It has been correctly said that the greatest privilege, but also the greatest problem for the faithful, is prayer.
The truth of this observation is clear, since it has to do with the most unequal and unheard of “relationship”, namely communication between created human beings and the uncreated God. This form of communication is first of all impossible and inconceivable, since there is an unbridgeable gap between the corruptible substance of the human person and the supersubstantial and inaccessible God. Yet that which is not possible according to essence, God makes possible and achievable according to His grace and love for humanity.
Whithin the phrase “that whίch is impossible for man is possible for God”, we must also include prayer. This means that prayer is not a matter for every person, but rather of the faithful person. There are unfortunately many people who, although they do not directly and categorically reject the existence of God, nonetheless are incapable of accepting any kind of communication with Him, or else the need for and value of such communication. Therefore we do not only have the atheists but also the so-called rationalists who from the outset reject prayer. For this reason, what we shall present here is mainly, if not exclusively, addressed to the faithful. If, in spite of this, it has some influence upon someone who has little faith, or who is a rationalist or atheist, this would of course be due purely to the grace of God, who “does not want the death of sinners, but rather that they should return and live” (cf. Ez. 18:23).
Following this brief introduction, we shall speak here concerning prayer by attempting to present the major points of an enquiry in the context always of Orthodox spiritual life and Tradition.
These points must be presented and looked at in the following order:
Table of Contents
The term "prayer"
If there is one topic which has not left any conscientious member of the Church disinterested, regardless of the period or conditions in which he or she lives, it is prayer. And this comes as no great suprise, if one considers the relationship of Christ Himself with prayer. Ιn other words, how He exercised it throughout His life on earth, but also how He spoke of the need and value of prayer. Ιn the Old Testament, also, prayer is the “backbone” which keeps the people of God upright and mobile, either as a whole or as individuals, each in their own specialised responsibility and function. Ιn principle, we could say that both the anatomy and physiology of the people of God -as a whole or as individuals- is literally built upon the notion or power of prayer. This is why the entire people and each faithful are made and named “the temple of the living God” (Ι Cor 6:19 and 2 Cor 6:16). Precisely because they are “built” as “temples” where God shall dwell, all the people of God are called, through the mouth of Isaiah, to dialogue and communion with God: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Is 1:8).
All people of God spoke or wrote about prayer, no matter where or when they lived. They either spoke among each other, exchanging opinions and experiences, or with God Himself seeking more direct and valid insights.
The name which each people gave to prayer in their own language of course varies, yet the meaning is always basically the same: a “conversatιon” between God and the human person. Still, the terms used for prayer vary in accuracy and expressiveness according to the spiritual cultivation of each people and the degree of development of its linguistic tool. Ιn the sacred Greek language of the New Testament, the most common. is “prayer” (πρoσευχή). Yet in the language of the Fathers, particularly in monasticism, it appears that the term was used in its more simple form, i.e. “wish” (ευχή). Most writings in Church literature are titled “On the wish”, while the commentaries and analysis on the example which Christ gave us to refer to our heavenly Father are entitled “On the Lord’s prayer”.
Today, however, “wish” and “prayer” have become radically differentiated one from the other in our spoken language. Thus, “wish” has come to mean simply a strong desire or the expression of kind sentiments, in the hope that they will be fulfilled either for ourselves or for others. We say, for example, “Ι wish that I could pass my exams” or “Ι wish you all the best”, “Ι send you my best wishes”. So the only constant name for our communication and conversing with God is now “prayer”.
Ιn analysing the Greek term for prayer in both its parts, we have on the one hand the prefix “towards” (πρoς), and on the other the noun “wish” (ευχή). Thus to say that “Ι pray” means that my good desire and hope and wish is not expressed vaguely and “blindly”.
The sense of the need and value of prayer
It would no doubt sound strange and perhaps unbelievable, but it must be said -because it is true- that the power and value of prayer are already given and in essence brought together even before one begins to pray. From the moment that one simply senses the need to pray, a mystical law begins to operate, thereby placing the human person in direct communion with God, and it is precisely on that point that the sincerity and authenticity of prayer is found.
