The Struggle in Prayer
By Archimandrite Sophrony
Prayer is infinite creation, the supreme art. Over and over again we experience an eager upsurge towards God, followed only by a falling away from His light. Time and again we are conscious of the mind’s inability to rise to Him. There are moments when we feel ourselves on the verge of insanity. ‘Thou didst give me Thy precept to love but there is no strength in me for love. Come and perform in me all that Thou hast commanded, for Thy commandment overtaxes my powers. My mind is too frail to comprehend Thee. My spirit cannot see into the mysteries of Thy will. My days pass in endless conflict. I am tortured by the fear of losing Thee because of the evil thoughts in my heart.’
Sometimes prayer seems to flag and we cry, ‘Make haste unto me, O God’ (Ps. 70.5). But if we do not let go of the hem of His garment, help will come. It is vital to dwell in prayer in order to counteract the persistently destructive influence of the outside world.
Prayer cannot fail to revive in us the divine breath which God breathed into Adam’s nostrils and by virtue of which Adam ‘became a living soul’ (Gen. 2.7). Then our regenerated spirit will marvel at the sublime mystery of being, and our hearts echo the Psalmist’s praise of the wonderful works of the Lord. We shall apprehend the meaning of Christ’s words, ‘I am come that (men) might have life and that they might have it more abundantly’ (John 10.10).
But this life is full of paradox, like all the Gospel teaching. ‘I am come to send fire on earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? (Luke 12.49). Unless we go through this fire that consumes the decaying passions of nature, we shall not see the fire transformed into light, for it is not Light that comes first, then Fire: in our fallen state burning precedes enlightenment. Let us, therefore, bless God for this consuming fire. We do not know altogether but we do at least know ‘in part’ (1 Cor. 13.9) that there is no other way for us mortals to become ‘children of the resurrection’ (Luke 20.36), to reign together with Christ. However painful this re-creating may be; however it may distress and lacerate- the process, agonising as it is, will be a blessed one. Erudition requires long labour but prayer is incalculably harder to acquire.
When the Gospels and Epistles become real for us we see how naïve were our past notions of God and life in Him, so far does Reality surpass man’s imagining. ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him’ (1 Cor. 2.9). Even a whisper of the Divine is glory beyond compare to all the content of life lived apart from God.
Strait is the way, and thorny and sorrowful. We shall heave many a sigh as we go along. The peculiar fear which is ‘the beginning of wisdom’ (Ps. 111.10) will clutch at our heart and twist our whole being outside in to concentrate attention on what is happening within. Impotent to follow Christ, we stop short in dread. ‘Jesus went before (the disciples); they were amazed; and as they followed, they were afraid’ (Mark 10.32). None of us can escape suffering if we would be born into a new life in God- if we would transform our natural body into a spiritual body. (As St Paul said, ‘It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body’(1 Cor. 15.44).). Only the power of prayer overcomes the resistance of matter and releases our spirit from this cramped, inert world into the vast open spaces radiant with Light.
The mind is bewildered by the trials that befall in our struggle for prayer. It is not easy to identify their cause or their kind. Until we go ‘into the sanctuary of God’ (Ps. 73.17) we shall often hesitate, unsure whether our works are pleasing to the All-Holy. Since we are not exempt from sin we can only think that it is our wrong-doing which provokes the storms raging around us- though St Peter reminded the early Christians in their despair that ‘the spirit of glory’ (1 Pet. 4.14) rested upon them. One thing, however, is not open to doubt: the hour will come when all our trials and tribulations will disappear into the past. Then we shall see that the most painful periods of our life were the most fruitful and will accompany us beyond the confines of this world, to be the foundation of the Kingdom ‘which cannot be moved’ (Heb. 12.28).
The omnipotent God summoned us from the void. By nature we are of the void; yet even from God we expect consideration and regard. Suddenly the Almighty reveals Himself in boundless humility. The vision floods our entire being and instinctively we bow in adoration. Even this does not seem enough but however much we try to humble ourselves before Him we still fall short of His humility.
