Archbishop Stylianos of Australia|
Εκδόσεις Αρμός, Μαυροκορδάτου 7, 106 78 Αθήνα
3) The presuppositions and atmosphere for prayer
When the Apostle Peter exhorts us to be "watchful in prayer", he gives us the key to avoid all the hazards which we may face at the outset of the sacred "adventure" of prayer. To be "watchful", that is to be attentive with eyes wide open, is imperative at every moment of our relationship with God and His world. And in our special and direct relationship with Him, which we call prayer, this is particularly the case. Before we even begin to pray there is the danger that we may fall into the trap of "loνe of self". Was this not also the cause of original sin?
When we do not direct ourselves towards the mercy of God, humbled and purified by the awe which the sense of God's immediate presence in the world inspires within us -even if this is invisible- but instead admire ourselves impiously and narcissistically, then our spiritual demise is inevitable. A classic example of a tragic and abominable "shipwreck" at the very hour of prayer (a shipwreck in the middle of the harbour!) is that of the Tax-collector praying together with the Pharisee, found in the well-known narrative of the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14). The condition conveyed to us by the Tax- collector who, beating his breast, did not dare to look up towards heaven, but only stuttered with tears "God have merry on me a sinner", is equalled by the disappointment and shame, if not the indignation, with which the profane behaviour of the Pharisee fills us. He essentially did not pray to God, but to himself. The words of the sacred text point this out with the distinctive observation that "the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself...".
One can avoid the deadly hazard of "self love" and self complacency by continually remembering one's mortalίty. "As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field" (Ps. 103:15).
"Remembrance of death" was a feature of the more reflective and mystical East, even before the time of Christ, which was spread and maintained in the Christian West up until the Middle Ages, particularly in the Monasteries. The well-known phrase "memento moriu was, compared with any other precept or rule of moral behaviour, the most imperative spiritual slogan. Yet because the "remembrance of death" always involves an element of fear -consciously or sub-consciously, it does not matter- this should not be emphasized too much as a presupposition of prayer. For "fear" may lead one to pray, but prayer due to fear is not free communication with God. Rather, it is a forced action, a solution of necessity imposed by difficult external circumstances, and not by the internal inclination of a grateful child or faithful person. Prayer caused by fear is, so to speak, a "forced presentation" to God as Judge and Ruler.
We can then see that the element of fear can be doubly harmful. It not only distorts the meaning of prayer in that it is no longer free and true communication. It distorts the meaning of God, who is not approached as a Farher. Such a fear which does not allow us to see unaffectedly our correct position and relation to God, cannot be the kind of fear which the Old Testament speaks of as being the "beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 1:7). This clearly refers to the sacred awe which opens our eyes to recognize the true and living God as a Father, allowing us thereby to become "wise" and to have optimism in God. Conversely, fear which is tremblίng before the Judge disorientates us from the source of life. It is therefore only natural that, instead of optimism, this fills us with despair, if not enmity towards God.
It now becomes obvious that we should not look for pure presuppositions of prayer in subjective human imaginations, whether positive or negative. We shall draw these mainly from the word of God itself that is from Revelation. Only then can we be sure that we are based on firm foundations.
Ιn all the books of the Old and New Testament, there is not apparently a more succinct or successful description of God than that which was given by St. John the Evangelist. Ιn saying that "God is love" (1 Jn. 4:8), the "beloved" disciple of course gave the most substantial summary of the major features of God. He does not sίmply present Him as the Father of mercy and compassion, but also as the all-powerful Creator, and as the all-wise Provider and as the all-good Governor of the universe. This is why St. John the Evangelist also explains elsewhere in his writings how he understands the love of God. He sees it not simply as undefined and general good will, but primarily as an active and continuously renewed gift which requires absolutely nothing on the part of humanity, and for this reason precisely it is called "grace". The only thing which Divine love requires is that human beings do not reject it. This is the meaning of the Apostle Pau1's directive "do not quench the Spirit" (1 Thess. 5:19).
When such a love of God is reflected in the conscience of a grateful person, it is natural that he or she will turn with absolute and unreserved confidence to the "Giver of every good thing", without the slightest fear. St. John therefore adds that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
Thus, from the love of God for humankind, the love of human beings for God and all of His creation is derived as the first and primary presupposition of prayer.
Spiritual liberation, coming directly from the grace of God, can reveal to man powers which he did not even suspect after his fall. It gives him the power not only to love God unreservedly for His countless blessings, but also to forgive fellow human beings for any "transgression". The person who cannot forgive a fellow human being cannot claim that he or she loves God. This is true for two reasons. Firstly, because each person remains an "icon of God", even when they may face the greatest bankruptcy or failure in secular terms. Secondly, because, as St. John the Evangelist states, you cannot love God whom you have not seen if you do not love your brother whom you have seen (cf. 1 Jn. 4:20).
