Category: Prayer


“… I partook of the holy and life-giving Mysteries in the Church of the Forerunner and ate half of one of my loaves. Then, after drinking some water from Jordan, I lay down and passed the night on the ground. In the morning I found a small boat and crossed to the opposite bank. I again prayed to Our Lady to lead me whither she wished. Then I found myself in this desert and since then up to this very day I am estranged from all, keeping away from people and running away from everyone. And I live here clinging to my God Who saves all who turn to Him from faintheartedness and storms.”

Zosima asked her: “How many years have gone by since you began to live in this desert?” She replied: “Forty-seven years have already gone by, I think, since I left the holy city.”

~ The Life of St. Mary of Egypt

This Sunday was the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, and in this time of isolation due to the current pandemic, her life takes on new meaning.

Pia Sophia Chaudhari wrote a wonderful reflection, published last week, encouraging people to consider the trauma that likely led to Mary’s well-known prodigality in her youth.

In this post, I want look instead at her isolation.

Mary tells Fr. Zosima that the first seventeen years were a constant fight with temptation. Literarily, this mirrors her own account of living a sinful life for seventeen years in Egypt in her youth. Her seventeen years of sin require seventeen years of repentance.

To Pia’s point, it should be noted that repentance is not traditionally a strictly juridical idea. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that there is a proportion of justice implied in the parallel between Mary’s seventeen years in the world and her first seventeen in the desert. That may very well be the case, but repentance — and sin, for that matter — is much broader. The Greek word means “to change one’s mind.” The Hebrew means “to turn around.” In this latter sense, God is even described as “repenting” from punishments out of his mercy. Because he was merciful, he did not at that time give his people what they deserved as a matter of justice but rather acted according to his grace.

Mary’s whole life in the desert — like all the saints — was a matter of repentance. Let us consider again Pia’s suggestion that behind Mary’s sin was likely trauma. Psychologically, the scars of the past cannot be overcome in an instant. As creatures, change is part of our natures — we are all always “in process.” Like Mary, many have had transformative moments of conversion — my point isn’t to downplay the power of such phenomena. Rather, it is to be mindful of the Lord’s parable of the seed that the sower sowed upon different kinds of soil. The seed that fell among the rocks grew up quickly, but it had no root and withered.

Mary not only had a dramatic conversion in Jerusalem, which she earlier details, but she then, in faith, set out to lay down deep roots. To extend the parable, we may think of those seventeen years as digging up the rocks and clearing the ground so that the seed she received would have room to grow.

I have been thinking about St. Mary of Egypt all through Lent this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, many protested that stay at home orders applied to churches, especially Orthodox churches due to our understanding of the vital role of the sacraments, but notice what St. Mary says: She received the sacraments once at the Church of St. John the Forerunner, then set out into the desert … for forty-seven years! According to the story, she only received them one more time, by the hand of Fr. Zosima who returned to her, before her death.

Our current state is not “normal.” We stay inside for our safety and for the vulnerable in our communities. If we must go out, we keep our distance from others — they or we may be asymptomatic carriers — and many have started wearing face masks which even prevent us from smiling at each other.

At home, the single are faced with real isolation. Those with families face other frustrations. Whoever we are, we are facing the temptations — a word, it should be noted, which can also mean “trials” — of all the scars of our pasts. Many of us have found that the fight against them isn’t as easy as we had expected. And in the midst of it all, we are deprived of the grace of the sacraments.

Or are we?

Many saints — St. Maximos the Confessor, for example — say that we receive the fullness of God’s grace at our baptisms, just as the whole tree is contained in the single seed from which it grows. This isn’t to say that we don’t need the Eucharist. I’ll take all the grace I can get! Rather it is to remind us of God’s power. He has not left us without help. For St. Mary, it sustained her for forty-seven years.

We can get through this. Hopefully it won’t take forty-seven years. But however long it takes, let us use the time to clear away the rocks — the temptations — over which we so often stumble.