Prayer to this God of love and humility rises from the depths of our being. When our heart is filled with love for God we are wholly aware of our closeness to Him- although we know full well that we are but dust (cf. Gen. 3.19). Howbeit, in the visible form of our nature the immortal God described the likeness of His invisible Being, and thus we apprehend eternity. Through prayer we enter into Divine life; and God praying in us is uncreated life permeating us.
In making us in His image, after His likeness, God placed us before Him, not as action of His, entirely subject to Him, but as fact (datum) even for Him- as free beings And by virtue of this, relations between man and God are based on the principle of freedom. When we take advantage of this freedom and commit sin, we thrust God aside. This liberty to turn away from God is the negative, tragic aspect of free will but it is a sine qua non if we are to take hold of the life which is truly divine, life which is not predetermined. We have the diametrically opposite alternatives: either to refuse God- the very essence of sin- or to become sons of God. Because we are made in the likeness of God we naturally desire the divine perfection which is in our Father. And when we follow Him we are not submitting to the dictates of some extraneous power: we are merely obeying our own impulse to assimilate His perfection. ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. 5.48).
Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name
Thou hast given me to perceive Thy holiness, and I would fain be holy in Thee.
Thy Kingdom come
May Thy glorious life enter into me and become mine.
Thy will be done
in the earth of my created being, as it is in heaven, in Thee Thyself, from all eternity.
Give us this day our daily bread
‘the true bread which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world’ (John 6.32-33).
And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trepass against us
By Thy Holy Spirit grant me so to forgive others that nothing may prevent me from receiving Thy forgiveness.
Lead us not into temptation
Thou knowest my perverseness; that I am ever ready to transgress. Send Thine angel to stand in the way for an adversary against me when I would sin (cf. Num. 22.22).
But deliver us from evil
Deliver me from the power of the mortal enemy, the adversary of man and God.
At first we pray for ourselves; but when God by the Holy Spirit gives us understanding our prayer assumes cosmic proportions. Then, when we pray ‘Our Father’ we think of all mankind, and solicit fulness of grace for all as for ourselves. Hallowed be Thy Name among all peoples. Thy Kingdom come for all peoples that Thy Divine life may become their life. Thy will be done: Thy will alone unites all in love of Thee. Deliver us from evil- from the ‘murderer’ (John 8.44) who, far and wide, sows enmity and death. (According to our Christian interpretation evil- like good– exists only where there is personal form of being. Without this personal form there would be no evil- only determined natural processes.)
The problem of evil in the world generally and in mankind particularly poses the question of God’s participation in the historical life of the human race. Many lose their faith because it seems that, if God existed, evil could not be so rampant and there could not be such widespread senseless suffering. They forget that God cares for man’s freedom, which is the root principle of his creation in the Divine image. For the Creator to interfere when man inclines to evil would be tantamount to depriving him of the possibility of self-determination, and would destroy him altogether. But God can and does save individuals and nations if they tread the road He designates.
Christ said, ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword’ (Matt. 10.34) and ‘division’ (Luke 12.51). Christ summoned us to war on the plane of the spirit, and our weapon is ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Eph. 6.17). Our battle is waged in extraordinarily unequal conditions. We are tied hand and foot. We dare not strike with fire or sword: our sole armament is love, even for enemies. This unique war in which we are engaged is indeed a holy war. We wrestle with the last and only enemy of mankind- death (1 Cor. 15.26). Our fight is the fight for universal resurrection.
The Lord justified and sanctified the line of His forefathers. Likewise, every one of us, if we follow Christ, can justify ourselves in our individual being, having restored the Divine image in us through total repentance, and by so doing can help to justify our own forefathers. We bear in ourselves the legacy of the sins of our ancestors; and, by virtue of the ontological unity of the human race, healing for us means healing for them, too. We are so interjoined that man does not save himself alone.