If we look carefully at the passage from the first Epistle of Peter which we have placed immediately under the heading of this text, we shall see that, before giving the salvific exhortation: “be serious and watchful in your prayers”, the Apostle places the categoric statement: “the end of all things is near”. This statement is the summarised evaluation of the faithful person who sees with great anxiety how quickly the “form” of this world passes by. All things come to an end in this world, and very quickly at that. Ιn the midst of such instability and general changeability, it is only natural that people should want to “grab hold” of something. There is a wise saying in Greek which expresses precisely this need for support in one tragic phrase: “a drowning man grabs on to his hair”. The urge for self preservation and survival is so intense, that even one drowning, who no longer has any hope of being rescued, will grab onto his own hair!
We must however confess that the sense of changeability in this world is not enough to create the need for prayer. From the instability and transient nature of the world one could have the same likelihood of being led to complete desperation, or even to suicide. This is why it is necessary to have basic faith in the existence of God, so that one can feel the possibility of “refuge”, if not the “call from above” to address one’s Creator. The need for prayer is then born out of the changeability of the world only when one knows and recognises that the “constant” called God is always available.
Here we must add that the person of faith, in the face of the instability and transient nature of this world, suddenly feels that the time remaining to take care of one’s salvation has been “mutilated”. This is why the prayerful request to God is firstly that He may “make haste” to save us. Especially when we call upon the intercessions of the Virgin Μary, the feeling of the brevity of time is expressed more urgently. Thus, in the well- known hymn “Unashamed protection of Chrίstians”, three intense verbs in the form of optative-imperatives are used to emphasise the need for a speedy intervention: “Come quickly in your goodness”, “be swift to intercede” and “make haste to supplicate”. The same feeling is expressed in the characterisation “Swift to hear” used in reference to the Virgin Mary.
One could consider both elements, namely the insecurity brought by the changeability of the world and the security which is found by faith in the existence of God, as being “presuppositions” of prayer. Ιn actual fact, however, it is only the motivating factor. Simply feeling the need to pray does not mean that you already have the secure presuppositions for your deep spiritual request to function properly. These presuppositions are ensured only by a conscientious activation of all our psychosomatic powers simultaneously, as we shall see in the next part.
Rather, Ι express this “towards” the one who is able to bless and realise this, namely God. “Let my prayer come before you as incense” (Psalm 141:2).
The prefix “towards” must therefore always move in the spirit of the verticle (towards that which is above) and not in the horizontal (sideways), in order to be prayer. Whatever moves horizontally is of this world, and it cannot give a solution to our various problems in this world. The word of God clearly warns us against this: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help” (Ps 146:3).
The phrase “let us lift up our hearts” used in the Divine Liturgy is not therefore a rhetorical form used in worship, but rather an ingredient or a substantial element of prayer.
The presuppositions and atmosphere for prayer
When the Apostle Peter exhorts us to be “watchful in prayer”, he gives us the key to avoid all the hazards which we may face at the outset of the sacred “adventure” of prayer. To be “watchful”, that is to be attentive with eyes wide open, is imperative at every moment of our relationship with God and His world. And in our special and direct relationship with Him, which we call prayer, this is particularly the case. Before we even begin to pray there is the danger that we may fall into the trap of “loνe of self”. Was this not also the cause of original sin?
When we do not direct ourselves towards the mercy of God, humbled and purified by the awe which the sense of God’s immediate presence in the world inspires within us -even if this is invisible- but instead admire ourselves impiously and narcissistically, then our spiritual demise is inevitable. A classic example of a tragic and abominable “shipwreck” at the very hour of prayer (a shipwreck in the middle of the harbour!) is that of the Tax-collector praying together with the Pharisee, found in the well-known narrative of the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14). The condition conveyed to us by the Tax- collector who, beating his breast, did not dare to look up towards heaven, but only stuttered with tears “God have merry on me a sinner”, is equalled by the disappointment and shame, if not the indignation, with which the profane behaviour of the Pharisee fills us. He essentially did not pray to God, but to himself. The words of the sacred text point this out with the distinctive observation that “the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself…”.