I am reminded of something Fr. Roman Braga, of blessed memory, once said about his time at the Pitesti prison — a Soviet torture camp — and his time, after the prison was shut down, in solitary confinement. He spent three or four years enduring unspeakable torture meant to brainwash him away from his deepest held beliefs, his faith, his morals. He said that at Pitesti he learned that the devil was real.

After the outside world heard about the prison, the Soviets immediately shut it down — they always wanted to put on a good face for the outside world. So they transferred Fr. Roman to solitary confinement for eleven years. Not quite forty-seven — or even seventeen — but still a very long time. He said that there he discovered that God was truly real. Because when you are alone, you have nowhere to look but inside yourself. And we all are created in the image of God, so what we see, when we are able to truly look there, is God — his imprint upon our hearts.

Fr. Roman was an academic before the Soviets arrested him. But he said that he learned his books had been a sort of prison of their own. By himself, there was nothing to do but face whatever lurked inside and to meet it with prayer. I suspect that experience is quite similar to St. Mary’s. Perhaps it is becoming familiar to some of us.

Even now, I know that I find ways to distract myself. There’s nothing wrong with taking a rest when it is needed, but maybe those innocent things can be a sort of prison for me as well, like Fr. Roman’s books.

We are isolated, worried, stressed out, tempted, confused, frustrated, impatient, and so much more right now. We have good reason to be. But we also have good reason to hope. Every resurrection is preceded by death. There is a real disease that is a threat to life and health. For those we lose, we can take refuge in that hope of the resurrection. There are economic consequences to the measures we’ve taken. For those of us who lost jobs, we can take refuge in that hope. For whole industries and economies that may be disrupted and lost, we can take refuge in that hope. And as long as humanity can remember, our world has been diseased with corruption and sin. And for our own mistaken images of ourselves, our misplaced self-worth, we can take refuge in that hope.

Our value is anchored not in the foaming river of our ever-changing world, but in the immovable grace of God, who raised our Lord from the dead, who raised St. Mary from a life of prodigality, who raises us every day.

Lord, have mercy. We will rise from this, too.

When anyone presents himself to be admitted as a monk, they shall not easily give him entrance; but, as the apostle advises: “Make trial of the spirits, to see if they are of God.” If he is importunate and goes on knocking at the door, for four or five days, and patiently bears insults and rebuffs and still persists, he shall be allowed to enter. He shall stay in the guest-room for a few days. Thence he shall go to the cell where the novices study and eat and sleep.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 58

There is a saying of Christ that typically is translated, “I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). This translation isn’t wrong, but English is one of the most precise languages, with millions of words and many words and phrases with slight nuance to express similar ideas. Thus, even when a translation is correct, something might get lost in translation.

In this case, I think something did. I recently read a different translation that also translated it correctly, “keep asking … keep seeking … keep knocking….” In English, the difference between the two is great. Continue reading

My Son’s Questions about “Our Father”

When we confess the God and Lord of all Creation to be our Father, we confess that we have been called from a state of slavery to the state of adopted sons.

~ St. John Cassian, Conferences

Every night as part of our son Brendan’s bedtime routine, we have him recite the “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer”—the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to say in the Sermon on the Mount. It goes like this:

Our Father,
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.

Since we’re Orthodox Christians, we then end with “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.”

Brendan, who is four years old, has been able to recite the prayer from memory for over a year. I have prayed it with him nearly every night since he was born. So now that he’s bigger he’s the one who says it. As a reward, he gets a smiley face on his chore chart.

After a few months of having him pray, he started asking questions. “What’s evil?” was the first one. “What’s heaven?” was the second. He has also asked what “our daily bread,” “our trespasses,” and “temptation” are. These are great questions! Continue reading

Some Virtues of Impure Prayer

The Holy Spirit, out of compassion for our weakness, comes to us even when we are impure. And if only He finds our intellect truly praying to Him, He enters it and puts to flight the whole array of thoughts and ideas circling within it, and He arouses it to a longing for spiritual prayer.

