Category: Prayer


Hell is ignorance, for both are dark; and perdition is forgetfulness, for both involve extinction.

~ St. Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, 62

I confessed in my last entry that I do not think often about hell, despite the fathers’ commendation of the practice. One way to remedy that is to reflect more here. St. Mark the Ascetic offers a radically different view than the common adage, “Ignorance is bliss.” Rather, he warns, “Hell is ignorance.” Continue reading

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An Introduction to Prayer

Q. What is Prayer?

A. The lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words. 

~ Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, Longer Catechism, 390

The following is the text of a talk I will be giving tomorrow night after the presanctified liturgy at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, our home parish:

According to Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, prayer is “[t]he lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words” (Longer Catechism, 390). What I like about this definition is that it is succinct but comprehensive: “The lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words.” It highlights the internal and external nature of prayer, spiritual and spoken. In addition, it further brings together the mind and the heart, not neglecting any aspect of our being, whether thoughts, feelings, senses, or intuition. What I would like to do briefly tonight is to carefully examine this definition, in each of its parts, with the goal of coming to a greater understanding of prayer itself. Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 8

The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk does nothing but what is countenanced by the constitutions of the monastery, or the example of the elders.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Once again, this step of the ladder needs a bit of translation for it to fit the context of those, like myself, who are not monks and live “in the world.” Regular, non-monastic folks do not have any “constitutions of the monastery.” Regular people, nevertheless, can still learn from this portion of St. Benedict’s regula. Continue reading

The Art of Eternal Life

[Abba Isaac said:] “St. Antony … uttered this heavenly, inspired, saying on the end of prayer: ‘That prayer is not perfect in which the monk understands himself and the words which he is praying.'”

~ Conferences of Cassian, 9.31

In all our striving for the right method of spiritual progress, sayings like this one can be both comforting and conflicting. Continue reading

O Voice of God

In honor of the Feast of the Theophany today and the synaxis of St. John the Forerunner (the Baptist) tomorrow, I offer the following.

It is inspired by reflecting on an interesting disparity in the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Christ (which we celebrate in the Theophany). In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the voice of the Father booms from the heavens, declaring Jesus his beloved Son. In the Gospel of John, however, no voice is mentioned. That is, no voice is mentioned other than John the Baptist, who responds to the Pharisees that he is neither the Prophet, nor the Christ, but, quoting Isaiah 40, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” In the Fourth Gospel, John is the voice of God. This curiosity was confirmed to me by a hymn for the feast of the finding of the head of St. John the Baptist (which is in the summer) that refers to him in just this way: as the voice of God. Thus, the following petitions are addressed to John, through whom the voice of God spoke, witnessing to the central confession of the Gospel: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Continue reading

Seeing God Become Man

This Christmas, I have a rather long story from the Conferences of St. John Cassian to share. I’ll add a comment or two afterward.

A minor, historical note: The whole Church, which was undivided at this time, was referred to as the Catholic Church and its Orthodox members sometimes as Catholics. The term in English has come to mean “Roman Catholic,” but reading this into the text would be anachronistic. “Catholic” means universal (literally “through the whole”) and describes both: 1) the fact that no one is barred from being a Christian by ethnicity, class, gender, or anything else accidental to the image of God within us; and 2) the fact that all across the world, the Orthodox faith is the same and the Church is the same, despite different regional traditions and customs. Thus, the Orthodox Church today, of which I am a member, is also called the Catholic Church. Nor do I mind being called a Catholic. I am just not a Roman Catholic. Hopefully, some day these distinctions will be unnecessary again.

But back to the note on different regional customs—that brings me to our story:

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That Priceless Light

Sometimes stories are too long to reflect on very thoroughly, but very worth sharing. For those who wonder what to think/believe of such a fantastic story, I would recommend an earlier reflection of mine: “Hang Your Cloak Upon a Sunbeam.”

Of the angelic splendour of the light which Virgnous-a youth of good disposition, and afterwards made by God superior of this Church in which I, though unworthy, now serve-saw coming down upon St. Columba in the Church, on a winter’s night, when the brethren were at rest in their chambers. Continue reading

Fish Out of Water

Abba Antony said: “Fish die if they are long out of water. So monks who dally long outside their cell or with men of the world, lose their will to solitude. As a fish can only live in the sea, so we must run back to our cells. Perhaps, if we dallied outside, we might lose our inner guard.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.1

Abba Antony offers a wonderful analogy for those of us whose lives sometimes seem so full. Just as “[f]ish die if they are long out of water,” so “monks who dally long outside their cell or with men of the world, lose their will to solitude.” Now of course, as “men [and women] of the world,” we cannot and should not avoid human contact, but neither should we neglect solitude. The difference is one of degree, not of kind. None of us live in a monk’s cell, but all of us require an “inner guard” to keep our hearts from falling to temptation. Continue reading

Serenity: Mother of Chastity

An old man said: “Chastity is born of serenity, and silence, and secret meditation.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 5.25

Unchastity, and the lust from which it is born, is a problem that we do well to revisit often with an ear to the wisdom of the fathers. How many relationships, marriages, ministries, careers, and so on have been ruined by a person’s own lust? This unnamed old man offers an interesting insight to contemplate. If chastity is “born of serenity, and silence, and secret meditation,” then logically unchastity thrives where there is no serenity, no silence, and no secret meditation. Continue reading

The Great Struggle

The brothers asked Abba Agatho: “Father, which virtue in our way of life needs most effort to acquire?” And he said to them: “Forgive me, I think nothing needs so much effort as prayer to God. If a man is wanting to pray, the demons infest him in the attempt to interrupt the prayer, for they know that prayer is the only thing that hinders them. All the other efforts of a religious life, whether they are made vehemently or gently, have room for a measure of rest. But we need to pray till we breathe out our dying breath. That is the great struggle.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 12.2

If Abba Agatho is right (and I think he is), then any tricks of the trade of prayer ought to be valued more than diamonds. Prayer is the primary means by which the soul on a daily basis is raised up to God and united to him in love. Without prayer what aspect of the Christian life has any effect? Indeed, without prayer, can there be faith? Can one be said to live in the grace of the sacraments? Can one know Jesus Christ without prayer? In many cases these items are symbiotic—I do not mean to settle any “chicken or the egg?” sort of questions. As Dom Hubert van Zeller wrote, “there can be no prayer where there is no faith” as well. But the fact remains: prayer too is an essential component, a sine qua non, of the Christian life, and as such the cultivation of pure prayer ought to be one of our primary concerns.
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