Christ to “love thy enemy” is not found in any other religion of the world. It’s uniquely Christian. As compared to the commandments of the Old Testament, the commandments of Christ appear revolutionary. It’s opposite to the prescription of the Mosaic law. The Lord himself proclaims:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I tell you not to resist an evil person, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you: “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
Love for enemies thus characterizes the true disciples of Christ. Before discussing this aspect of St. Silouan’s teaching, we first have to ask ourselves, I think: Who is this enemy, anyway? Who is the enemy whom Christ commands us to love? Is that ISIS? Al-Qaeda? Is one supposed to understand the word “enemy” in a common, everyday sense of the term, as an outright antagonist or a rival? Or is it perhaps a deeper, more spiritual understanding of this word, “enemy”? The Lord himself refers to an enemy as anyone who strikes us, anyone who sues us, anyone who forces us against our will or persecutes us. In many cases, however, an enemy is not necessarily the customary adversary or antagonist; rather, an enemy is he who is the source of a particular spiritual trial or a temptation.
Let’s repeat that: an enemy is he who is the source of a particular spiritual trial or a temptation. An enemy thus can strike us and persecute us not only physically but also, and perhaps more often than not, he wounds with words. This could be both intentional as well as unintentional. An enemy, in this specific context, is therefore not your typical adversary, antagonist, or outright rival. In this particular sense, an enemy is he, whether he’s aware of it or not, who may be the source of a spiritual trial, a temptation, or a tribulation which afflicts us and which causes us grief or sorrow.
Many times, it is he with whom one has a close and personal relationship who is often perceived as this kind of a spiritual “enemy,” and this is indeed the person whom the Lord is calling us to love. This person, whether intentionally or not, who makes us suffer and who makes us feel scorned or despised, who might hurt our feelings to the point where we become angry and hateful, he who makes us feel sorrowful or grieved—this is the enemy who is to be loved. This would include members of our own families, our relatives, our friends, fellow members of our parish community, as well as those with whom one is sacramentally linked or has spiritual bonds, even clergy and their families, colleagues, co-workers, fellow students. It seems as if the most difficult, the most fierce and humbling of the inner conflicts of spiritual warfare stem from one’s personal relationships with the people with whom one is closest. It’s easier loving and praying for the guy off in Afghanistan, but how about in my own family?
St. Silouan refers to this broader, more spiritual definition of “enemy.” He includes as an enemy anyone who offends you, anyone with whom one is angry, anyone you condemn or detest, as well as anyone with whom you’re not reconciled, and also with whom you find fault or look upon with an unkind eye, he says. For St. Silouan, in this particular spiritual sense, our enemy is anyone with whom we are angry, anyone we despise or detest, anyone we find fault with, anyone with whom we are not reconciled.
With this importance attached to this theme of love for enemies, we have to naturally ask the next question, then. Now the enemy has been identified; now what do we do? What does he mean by the word “love”? What is this love for enemies, anyway? How are you supposed to love an enemy? The word “love” is so freely and frequently used, it may take on a variety of diverse meanings. For St. Silouan and for the Fathers in general, love is not simply a sentimental emotion; that’s not what love is. Nor can love be reduced to mere tolerance of another person. You think that’s what love is? You’re going to just tolerate this guy? Neither is love for enemies a show of non-violence; that’s not the love we’re called to. It’s not a returning evil for evil, nor is love just an attitude of neutrality; that’s not good enough. Love is not the mere absence of hatred.
True love is an effort to do good to someone who hates you. Often, in the effort to do good to an enemy, we may assume that we have to go to great lengths in order to show our love and to prove our love. However, it’s not the outward showing or proving of love that matters most. Love is proven to be true when it instills inner peace within the heart of an enemy. This is the genuine mark of love: when out of sheer compassion, one tries to instill peace and calm into the heart of another human person, especially one of our so-called enemies. This is not accomplished through gifts and through pomp and through ceremony and making a show out of it. According to St. Maximus, it’s accomplished through simple words, through a humble attitude, through a gentle demeanor toward one of our enemies. That’s how you show love. St. Silouan refers to love for enemies as “the compassion of a loving heart.”
However, love must not be confined to the emotion of compassion. Love is not an emotion. Love is action. The Lord himself urges the believer into action. He teaches:
Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you.