One can avoid the deadly hazard of “self love” and self complacency by continually remembering one’s mortalίty. “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field” (Ps. 103:15).
The content and purpose of prayer
If it is true that in every human action the “purpose” and “content” are deeply interconnected, since one substantially determines the other, then this is much more the case with prayer which is not the one-way action of only one person, but rather a “relationship” and “communicatίon” between two persons, namely God who “hears” and man who “prays”.
First of all, we can say that the purpose and content of prayer are expressed excellently and definitively by the verse of Psalm 34:5:
“Draw near to Him and be enlightened and your faces shall not be ashamed”.
“Enlίghtenment” from above is therefore the only thing which is sought in prayer. When one has “the true light”, only then does one have the “measure of all things”, and can in other words judge and evaluate all things properly. Then it is certain that one who judges with such genuine measures “will not be ashamed”.
All of this is marvellous in so far as general guidelines are concerned. But what happens in practice? Every minute of our lives has a non-negotiable and non-transferable duty. At every moment our soul finds itself in a different disposition, restless and perpetually moving, like the sea:
“My inner person and the sea are never at rest” (D. Solomos)
What, then, will be the standard which will determine the how, the what and the why of prayer? All three of these, namely the manner, the content and the purpose of prayer, equally comprise and determine its essence. For this reason, if we manage to identify and secure one of these, we shall automatically succeed or at least have the correct basis on which to succeed in achieving the other two.
Precisely on this point, St John Chrysostom makes the following characteristic comment: “he who is able to pray correctly, even if he is the poorest of all people, is essentially the richest. And he who does not have proper prayer, is the poorest of all, even if he sits on a royal throne” (PG 48, 767).
It appears that the more the person of God struggles to pray correctly and in a way that is pleasing to God, the more fully and deeply he or she comes to know the difficulties involved in such a feat. We will have some idea of these many difficulties when we recall once again as we had already said by way of introduction that prayer is not rejected only by the atheist or by the lukewarm faithful. Sometimes it is rejected by one who may indeed believe firmly in the existence of God and in His omnipotence, but who does not see the need for prayer, because that person is trapped in rationalism. We could even say that, according to rationalism, the more steadfast one’s faith is in the omnipotence, the omniscience and the goodness of God, then the more superfluous one finds prayer to be. For example, rationalism says: Does God have any need for me to inform Him of what Ι would like for myself and for others through my “petition”? Does He, being All-knowing, not know everything far better? And since He is an All-loving Father, should we not take it as a certainty that He will be concerned for our true needs, without us asking Him?
To all these “logical” objections or questions, Christ Himself gives a silencing answer, not only by teaching about the value of prayer through His word and example, but also by giving a concrete model, so that the praying person can be protected against dangerous excesses. This danger was apparently feared by the Apostles when they said to Christ “Lord teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). And it is noteworthy that, while Christ declares to them that “your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8), yet He does not say this so that they may think that prayer is superfluous, but only so that they do not go astray into the futile verbosity of the “Gentiles” (idolaters). This is also why He gives them the “Lord’s Prayer” as an eternal model of prayer.
The irreplaceable value of this Divine model of prayer has been thoroughly and repeatedly commented upon by the Church Fathers with insightful theological analyses. They underlined not only the individual requests in themselves, together with the language with which they are submitted to God, but also the order of priority in which they are placed.
Following the invocation of God as Father who is “in heaven”, in other words beyond this world, a triple request is immediately placed which ensures the conditions for the appearance of the living and true God in the world:
“Hallowed be your name, Your kίngdom come, Your will be done”.