~ Evagrios, On Prayer

This reminds me of Jesus’s words to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from, or where it is going. So with everyone who is born from spirit” (John 3:8).

Evargios seems at once broader and narrower in his meaning, however. He’s not clearly talking about baptism, whereas, in context, that is how Jesus’s words have traditionally been understood. Those who are baptized are “born again” or “born from above” (the Greek could mean either). We are born of the flesh from our mothers, but spiritually born again through baptism. Continue reading

Unceasing Prayer is for Everyone

Let no one think, my Christian Brethren, that only persons in holy orders, or monks, are obliged to pray unceasingly and at all times, but not laymen. No, no! It is the duty of all us Christians to remain always in prayer.

~ St. Gregory Palamas, On the Necessity of Constant Prayer for all Christians in General

This is both an encouraging and a hard saying. It is encouraging because it affirms the focus of this blog, everyday asceticism. It is hard because it seemingly sets the bar so high. Continue reading

Lamentations

Fairer he in beauty
than are all mortal kind,
now a corpse we see, unsightly, bereft of form,
he who beautified the nature of all things.

~ Lamentations of the Matins of Great and Holy Saturday

I tried to find a good text of all the Lamentations, but it proved harder to find than I have time for at the moment. The link above appears to be a longer version than what I am used to, and it contains the whole service rather than just the Lamentations. What I did find (also with great difficulty) was a recording of another Orthodox parish that sings the Lamentations with the same melodies that we do in mine.

This is the only time of the year (to my knowledge) that these melodies are used, and I find them to perfectly capture the aesthetic of “bright sadness” that characterizes all of Great Lent, and indeed, all our lives. These are sung as part of what is a funeral service for Christ, who having been crucified on Holy Friday, was laid in a tomb and rested there on Holy Saturday, fulfilling the Sabbath. Continue reading

“Watch and Pray”

Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching, but unworthy is he whom He shall find in slothfulness. Beware, therefore, O my soul, and be not overcome by sleep; lest thou be given over to death, and shut out from the kingdom. But return to soberness and cry aloud: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God; through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

~ “Behold the Bridegroom Cometh,” Bridegroom Matins

Tonight we had our first Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week. One of at least two recurring hymns at these services, which we observe Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday night, this hymn highlights the central importance of the discipline of watchfulness: “blessed is the servant whom [Christ] shall find watching.” Continue reading

Thy Will Be Done

[Abba Isaac said:] “To pray, ‘Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’ is to pray that men may be like angels, that as angels fulfil God’s will in heaven, men may fulfil his will instead of their own, on earth. No one can say this sincerely except one who believes that every circumstance, favourable or unfavourable, is designed by God’s providence for his good, and that he thinks and cares more for the good of his people and their salvation than we do for ourselves. It may be understood thus: the will of God is the salvation of all men, according to that text of St Paul: ‘who willeth all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ [1 Timothy 2:4].”

~ Conferences of St. John Cassian, 9.20

The acceptance of all things as God’s will is one of the most common and most difficult teachings of the fathers. In particular, the part where Abba Isaac makes clear this includes “every circumstance, favourable or unfavourable,” is especially hard to swallow. What might we make of this? What good does it do? How does it affect our spiritual practice? Continue reading

Three Lenten Theses

An old man said: “Ask God to give you heartfelt grief and humility…. Control your tongue and belly, and drink no wine.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 1.22

This old man says a bit more (in particular about lust, judging, and arguments), but I want to focus on the connection between fasting and grief in particular. In fact, grief is the most common—though not the only—occasion for fasting mentioned in the Bible. In particular, I have three, Lenten theses. Continue reading

There is a prayer of Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow that I love, but I haven’t yet succeeded in memorizing. In effort to capture in a memorable way the spirit of that prayer (a version of which can be found here), I worked out this more poetic paraphrase: Continue reading