The Lord here presents love as action, as doing good, as blessing, as praying, as offering, as giving. Clearly, Christ commands the believer to respond to and to react to an enemy with good and positive acts. Love for enemies is not simply a show of neutrality. It entails a positive reaction. It entails an active response.
Paradoxically, it might also be said that it’s not so much what one does that reveals your love. Sometimes it’s what one does not do or what one does not say that truly shows genuine concern for the inner peace of one of our so-called enemies. The truth and the integrity behind the believer’s actions is manifested by his not returning evil for evil, such as not returning angry words or a haughty attitude or a disturbing look or aggressive remarks. When the believer, out of concern for the inner peace of an enemy, does not react with scorn and hatred, and when he does not attempt revenge, then he’s on his way to truly loving as the Lord commands us to do.
The Church Fathers also offer other practical methods and techniques that can be used in trying to actively love an enemy. For example, St. Maximus recommends that the believer try to never speak ill of an enemy to anyone. Elsewhere, he advises to “dwell on the good things of the past,” and that way it’s more easy to cast out the hatred of the present day. St. Symeon the New Theologian teaches we should always think positively. He says, “Remain calm. Try to stay in control of one’s anger in your attempt to love an enemy.”
Another important element in loving one’s enemy is the ability to forgive him. This is especially significant for St. Silouan. He writes:
If you forgive your brother the affronts he puts upon you, and love your enemies, then you will receive forgiveness for your sins, and the Lord will give you to know the love of the Holy Spirit.
To forgive an enemy. True love occurs when you not only forgive, but also when you forget and no longer remember or dwell on those past offenses. It’s not enough, therefore, to just forgive someone for his sins against you; you have to also forget them, just as our Lord not only forgives us but forgets our sins. St. John Chrysostom says, “There is nothing more grievous than the remembrance of injuries.” To be willing to forget completely, and even to actually cover up what one may have suffered in the past, this is a mark of true Christlike love. Do you see how difficult it is? Do you see why there’s only a few saints among so many of us?
However, for St. Silouan, love for enemies is identified above all else as prayer. Prayer is the ultimate expression of true love. To love your enemy is to pray for him, and more exactly it’s to pray for his salvation in Christ. In this light, St. Silouan offers his own definition of true love, and he writes:
The soul sorrows for her enemies and prays for them, for they have strayed from the truth. That is love for our enemies.
The Lord is love. He gave the Holy Spirit on earth, who teaches the soul to love her enemies and pray for them, that they too may find salvation. That is true love.
St. Silouan states clearly: Love for enemies is prayer for their personal salvation in Christ. St. Isaac the Syrian, he’s more specific about praying for one’s enemies. He refers to it as “praying for their protection.” Can you do that? Pray for the protection of your enemy, and that he may receive mercy from God?
The love for enemies commanded by Christ cannot be reduced to simple passiveness or non-violence. It’s an active response of true and compassionate prayer for their ultimate salvation. However, it has to be pointed out that for St. Silouan, such love does not depend on human endeavor alone. He stresses that if one does indeed love his enemies, it’s due directly to the grace of the Holy Spirit. It’s beyond us. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit to love our enemies in this way. He writes:
The Lord taught me to love my enemies. Without the grace of God, we cannot love our enemies. Only the Holy Spirit teaches love.
From this perspective, we see that the commandment of Christ to “love thy enemy” reveals the way towards man’s perfection and sanctification. When we come to truly love our enemies, we then participate truly in the life in Christ. St. Silouan regarded the presence of love for enemies as a sign of real action of grace. He who loves his enemies is likened unto the Lord.
It’s interesting to note that Elder Sophrony directly identified love for enemies with uncreated, divine light. He clearly considered love for enemies as the manifestation of grace, and he wrote:
The bearer of such love is the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, the brother and friend of Christ. He is a son of God and a god through grace.
There’s our path to theosis. We could say that to the degree that we participate in this grace of divine love for enemies to the same degree, we thereby participate in the love and in the divine life of God. In this light, the Lord’s own words spoken to his apostles can be taken quite literally.