Consequently, another substantial presupposition of prayer is forgiveness and reconciliation with one with whom we happened to have some differences. The Fathers stress that, even if we were not to blame for the breakdown in relations with our fellow human being, we must be willing to restore them at every moment, forgetting the wrong that they have done to us. They therefore call this power to forgive "unresentfulness", that is the forgetting of wrongs.
Here we must however make some necessary clarification. Unfortunately, there is often an extremely dangerous misuse of the magnanimity which the Fathers require of the faithful. Today there are people who are not only foolish and hardhearted, but literally shameless and whose hunger for money makes them relentless exploiters of other people. It is well- known that the pioneers in this thoughtless pursuit of money and social promotion were the representatives of the so-called fourth power, the media, so that they could impose themselves unconditionally on all others, including the modern State. By creating a fake world with their own values and their own customs, they are continuously intoxicated by the self-deceit that they are at the centre of the world -sometimes even above the world- with their "cyberspace" which is distinct from any other power. Thus they can easily tarnish consciences and institutions as they please, thereby destroying the peace of unsuspecting citizens, and scandalising those who are either naive or uninformed. When the victim tries to defend his ridiculed reputation, and resorts to the legal means made available by the State, then the professional and established slanderer mobilises the greatest degree of hypocrisy by recalling the forgiveness and tolerance taught by Christ, whom they themselves have never believed nor feared. The height of their hypocrisy and audacity is to believe that they have the right to publicly ask the victim of their cold-blooded crime to forgive them unconditionally, simply because the victim is a Christian.
Yet to forgive such unrepentant criminals indiscriminately is equal to partnership with them and complicity. If we do not bring them back pedagogically, we really help them to become more audacious and to continue their destructive work, thereby creating new victims and increasing hatred. However, in so doing, they not only do damage to others but to themselves also.
Unresentfulness, as a state of being oblivious and forgetful of wrongs, should refer only to a past wrong which was indeed committed, but which is now finished. Not to wrong-doing which remains open and continues indefinitely like a fistula. A person of faith can never remain an apathetic viewer of evil in the world. Nor an indifferent observer of everything profane, leaving all restraining of evil to the supernatural action of God. The Christians know that, for as long as they are in this world, they are living and active members of the "Church militant". And to be a soldier means effort and a specific and unyielding struggle against anything which is contrary to Divine justice. Ιn this struggle, the faithful person seeks neither "revenge" nor to "pay back". For the faithful know that only God is entitled to something like that: "Vengeance is mine, Ι will repay" (Rom. 12:19).
They also know that the Divine will must be promoted at every moment, so that it will prevail "on earth as it is in heaven". Otherwise, the condemnatory verdict of the Apostle Paul would have to apply for all ages: "They have all gone out of the way; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one" (Rom. 3:12). So that an unacceptable defeatist attitude does not prevail due to the complete decline and despair of all in light of the dominance of evil in the world, the Fathers almost always demand together with "unresentfulness", the virtue of "goodness" which is totally dynamic and active.
This dynamic stance and willingness of the faithful in their daily struggle is clearly expressed in the command of Christ, if we remember during the time for worship that we do not have good relations with our brother, then we are to first go and reconcile ourselves with him and then offer our gift at the altar (cf. Mat. 5:24). Yet "conciliation" and "reconciliation" are not a momentary or superficial release from responsibility. Rather it has to do with a deeper mutuality and fraternisation which will allow us to co-exist in the same place and with the same opinion as the other person. This is what is expressed by the two relevant nouns in the Greek language which contain the words for "place" (χώρο) and "opinion" (γνώμη). Only then will the "other" person be the "brother" of whom Christ speaks, and not the unrelated person next door who is euphemistically called a "neighbour". The classic model of prayer which Christ gave to the Apostles speaks only of "brothers". When we address God as "our Father", we are triumphantly stating that this common fatherhood makes us all brothers and sisters from the outset. Fraternisation however does not occur without education, which is pedagogy as well as vigilant and active effort.
Ιn summarising the presuppositions of prayer in fear, love and unresentfulness, we find that we encounter, by another path, the three fundamental virtues of the Gospel: Faith-love-hope. Yet even these three Christian virtues are inconceivable unless the faithful person presupposes, consciously or subconsciously, an unshaken faith in the three following basic dogmatic truths:
a) The creation of the world "out of nothing" (Only in this way is the true God confessed).
b) The creation of the human person in the "image and likeness of God" (Only in this way can we love and be entitled to love).
c) The original sin (Since the blood of Christ alone could release us from this, we have reason for hope and we are obliged to forgive).
For all of the above, the atmosphere of prayer must always be one of mourning, contrition and repentance. Not of Pharisaic complacency and impious triumphalism. King David's Psalms are the best guide for each praying person. It is he who assures us that "a broken and contrite heart God will not despise" (Psalm 51:17).
And St. John of the Ladder is even clearer and more categoric: "Do not become bold, even if you achieve purity. Rather, move towards humility, and you will become even more bold" (On the sacred and mother of virtues, blessed prayer (Step 28th, 11).