The three aspects of the single petitions express the absolute lordship of God. When people recognise this absolute lordship, all other requests are secondary details which relate to their daily struggle in the world.
We see, then, that the purpose of prayer cannot be the “petitioning” or the “informing” nor even the “confiding” of our innermost desires, since God who “searches minds and hearts” (Rev. 2:23) knows everything. And still the exhortation of Christ is clear: “Ask and it will be given to you; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Mat. 7:7).
The question therefore arises once again: What is it that we are entitled to ask for in prayer? The Fathers who have dealt with this question agree that there is only one request of the faithful person in prayer: “the pardon of sins”.
Νo matter how pure we may believe our life to be, no matter how much we feel that there is not something which is “weighing us down”, there always remains within us an area which is blemished or uncultivated for which we need repentance and forgiveness. St. John Chrysostom even considers purity of life, according to our own criteria, as being insufficient towards God. He considers this to be something which only prayer can sanctify (PG 56,201). St. John Climacos similarly exhorts us to imitate the humility of the Apostle Paul, even if we have climbed the ladder of all virtues: “Eνen if you have climbed all the ladder of virtues, pray for the forgiveness of sin, hearing Paul crying out concerning sinners, of whom I am the first” (op.cit.12).
The remission of sins is the only thing which God cannot give us unless we ask for it. He provides all other goods for us of His own accord as a loving Father. Not the remission of sins. That presupposes repentance. And while it may be brought about and continuously facilitated in various mystical ways by God, repentance as a decision for a final change is a matter for human freedom.
Ιn summing up all of the above, we must say that the purpose of prayer is, simply put, the experience of prayer. And this as a general rule is coupled with contrition and tears. Tears of repentance are born only through prayer. And it again is born only through tears of repentance. St John Climacos stressed this by saying that prayer is “the mother and the daughter of tears” (op.cit. 1).
Ιn the final analysis, the one who is changed by prayer is not God who is unchanging and in need of nothing, but our soul which is purified and enlightened by tears. Just as the rose will not have mature fluids that will allow its beautiful aroma to flow around it, if it does not open up to the sun and air, so it is that the soul does not bear fragrance unless it is changed through the trial and compunction of prayer, with which God is pleased and pours out His abundant mercy.
The various kinds of prayer
Is should be clear from what has been said so far concerning the basic elements and essence of prayer, that prayer is a unified and lasting reality. An undifferentiated action of the soul. It is the “breathing” of the soul. Can the breathing of a living being be differentiated or divided into different kinds and categories when it is such a fundamental Function of life? Essentially, therefore, the phenomenon of prayer is undίvided, regardless of the conditions under which it is conducted.
Thus, that which occurs formally as a common act of worship during regular times of the day in Church, is not “prayer” any more than what the faithful offer -even “without words”- closed in their “own room”, or isolated in any other place. Yet in spite of this, while common worship in Church -in the context of which the Sacraments of the Church are always celebrated- ensures the sanctifying and salvific grace of the “communion of the Holy Spirit”, private prayer cannot yield such transcendent results. This may secure inner stillness and greater compuction, including many other spiritual gifts, but it cannot replace in the least the grace of the Sacraments which presuppose a special celebrant with “apostolic succession” and “canonical priesthood”. This is precisely why even the most austere hermits who disappear during the whole week in unapproachably high places or in openings of the earth, go to the closest monastery in order to receive Holy Communion. These things are not the ritualistic inventions of “the priests”, an accusation often made by blaspheming and impious people. Rather, they are “structural features” in the fundamental concept of “Covenant” which God Himself has established in history for His people. God did not want history to flow carelessly as an uncontrolled and irresponsible succession of periods of time and human adventures, but rather as “Divine economy” which is continuously served by “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1). Only in that way could the flame of divine “Law” (nomos) remain undying throughout the entire “house (oikos) of God”.
