Saint Theophan the Recluse – Homily 1 Beginning to Pray

Beginning to Pray
The work of prayer is the first work in Christian life. If in everyday affairs the saying: “live and learn” is true, then so much more it applies to prayer, which never stops and which has no limit.
Let me recall a wise custom of the ancient Holy Fathers: when greeting each other, they did not ask about health or anything else, but rather about prayer, saying “How is your prayer?” The activity of prayer was considered by them to a be a sign of the spiritual life, and they called it the breath of the spirit. If the body has breath, it lives; if breathing stops, life comes to an end. So it is with the spirit. If there is prayer, the soul lives; without prayer, there is no spiritual life.
However, not every act of prayer is prayer. Standing at home before your icons, or here in church, and venerating them is not yet prayer, but the “equipment” of prayer. Reading prayers either by heart or from a book, or hearing someone else read them is not yet prayer, but only a tool or method for obtaining and awakening prayer.
Prayer itself is the piercing of our hearts by pious feelings towards God, one after another – feelings of humility, submission, gratitude, doxology, forgiveness, heart-felt prostration, brokenness, conformity to the will of God, etc. All of our effort should be directed so that during our prayers, these feelings and feelings like them should fill our souls, so that the heart would not be empty when the lips are reading the prayers, or when the ears hear and the body bows in prostrations, but that there would be some qualitative feeling, some striving toward God.
When these feelings are present, our praying is prayer, and when they are absent, it is not yet prayer.
It seems that nothing should be simpler and more natural for us than prayer in which the heart is turned toward God. But in fact it is not always like this for everyone. One must awaken and strengthen a prayerful spirit in oneself, that is one must bring up a prayerful spirit. The first means to this is to read or listen to prayers. Pray as you should, and you will certainly awaken and strengthen the ascent of your heart to God and you will come into a spirit of prayer.

Use Of Prayer Books
In our prayer books, there are prayers of the Holy Fathers – Ephraim the Syrian, Makarios the Egyptian, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and other great men of prayer. Being filled with the spirit of prayer, they were able to up that living spirit into words, and handed it down to us. When one enters into these prayers with attention and effort, then that great and prayerful spirit will in turn enter into him. He will taste the power of prayer.
We must pray so that our mind and heart receive the content of the prayers that we read. In this way the act of praying becomes a font of true prayer in us.

Three Simple Instructions
I will give here three very simple instructions:
1. Always begin praying with at least a little preparation;
2. Do not pray carelessly, but with attention and feeling; and
3. Do not go on to ordinary work immediately after prayer.
Even if prayer is common for us, it always demands preparation. What is more common for those who can read and write than reading and writing? However, sitting down to read or write, we do not immediately begin, but we calm ourselves before beginning, at least to the point that we can read or write in a peaceful state. Even more so preparation for the work of prayer is necessary before praying, especially when what we have been doing before praying is of a totally different nature from prayer.

Preparing For Prayer
Thus, when beginning to pray, in the morning or in the evening,
…stand for a moment, or sit, or walk, and strive in this time to focus your thoughts, casting off from them all earthly activities and objects.
…call to mind the One to Whom you are praying, Who He is and who you are, as you begin this prayerful petition to Him.
…awaken in your soul the feeling of humility and reverent awe of standing before God in your heart.
As you stand piously before God, all of this preparation may seem small and insignificant, but it is not small in meaning. This is the beginning of prayer and a good beginning is half the work.

Beginning Your Prayer
…stand before your icons, make a few prostrations, and begin with the usual prayers: “Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee. O Heavenly King Comforter, Spirit of Truth, come abide in us…”
Do not read hurriedly; pay attention to every word and let the meaning of each word enter into your heart…
understand what you are reading and feel what you are understanding.
No other rules are necessary. These two – understanding and feeling – have the effect of making prayer fitting, and fruitful. For example, you read: “cleanse us from every stain” – feel your stain, desire cleanliness, and ask it from the Lord with hope.
When you read: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” – forgive all in your soul, and having forgiven everyone everything in your heart, ask for forgiveness for yourself from the Lord.
When you read: “Thy will be done” – completely give up your own will to the Lord in your heart, and honestly be prepared to meet everything that the Lord is well-pleased to send to to you with a good heart.
If you read each verse of your prayers in this way, then you will be truly praying.

