This afternoon I was asked a question which surprised me rather: ‘Father, when should we give the children their “Christmas” presents?’ I say that I was surprised, because, to me, the answer seemed so obvious that hither I’d not given it much thought. But, perhaps, this is not so for some of you (?).
The Nativity Fast comes to an end only with Holy Communion on 25th December. Until this point we are still fasting (from certain foods, but more importantly from all those things – behaviours, situations, stimuli – which distance us from God). During fasts we push ourselves to pray more than we ordinarily would; we attend the holy services whenever we are able; we cut down on the “me time” and we up the “God time”, we make confession, and give of ourselves to others more than usual. . .
The exchange of presents is a simple but beautiful mirroring of the giving of gifts by the magi to Christ at his birth. Therefore, this – together with fine food, drink and socialising – takes place after the birth of Christ, after Holy Communion; afterthe church services, when we have returned home from the Divine Liturgy. (However, it is understandable that, in families with small (perhaps highly excitable) children, that an exception is made: and one might give the children one, or perhaps two, small gifts before going to church; but larger presents and those for adults are exchanged later.) The children’s joy is our joy! Children love the outward manifestations of the season! Let them feel the anticipation building! But also let them not be confused or become selfish; we must show them, teach them, that we do things in a certain order: we pray before we eat, Christ comes first. The presents afterwards.
It is a great joy to the world that ours is an incarnate faith: the Church takes full consideration of our spiritual needs but also fully addresses the materiality of our condition: if fasting is compulsory then so also feasting is compulsory: certainly, fasting is prohibited on holy feasts: we should certainly eat well, drink well, feed others, enjoy the company of our oved ones- we must never hide our light under a bushel! On “Christmas Day” we feast- the Christian family enjoys God’s blessings together as one, as in the Holy Communion we form one Body. We devote “Christmas Day” to our family and to praising God. Just as we should do on all the other important Christian feasts of the year.
In a society such as ours, where many people will opt out, “Christmas” is a wonderful opportunity for us to demonstrate our faith; to witness to Christ, through our practice: through fasting (“Sorry, I cannot eat that…”), through our prayers and, yes, even through feasting. Also, “Christmas trees”, “Christmas decorations” and twinkling lights, and “Father Christmas” – which some may dismiss as “tacky” or “commercial” or even “pagan”, are nevertheless opportunities. These things are important in so far as they show to the assorted “scrooges” and atheists, non-believers and Christ-deniers, that “something is taking place”. It is up to us to witness to the joyfulness, to what is taking place, and to Christian authenticity: to how significant it all is. “Christmas trees” and decorations, and roast dinner, and the exchange of gifts, can all be utilised as important witnesses to the cosmic event: the Nativity of Jesus, the birth of Christ God.
Let us do all that we are able to witness to the “good news” of Christ’s birth.
I wish you all a very Happy Feast of THE ENTRANCE OF THE MOTHER OF GOD INTO THE TEMPLE.
Today, we celebrate one of the Great Feasts of the Church: the Entrance of the Theotokos. This is a feast predicated, not upon canonical New Testament Scripture but upon other ancient writings. Proof by itself, that for Christians of true belief and right worship, Holy Scripture is about the Revelation of God, it is not the Revelation itself. Essential, but not the be-all and end-all. According to the Protoevangelion of James [c. AD 145], the Theotokos was taken to serve at the temple in Jerusalem when She was only three years old. She lived, there, a life of prayer and purity, dedicating Herself entirely to God. The Holy Theotokos is, of course, the one and only person in human history able to serve as the vehicle of the Incarnation of God. Her body, in its purity ,is greater – by far – then the man-made temple built of bricks and mortar; She is the true Temple, the Holy Ark, the Holy of Holies. For, within Her womb, resided God Himself. The Theotokos ikonises to us the life of Christ-centred devotion. A life of perseverance, of joys and tears, of immense wonders and of terrible agonies. A Christ-centred, Christ-bearing, life. We, too, are able to become God-bearers. Not in quite the same way as the Panagia – in the womb, but in our heart. A heart cleansed of passions (distractions and temptations of this life), a heart burning with love for God and His people, can become the Temple in which Christ will dwell forever. For this to be possible, we must have perseverance to face the many tears and agonies, and the joys and wonders will be beyond any worldly treasure. Today is a feast of the Mother of God; and, in that, it is also a feast of Christ – as every Mother has a child. And so, it is too, a feast of motherhood and childhood. But it is also a Feast of divinised humanity – a feast of the potentiality of all of us to become bearers of God. By God’s grace, and through the aid of the Most Pure Mother of God, our soul and flesh can be cleansed and perfected so that it will glow, irradiated, with the divine energies of God. Let us all take strength from the Holy Theotokos – ask Her holy prayers, and make the most of this holy Nativity fast. May God bless us all.