I found that the monks of the Holy Mountain understood this well. A monk is a man who has dedicated his life to God; who believes that if we want God to be wholly with us and in us, then we must give ourselves to Him completely, not partly. The monk renounces marriage and the fathering of children in order to observe and keep Christ’s commandments as fully as possible. If a monk does not achieve his true purpose- to live his life on earth in the spirit enjoined by Christ- his monasticism has not been duly implemented. In other words, he neither assists in the continuation of the human race by procreating children, nor does he entirely further immortality through resurrection. He drops out of the historical plan by his refusal to take positive historical- not to say, political- action, yet he does not transfer existence to the spiritual, meta-historical plane. Having gained no victory on the universal plane of spiritual warfare, he is not helping his fellow-humans to attain the divine plane. However, though the monk may not realise Christian perfection, his striving, even so, helps the whole world.
O Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, The only Truth and God; Ever-living and all-powerful, Who alone dost give strength to the troubled and upholdest the weak; O Thou without Whom the strong shall weary and the firm grow feeble, those who are full shall hunger and young men shall bend: Hear us in our affliction and raise us to worthy service of Thee. We beseech Thee, be swift to hear and have mercy.
When by the grace of the Holy Spirit it is given to a man to ‘come…unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’ (Eph. 4.13), such an event reflects in the most decided fashion not only on the destiny of all mankind- its influence reaches beyond the confines of history and reflects on the whole of cosmic life, for the world itself was created for man.
When we turn away from the path indicated by Christ- that is, from the deification of man by the power of the Holy Spirit- the whole point of man’s coming into the world disappears.
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (2001) (2nd ed.) His Life is Mine. Chapter 8: The Struggle in Prayer. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
On Prayer – Dangers
By Archimandrite Sophrony
The way of our Fathers requires strong faith and long-suffering, whereas our contemporaries attempt to acquire spiritual gifts, including even direct contemplation of the Absolute God, through pressure and in a brief space of time.
Often one can remark a disposition in them to draw a parallel between prayer in the Name of Jesus and yoga or ‘transcendental meditation’ and the like.
I think it necessary to point out the dangers of this delusion the danger of looking on prayer as a very simple, easy ‘technical’ means leading to direct union with God.
I consider it essential to emphasize the radical difference between the Jesus Prayer and all other ascetic theories.
All those are deluded who endeavor mentally to divest themselves of everything that is transitory, relative, in order in this way to cross some invisible threshold, to realize their being ‘without beginning’, their ‘identity’ with the Source of all that is; in order to return to Him, to be merged in Him, the nameless transpersonal Absolute; in order in the vast expanse of what is beyond thought to unify one’s personal individuality with the individualized form of natural existence. Ascetic efforts of this kind enabled some strugglers to a certain extent to rise to metalogical contemplation of being; to experience a certain awe; to know the state when the mind is stilled, when it goes beyond the bounds of time and space. In like states man may feel the peace of divestment of the constantly changing manifestations of the visible world: may uncover in himself freedom of spirit and contemplate mental beauty.
The ultimate development of such impersonal asceticism has led many ascetics to perceive the divine origin in the very nature of man; to a tendency to the self-divinization that lay at the root of the great Fall; to see in man a certain ‘absoluteness’ which in essence is nothing else but the reflection of the Divine Absoluteness in the creature created in His likeness; to feel drawn to return to the state of peace which man knew before his appearance in this world.
In any case after this experience of some such form of mental aberration may arise in the mind. I am not setting myself the task of listing all the various types of mental intuition but I will say from my own experience that the True, Living God, the I AM, is not here in all this. This is the natural genius of the human spirit in his sublimated impulses towards the Absolute.
All contemplation arrived at by this means is self-contemplation, not contemplation of God. In these circumstances we open up for ourselves created beauty, not First Being. And in all of it there is no salvation for man.
The source of real deliverance lies in unquestionable, wholehearted acceptance of the Revelation, ‘I am that I am … I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.’ God is Personal Absolute, Trinity One and Indivisible.
Our whole Christian life is based on this Revelation. This God called us from nonbeing into life. Knowledge of this Living God and discernment of the manner of His creation releases us from the obscurity of our own ideas, coming ‘from beneath, about the Absolute; rescues us from our attraction unconscious but for all that ruinous to withdrawal from existence of any sort.
We are created in order to be communicants in the Divine Being of Him Who really is. Christ indicated this wondrous way: “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life.”