There are unfortunately however some faithful who judge superficially and with “zeal which is not accordίng to knowledge” (Rom 10:2), who are unjustly scandalised by secondary and totally external features of common worship within the Church building. For example, they are annoyed by the noise, the splendour, the display, the apparently pharisaic accuracy with liturgical forms, the repetitions and the general “spectacular”, if not “theatrical”, nature of collective and formal worship. As a counterbalance to all of this, one need not only remember the irreplaceable grace of the Sacraments about which we have just spoken. There is another more human and mystical dimension to the phenomenon of common worship which should not be overlooked. This has to do with the purely psychological relief which a lonely person feels when he sees himself incorporated into a broader multitude of brothers and sisters having the same Faith, Hope and Love. When he sees the poor and ragged as equal “table-companions” with the magnate and the officer. The wise with the ignorant. Μan with woman. The elderly with the infant. The cleric with the layperson. When he sees that the common invocation of “Lord have mercy” legitimises all, as children of the heavenly Father. The actual confession of “we pray to You”. The concluding prayer of “Amen”. Νo matter how haughty or unemotional one may be, he or she would have to admit that worship cannot be a manifestation upon “aristocratic” guidelines, in the way that “cultural” activities for example would require! Common worship is the most astounding experience of the broader and deeper “solidarity” in God.
If according to form we can distinguish between common and private prayer, then the content of the prayer can usually be divided into three major types:
Just as the name suggests, this prayer expresses a need, or a request for assistance from God. Since people normally ask for something when praying, the terms prayer and petition have almost become synonymous. “Ι petition” or “Ι entreat”, according to the corresponding Greek word “deomai” (δέομαι), literally means “Ι need”. When used in reference to God, it in fact means “Ι need You”, rather than “Ι pray to You”. The verb δέομαι only signifies prayer generally when it has the preposition “for”. It was in this sense that Christ said to Peter “Ι have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail” (Luke 22:32). As we can see, the use of the word δέομαι in this instance has totally lost its original meaning of “Ι need”.
Yet we have already said that the only thing which one can be entitled to ask for in prayer is “the forgiveness of sins”. When this “forgiveness” restores the balance of the justice of God and His will prevails, then all other things follow as mere consequences. This is why Christ said “seek First the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mat. 6:33). Thus in essence, the object of prayer is always one unique thing: the forgiveness of sins. God fulfils everything else, as we have said, even if we do not ask for them, regardless of whether it is ourselves or others who are concerned. This is why the command was given to us by Christ Himself not to use “νaίn repetitions”. The thief on the Cross became the first occupant of Paradise with the mere words “remember me”, as the Fathers often state.
Again, it is clear from the name itself that this kind of prayer is the response of the human person to God for the fulfilment of certain petitions and prayers. Great caution is required here, however, so as not to think that one should thank God only when one receives whatever is requested. That would be a more or less commercial kind of communication. Ιn other words, a form of transaction which reduces the value and sacredness of prayer, even if it has to do with spiritual requests and goods.
If the praying person places all petitions in order, having the will of God i.e. His Kingdom and righteousness first, then he or she must be ready to accept without protest -and indeed with thanksgiving- whatever God finally gives. St John Chrysostom observes that many times “it is much more benefιcial not to receive, rather than to receive what we have asked for” (PG 55, 525). These are cases when one, without correct judgement, may request things which are of no benefit to one’s spiritual life. Such cases Christ Himself pointed out to His disciples when He stated “you do not know what you ask” (Mat.20:22). For this very reason, the Celebrant always reminds the faithful in Church: “For what is good and benefιcial to our souls, and for the peace of the world let us ask of the Lord”.
Yet even when what we ask for is not unprofitable, but obviously good, if God does not give it to us for a certain period of time, this happens only for our own good. To make us request it with greater zest, longing for it more intensely and approaching God from whom we seek it with deeper compunction. Initially it is often better that God, the Giver of all good things, does not give us something, rather than give it. Ιn spiritual life, askesis or ascetic endeavour, is similar to the process involved with athletics. Just as increased obstacles in physical training gradually lead to better performances, so it is that the more we are deprived in our spiritual struggle, the more complete our training is, and the more perfect we become by the purification involved.
