Post date: Mar 17, 2018 3:17:10 PM
This year at Camp St. George one of the themes of the Christian education sessions was prayer. We talked about different ways we can look at prayer: personal prayer, communal/liturgical prayer, silent prayer, prayer of the heart, spoken prayer, sung prayer, morning prayer, evening prayer, night prayer. On the first day we looked at prayer through the lens of two saints: St. Patrick, enlightener of Ireland, and St. Andrei Rublev, the iconographer. Both saints were men of prayer.
In the part of the lesson which covered St. Patrick, we read that he prayed 100 psalms every night. Those prayers were part of a life dedicated to the service of God. They were a means by which St. Patrick received the grace and strength of God in order to follow the path that was set before him - a path that led him back to the land where he had been taken into slavery. They drew him into the righteousness of God, so that he himself became righteous and was then able to work miracles. The rich prayer life of St. Patrick helped him become an embodiment of St. James’ words: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).
This is can be a difficult line to read. Perhaps even more difficult are verses which speak of God not listening to prayer. The book of Proverbs says that "One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, Even his prayer is an abomination” (Prov. 28:9). And Isaiah makes it explicit: Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood (Is. 1:15). So, God “hears the prayers of the righteous” (Prov. 15) but there are also prayers God does not hear. For most of us, this is not a possibility that we often think about. It is somewhat comforting, though ultimately falsely so, to imagine that God is there, ready to be of service, waiting for us to call on Him, and He will listen and do as He is bid.
However, God is not a machine. In the Old Testament, God underscores His independence by revealing to Moses not a name, but a rather mysterious statement: “I am who I am” or “I am the one who is.” This is in a cultural and historical context where knowing someone’s name was believed to grant some power or control over that someone. By not revealing a name, God not only underscores His unknowability, but also lets it be known that He is neither controlled, nor manipulated.
And so, God is the one who is - the only one who has existence in Himself - and who created us for a life of communion with Him and one another. Prayer is something that happens in the context of that communion. We are righteous inasmuch as we are in communion with Him and live according to His commandments. It is in this context that, at every Vespers service, we say: "Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your commandments. Blessed are you, Master, grant me understanding of your commandments. Blessed are you, Holy One, enlighten me with your commandments.”
These petitions are a brief way of talking about part of our spiritual journey of purification, illumination, and deification. Specifically, the commandments play a role in our purification and illumination. We can read one of the prayers in preparation for Holy Communion in this context. St. Symeon the New Theologian says: “ Do not reject me, nor my words, nor my ways, nor even my shamelessness, but give me courage to say what I desire, O my Christ; and even more, teach me what to do and what to say.” The willingness to be taught what to do, to attempt to be obedient to the commandments is the beginning of the journey.
It feels backwards: aren’t we supposed to think our way into “better selves,” rather than acting ourselves into it? Yet, the experience of the saints is that a life lived in the commandments creates a clean heart, which leads to the vision of God, as Christ Himself said in the beatitudes. In seeing God and communing with Him, we know and understand His will. It is then that we can say with St. John the Theologian: Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us (1 Jn. 5:14).
May our Lord teach us His righteousness and may He always hear our prayers.
With love in Christ,