But I say to you: love your enemies, pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
The more we imitate Christ by loving our enemies, the more we truly know Christ and participate in his divine life. We not only believe in Christ and in the sanctification of our human nature, but we come to live the life in Christ, through Christlike love. Among the spiritual fruits obtained through love for enemies, St. Silouan includes the gift of true inner peace. “If we love our enemies, peace will dwell in us day and night,” he says. He teaches that even though we may pray and fast, if we fail to love our enemies, we will never have peace within our soul. According to St. Silouan, “he who carries the peace of the Holy Spirit within him will automatically spread peace to those around him.” Furthermore, he teaches that he who gives peace to others will also be given peace, and indeed much more than he originally gave.
In a world clamoring and protesting for peace, amid all the violence and the hatred that seem to saturate our society, this particular message of peace is especially relevant today. There will be no peace in the world, neither in society nor within the family if man does not first acquire the peace of our Lord within his own soul. This peace has to begin first inwardly, within our own soul, and only then can it flow outwardly, toward our fellow man, and thereby affecting the communities in which we live, and by extension our society as a whole. Herein is the relevance of St. Silouan’s teaching on love for enemies.
Our so-called enemies, therefore, must be seen in a spiritual and in a more positive light. Our enemy is in reality a unique opportunity for us to attain, by the grace of God, to our salvation, to our sanctification, to our theosis. In reality, our enemy is our way toward participation in divine love. Love for our enemies opens the way to our communion with God, and indeed with all mankind. An enemy is an opportunity to be cherished, not an opponent to be scorned. The more we participate in the philanthropic love of Christ for all mankind, the more we will come to appreciate the unique worth that Christ places on each and every human person. This includes our enemies. This is the ultimate manifestation of the life in Christ. This is what it means to be alive in Christ. It’s to acquire the same consciousness of Christ, the same compassion as Christ, and the same desire that Christ has for the salvation of each and every human person, including our enemies.
To conclude, through his participation in divine love, St. Silouan experienced directly its deifying effects. He experienced the most personal way the inherent unity of all mankind. Seeing his brother as his own life, St. Silouan prayed for the salvation of others even more than he prayed for himself. This is where his love and this is where his life in Christ ultimately led him. He became Christlike. He participated personally in Christlike love, in Christlike compassion, in Christlike prayer for the salvation of all mankind.
If we, too, can learn to love our enemies, we, too, can become like St. Silouan. Through love, we, too, can become like Christ, but such a high and exalted degree of love is rarely found today. Many people talk about love. Many people are looking for love, yet few see the significance of the spiritual perspective of this divine mystery of love. Although many different philosophies and religions, as well as all the countless poets and playwrights throughout history, all offer their own perspectives on this mysterious nature of love, none share the truth of our Orthodox Church. I’ll end with the words of St. Maximus the Confessor. He writes:
Many people have said much about love, but only in seeking it among Christ’s disciples will you find it, for only they have the true love, the Teacher of love. Therefore, the one who possesses love possesses God himself, since God is love.
Prayer! What is prayer? I was talking to a group of college students once, and I asked this question: What is prayer? And one guy was thinking about it, and he was so thoughtful; he says: “Is prayer a last resort?” [Laughter] Is that the only time we get on our knees and pray? When all else fails… What’s a proper Orthodox definition of prayer? Listen to what Elder Zacharias says—of Essex, England. This is your first entry on your handouts for those who have them.
Prayer is a matter of love. Man expresses love through prayer, and if we pray, it’s an indication that we love God. If we do not pray, this indicates that we do not love God, for the measure of our prayer is the measure of our love for God.
Prayer is directly related to love here. This perspective of prayer as a measure of one’s love for God is reflected in The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus. He writes the following; he says:
War reveals the love of a soldier for his king, and the time and practice of prayer show a monk’s love for God.
So your prayer shows where you stand. We find the same teaching on how one’s prayer is indicative of one’s love for God in the writings of St. Mark the Ascetic.
There is nothing higher than love for God (he says). Undistracted prayer is a sign of love for God, but careless or distracted prayer is a sign of love for pleasure.
“Distracted prayer is a sign of love for pleasure.” I don’t know. Is there anyone here other than me who’s ever been distracted while trying to pray? I’m the only one? Anyone here other than me ever carelessly forget or even simply neglect to pray? Does anyone ever just get plain lazy like me, procrastinate to pray, put it off till later? I mean, God’s always going to be there, isn’t he? What’s the big rush? Let me get this thing done first… [Laughter] There’s always tomorrow… Do we even try to pray? Can we really say we have a prayer life? Do we really want one?