It is essential to note that the latin/protestant numbering is different from the Orthodox; and so is their text. If you are reading in English, avoid the protestant King James Version (KJV) and its countless derivatives – as these are based on Hebrew texts, and you will not be ‘in sync’ with other Orthodox Christians. Make sure that you are following the Septuagint (LXX), the Orthodox, Greek, text of the 3rd-2nd centuries BC. Use a translation which has the richest Orthodox φρόνημα (phronema, ‘fragrance’, ‘flavour’, ‘mindset’); for example, those published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, or by Peter Papoutsis.
To demonstrate the difference between Orthodox and protestant texts, I offer up a single example, of just two verses. Translated from the Greek of the LXX: our Psalm 67:16-17, reads:
The mountain of God is a butter mountain, a curdled mountain, a butter mountain. Why suppose you that there are other curdled mountains? This is the mountain wherein God is pleased to live, yea, for the Lord will reside therein to the end.
The references to ‘curdled’ and ‘butter’ have deep theological significance for Orthodox Christians; these are τύποι of the Church and the Holy Theotokos, and are to be found replicated in our liturgical texts; the Theotokos being the Mother of the Church. The question about ‘other mountains’ refers to counterfeit churches. God resides until the end in one, unique, Church.
The KJV Old Testament was translated by protestants from mediaeval Hebrew recensions which were first published at Venice in 1524-1525. These recensions are 1,000 years later than the Orthodox text. In the KJV, the above verses become the protestant Psalm 68:15-16 [sic.], and are rendered almost unrecognisable:
The hill of God is as the hill of Bashan; an high hill as the hill of Bashan. Why leap ye, ye high hills? this is the hill which God desireth to dwell in; yea, the Lord will dwell in it for ever.
The holy Theotokos has been erased. The de-Christianised text no longer references the Incarnation within the feminal ‘curdled, butter mountain’, but merely a provincialised God who is trapped within the topographically precise (‘hill of Bashan’). Thus, a subtext emerges: the universal Christian revelation is replaced by a Zionist realpolitik.
[As used at All Saints, includes saints of England, in particular local (Essex) saints:]
O God, save Your people, and bless Your inheritance. Visit Your world with mercies and compassions. Exalt the horn of Orthodox Christians, and send down upon us Your rich mercies. Through the prayers of our all-immaculate Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary; by the might of the Precious and Life-giving Cross; by the protection of the honourable bodiless Powers of Heaven; at the supplication of the honourable, glorious prophet, Forerunner and Baptiser, John; of the holy, glorious, all-laudable Apostles, Peter and Paul, and of all the Holy Apostles; of Simon Zealotes and Aristovulos, Apostles of Britain, and all the Twelve and Seventy Holy Apostles; of our Fathers among the saints, great Hierarchs and Oecumenical Teachers, Vasil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostomos; Athanasios, Kyril and John the Merciful, Patriarchs of Alexandria; Nicholas of Myra, Spyridon of Trimythous and Nektarios of Pentapolis, the Wonderworkers; of our Father among the saints, Raphael, Bishop of Brooklyn; of the holy, glorious, Great-Martyrs, George the Trophy-bearer, Demetrios the Myrrh-streamer, Theodore the Soldier, Theodore the General, and Menas the Wonderworker; of the Hieromartyrs, Ignatius the God-bearer of Antioch, Charalampos and Eleutherios; of the Holy, glorious great Women Martyrs, Thekla, Varvara, Anastasía, Ekaterini, Kyriaki, Photeini, Marina, Paraskevi and Ireni; of the holy, glorious, right-victorious Martyrs; of the Holy Martyr Alban, the first Martyr of these Islands; of Gildas the Wise; and of all the saints of the British Isles; of our Holy Fathers, Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury, Apostles of the English; Fursa, the Enlightener of Norfolk: Felix, the Apostle of East Anglia; Oswald of Heavenfield; Paulinus of