O Holy Spirit, Eternal King
and Giver of life incorruptible:
Look down in Thine infinite mercy
on the infirmities of our nature.
Illumine and hallow us.
Let the light of Thy knowledge
shine forth in our darkened hearts.
And in the earthen vessels of our nature
manifest Thine invincible strength.
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 enlightment. 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.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (Jc 4:6) Father Paisios used to say: – When we patiently endure our problems and turn to God for help, we notice that He gives us the best possible solution. Unfortunately, in our days, people are very impatient. We do not love patience at all. Christ assured us, however, that only the ones who are patient will inherit the Kingdom of God. (“…they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.” Lk 8:15- “but he who endures to the end will be saved” Mt 24:13- “by your endurance you will gain your lives” Lk 21:19.) “Sometimes God allows for a relative or a fellow worker to cause us problems in order to exercise our patience and humbleness; however, instead of being grateful for the chance God gives us, we react and refuse to be cured. It is like refusing to pay the doctor who is giving us a shot when we are ill.” “The good Christian must also endure his corrupt supervisors; for they are amazed by his good behaviour, while they are being unfair to him.” “God does not want us, His children, to be pestered. He gives us temptations and hardships in order to become perfect. Temptations will cease to exist in our life, when we reach the level of perfection.” “We, Christians, ought to love afflictions and not try to get rid of them; afflictions are necessary means leading to our perfection.” “When people treat us unjustly, we must be happy, because God’s justice, which is superior to human justice, will protect us. We should either seek human justice, or patiently wait for the justice of God. We must be careful, however, not to pursue an unjust treatment, because this would be unfair on our part and would indicate lack of love towards other people.” “It is for our own benefit to hope for divine justice, when treated unfairly, and not react to the injustice done to us. Not only we will profit from this, but later on our children will be benefited as well. However, the opposite thing happens, when people curse us and the curse is just.” “When God sees that we are proud and arrogant, He allows for the presence of temptations in our life. He will take them away from us, only when He sees that we humble ourselves.” When I first went to the monastery, I wondered: “Should I humble myself and obey only the elder, or the fathers as well as the novice monks?” One day, while discussing with Father Paisios a relevant subject, he said to me: – My mind tells me that even the animals are better than me; so, I humble myself and obey them. Very early this morning, being tired from praying all night and exhausted because of my illness, I lay down to rest. After a while, I heard a kitten miaowing outside my cell as if she needed something. I really wanted to rest, but I humbled myself and went against my own will. I obeyed the kitten and replied to her calling. I went to open the door. It had started to rain and I let her in so she wouldn’t get wet. What do you think then? Should I obey the animals or not? My thoughts tell me I should. – Elder, should we practice obedience with discretion, or obey with complete trust without questioning? He replied: -After we voluntarily submit ourselves to a good spiritual father who is humble and giving, then we should obey him without questioning. I will give you an example, so that you may understand the way God functions in our lives. Suppose the abbot tells you to go to Iviron Monastery and take the boat to run an errand at Lavra Monastery. And you answer him according to your own logic: “Father, don’t you think it would be of greater spiritual benefit for me to walk through the mountain since I would be alone? The boat is very crowded and I might be involved in useless conversation that would spiritually harm me.” The abbot might tell you to do as you like, because he does not wish to upset you. You, however, must realise that you are acting according to your own will and you are not under his obedience. Thus, God may allow for a mishap while you will be walking through the mountain, i.e. to be bitten by a snake, to fall and hurt your leg or get lost, in order to teach you to be humble and not look selfishly after your own good, but instead let Him do so. On the other hand, if you did not express your own will and obeyed your abbot by taking the boat to Lavra Monastery, then God would have protected you, and He would see that your encounter with the other people wouldn’t have spiritually harmed you. We should unhesitatingly trust and obey our spiritual fathers. If we think over and examine with our own logic whatever they say to us, then we should know that we are not obedient to our spiritual father, but rather to our judgment and opinion. We must bear in mind that the grace of God is attracted by the simple-hearted people, who humbly trust their spiritual fathers and do not have confidence in their own thoughts. The aim of complete and trusting obedience of a monk to his Elder is the perfect purification of his mind and the total submission of his own will to divine grace. When a monk is granted this gift then the goal of obedience has been fulfilled and “…against such there is no law” (Gal 5:23). Father Paisios said that the spiritual work of a Christian should focus on the acquirement of humbleness. – God loves man very much; He knows very well the problems of each one of us, and wishes to help us before we ask Him to do so. Since God is omnipotent, there are no difficulties which He cannot overcome, except one. The difficulty God faces, and I repeat, it is the only one, is that He “cannot” help us when our soul is not humble. God “feels sad” because, while He sees His creature suffer, He “cannot” offer any help. Whatever help He offers, it will harm the person because he lacks a humble mindset. Whatever happens to man, depends absolutely on his humbleness. For instance, we see a man striving and finally being subdued by one of his passions. God allows this to happen for only one reason: because his soul is filled with conceited thoughts and pride. Perhaps this man hates this specific passion and fights really hard to get rid of it. He will not achieve anything, however, because God does not help him; and He will not help him unless he humbles himself. Although he hates this specific passion, he is subdued by pride, which is the passion that introduces man to all other passions. “Pride is the cause of every passion,” St. John of the Ladder. Man wants to progress spiritually and asks God to give him love, prayer, obedience and all virtues. We should be aware that God will not give us what we are asking for, no matter how hard we try, unless we humble ourselves. If our only aim is humility, then God will give us everything for free. God wants and desires only one thing from us: our humbleness. He does not need anything else; just to humble ourselves, so He can actually make us partakers of His divine grace, which was granted to us through the mystery of Holy Baptism. Although we did not love Him yet, neither had we struggled to acquire His grace, He gave it to us as a gift out of His extreme kindness. He is only asking from us to humble ourselves and respond out of gratefulness and appreciation to His love. Thus, divine grace, which abides in us, will be activated and function accordingly. It will make us love God and get to know Him; it will do everything for us, if we only humble ourselves and allow for it to act. The only obstacle to the energy of God’s grace is our pride, our lack of humility. St. Peter in chapter 5 of his 1st Epistle helps us clearly understand our fault and tells us what we should do: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you.” (1Pt 5: 5-7) If we concentrate solely on our struggle for humility, then everything will be granted to us by God as a blessing. When we take care of everything else except our humbleness, then we will never achieve anything good; even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to keep it for long. We need only one thing: the humbleness of our heart, which will give rise to the Kingdom of God’s grace. Priestmonk Christodoulos (1998) “Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain” Holy Mountain.