Many of us today are so concerned about our social life, our night life, our family life. What about our prayer life? What about our lives of prayer where our love for God is expressed and made manifest? Regardless of the status of our own personal lives of prayer, the point is that, from an Orthodox perspective, prayer is identified first and foremost with the love for God. One’s prayer is a direct reflection of one’s love for God. This is an important point.
Another aspect of prayer is that it’s a manifestation of man’s communion with God. St. John Climacus teaches:
Prayer is by nature a dialogue and a union of man with God. Prayer is not an abstract state, but personal communion with God.
This personal perspective of prayer is of crucial importance. Our personal relationship with God and our true communion with him is energized, it’s cultivated, by prayer, through prayer, and in prayer. Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos, he emphasizes this personal aspect of prayer; he says:
Prayer is turning toward a Person, and thus for prayer to exist, this Person must also exist. For me to say I pray means that the active presence of that Person is a reality for me. I must be able to realize a certain degree of intimacy with that Person’s presence and existence. Prayer is defined as a turning toward a Person. To pray implies I have to realize a certain degree of intimacy with that Person’s presence.
Christ is present to us through prayer. Christ remains present throughout our day through our personal participation in prayer. Elder Aimilianos highlights this organic link that prayer has with worship, and especially with holy Communion. He says:
Thus, worship and holy Communion are inseparably united, and what is it that they do for me? They make God present and alive for me. After that, what then remains to be done? For me to talk to him, to address myself to him who comes to me. So God, through worship, stretches out toward me, and I, through prayer, stretch out toward him.
Prayer is seen here as the means by which the believer ascends toward the presence of God. We find a very deep and distinct definition of prayer here in this Orthodox perspective. Prayer can be defined as practicing the presence of Christ. Not only does prayer mean practicing the presence of Christ, but prayer is also the means by which we practice the presence of Christ. We see how fundamental prayer is to our spiritual lives. Without prayer, there’s no true communion with Christ. Without prayer, we do not truly worship God.
Before moving on to Orthodox ways of prayer and Orthodox techniques of prayer as well as discussing the Jesus prayer, let’s go a bit deeper into some basic preliminary points. The first point to be made is that it’s Christ himself who is the true Teacher of prayer. The life of prayer cannot be learned simply by reading books on prayer, or sitting in on a lecture on the practice of prayer. It demands much spiritual effort, trials; even temptations are involved in learning how to pray. Ultimately, it’s Christ himself who teaches us how to pray. You can only learn to pray by praying. This teaching is found in the Philokalia: “If you wish to pray, you have need of God, who gives prayer to him who prays.” God gives prayer to him who prays. St. John Climacus also says:
Always be brave, and God will teach you your prayer. You cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own special teacher in God. He grants the prayer of him who prays.
Maybe he works with us each individually, wherever we’re at, in teaching us how to begin to pray and how to grow in prayer.
We see that prayer is something that cannot really be taught; it’s only acquired by the grace of God. Elder Porphyrios of Mt. Athos teaches:
Prayer of the heart is prayed only by a person who has attracted the grace of God. It mustn’t be done with the thought, “I’ll learn it. I’ll do it. I’ll acquire it,” because in this way it can lead to egotism and pride.
The point is that our life of prayer and our progress in prayer is not a matter of our own effort. Yes, our own effort is important, but ultimately true prayer is considered first and foremost [as] a precious gift of the grace of God if we can pray. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, you can’t even say, “Jesus is Lord.”
Another distinction to be made is in regard to different types of prayer. Are there different kinds or classifications of prayer? Well, we know that there’s thanksgiving or glory or praise; that’s all one kind. Glory, praise, thanksgiving—they’re all somehow united. There’s also confession. There’s also supplication or petition, where our prayer requests. We find this classification in several writings. For example, St. John Climacus teaches; he says:
The attitude for prayer is the same for all, but there are many kinds of prayer and many different types of prayer. But heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place. Next should come confession and genuine contrition of soul. After that should come our requests to the universal King. (He says:) This method is best.
He lists different types of prayer here as: thanksgiving, which is a way of praising God and it’s a way of glorifying God, by thanking him. There’s also confession, which entails a contrite spirit. Then there’s our petitions or requests. So three basic elements we see: thanksgiving, contrition, and petition. We’ll just focus on one element here. Let’s do thanksgiving. I think we all have something to be thankful for.