York; Aidan and Cuthberht, of Lindisfarne; Birinus, Apostle of Wessex; and Chad of Lichfield; Æthelheard of Louth; and Alphege the Martyr; of our Holy Mothers, Ætheldreda of Ely; Hild of Whitby; Mildreth of Minster; Werburgh of Chester; Milburgh of Wenlock; Withberga of Dereham, and Edith of Wilton; of our Holy Fathers, Benedict of Wearmouth; Wilfred of York; Ceolfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow; Aldhelm of Sherborne; Guthlac of Crowland; Beda the Venerable; Swithun of Winchester, the Wonderworker; Theodore of Crowland, and all those cruelly Martyred by the Northmen; and Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia; of our Holy Mothers and Fathers, Sebbi and Offa, Kings of Essex; the Holy Glorious Martyr, Osyth; Cedd, the Apostle of Essex; the Bishops Mellitus and Erkenwald, the Light of London; Æthelburga, Theogirth, Hildelia and Wulfhild of Barking, and the Glorious Nuns of Barking, cruelly Martyred by the Danes; and all the Saints of Essex; of the holy, right-believing King of England and Passion-Bearer, Edward the Martyr; of the Princes and Passion-Bearers, Æthelred and Æthelberht, venerated at Wakering; of our Holy Fathers, Æthelwold of Winchester, Oswald of Worcester; of the newly-glorified Silouan of Mount Athos, and of John of Shanghai and San Francisco Archbishop in London; and of all the saints who have shone forth in England; of the holy, glorious and right-victorious Martyrs; of the Holy and Righteous ancestors of our Lord God, Joachim and Anna; of all the saints whose memory we keep today; and of All the Saints, Patrons of our Holy Temple, we beseech You, O most merciful Lord, hear the petitions of us sinners, who make supplication unto You, and have mercy upon us.
. . . and then it all came back.Not so much a flood, more of a slippery ooze, really: the Blackwater, the Roach, the Thames, whose banks then spread wide, unwalled- hectares of sticky, treacle-black, mud, stinking of dead crabs. The deafening cries of the gulls, the cautious seals. Fording the mud-curdled rivers, reeds cutting into legs; the brother’s blunt knife attempting to cut a stumble-track through the shimmering reeds. Glimpsed through that shimmer, the silent bittern passes over; the callow natives’ blasé curiosity hemmed with contempt, cold as the eastern skies’ silent Passover; the dripping noses, the whispered kyrié eléisons. The way ahead not so far and yet, with every step, further yet; the step, each step, another muddy aching mile; and then. . .
the rushed, downward, clamber, over the loose dunes, through the smoothed off roman bricks and whelk and limpet shells and soft grasses, it becomes an easy ascent, the sweetest air. Now, the eastern skies, no longer a grey chill, are flashed with light.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith [. . .] you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Mt 21:21-22)
For myself, the rationalist arguments of God’s existence are somewhat limited (limiting), dry and earthbound. Ultimately, where they become circular they are also dead. Christ Himself says, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). I take this very seriously. But, I also place a high value on logic and mathematics and they have more than demonstrated their utility; but, ultimately, I do not believe in ‘proof’. In mathematics proofs are only relative to a set of axioms. We test those axioms as carefully as we possibly can, and we are virtually certain that the core axioms are correct. Ultimately these are posited on inductive reasoning. Science, like most human activities, is based on a belief, namely the assumption that nature is only understandable and explicable from within. We must remember that when we believe something but cannot prove it, we do not mean that it’s a matter of raw faith or even an idiosyncratic hunch. In almost every case I can provide reasons for my belief, both empirical and theoretical. But I certainly can’t always prove it, or even demonstrate it in the way that a natural scientist (e.g., a biologist) might demonstrate a claim, namely in a form so persuasive that sceptics cannot reasonably attack it, and a consensus is rapidly achieved.
