An old man said: “I never wanted a work to be useful to me while causing loss to my brother: for I have this hope, that what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.24

According to Abba Isaac, intercession is the third of four forms of prayer, after supplications and vows and before thanksgiving. Intercession corresponds to the affective state of longing, which differs, in ancient Christian terminology, from desire (epithemia) in its ends. Longing is a wish for what is holy and virtuous. Intercession, similarly, is a request on behalf of another for his/her good. While Christians do not seek the good of others purely out of self-interest well understood, nevertheless the saying of this old man is true that “what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.”

From contrition for our sins, we move to caution toward continuing in similar sinful habits. Out of such caution we learn to long first for the good of others. Much in the same way, repenting of our sins through prayers of supplication and reorienting ourselves away from past habits through vows, we petition God for the good of others through intercession.

In particular, that good is properly understood as virtue and the conditions that tend towards it. Indeed, in the “Our Father” we do not pray for “my daily bread” but “our daily bread” on “‘this day.” Furthermore, the word is not “daily” but epiousion—our more-than-substantial bread. As Vladimir Solovyov notes, “It is written that man does not live by bread alone [cf. Deuteronomy 8:4], but it is not written that he lives without bread.” So also we pray for both spiritual and material benefit of others, knowing that while, properly speaking, virtue is the only true (ethical) good, most often people cannot pursue virtue apart from basic well-being. Ultimately, if one must choose between the two, as many martyrs have through the ages, one should, indeed must, choose virtue. However, most people are free from such a momentous choice.

If we agree with the old man, who said, “I never wanted a work to be useful to me while causing loss to my brother: for I have this hope, that what helps my brother will bring fruit to me,” then we ought to apply the same to the spiritual work of prayer. If we never move beyond supplication and vows, we run the risk of twisting prayer into a platform for self-centered thinking. Prayer ought to attend to the self, but it ought not to neglect the good of our neighbors. Indeed, our hearts should long for the good of others—such is the nature of compassion and pity.

How do I know that the work of intercession will bring fruit to the intercessor? Precisely because it helps to cultivate o karpos tou pneuma, the fruit of the spirit (or “Spirit” … probably both). According to St. Paul, “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). This fruit is the aim of the ascetic life, and intercession not only helps to cultivate it, but even exercises it. In the production of such fruit we simultaneously partake of it, for the good of our neighbor and the delight of our souls.