Archbishop Stylianos of Australia|
Εκδόσεις Αρμός, Μαυροκορδάτου 7, 106 78 Αθήνα
4) The content and purpose of prayer
If it is true that in every human action the "purpose" and "content" are deeply interconnected, since one substantially determines the other, then this is much more the case with prayer which is not the one-way action of only one person, but rather a "relationship" and "communicatίon" between two persons, namely God who "hears" and man who "prays".
First of all, we can say that the purpose and content of prayer are expressed excellently and definitively by the verse of Psalm 34:5:
"Draw near to Him and be enlightened
and your faces shall not be ashamed".
"Enlίghtenment" from above is therefore the only thing which is sought in prayer. When one has "the true light", only then does one have the "measure of all things", and can in other words judge and evaluate all things properly. Then it is certain that one who judges with such genuine measures "will not be ashamed".
All of this is marvellous in so far as general guidelines are concerned. But what happens in practice? Every minute of our lives has a non-negotiable and non-transferable duty. At every moment our soul finds itself in a different disposition, restless and perpetually moving, like the sea:
"My inner person and the sea
are never at rest"
What, then, will be the standard which will determine the how, the what and the why of prayer? All three of these, namely the manner, the content and the purpose of prayer, equally comprise and determine its essence. For this reason, if we manage to identify and secure one of these, we shall automatically succeed or at least have the correct basis on which to succeed in achieving the other two.
Precisely on this point, St John Chrysostom makes the following characteristic comment: "he who is able to pray correctly, even if he is the poorest of all people, is essentially the richest. And he who does not have proper prayer, is the poorest of all, even if he sits on a royal throne" (PG 48, 767).
It appears that the more the person of God struggles to pray correctly and in a way that is pleasing to God, the more fully and deeply he or she comes to know the difficulties involved in such a feat. We will have some idea of these many difficulties when we recall once again as we had already said by way of introduction that prayer is not rejected only by the atheist or by the lukewarm faithful. Sometimes it is rejected by one who may indeed believe firmly in the existence of God and in His omnipotence, but who does not see the need for prayer, because that person is trapped in rationalism. We could even say that, according to rationalism, the more steadfast one's faith is in the omnipotence, the omniscience and the goodness of God, then the more superfluous one finds prayer to be. For example, rationalism says: Does God have any need for me to inform Him of what Ι would like for myself and for others through my "petition"? Does He, being All-knowing, not know everything far better? And since He is an All-loving Father, should we not take it as a certainty that He will be concerned for our true needs, without us asking Him?
To all these "logical" objections or questions, Christ Himself gives a silencing answer, not only by teaching about the value of prayer through His word and example, but also by giving a concrete model, so that the praying person can be protected against dangerous excesses. This danger was apparently feared by the Apostles when they said to Christ "Lord teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1). And it is noteworthy that, while Christ declares to them that "your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask him" (Matt. 6:8), yet He does not say this so that they may think that prayer is superfluous, but only so that they do not go astray into the futile verbosity of the "Gentiles" (idolaters). This is also why He gives them the "Lord's Prayer" as an eternal model of prayer.
The irreplaceable value of this Divine model of prayer has been thoroughly and repeatedly commented upon by the Church Fathers with insightful theological analyses. They underlined not only the individual requests in themselves, together with the language with which they are submitted to God, but also the order of priority in which they are placed.
Following the invocation of God as Father who is "in heaven", in other words beyond this world, a triple request is immediately placed which ensures the conditions for the appearance of the living and true God in the world:
"Hallowed be your name
Your kίngdom come
Your will be done".
The three aspects of the single petitions express the absolute lordship of God. When people recognise this absolute lordship, all other requests are secondary details which relate to their daily struggle in the world.
We see, then, that the purpose of prayer cannot be the "petitioning" or the "informing" nor even the "confiding" of our innermost desires, since God who "searches minds and hearts" (Rev. 2:23) knows everything. And still the exhortation of Christ is clear: "Ask and it will be given to you; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Mat. 7:7).
The question therefore arises once again: What is it that we are entitled to ask for in prayer? The Fathers who have dealt with this question agree that there is only one request of the faithful person in prayer: "the pardon of sins".
Νo matter how pure we may believe our life to be, no matter how much we feel that there is not something which is "weighing us down", there always remains within us an area which is blemished or uncultivated for which we need repentance and forgiveness. St. John Chrysostom even considers purity of life, according to our own criteria, as being insufficient towards God. He considers this to be something which only prayer can sanctify (PG 56,201). St. John Climacos similarly exhorts us to imitate the humility of the Apostle Paul, even if we have climbed the ladder of all virtues: "Eνen if you have climbed all the ladder of virtues, pray for the forgiveness of sin, hearing Paul crying out concerning sinners, of whom I am the first" (op.cit.12).
The remission of sins is the only thing which God cannot give us unless we ask for it. He provides all other goods for us of His own accord as a loving Father. Not the remission of sins. That presupposes repentance. And while it may be brought about and continuously facilitated in various mystical ways by God, repentance as a decision for a final change is a matter for human freedom.
Ιn summing up all of the above, we must say that the purpose of prayer is, simply put, the experience of prayer. And this as a general rule is coupled with contrition and tears. Tears of repentance are born only through prayer. And it again is born only through tears of repentance. St John Climacos stressed this by saying that prayer is "the mother and the daughter of tears" (op.cit. 1).
Ιn the final analysis, the one who is changed by prayer is not God who is unchanging and in need of nothing, but our soul which is purified and enlightened by tears. Just as the rose will not have mature fluids that will allow its beautiful aroma to flow around it, if it does not open up to the sun and air, so it is that the soul does not bear fragrance unless it is changed through the trial and compunction of prayer, with which God is pleased and pours out His abundant mercy.