Above and beyond the perennial and egocentric craving for proof (as if the ‘I’ with whom my mind identifies itself is the true judge or benchmark of anything!) there are many, many things – actually, almost everything – which remain at best unproven – at worst empirically unproveable – but which we accept as ‘true’, mostly, without complaint.
We (= those of us who are outside the laboratory) accept scientific theories without having a full or comprehensive knowledge: global warming, the Higgs Boson, the age of the earth (historical truth), that consciousness is a product of materialism (existential truth), plus countless unpredictables (the movement of photons, the end date of the universe). We also – unless we are insane – accept what passes in front of our senses as ‘reality’. We accept that we live and are the person we believe we are (existential truth). We accept as truth (experiential truth) when someone says ‘I love you’ without ever being able to prove categorically that this is true. We accept it as true because the evidence suggests that it is true.
To an Orthodox Christian the miraculous is (paradoxically) entirely mundane. The Holy Eucharist, the miracle of healing of our broken self, our broken relationships with our fellow creatures and with the cosmos, our endless relationship with God are all miraculous events, whereby the eschaton breaks into our world.
We may be deluded about some, or all, of these things but, unless we risk becoming paranoid we accept ( = believe) in all probability that we are not deluded. At the end of the day, we have faith in many things. Reality is good enough if it convinces you. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it is a duck, for all practical purposes. Why, then, should we root out belief in God as more suspect, contentious, controversial than belief in parallel universes, alternative realities, the Big Bang, that this life is all there is, etc.? Faith is probably hardwired in to us; it is how and where we use it that counts. Faith in scientism alone leads to death. Faith in Christ-God uniquely leads to unending personal growth, unending integration and eternal life.
And with acceptance of belief there is always risk. If we have faith only in materialism and exclude intuition, the subjective, the emotional and the relational the result is functional suicide for the individual and the group. Everything in our lives involves risk (even reading this text!). Risk is intrinsic to cultural and societal progress. Therefore, individual action by definition is not subject to zero risk. Everything we do is based on managed risk or a range of risk. Risk is intrinsic to human action, living, and decision-making. Life without risk soon leads to death. Friends, family, relationships, love, religion and marriage all involve risk where faith without absolute evidence is necessary.
We could read on forever and still get nowhere. We must at some point face the risk: we either accept the evidence for God (scientific, philosophical, theological-spiritual, testimonies, miracles) as valid or we do not. Either way we must follow through the rationalist process and then decide how to respond.
Professor Richard Swinburne writes:
Argument and counter argument, qualification and amplification, can go on forever. But religion is no exception in this respect. With respect to any subject whatever, the discussion can go on forever. New experiments can always be done to test Quantum Theory, new interpretations can be proposed for old experiments, forever. And the same goes on for interpretations of history or theories of politics. But life is short and we have to act on the basis of what such evidence as we have had time to investigate shows on balance to be probably true.
In a nut shell, we almost never have absolute proof of anything. If, on significant balance of probability, you accept that there is a God, it follows that you have certain duties of a practical nature (moral-ethical behaviour, diet, worship) and of a more ‘ideal’ nature (to become a saint; to acquire a deeper, experiential, knowledge of God) to undertake before it is too late.
It is in Confession that the catalytic relationship between priest and spiritual child bears lasting fruit: transformation in Christ through a reciprocal outpouring of love (our love for Christ, Christ’s love for us).
This sacramental Mystery is not best understood by seeing only ‘confession’ which is tainted by a negative – western (legalistic and judgmental) – aspect, but in its positive – Orthodox – aspect of ‘reconciliation’, its affirmative medicinal-merciful aspect, as a Second Baptism. The purgative (confessional) leads to the cleansing (baptismal/cathartic), which in turn is confirmed-sealed by the illuminating (chrismational/photisic) – a life-giving encounter with grace by means of a genuine and vocalised ‘repentance’.
The glory revealed at the heart of Christ’s suffering is echoed by the glory revealed at the heart of our shame and radical self-honesty before God and man- the one sure antidote to preening and self-interest: the opening up of a Way from egocentrism to theocentrism.