Apprehending the depths of the Creator’s wisdom, we embark on the suffering through which Divine eternity is to be attained. And when His Light shines for us we unite in ourselves contemplation of the two extremes of the abyss on the one side, the darkness of hell, on the other, the triumph of victory. We are existentially introduced into the province of Uncreated Divine Life.
And hell loses power over us. We are given grace to live the state of the Incarnate Logos Christ Who descended into hell as Conqueror. Then by the power of His love we shall embrace all creation in the prayer: ‘0 Jesus, Gracious Almighty, have mercy upon us and Thy world.’
Revelation of this Personal God imparts a wondrous character to all things. Being is not some determined cosmic process but the Light of the indescribable love between Divine and created persons. It is the free movement of spirits filled with wise knowledge of all that exists, and consciousness of self.
Without this there is no sense in anything but only death. But our prayer becomes a living contact of our created persona and the Divine Person that is, something absolute. And this is expressed when we address the Word of the Father: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Unoriginate Word of Thine Unoriginate Father, have mercy upon us. Save us and Thy world.”
From “On Prayer” by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) p.168-170
Prayer of Spirit
By Archimandrite Sophrony
Misfortune in the shape of reduced circumstances, illness or the death of a loved one often drives people to prayer. But if the situation alters for the better, not only does their impulse to pray abate – prayer itself may seem pointless. But there is a different kind of prayer, prayer of the spirit, fastened on eternity, and here no external well-being can heal the sufferings of the soul who sees herself falling short of the sought-for eternal. Then prayer becomes the normal state for the soul, and the grace of the Holy Spirit may visit her, suddenly, inscrutably, bringing a foretaste of eternity. For this visitation integrity and faithfulness are the essential prerequisites. I have before me a remarkable document, a letter from a former rabbi.
‘Why did I, a former rabbi, become a Christian?’ he writes. ‘The question sounds strange in my ears. Did I, of myself, become a Christian, following a plan, a purpose, after due consideration? No, the grace of God made me Christian. My conversion is a mystery to me before which I bow my head in awe. It was the Holy Spirit, He alone transfigured me. When I accepted Christ the laws of Deuteronomy ceased to be a means of drawing near to God…I feel myself all the time filled through and through with Divine love. Of a sudden, unexpectedly, independently of any effort of mine, light shone upon me- the light that in the old days when I was a devout Jew was only a far-off glimmer. All at once I beheld in myself the Holy One, the Mystery of Mysteries and yet the clearest of all that is clear… As for religious ethics, they are much the same in Judaism as in Christianity: the commandments concerning morals are often expressed in identical terms. In practice, however, they differ vitally. The Christian ethic is given from on High, by the Holy Spirit, Who came to us only after Christ’s resurrection. It is the same Spirit that pious Jews dream of to this day: they feel Him, see Him, but only from afar. But the true Christian lives in the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit captivates even our body with the sweetest love, liberating it from thraldom to the passions until the body itself longs to dissolve in the Spirit. And so it was not I of myself who became Christian- it was God Who sent down the grace of the Holy Spirit and made me so…The Spirit reposes within the true Christian and encircles him round about. And all this happens through faith in Christ. This is the process: faith attracts the Holy Spirit, while the Holy Spirit strengthens faith, cares for you, sustains you, encourages your ardent desire for the Kingdom of God…To those who have not yet savoured true grace, my words will be unintelligible. The process of true conversion cannot be described or explained: it is something that the eye cannot see, that the ear cannot hear. Filled with Christian sentiments, I heard my soul speaking within me, telling me of my new birth in Christ; but she spoke in the language of silence which I cannot find words for. I do know, though, that my soul sang a new song, a sweet song of love which lifted the power of the past from me. And this song transfigured me and gave birth in me to a new will, to new yearnings. Now I am as it were in love with Christ, and, you know, a man in love with Christ has no desire to philosophise. He only wants one thing- to love for all eternity. Do you want to understand? Would you like to experience the grace of Christ? Then seek this grace from Him Who can bestow it. If it seems that it is not for you, since you cannot believe, my advice is to set your heart on believing and you will be able to believe. Through faith you arrive at faith. Persist in wishing for faith and it will be granted to you. When I was a Jew I, too, had God and knew it. But it was a God Whose attitude changed according to man’s conduct. But through Christ, through the Holy Messiah and Son of God, I was led into the sphere of unconditional, steadfast Divine love. This can only be understood if you already live in grace. Christianity is the richest of treasures equal to satisfying each and every soul. ‘In Christ is Truth, to which the Holy Spirit bears witness. And all who believe heed His testimony.’