When we confess God as Lord of life and death, then we should know that His Lordship does not have conditions but rather we are to accept this absolutely. St John Chrysostom states: “If He is the Lord who gives to you, then He must be the Lord who knows when to give to you, what to give to you, and what not to give to you” (PG 55, 526).
Ιn summarizing, we should say that thanksgiving (ευχαριστώ, literally eucharist) is to be found in all expressions and kinds of prayer, which is why the root of all the other Sacraments of the Church is characteristically called the “Divine Eucharist”. It is in this sense that we should understand the wish of St Paul to summarize the entire life of the faithful within the Eucharist by telling us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks” (1 Thess 5:16).
Doxology (or Praise)
The difference between Doxology and the other two kinds of prayer can be briefly expressed by saying that this is as far removed from both others as the sky is from the earth!
While Petitions and Thanksgiving refer to this world (the former to its needs, the second to its sentiments), Doxology refers to God Himself and, to be more precise, to the way in which God is reflected in the human conscience. Doxology is therefore theology.
Of course, God is not reflected in the conscience of a person “as He is”. For, the essence of God always remains un-known and unapproachable in this world. God however is shown according to His uncreated energies and according to their results (i.e. the works). Again, we can only infer what God is like from these “relationships” of the uncreated God with His created world. We are informed of these relationships and energies mainly through the Holy Scriptures but also from the whole of Creation. Only on the basis of these can we deduce what we can call Him. As is known, from the written Revelation of God, but also from His Creation as a whole, we are informed that God is “All-wise, All powerful, All-good” e.t.c.
The subject of Doxology therefore is solely the name of God. When Moses asks God “what is Your name”, God does not reveal any name, but instead the unspeakable mystery of divinity, by stating word for word “Ι am who Ι am” (Ex. 3:14). The name and praising of God will always remain for the faithful something which is sought after. A perpetual perplexity, a thirst which, the more intensely it is experienced, the more mystically it deifies the human person.
The Fathers of the Church, realising that no name can sufficiently express or even allude to the divine majesry, called God the “One of all names”, and eventually “The Anonymous”. Indeed, St. Gregory the Theologian considers the only permissible description of God to be “beyond all things” which means apart, beyond and above everything. Thus we arrive at the original meaning of the term “holiness” which, as is known, is the absolute distinccion and distance of God from the world, while God never ceases to be “present everywhere and filling all things”.
The approach of the faithful with regard to the name of God is not a mere case of an “address” or “title”. On the contrary, it is either a “hallowing” or “blaspheming” of the Divine name.
Νow we can understand why the first petition of the Lord’s prayer is “Hallowed be Your name”, and why the great prohibition in the Ten Commandments is “do not use the name of God in νain”.
Ιn religious vocabulary, then, the name is not a conventional or chance characterisation. Rather, it expresses as accurately as it can the essence. St. John Chrysostom had such confidence in the mystical power of the name of God that he said: “if Ι only pronounce Your name, Ι can achieve all things exceedingly” (PG 55,176).
We therefore glorify and praise God not only when we chant the liturgical Doxology “glory to You who has shown the light”, but also when we commence any liturgical or secular act, by saying “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. The invocation of the name of God is equivalent to a confession of His infinite glory and power which, in the final analysis, are nothing other than His goodness and love. This is precisely the reason why Baptism -which is the incorporation of the individual person into the one body of Christ, the Church- is conducted, according to the command of Christ Himself (cf. Mat.28:20) “in the name”.