This is the true ‘therapy’ (θεραπεία), the process of bearing our Cross: Only in placing ourselves on the lowest horizontal: _ , far below Christ, may we ascend the highest vertical: ¦ to Him; only in placing ourselves below man may we be able to forgive the sins of others, to love our enemies, and to pray for all people and for the entire cosmos:
The ‘nineteenth article’ of the ‘Church’ [sic.] of England, 1562. This hilariously ironic and fatuously obtuse text forms part of the ‘Thirty-nine Articles’ which are still, to this day, invoked by Anglicans, and is included in their Book of Common Prayer.
XIX. OF THE CHURCH THE visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
“Gotta get off, gonna get / Out of this merry-go-round / Gotta get off, gonna get / Need to get on where I’m bound”, sings Dionne Warwick in the theme tune (part-composed by André Previn no less), to Valley of the Dolls (a 1967 movie based on Jacqueline Susann’s tawdry eponymous novel). The movie depicts the predictably tragic outcome to lives of hedonism and ambition (in this, it might, perhaps, be read as a low-brow version of Françoise Sagan or Jean Rhys).
Whilst we often complain that we are too busy, how our life is so problematic and so full of stresses, we seldom, if ever, see this situation as sinful. In fact, we view busyness as something productive and necessary. This is because busyness is not so obviously ‘sin’ in the way that carnal addictions and depravities are obvious sins.
For a Christian, getting off the merry-go-round is essential. Even in a world as dominated and perverted as is ours by the ‘protestant work ethic’, busyness is a sin. Busyness might not look like sin. It might not feel like sin. But it is a sin all the same; and especially so when it gets in the way of prayer and liturgy.
If we take just two examples from the New Testament, we can see that this is so. In Matthew 22:1-14, Christ tells us that the ‘kingdom of the heavens has been likened to a man, a certain king, who made wedding festivities for his son’. The invitations are sent, but, the invited guests (read ‘busy, respectable, professionals’) are not willing to come. They are invited again (not coerced, Christ is no fundamentalist muslim), and still they do not come. They give excuses (not reasons): busyness (tending land, making money, taking care of business), and they even insult and murder the slaves (slaves = the prophets) who are bringing them their invitations. The would-be-guests are eventually destroyed by the king (= God), and the poor (both good and evil) are invited in their place.
God continually sends us invitations, every day of our life, on innumerable, illimitable, occasions. As Father Rick Andrews, of Saint George’s Church, St. Paul, MN., in his sermon ‘Too Busy to RSVP’, says,
For us, Christians, the Bible is full of thousands of beautiful invitations. In various ways, God keeps sending us invites. However, many of us do not show Him the courtesy even to decline, to RSVP “No”. We simply act as if the invitation never came.
The ‘noble sin’ of busyness, even when it manifests itself as ‘service to others’, is no excuse where it prevents prayer. Father John Chryssavgis reminds us that,
Service to the community, and love of one’s neighbours, these are not excuses to avoid the desert. They should not be excuses to avoid the inner work.
We see this clearly in the example of Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Martha has the ‘work/prayer balance’ completely out of kilter. The result? Martha’s life is a mess, a bubbling stew of anxiety, anger and frustration. Martha is miserable. She has grown so resentful of Mary, who is seeking first the Kingdom of the Heavens, that she wants Christ to do something, to redress what she perceives as an imbalance, an injustice – we hear her whine: ‘[D]o you not care?’ Mary is just sitting there doing nothing! And, poor me, I am sooo busy!!!
However, if we have a look at the Greek text, we see that the situation is worse than one of just resentment and self-pity. Martha is περισπάω = ‘distracted’, ‘drawn away’, ‘greatly troubled’(Luke 10:40). Christ tells her that she is μεριμνᾷς about many things (Luke 10:42): μεριμνᾷς = ‘anxious’, this is equated with ‘being divided’ and ‘troubled’, ‘disturbed’, ‘panicked’, ‘agitated’. ‘Anxious’ is synonymous with a lack of trust in God, it is the polar opposite of faith; ‘division’ and ‘fragmentation’ are synonymous with the evil one, the devil; and ‘panicked’ is synonymous with Pan the horned ‘god’ of the forest. These qualities are certainly not the just rewards for labour (Matthew 20:1-16), and certainly not the manifestations of the fruits of the spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians. 5:22-23).