I have quoted this triumphant cry of a soul who found the Christ-God because, though many have had a similar experience, few find words to express the well-nigh inexpressible.
The Holy Spirit comes when we are receptive. He does not compel. He approaches so meekly that we may not even notice. If we would know the Holy Spirit we need to examine ourselves in the light of the Gospel teaching, to detect any other presence which may prevent the Holy Spirit from entering into our souls. We must now wait for God to force Himself on us without our consent. God respects and does not constrain man. It is amazing how God humbles Himself before us. He loves us with a tender love, not haughtily, not with condescension. And when we open our hearts to Him we are overwhelmed by the conviction that He is indeed our Father. The soul then worships in love.
St Gregory of Sinai goes so far as to say that prayer is God Himself acting in us. ‘Do Thou Thyself pray in me,’ was the constant appeal of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow in the last century. We also have the witness of St Paul: ‘And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4,6).
Fired by the vision of our high calling, we strain to accomplish our purpose – our yearning for Divine Love to dwell in us for ever. Without this preliminary rapture of faith, without this fervent reaching towards the loving God Who continually inspires us, we cannot help falling beneath the massive pressure of the contemporary world which does not know prayer.
Life-giving faith consists in unquestioning belief in Christ as God. Only when Christ is accepted as perfect God and perfect Man does the plenitude of spiritual experience described by the apostles and fathers become possible. Christ is now the cornerstone on which we must construct our entire life, both temporal and eternal. The nature of the gifts which such faith entrains declares their supernal provenance.
The Lord said: ‘But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly’ (Matt. 6.6). True prayer operates in our innermost depths which we learn to hide from outside eyes. If I now venture to touch on matters sacred for each of us, I am urged to do so by the tragic atmosphere of tension throughout the world, and, more especially, by my consciousness that we belong together in Christ. Let us, therefore, as true brethren, share what it has been given us to know by a gift from on High. (I would ask you to pray as you read, as I pray God to inspire me with words pleasing to Him.)
Christ gave us the word that He had received from the Father (cf. John 17.14). He spoke of Himself as the stone which will break all who fall on it and will grind to powder those on whom it falls (cf. Matt. 21.44). What then? Is it we who have fallen on this great and wondrous stone, or has the stone fallen on us? We do not know. But however that may be, we are precipitated into a world of realities whose existence we did not suspect before. In the old days when life for the majority flowed in the broad channels of established tradition, the word of Christ was so presented as not to disturb. But now, with the whole earth full fraught with man’s despair, with the protest of consciences outraged, with violence threatening to wipe out all life, we must make our voices heard. In our present peril decorous words which commit us to nothing are not enough. All of us today are in vital need of a firm faith in Christ’s eternal victory, that we, too, may become spiritually invincible. A very great deal depends on ourselves – to remember, for instance, that at the baptismal font we received new birth from on High, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Those who are baptised ‘with the Holy Ghost and with fire’ (Luke 3.16) perceive in their prayer that every given moment of our life is enveloped in Divine eternity. At all times and in all places we are held in the invisible Hand of our Heavenly Father.
