About this content: What follows are notes taken from previously recorded audio lectures given by Father Thomas Hopko to seminarians. The recording audio quality was poor at times since they were converted from cassette tapes to mp3. The date of the recordings is uncertain. It seems Father Thomas named this series of lectures “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”. With God’s help, this series of posts simply aims to share some of the main points of this teaching with other people who have a sincere longing for God.
The full series of lectures is entitled “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its Relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition” and was delivered to seminarians by Father Thomas Hopko.
- Some of the sources used for these lectures are written by authors who are not members of the Orthodox Church, but they quote the Eastern fathers heavily, thus supporting the Tradition we seek to explain in this series (e.g. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avlia among others)
- This series focuses on “the how” of prayer according to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, however prayer cannot be taught.
- A well-known book among Orthodox Christians, “The Way of the Pilgrim” illustrates our basic need to understand “how” to pray.
- In this series, “Tradition” means the Bible and very specifically the teachings of Christ and biblical prayers as interpreted in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition.
- No one can teach another person how to pray.
- The only way to learn how to pray is by doing it.
- However, if one is going to practice prayer, there are certain things that we must do if the prayer is going to work.
To Whom Do We Pray?
- First of all, according to the Tradition, God exists.
- God Almighty is the one true living God.
- God the Father has with Him from all eternity a Son also called His Word, Logos, Icon – those are titles for the Person who is the Son of God.
- The One true living God also has within Himself an element of His own being, His most Holy Spirit.
- The God that we are dealing with is the Trinity.
- The one God and Father who is the one God and the Son of God and Spirit of God, who are of exactly the same divinity of God the Father.
What is the most important thing about prayer?
Not where we pray, when we pray, why we pray or even how we pray, but the most important thing is to Whom do we pray.
In the Eastern Christian Tradition, we pray to God, who is the real God, the true God. This true God is the God who from all eternity bears His eternal Son, Word and Image and breathes forth his Holy Spirit so that the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel, the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ himself who is “Theos” and God and the Most Holy Spirit is the Lord and the Giver of the Life – this is the God to whom we pray.
The Will to do God’s Will
- According to the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) the most important thing in life for the creature that is made in the image and according to the likeness of the true God is to seek the real God.
- Jesus Christ said “blessed are those who hunger and who thirst for righteousness”.
- The Psalms say “blessed are they who seek him with their whole heart, as a deer longs for the flowing streams, so longs my soul for Thee, Oh God for the living God…As a parched land is hungering for the water to grow, so my being is hungering for that true God.”
- If you want God, it’s because you want to be in reality – in other words, you want to do His will.
- The the main definition of prayer in the Tradition is “the unity of the whole person with God in order to do His will”.
- If a person wants [unity with God and to do His will]…that’s all that is necessary. You don’t need to know anything else…Because where that is genuine, God promises that the person will not be left [alone].
- What do you love? Life is really a clash of loves, the praying person is the one who loves God…the praying person is the one who loves the Truth.
- If a person is really desiring and longing for what is true, honorable, just lovely, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise (see Philippians 4:8) and that person has the opportunity to encounter the Living God, to encounter the person of Christ, they will recognize it immediately and they will say “yes! that is it, yes!” but that desire has to be there.
This is why we read [about] a famous problem in the Gospels [that] people didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah; as the Incarnate Son of God; as the Logos; as Truth Incarnate; as Love Incarnate; as the end of their desire. Why did they not recognize Him? Because they were not desiring those things. They didn’t want it. They just plain didn’t want that. Jesus himself quotes Isaiah, “because you have eyes and you don’t want to see, you have ears and you don’t want to hear, and you have a mind and you refuse to understand”.
So the basis of everything in the spiritual life and certainly the basis in prayer is the will, but the will for what? The will for the Living God.
Prelest and Prayer without Love
- Being in the Church doesn’t automatically make our prayer to be for the Living God…St. Theophan the Recluse points out that people can actually get into prayer for their own purposes and they are no less self-centered and hedonistic as a result.
- A condition known as “prelest” leads people to want to be “holy” which itself becomes an idol, but 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us you could have faith to move mountains, pray, you can raise the dead, you can give your body to be burned but still have not love – the love which God is – the love which is the desire for what is really right and true. You can have all those things but if you do not have love they profit you nothing, and even worse, without love, those things…condemn you.
- So prayer is the searching for the real God, we cannot let prayer become an end in itself, like the perfect vigil or something. That doesn’t exist on this side of the Kingdom!
- For us, the discovery, the witness of the Tradition is that the Truth is the One True and Living God and His Son, Jesus Christ, the eternal Word and Image and the Most Holy Spirit.