Developing True Prayer
To facilitate the development of true prayer, take these steps:
1) …keep a prayer rule according to the blessing of your spiritual father – not more than you can read unhurriedly on a normal day;
2) …become familiar with the prayer in your rule, fully take in each word and feel it, so that you would know in advance what should be in your soul as you read. It will be even better if you learn the prayers by heart. When you do this, then all of your prayers will be easy for you to remember and feel…
3) … keep your attention focused on the words of your prayer, knowing in advance that your mind will wander. When your mind does wander during prayer, bring it back. When it wanders again, bring it back again. Each and every time that you read a prayer while your thoughts are wandering (and consequently you read it without attention and feeling,) then do not fail to read it again. Even if your mind wanders several times in the same place, read it again and again until you read it all the way through with understanding and feeling. In this way, you will overcome this difficulty so that the next time, perhaps, it will not come up again, or if it does return, it will be weaker. This is how one must act when the mind wanders.
4) …a particular word or phrase might act so strongly on the soul, that the soul no longer wants to continue with the prayer, and even though the lips continue praying, the mind keeps wandering back to that place which first acted on it. In this case: stop, do not read further, but stand with attention and feeling in that place, and use the prayer in that place and the feelings engendered by it to feed your soul. Do not hurry to get yourself out of this state. If time cannot wait, it is better to leave your rule unfinished than to disturb this prayerful state. Maybe this feeling will stay with you all day like your guardian Angel! This sort of grace-filled action on the soul during prayer means that the spirit of prayer is becoming internalized, and consequently, maintaining this state is the most hopeful means of raising up and strengthening a spirit of prayer in your heart.
5) …when you finish your prayers, do not immediately go off to any sort of work, but remain and think at least a little about what you have just finished and what now lies before you. If some feeling was given to you during prayer, keep it after you pray. If you completed your prayer rule in the true spirit of prayer, then you will not wish to quickly go about other work; this is a property of prayer. Thus our ancestors said when they returned from Constantinople: “he who has tasted sweet things does not desire bitter things”. So it is with each person who has prayed well during his prayers. One should recognize that tasting this sweetness of prayer is the very goal of praying, and if praying leads to a prayerful spirit, then it is exactly through such a tasting.
If you will follow these few rules, then you will quickly see the fruit of prayerful labor. And he who fulfills them already without this instruction, of course, is already tasting this fruit.
All praying leaves prayer in the soul,
Continual prayer in this manner gives it root,
Patience in this work establishes a prayerful spirit.
May God grant this to you by the prayers of our All-pure Mistress, the Theotokos!

I have given you initial basic instruction in the ways of raising up in yourselves a prayerful spirit, that is, how to pray in a way appropriate to the meaning of prayer – at home in the morning and the evening, and in the church. But this is not yet everything…

Homily 2: Mental Prayer will follow next Sunday


The Grace of Suffering, by Metropolitan Khodr.

The Grace of Suffering

Metropolitan George (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon | 20 January 2015
Where do we stand when we are afflicted, after having fallen into evil, after darkness sweeps our souls? What prayer do we pray? Do we trust that God Himself will come down to us if we pray? Do we know that God wants us to serve Him, to enter into dialogue with us?

Our condition with the Lord is that we are tormented and the Lord is always healing. It is not for us to wonder why we are in pain, why we exist in suffering. Divine revelation does not answer this question. It does not say why we are subjected to suffering, suffering of the body, suffering of the spirit, suffering of the conscience. The Holy Sciptures are content to take notice of this and to start out on this basis to reveal to us how we can escape from this suffering or how we can bear it and transform it into a creative force, a means of drawing near to God, so that we can make it into a ladder by which we climb up to heaven.
In the Bible, we have promises of healing and salvation from sin. We have a promise of joy and a revelation of eternal life that comes when we accept God’s mystery and obey Him in all the misfortunes that we taste in the world, whether in the spirit or the body. When we are in such a condition, like the torment of the ten lepers that the Gospel mentions to us today, we should say “Lord have mercy”.
Here we observe that the men sought mercy from Christ, which is more comprehensive than just healing. When we ask for healing, most of us ask for healing of the body, and this is good. Physical suffering throws us into a vague state, as though we were alone on a mountaintop, where the freshness of the air makes breathing difficult and arduous. In the physical weakness of our members, all our questions fall away. All the knowledge and understanding that we have stored away ceases. It passes away and becomes nothing. And so we hold on, in emptiness, impotence and poverty. Suddenly, we are seized by the insignificance of everything that hinders us from striving toward our purpose. Weakness and sickness wipe away everything superficial in us. We are inwardly purified when we are baptized with tears of suffering. The Lord always visits us there, while we are dry  on the inside, truly thirsting for living water and reaching out for Him in what we know, deeply and seriously.
The Lord comes and attends to us in our oneness. He stands at a distance. He passes by us, as the text of the Gospel says. He does not impose Himself, but rather waits for us. He addresses us in our own language. If we accept dialogue, if we learn how to respond and say, “have mercy on me,” even if He appears to us as a stranger, even if we do not know His name, He enters into dialogue with us and eliminates the rattling of our passions. He extinguishes the flame of their darts and transforms the roar of our thoughts into a spring welling up within us so that we may be revived, casting off of us every worry so that we can remain Christ’s.
Where do we stand when we are afflicted, after having fallen into evil, after darkness sweeps our souls? What prayer do we pray? Do we trust that God Himself will come down to us if we pray? Do we know that God wants us to serve Him, to enter into dialogue with us?
Of course, God is able to respond in any case and He does respond whether or not we ask because He knows what we need. Nevertheless, the Lord prefers to speak to us so that we will be trained in His friendship. He seeks this familiarity with us, the familiarity of children with their father. This is what we ask of Him in the divine liturgy before we recite the Lord’s Prayer, when we say, “And make us worthy, O Lord, to dare to call upon You as Father.”
God wants to be among us, to be live among us, so that we know we have risen up to the rank of divinity and so that we know that God has gone down to the ranks of humanity. If God comes to our souls as they are, as we are accustomed to their being– in their meanness and in their filthiness– if God comes to these souls, then He is their Healer.
The ultimate temptation of suffering is for us to become attached to our suffering, for us to close the windows on ourselves entirely and be suffocated inwardly. Our hearts wither, our minds fall silent, our consciences languish, and so we die spiritually. Man does not suffocate only in his lungs. He suffocates when he refuses to open the windows when he feels that he cannot breathe, because if he opens the windows of his heart to heaven, then the Lord will come to him and speak with him and dialogue is breathing and recovery, Amen.