It is usual for the Christian to be aware concurrently of the presence of the never-fading celestial glory and of the brooding cloud of death hanging over the world. Though the feeling of death torments the soul, it cannot extinguish the fire of faith. The prayer throbbing within us sets us on the frontier between two worlds, the transient and the one to come (cf. Heb. 13.14). This painful rending forces us into still more fervent entreaty. We recognise our sickness – the mortal power of sin working in us- and plead for a physician. Then He Who said that He was ‘not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’, adding that ‘they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick’ (Matt. 9.12,13), does indeed answer our appeal. He heals our souls from every ill, giving new energy, enlightening with an undying light. The age-old experience of life in the Church has proved irrefutably that for prayer- that is, for God- no sickness of spirit is incurable. We may be born into the most unfavourable circumstances. We may grow up in ignorant, rough, even criminal surroundings, and be attracted by the general example. We may suffer every kind of deprivation, loss, injury. We may be deformed from birth, and know what it is to be despised, wounded, rejected. All that is unfortunate in the contemporary world may make its mark on us, possess us, even; but from the moment we turn to God, resolved to follow His commandments, a process of basic healing begins. And not only are we healed of our wounds or passions – even our outward appearance may alter. This happened often on the Holy Mountain. Men would arrive broken and reduced to a pitiful state by many years of depraved living, yet after a brief period of profound repentance their faces were good to look upon, their voices changed, they moved differently- and the spirit shone luminous within them. If any of my readers is suffering from some psychological wound occasioned by failure in life, he can attain to a regal freedom of spirit and radically change his whole life if he turns to God every day with a personal prayer such as this, for example:
Prayer at Daybreak
O Lord Eternal and Creator of all things, Who of Thine inscrutable goodness didst call me to this life; Who didst bestow on me the grace of Baptism and the Seal of the Holy Spirit; Who hast imbued me with the desire to seek Thee, the one true God: hear my prayer. I have no life, no light, no joy or wisdom; no strength except in Thee, O God. Because of my unrighteousness I dare not raise my eyes to Thee. But Thou didst say to Thy disciples, ‘Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer believing, ye shall receive’ and ‘Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do’. Wherefore I dare to invoke Thee. Purify me from all taint of flesh and spirit. Teach me to pray aright. Bless this day which Thou dost give unto me, Thine unworthy servant. By the power of Thy blessing enable me at all times to speak and act to Thy glory with a pure spirit, with humility, patience, love, gentleness, peace, courage and wisdom: aware always of Thy presence. Of Thine immense goodness, O Lord God, shew me the path of Thy will, and grant me to walk in Thy sight without sin. O Lord, unto Whom all hearts be open, Thou knowest what things I have need of. Thou art acquainted with my blindness and my ignorance, Thou knowest my infirmity and my soul’s corruption; but neither are my pain and anguish hid from Thee. Wherefore I beseech Thee, hear my prayer and by Thy Holy Spirit teach me the way wherein I should walk; and when my perverted will would lead me down other paths spare me not, O Lord, but force me back to Thee. By the power of Thy love, grant me to hold fast to that which is good. Preserve me from every word or deed that corrupts the soul; from every impulse unpleasing in Thy sight and hurtful to my brother-man. Teach me what I should say and how I should speak. If it be Thy will that I make no answer, inspire me to keep silent in a spirit of peace that causeth neither sorrow nor hurt to my fellow. Establish me in the path of Thy commandments and to my last breath let me not stray from the light of Thine ordinances, that Thy commandments may become the sole law of my being on this earth and in all eternity.
Yea, Lord, I pray Thee, have pity on me. Spare me in mine affliction and my misery and hide not the way of salvation from me.
In my foolishness, O God, I plead with Thee for many and great things. Yet am I ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness. Have mercy upon me. Cast me not away from Thy presence because of my presumption. Do Thou rather increase in me this presumption, and grant unto me, the worst of men, to love Thee as Thou hast commanded, with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength: with my whole being.
Yea, O Lord, by thy Holy Spirit, teach me good judgment and knowledge. Grant me to know Thy truth before I go down into the grave. Maintain my life in this world until I may offer unto Thee worthy repentance. Take me not away in the midst of my days, nor while my mind is still blind. When Thou shalt be pleased to bring my life to an end, forewarn me that I may prepare my soul to come before Thee. Be with me, O Lord, at that dread hour and grant me the joy of salvation. Cleanse Thou me from secret faults, from all iniquity that is hid in me; and give me a right answer before Thy judgment-seat.
Yea, Lord, of Thy great mercy and immeasurable love for mankind, Hear my prayer.