Our Lord himself plainly teaches in the parable of the ten lepers about the significance of thanksgiving in our relationship with God. We read in the gospel of Luke how, after the Lord healed the ten lepers, only one of them came back to thank him. He was a Samaritan, at that!
Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Were there not any found to return to give thanks and to give glory to God, except for this foreigner?”
Out of the ten lepers who were healed, only one came back to give thanks. Only one was truly grateful to Christ for healing him of his dreaded disease, and in this way, this foreigner, through his humble gratitude, actually gave great glory to God by thanking him. So we must never underestimate the importance of gratitude in our spiritual lives.
What about the role of gratitude or thankfulness in our social relationships or in our family relationships? Those two little words, “Thank you,” they have such immense social implications, whether at work, at school, in our parish communities, most especially within our own families. Being thankful to each other and being thankful for each other has much more impact on the lives of our loved ones than we might realize.
On the other hand, an ungrateful disposition, especially among our loved ones, is often an unpleasant experience. Imagine what would happen within our own families if we did not say, “Thank you” to a loved one when he or she does something kind for us or says something nice or gives us something, no matter how small. What kind of feelings would we form? What kind of an emotional reaction would follow? What wife wants an ungrateful spouse? What parent wants an ungrateful child? Likewise, in our relationship with God, we sometimes think that the Lord expects great and lofty sacrifices in order to show our love and in order to prove our love to him, but all he really wants from us is to just be humble and grateful children and to simply thank him for whatever it is and for whomever it is we have to be thankful for.
The Apostle Paul teaches, “Rejoice always. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” St. Isaac the Syrian, he also teaches, “If we’re not thankful for the small gifts in life, we will not be thankful for the greater ones as well.” And he teaches that by showing gratitude and by being thankful for the little things that we have been given, we actually encourage the giver to give gifts greater than the first.
We see how thankfulness to God is one of the wisest ways in which we can pray. Just start by giving thanks. By giving thanks to God, we’re actually glorifying him. Thanksgiving plays a fundamental role in our prayer lives. It contributes to the overall quality of our prayer. Of the many ways in which our tradition teaches us to pray and to glorify God, the way of gratitude, through the virtue of thankfulness, is among the most basic.
With these thoughts in mind, let’s learn how our Church teaches [us] to pray. We’re going to talk about some prayer techniques, some prayer practices that are found in holy tradition. But before learning how to pray, let’s talk first [about] how we’re not supposed to pray. There are many instances where we are taught not how to pray. For instance in holy Scripture, indeed, it’s the Lord himself who teaches us:
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
That kind of prayer, showy prayer, is not pleasing to the Lord, I don’t think. The Lord is warning us: do not put on a show when you’re trying to pray. This must have been a problem for him to address. Don’t ever do it just for the sake of impressing others. Prayer should be done in secret. Elder Porphyrios offers this analogy. He says:
What did I tell you about the nightingale? It sings without anyone seeing it. Be like that: selfless. Give yourself over to the worship of God in secret.
Elder Porphyrios has much more to say about how we should not pray, and these are especially relevant for today. He was a bona fide elder of our times. In fact, he was just recently formally canonized back in December, I believe, by the Ecumenical Patriarch. He’s now Saint Porphyrios, actually. Elder-Saint Porphyrios devoted his entire life to the pursuit of prayer and to teaching his spiritual children to pray. Keep in mind, he’s going to be speaking to us very practically here with his advice, from many years of his personal experience as a spiritual guide.
First of all, do not be routine. (He says:) Whether you pray with brethren or alone, try not to pray simply as a routine, but with conscious awareness of your prayer.
We must not pray simply as a mechanical routine, which remains without our heart truly being in it. That’s not pleasing to God. We must not simply repeat words just for the sake of repeating them. Again, our Lord clearly teaches:
And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions, like the heathen do, for they think they will be heard for their many words.
Elder Porphyrios also says: Do not form images when you pray. He says:
Pray without forming images in your mind. Don’t try to imagine Christ. The Fathers emphasize the need for prayer to be free from images. With an image, the focus of prayer is easily lost, because one image can easily be displaced by another. The evil one may intrude images, and we lose the grace.