“Remembrance of death” was a feature of the more reflective and mystical East, even before the time of Christ, which was spread and maintained in the Christian West up until the Middle Ages, particularly in the Monasteries. The well-known phrase “memento moriu was, compared with any other precept or rule of moral behaviour, the most imperative spiritual slogan. Yet because the “remembrance of death” always involves an element of fear -consciously or sub-consciously, it does not matter- this should not be emphasized too much as a presupposition of prayer. For “fear” may lead one to pray, but prayer due to fear is not free communication with God. Rather, it is a forced action, a solution of necessity imposed by difficult external circumstances, and not by the internal inclination of a grateful child or faithful person. Prayer caused by fear is, so to speak, a “forced presentation” to God as Judge and Ruler.
We can then see that the element of fear can be doubly harmful. It not only distorts the meaning of prayer in that it is no longer free and true communication. It distorts the meaning of God, who is not approached as a Farher. Such a fear which does not allow us to see unaffectedly our correct position and relation to God, cannot be the kind of fear which the Old Testament speaks of as being the “beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). This clearly refers to the sacred awe which opens our eyes to recognize the true and living God as a Father, allowing us thereby to become “wise” and to have optimism in God. Conversely, fear which is tremblίng before the Judge disorientates us from the source of life. It is therefore only natural that, instead of optimism, this fills us with despair, if not enmity towards God.
It now becomes obvious that we should not look for pure presuppositions of prayer in subjective human imaginations, whether positive or negative. We shall draw these mainly from the word of God itself that is from Revelation. Only then can we be sure that we are based on firm foundations.
Ιn all the books of the Old and New Testament, there is not apparently a more succinct or successful description of God than that which was given by St. John the Evangelist. Ιn saying that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8), the “beloved” disciple of course gave the most substantial summary of the major features of God. He does not sίmply present Him as the Father of mercy and compassion, but also as the all-powerful Creator, and as the all-wise Provider and as the all-good Governor of the universe. This is why St. John the Evangelist also explains elsewhere in his writings how he understands the love of God. He sees it not simply as undefined and general good will, but primarily as an active and continuously renewed gift which requires absolutely nothing on the part of humanity, and for this reason precisely it is called “grace”. The only thing which Divine love requires is that human beings do not reject it. This is the meaning of the Apostle Pau1’s directive “do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19).
When such a love of God is reflected in the conscience of a grateful person, it is natural that he or she will turn with absolute and unreserved confidence to the “Giver of every good thing”, without the slightest fear. St. John therefore adds that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Thus, from the love of God for humankind, the love of human beings for God and all of His creation is derived as the first and primary presupposition of prayer.
Spiritual liberation, coming directly from the grace of God, can reveal to man powers which he did not even suspect after his fall. It gives him the power not only to love God unreservedly for His countless blessings, but also to forgive fellow human beings for any “transgression”. The person who cannot forgive a fellow human being cannot claim that he or she loves God. This is true for two reasons. Firstly, because each person remains an “icon of God”, even when they may face the greatest bankruptcy or failure in secular terms. Secondly, because, as St. John the Evangelist states, you cannot love God whom you have not seen if you do not love your brother whom you have seen (cf. 1 Jn. 4:20).
Consequently, another substantial presupposition of prayer is forgiveness and reconciliation with one with whom we happened to have some differences. The Fathers stress that, even if we were not to blame for the breakdown in relations with our fellow human being, we must be willing to restore them at every moment, forgetting the wrong that they have done to us. They therefore call this power to forgive “unresentfulness”, that is the forgetting of wrongs.
Here we must however make some necessary clarification. Unfortunately, there is often an extremely dangerous misuse of the magnanimity which the Fathers require of the faithful. Today there are people who are not only foolish and hardhearted, but literally shameless and whose hunger for money makes them relentless exploiters of other people. It is well- known that the pioneers in this thoughtless pursuit of money and social promotion were the representatives of the so-called fourth power, the media, so that they could impose themselves unconditionally on all others, including the modern State. By creating a fake world with their own values and their own customs, they are continuously intoxicated by the self-deceit that they are at the centre of the world -sometimes even above the world- with their “cyberspace” which is distinct from any other power. Thus they can easily tarnish consciences and institutions as they please, thereby destroying the peace of unsuspecting citizens, and scandalising those who are either naive or uninformed. When the victim tries to defend his ridiculed reputation, and resorts to the legal means made available by the State, then the professional and established slanderer mobilises the greatest degree of hypocrisy by recalling the forgiveness and tolerance taught by Christ, whom they themselves have never believed nor feared. The height of their hypocrisy and audacity is to believe that they have the right to publicly ask the victim of their cold-blooded crime to forgive them unconditionally, simply because the victim is a Christian.