To pray like that every morning is not easy. But if we pray from our heart, with all our attention, the day will be stamped by our prayer and everything that happens will take on a different character. The blessing that we have sought from the High God will beget a gentle peace in our soul which will have a miraculous effect on the way we see and interpret the world. The man of prayer beholds the surrounding scene in another light. Concern is quickened and the intrinsic quality of life enhanced. In time prayer will penetrate our nature until gradually a new man is born of God. Love for God, Who verily sends His blessings upon us, liberates the soul from extraneous pressure. The one imperative is to preserve this loving tie with God. We shall not care what people think of us, or how they treat us. We shall cease to be afraid of falling out of favour. We shall love our fellow men without thought of whether they love us. Christ gave us the commandment to love others but did not make it a condition of salvation that they should love us. Indeed, we may positively be disliked for independence of spirit. It is essential in these days to be able to protect ourselves from the influence of those with whom we come in contact. Otherwise we risk losing both faith and prayer. Let the whole world dismiss us as unworthy of attention, trust or respect- it will not matter provided that the Lord accepts us. And vice versa: it will profit us nothing if the whole world thinks well of us and signs our praises, if the Lord declines to abide with us. This is only a fragment of the freedom Christ meant when He said, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8.32). Our sole care will be to continue in the word of Christ, to become His disciples and cease to be servants of sin. For ‘whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed’ (John 8.34-36). The end result of prayer is to make us sons of God, and as sons we shall abide for ever in the house of our Father. ‘Our Father which art in heaven…’.
Real prayer, of course, does not come readily. It is no simple matter to preserve inspiration while surrounded by the icy waters of the world that does not pray. Christ cast the Divine Fire on earth, and we pray Him so to fire our hearts that we may not be overcome even by cosmic cold, that no black cloud blot out the bright flame.
Of all approaches to God prayer is the best and in the last analysis the only means. In the act of prayer the human mind finds its noblest expression. The mental state of the scientist engaged in research, of the artist creating a work of art, of the thinker wrapped up in philosophy- even of professional theologians propounding their doctrines- cannot be compared to that of the man of prayer brought face to Face with the living God. Each and every kind of mental activity presents less of a strain than prayer. We may be capable of working for ten or twelve hours on end but a few moments of prayer and we are exhausted.
Prayer can accomplish all things. It is possible for any of us lacking in natural talent to obtain through prayer supranatural gifts. Where we encounter a deficiency of rational knowledge we should do well to remember that prayer, independently of man’s intellectual capacity, can bring a higher form of cognition. There is the province of reflex consciousness, of demonstrative argument; and there is the province where prayer is the passageway to direct contemplation of divine truth.
There is a pronounced tendency among scientists of the present century to claim integral knowledge of the natural world. ‘The sum total of all that is already known emphasises the unlimited capacity of the human mind, and proves that every natural phenomenon is cognizable’, declared a Russian scientist in 1958. We, Christians, similarly aspire to integral knowledge of being, in the deepest and widest sense. The world of matter does not yet encompass plenitude of being. Without belittling the importance of experimental science, of vital necessity, perhaps, in the struggle for existence, we still cannot overlook its limitations. I once heard the following story of a professor of astronomy who was enthusiastically discoursing in a planetarium on the nebulae and like marvels. Noticing an unpretentious priest who had joined his group of students, the professor asked him:
‘What do your Scriptures say about cosmic space and its myriad stars?’ Instead of giving a direct answer the priest in turn posed a question. ‘Tell me, Professor,’ he said, ‘do you think that science will invent still more powerful telescopes to see even farther into the firmament?’ ‘Of course progress is possible and science will always be perfecting apparatus for exploring outer space,’ replied the astronomer. ‘There is hope, then, that one day you will have telescopes that can show all there is in the cosmos, down to the last detail?’ ‘That would be impossible- the cosmos is infinite,’ replied the scientist. ‘So there is a limit to science?’ ‘Yes, in that sense, there is.’ ‘Well, Professor,’ said the priest, ‘where your science comes to a full stop, ours begins, and that is what our Scriptures tell of.’
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (2001) (2nd ed.) His Life is Mine. Chapter 6: Prayer of the Spirit. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.