Elsewhere, he says, “Do not employ diverse techniques.” This seems to contradict other Fathers who write specifically for a monastic audience, but this is what Elder Porphyrios is saying. He says:
Nor should you employ diverse techniques. You don’t need to sit on a low stool, nor do you need to bow down your head, nor to close your eyes. Some say: Sit on a low stool, hunch yourself, gather yourself up tightly and concentrate. But on what? Try and see. It’s not necessary to concentrate particularly to say the prayer, and you don’t need any effort when you’re filled with divine love.
He also says: Never pray with self-interest.
First of all, you must shun all self-interest. Prayer must be entirely selfless. Everything must happen mystically and without self-interest. That is, don’t think that if you concentrate with your mind, that grace will come into your heart and you will experience that leap of joy. Do not pray with that motive, but with simplicity and humility. Aspire always to the glory of God.
Also, he says: Don’t pray for duration alone. Don’t approach it in that perspective. He says:
In prayer, what is important is not the duration but the intensity. Pray, albeit for five minutes, but abandoning yourself to God with love and longing. One person may pray all night long, another person for only five minutes, and yet the five-minute prayer may be superior. This is a mysterious matter.
Think of moms in the morning, or dads before leaving for work.
With all these how-not-to-prays, let’s move on to how we’re supposed to pray. First and foremost, we have to prepare for prayer. Pray for prayer. Before we pray, the soul must prepare itself with prayer. He says: “Pray for prayer!” Preparation is also to occupy yourself with the singing of hymns or with the psalms of David. Study holy Scripture and the Church Fathers. In this way, your soul will be softened, sanctified, and assimilated to God. It will be ready to hear the disclosures of God. Before we sit down to pray, or stand to pray, or whatever we do, is it too hard to read a psalm or two, or to say the trisagion, or to light an incense or a candle in front of an icon? There’s some kind of preparation. They have to set the tone.
Then he stresses simplicity. Always remember: keep our prayers simple. Keeping it simple is the best way to pray. St. John Climacus emphasizes this point. He says:
In your prayers, there’s no need for high-flown words, for it’s the simple and unsophisticated babblings of children that have more often won the hearts of our Father in heaven.
You don’t have to come up with high-flown word or catchy little phrases that are going to get God’s attention. He says:
Do not be forward in your dealings with God. Approach him, rather, in all humility, and you will be given still more boldness.
Pray in all simplicity. The publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single utterance. And Elder Porphyrios goes on:
In our prayer, we should ask only for the salvation of our soul. The secret is not to think about asking for one specific thing at all. The secret he’s teaching us) is to ask for your union with Christ with utter selflessness, without saying, “Give me this” or “Give me that.” It suffices to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Then I love this line:
God has no need to be informed by us of our various needs.
[Laughter] “Oh, didn’t you forget? By the way, Lord, don’t forget… I’ve got that big exam coming up, or…”
Prayer is not about asking God for a favor. He already knows what we need. As we said, prayer is practicing the presence of Christ. Then he goes on:
Force is not the way to acquire prayer. Pray without ulterior motives, not in order to gain anything. Make prostrations out of love. There is no point in making a hundred prostrations if they leave you unmoved. Make only twenty or fifteen, but with fervor and love for God. Gently, and without forcing ourselves is how we enter into prayer.
Then he also has some advice on the Jesus prayer, but we had a whole course on that, so I’m going to skip over some things.
He gives some clear advice, and he goes into much detail on how we should practice the Jesus prayer. Some of this advice is for beginners; others is intended more for the advanced. For instance, he teaches:
Sometimes it’s good to say the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” out loud, so you can hear it with your ears. We are body and soul; there is an interaction between the two.
But then elsewhere he instructs maybe those with a little more experience.
Prayer should be interior, prayed with the mind and not with the lips, so as not to cause distractions with the mind wandering here and there. Don’t think anything except the words “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Nothing else. Nothing at all.
He also mentions the role of the eyes. He says:
Calmly, with eyes open, so that you’re not in danger of succumbing to fantasies or delusions, and with care and devotion, turn toward Christ.