Christ shows compassion towards Martha, but He is not sympathetic or empathetic, or even complementary of her ‘hard work’. He shows no appreciation for her busyness. He is stern, He rebukes her in love, pointing out that she is wrong and that Mary is right: “one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42). In contrast to all the things of this life which will eventually be taken from us all – willingly, if we live lives of peace and repentance, agonisingly, if we hang on to them, in lust and greed and pride. One other significant difference between Mary and Martha is that one was glorifying Christ and the other one was trying to bring glory to herself.
Of course, Holy Scripture also commends hard work. However, there is a distinction between profitable work and unprofitable busyness. Where ‘work’ gets in the way of sitting still, and learning and hearing the word of Christ, then we have a serious problem – one which is enormous, and life-threatening. The threat to life being understood as both earthly (the very real threat of a coronary), and eternal (wasting this life in vain pursuits). For, it wasn’t so much the action of Martha that mattered, but her disposition: Martha is fixated on the things of this life. Fixated to the point that she is not glorifying God by taking time to sit at His feet and savour His every Word. Fixated to the point that she is hostile to those who, in stillness, are listening to Christ; and fixated to the point that she is hostile to God Himself.
We, who complain that we have no time, live in a world awash with distraction, but also awash with technological aid. In the west, few of us work 15 hours a day down the mine or in the fields, we – most of us – have food and money, and central heating. We have great pressures (career, mortgage, cost of living), but also more leisure time than any previous generation in human history. Certainly, I am busy, busier than I – lazy man that I am – would choose to be. But, I have more time than, for example, my mother had when I was a child. And she had three children under 3 years old, and she still exhausted herself in service to her family, to my sick father, and never taking a break from the responsibilities which she loved, managed always to claw out time for prayer and spiritual reading and self-emptying love, every day, until her premature death.
It is a question of priority. Certainly, there are times to be busy. But, equally, there are times to be still, when we need to sit at the feet of Christ in prayer and in liturgy. However, as long as we are being swallowed and digested by busyness, we will not be granted the discernment to know where and when to draw the line.
Father Anthony Coniaris, in his powerful sermon, ‘The Sin of Busyness & It’s Cure’ (Message of the Sunday Gospels, vol. 1, p. 77), speaks of a pitiful man, a workaholic, who was so preoccupied with making a living, that he never took steps – or if you prefer never had enough time – to plan for the life ever-after. No time for prayer, no time for liturgy, no time for fasting. These translate as no room at the inn for Christ, no room in our heart for Christ, no room for my salvation.
Martha, together with those who did not respond to the invitation to attend the banquet, those who fell asleep in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46), and the foolish virgins who did not prepare their lamps (Matthew 25:1-13), these are human ikons of inconsistency, ikons of distractedness. We are, all of us, in constant danger of being corroded, and then consumed, by the pressures and temptations of this life. Let us start to think like Irina Valerievna, a contemporary young Muscovite woman (aged 34):
Sometimes I imagine our big world as an infinity of evil, chaos and death—and prayer as a tiny island of culture, order, warmth and beauty. I cling to this island, knowing that a puff of wind can carry me away into the darkness.
Let us take some time (that is, if we’re not too busy!) to join Mary in sitting down at the feet of Christ, and to listen to Him (Luke 10:39). But first, let us ponder on the warning which forms the gut-wrenching, terrifying, finale of the above quoted parable of the banquet (Matthew 22:1-14):
“Bind his hands and feet, and take him away, and cast him into darkness, the outer one.” There shall be weeping and the gnashing of teeth. “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The antidote? Not perhaps, the Learyan extremity of ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’. If we do not have the courage (= faith) to ‘Come, follow me’, walking away from our job (Matthew 4:19-20), leaving the dead to follow their dead (Luke 9:60), then we can do nothing other than take small, child-sized, steps: the Divine Liturgy is only two hours out of 168 total hours in a week, and an extra 10 minutes prayer a day is just over one hour per week. It is not impossible. But, first, the realisation of our predicament: that we are in a desert; second, the grabbing hold of each and every opportunity for the inoculation of our life with prayer: be still and know that I AM is God (cf. Psalm 45:11). Let us pray for grace; let us, minute-by-minute, start to reorder and to refocus our life.
“Gotta get off, gonna get / Out of this merry-go-round” – Please, God, yes, before it is too late. Amen.