Yet to forgive such unrepentant criminals indiscriminately is equal to partnership with them and complicity. If we do not bring them back pedagogically, we really help them to become more audacious and to continue their destructive work, thereby creating new victims and increasing hatred. However, in so doing, they not only do damage to others but to themselves also.
Unresentfulness, as a state of being oblivious and forgetful of wrongs, should refer only to a past wrong which was indeed committed, but which is now finished. Not to wrong-doing which remains open and continues indefinitely like a fistula. A person of faith can never remain an apathetic viewer of evil in the world. Nor an indifferent observer of everything profane, leaving all restraining of evil to the supernatural action of God. The Christians know that, for as long as they are in this world, they are living and active members of the “Church militant”. And to be a soldier means effort and a specific and unyielding struggle against anything which is contrary to Divine justice. Ιn this struggle, the faithful person seeks neither “revenge” nor to “pay back”. For the faithful know that only God is entitled to something like that: “Vengeance is mine, Ι will repay” (Rom. 12:19).
They also know that the Divine will must be promoted at every moment, so that it will prevail “on earth as it is in heaven”. Otherwise, the condemnatory verdict of the Apostle Paul would have to apply for all ages: “They have all gone out of the way; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:12). So that an unacceptable defeatist attitude does not prevail due to the complete decline and despair of all in light of the dominance of evil in the world, the Fathers almost always demand together with “unresentfulness”, the virtue of “goodness” which is totally dynamic and active.
This dynamic stance and willingness of the faithful in their daily struggle is clearly expressed in the command of Christ, if we remember during the time for worship that we do not have good relations with our brother, then we are to first go and reconcile ourselves with him and then offer our gift at the altar (cf. Mat. 5:24). Yet “conciliation” and “reconciliation” are not a momentary or superficial release from responsibility. Rather it has to do with a deeper mutuality and fraternisation which will allow us to co-exist in the same place and with the same opinion as the other person. This is what is expressed by the two relevant nouns in the Greek language which contain the words for “place” (χώρο) and “opinion” (γνώμη). Only then will the “other” person be the “brother” of whom Christ speaks, and not the unrelated person next door who is euphemistically called a “neighbour”. The classic model of prayer which Christ gave to the Apostles speaks only of “brothers”. When we address God as “our Father”, we are triumphantly stating that this common fatherhood makes us all brothers and sisters from the outset. Fraternisation however does not occur without education, which is pedagogy as well as vigilant and active effort.
Ιn summarising the presuppositions of prayer in fear, love and unresentfulness, we find that we encounter, by another path, the three fundamental virtues of the Gospel: Faith-love-hope. Yet even these three Christian virtues are inconceivable unless the faithful person presupposes, consciously or subconsciously, an unshaken faith in the three following basic dogmatic truths:
For all of the above, the atmosphere of prayer must always be one of mourning, contrition and repentance. Not of Pharisaic complacency and impious triumphalism. King David’s Psalms are the best guide for each praying person. It is he who assures us that “a broken and contrite heart God will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
And St. John of the Ladder is even clearer and more categoric: “Do not become bold, even if you achieve purity. Rather, move towards humility, and you will become even more bold” (On the sacred and mother of virtues, blessed prayer (Step 28th, 11).
Archbishop Stylianos of Australia
Εκδόσεις Αρμός, Μαυροκορδάτου 7, 106 78 Αθήνα
Source: MYRIOBIBLIOS Library http://www.myriobiblos.gr/texts/english/Stylianos_On_Prayer_6.html