Whether we say the prayer with our eyes open or with our eyes closed, or whether we say the words softly so we hear them or silently in our heart, the point is there’s a lot of freedom here, and we’ll probably adapt and change over time as we grow in prayer. You have to do what works for you. We’re free to choose whatever way works best for us at whatever particular stage we may be at in our spiritual development. Elsewhere, he says:
Pray to God with love and yearning, in tranquility, with meekness, gently, and without forcing yourself. When you repeat the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” say it slowly, humbly, gently, with divine love. Pronounce the name of Christ with sweetness. Say the words one at a time: Lord—Jesus—Christ—have mercy on me. Smoothly, tenderly, affectionately, silently, secretly, mystically, but with exaltation and with longing and with passion, without force, without unbecoming emphasis, without compulsion, and without pressure.
Even more importantly, the holy elder admonishes us to say the prayer without overly exerting ourselves or forcing ourselves or coercing ourselves to do it.
The prayer should not be said as a chore. Coercion may provoke a reaction within us and be harmful. Many people have become ill as a result of the prayer.—(He must be speaking from experience.)—because they coerced themselves. Something happens of course, even when you do it as a chore, but it’s not healthy (says Elder Porphyrios).
I wonder what he’s getting at there. He says:
Repeat the prayer in an unforced manner and not continually, but when there is the disposition and an atmosphere of compunction, which is a gift of divine grace. Without grace, you fall into a state of self-hypnotism, and you can end up seeing lights and delusions, and even become mentally deranged.
Notice the dangers here. Also note the important role of compunction and contrition. We must see ourselves as the first and the worst of all sinners, as we confess in our prayers before holy Communion, and as our holy saints and elders truly saw themselves. Compare this way of prayer with some of those loud and forward and forceful demanding preachers we sometimes hear on the radio or see on television. They seem to be doing the exact opposite, yelling and screaming and forcing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but doesn’t that tradition seem so foreign to ours? Rather, for us, the Jesus prayer has to be approached with reverent fear of God and a truly repentant spirit.
There’s another technique of prayer that I want to share, and that’s the practice of silence in prayer. The role of silence in our pursuit for prayer is very important. St. John Climacus writes:
A silent man is a son of wisdom and is always gaining great knowledge. The lover of silence draws close to God. He talks to him in secret, and God enlightens him.
The significance of silence in our spiritual life cannot be underestimated. In relation to prayer, St. John Climacus adds: “Silence is the mother of prayer.” He teaches elsewhere:
Try not to talk excessively in your prayer, in case your mind is distracted by the search for words. Talkative prayer frequently distracts the mind and deludes it, whereas brevity makes for concentration.
Perhaps this is one reason why we Orthodox often use prescribed prayers that are already written out by our Church Fathers. Rarely do we practice spontaneous or off-the-cuff prayers. We don’t want to just get caught up in the search for words, according to the Elder. St. Diadochos of Photiki—listen to what he says. He says:
When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it. Likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.
So often we do all the talking. You ever call up a friend or talk to somebody, and they do all the talking? I wonder how God feels when I try to pray. “Just shut up for a second, Harry. Let me get a word in here!” [Laughter] “I’ve got all this stuff going on, Lord…”
Silence in prayer should not be seen simply as an outward absence of noise. Ultimately, it’s an inner silence of the commotions that can command our hearts. It’s the silence of our desires and passions. It’s the silence of our will. For those advancing to the higher stages of prayer, silence is the absence of all words completely. Listen to these insightful words from the holy elder about the role of silence. He says:
When you have fallen in love with Christ, you prefer silence and spiritual prayer. Then, words cease. It is inner silence that precedes and accompanies and follows the divine visitation. When you find yourself in this state, words are not needed. This is something you experience, something that cannot be explained. Only the person who experiences this state understands it. The most perfect form of prayer is silent prayer. Amid the mystery of silence, the assimilation to God takes place. It is here, too, that truest worship takes place. This manner of silence is the most perfect. This is how you are assimilated to God. You enter into the mysteries of God. We must not speak much, but leave grace to speak.
We see how important silence is within our spiritual lives, especially the more we want to progress in the practice of prayer.