I am weak and besieged. I am weak and besieged by the pressures of this life precisely because I do not pray enough. The cure of my weakness is prayer, and by necessity, lots of it.
Prayer is essential to a healthy Orthodox Christian life. Prayer is not ‘optional’. However, filling my life with prayer, even trying to pray a little, is often difficult. Especially so, when I have grown overly focussed on the secular – addicted to the things of this world.
I can develop some structure by following a prayer-rule. Evening and Morning Prayers are the basic building blocks, the absolute bare minimum. I really should have a prayer-rule prescribed by my priest/spiritual father. If I am too lazy to have such a rule, then I should pray that God grants me the humility to go to the priest and beg for a prayer-rule. The prayer-rule should be one which I am able to keep (it takes into account my domestic/employment situation, my laziness, my weakness). The rule should stretch me (it does not pander to my selfishness, laziness, weakness), for which I will have to bend, but not be bent so much that I continually break the rule or am myself broken in the process (my Mother, the Church, is always humane). In addition to my rule, I may improvise prayers as and when the need arises in the day, but these are always to be contextualised within the matrix of the ancient prayers of the Fathers which have been proven to work (i.e., to help produce saints). As in all things in the Christian life, I am not an isolated individual (except through choice); I must remain a communal being; I do not ‘go it alone’. I am made secure only because I face all perils with someone else, to whom I make confession of my hideous sins and to whom I open my blackened and calloused heart. I journey to God, I go into the desert, I await God, and I weep, but I should fear not because I am not alone, your rod and your staff- they comforted me [Ps. 22 LXX], and my priest/spiritual father is there to guide and correct me – that is to love me. However, if I am to make any real progress in this life, I must overcome my ego and the myriad temptations and distractions to which I remain a slave. Otherwise, I shall be swallowed by the secular darkness, and delivered up to the evil-one. The pressures on me not to pray are great, and all too easily overwhelm me. If I am honest, I choose to be overwhelmed by them, to do anything else. To resist the lure of doing anything other than being alone with myself in prayer, I must be ever-vigilant. St. Meletios the Confessor tells me that ‘Prayer needs no teacher. It requires diligence, effort and personal ardour, and then God will be its teacher.’ Glory to God! This gives me strength to carry on. And, when I am about to give as reasons all the countless ‘good’ things that I am doing, to use self justification, to avoid prayer (i.e., to make excuses), Fr. John Chryssavgis reminds me that,
Service to the community, and love of one’s neighbours, these are not excuses to avoid the desert. They should not be excuses to avoid the inner work.
And Metropolitan) Hilarion (Alfeyev) says that,
People often justify their reluctance to pray by the fact that they are too busy and are overloaded with things to do. Yes, many of us live in a sort of rhythm unlike that of people of antiquity. Sometimes we have to do a great number of things over the course of the day.
He goes on to say that even in my ‘busiest’ days, God provides me with copious opportunities:
in life there are always certain pauses. For example, we might stand at the bus stop for three to five minutes; if we take the train, for twenty or thirty minutes. We dial a number and get a busy signal – another few minutes. Let us at least use these pauses for prayer; let it at least not be wasted time.
Father George D. Konstantopoulos causes me to take stock, to realise, before it is too late that :
[e]very moment belongs to God, and an Orthodox Christian should experience the transformation of all time into sacred time. This only happens when we are totally committed to a liturgical life, when our daily rhythm is governed by the pulse of the Church calendar. Through the cycles of prayer, fasting (which helps liberate us from sin and enables us to pray), and feast days (which centre our life on Pascha); liturgical life redeems our time and fills it with the Light of Christ.
Truly, even in my benighted ignorance, and in my self-willed isolation from God, I am able to realise that this is so. Certainly, prayer is necessary if I am ever to live up to the immense claim of what it means to be an ‘Orthodox’ Christian of true worship. Certainly, I understand that I should never receive the Holy Mysteries if I am not praying daily, not peppering my days with prayer, not attempting – however unsuccessfully – to pray unceasingly. I beseech God to grant me the grace to spend more time in prayer, so that I may be permitted to live a life of peace and repentance, and to spend all eternity with Him. God forgive me, the sinner. Amen.