Tag Archive: prayer


Why Praise God?

Great are you, O Lord, and strongly to be praised: Great is your power, and your wisdom cannot be quantified. And man wants to praise you, though a tiny portion of your creation, and man is surrounded by his mortality, the witness to his sin, the witness that you resist the proud — yet man wants to praise you, though a tiny portion of your creation. You rouse us to delight in your praise; for you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

~ St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

Why praise God? The Scriptures and hymns of the Church are full of praises of God. Yet the Church also affirms, to quote St. Athanasius, “God … stands in need of nothing, but is self-sufficient and self-contained, and … in Him all things have their being, and … He ministers to all rather than they to Him….”

So if God needs nothing, is self-sufficient, and ministers to us rather than we to him … why praise him? If he doesn’t need anything, he doesn’t need our praises. If he’s all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, certainly he knows how great he is. So why praise him?

Does God have a fragile ego, in need of constant affirmation? No. Is he incomplete or imperfect without us? No. What good is praise to God?

The answer: It sort of isn’t. We praise God not because God needs our praise but because we need to praise him. God is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. According to St. Severinus Boethius, “God is absolute happiness.” Praising God reorients our perspective to value most what matters most. It is metanoia, a “changing of the mind,” i.e., repentance.

Just saying words of praise, however, isn’t enough. 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.” It isn’t just our words, like some magical incantation, but “man’s mind and heart.” As St. Augustine points out, that seems a lot harder.

This would seem to make our desire to praise God a fool’s errand. Yet the secret grace to it all comes precisely when we realize this. We can only, with great struggle, turn to God and offer imperfect, inadequate, insufficient, and superfluous praise. Yet it is in the very act of truly doing so, truly reorienting our minds and hearts and seeing ourselves for what we really are compared to God, that he is there, at once terrifying, calming, cleansing, uplifting, and flooding our hearts with the very purity, joy, and rest for which we so dearly long.

God is great, but we are minuscule compared to him and literally nothing without him. Furthermore, we are mortal; he is Life itself. We are sinful; he is Goodness. We are dishonest; he is Truth. We envy and hate each other; he “is Love” (1 John 4:8).

“Come to me,” beckons Jesus, “all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

That is a call that must be answered every day. Lord, have mercy, that I would do so more often.

Sometimes it seems easier to get caught up in the tragedy and evil of a world under the shadow of death and sin, but that broad road is restless. It only seems easy, but it always ends up harder.

The narrow road, the path away from emptiness toward the fullness of life and meaning — that road always seems harder, harder to see, harder to accept, harder to travel. And yet, whenever we manage, however imperfectly, to do so, we find the terrible, transcendent God before us in Jesus Christ, “gentle and lowly in heart.” We find an easy burden, “rest for [our] souls.”

And that is why we praise him.

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

“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

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

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 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

Bit by Bit

An old man said to a brother: “The devil is like a hostile neighbour and you are like a house. The enemy continually throws into you all the dirt that he can find. It is your business not to neglect to throw out whatever he throws in. If you neglect to do this, your house will be so full of mud that you will not be able to walk inside. From the moment he begins to throw, put it out again, bit by bit: and so by Christ’s grace your house shall remain clean.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 11.48

Who likes cleaning? Really. Possibly the only thing I dislike more than cleaning is being dirty. So I try to clean often when I can (and when I’m not overtaken by sloth). This old man uses this common chore to teach an important spiritual lesson: just as a house can only be cleaned “bit by bit,” so it is with our souls. Continue reading