One other technique of prayer is the use of holy Scripture. The prayerful reading of holy Scripture is one of the essential elements of Orthodox spiritual life, and our Church Fathers encourage us to prayerfully read Scripture. They provide some very practical advice on how to do so, and they especially emphasize the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms plays a fundamental role in the life of Orthodox believers. Both publicly in corporate worship and privately within our personal prayer life at home, the book of Psalms is regarded as the prayerbook of the Orthodox Church. Christ himself recited psalms as he was dying on the cross. The earliest monks who first went out into the desert to devote themselves to prayer based their day on reading the book of Psalms. The entire psalter is what they read. Much of our liturgical services are filled with the recitation of psalms. Regarding our own personal life of prayer, the reading of psalms has been throughout the centuries the most basic way to pray, the most basic way to begin one’s life of prayer. It’s appropriate for all. The reading of psalms can be practiced by every believer, regardless of our level of spiritual progress.
The book of Psalms is full of those three elements of prayer that we talked about earlier: thanksgiving and contrition and petition. St. Isaac the Syrian provides very practical advice on how to incorporate psalms into our prayer, and he highlights how we can personally apply the words to any particular situation we may be facing. He says:
Do you want to perform the recitation of the psalms and take in the spiritual words that they are reciting? Say the words of the psalms as though it were a prayer. Pray them as they were your own words.
You should say the psalms with real supplication, as if they were your very own words. Try that once. St. John Cassian also speaks of this very personal dimension that one experiences through the prayerful reading of psalms. He says:
Seized by the identical feelings in which the psalm was composed or sung, we become, as it were, its author. We anticipate its idea instead of following it.
When we prayerfully read holy Scripture, especially the book of Psalms, the words can oftentimes speak directly to us and what we’re going through. They can address any specific situation or problem we may be dealing with. At times, it seems as if God is speaking directly to us through the words of holy Scripture. In light of our Orthodox tradition, we see how very important it is to have the psalms as part of our prayer life.
As we conclude, we talked about some of the different techniques our Church teaches us. How [many] different prayers do we have? We have the trisagion prayer, we have the Lord’s prayer, we have the reading of psalms, the scriptural reading of the day. We can go through a particular book of the Bible as our prayer, one chapter at a time. Or the scriptural readings that our Church prescribes. There’s also the lives of the saints that we can read for the day: very beneficial and inspiring. We can ask for their prayers as well. We have all the writings of the Church Fathers; there are contemporary elders that are available to us now in English: another source of great inspiration for our own spiritual lives.
We can do prostrations. We can use our prayer rope, whether we’re sitting or walking. We can read our prayers directly out of the many prayerbooks our Church has to offer: prayers before receiving holy Communion, or after communion. We can keep silent, and we can be still, and recite the Jesus prayer in our secret heart. Even something so simple as censing our home can be a prayer. The easiest way is to attend any of the many liturgical services that our Church offers, as she invites us to come and pray: the Divine Liturgy, the akathist, the paraklesis, compline, orthros, vespers, all the other services, all invitations to pray. Oftentimes, the easiest way to re-energize our prayer life is by simply going to church.
As we end our discussion, let us bear in mind that our life of prayer is a continuous struggle. There’s going to be positive experiences that are going to be accompanied by spiritual stumbling. Our spiritual life is indeed an up-and-down struggle, but we have to remain steadfast. We have to try. We have to try to set aside some time, no matter how minimal at first, and we have to find a place and a time that works for us to get into some kind of a prayer routine if we can. It won’t be easy. Nothing in our spiritual life is easy. We may not succeed at first, but we have to try to find some kind of prayer life. There’s just too much to lose. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our families, above all we owe it to Christ.
The goal is to progress in prayer, no matter how small it may seem. The goal is to form good spiritual habits and to become spiritually disciplined. Those good moments when grace feels near will often be accompanied by more difficult moments, when divine grace seems so far away, and vice versa as well. Be assured that those difficult moments will be followed by positive progress, and new levels of spiritual insight into this mysterious life of prayer. This is how our Lord teaches us and trains us.
Never underestimate how very precious our heart-felt prayers are in the eyes of God. Imagine: what if every prayer you ever said was actually heard by God? Imagine if God were to remember your every single prayer, and if he truly kept them in his heart for all eternity. According to Elder Sophrony, “Our prayer is an infinite creation, far superior to any form of art or science.” If you think about it, prayer is one of the most important things we as human beings could ever do. I’ll end with the words of St. Silouan, who wrote:
By the grace of God, I know that the Lord mercifully cares for us, and not one of our prayers is ever lost with God.
Amen to that. [Amen.]